Halleck's New English Literature eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 491 pages of information about Halleck's New English Literature.

II.  English prose dealt with a greater variety of philosophical subjects.  Shakespeare had voiced the deepest philosophy in poetry, but up to this time such subjects had found scant expression in prose.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is the great philosophical writer of the age.  In his greatest work, Leviathan; or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, he considers questions of metaphysical philosophy and of government in a way that places him on the roll of famous English philosophers.

III.  History had an increasing fascination for prose writers.  Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614) and Lord Clarendon’s History of the Great Rebellion, begun in 1646, are specially worthy of mention.

IV.  Prose was developing its capacity for expressing delicate shades of humor.  In Chaucer and in Shakespeare, poetry had already excelled in this respect.  Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), an Episcopal clergyman, displays an almost inexhaustible fund of humor in his History of the Worthies of England.  We find scattered through his works passages like these:—­

  “A father that whipped his son for swearing, and swore at him while
  he whipped him, did more harm by his example than good by his
  correction.”

[Illustration:  THOMAS FULLER.]

Speaking of a pious short person, Fuller says:—­

  “His soul had but a short diocese to visit, and therefore might the
  better attend the effectual informing thereof.”

Of the lark, he writes:—­

  “A harmless bird while living, not trespassing on grain, and
  wholesome when dead, then filling the stomach with meat, as formerly
  the ear with music.”

Before Fuller, humor was rare in English prose writers, and it was not common until the first quarter of the next century.

V. Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), an Oxford graduate and physician, is best known as the author of three prose works:  Religio Medici (Religion of a Physician, 1642), Vulgar Errors (1646), and Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial (1658).  In imagination and poetic feeling, he has some kinship with the Elizabethans.  He says in the Religio Medici:—­

“Now for my life, it is a miracle of thirty years, which to relate were not a history but a piece of poetry, and would sound to common ears like a fable...  Men that look upon my outside, perusing only my condition and fortunes, do err in my altitude; for I am above Atlas’s shoulders...  There is surely a piece of divinity in us—­something that was before the elements and owes no homage unto the sun.”

The Religio Medici, however, gives, not the Elizabethan, but the Puritan, definition of the world as “a place not to live in but to die in.”

Urn Burial, which is Browne’s masterpiece, shows his power as a prose poet of the “inevitable hour":—­

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Halleck's New English Literature from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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