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Minor Prose Writers of the Puritan Period

by William J. Long

The Puritan Period is generally regarded as one destitute of literary interest; but that was certainly not the result of any lack of books or writers. Says Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy:

I have ... new books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy and religion. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, sports, plays; then again, as in a new-shipped scene, treasons, cheatings, tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, deaths, new discoveries, expeditions; now comical, then tragical matters.....

So the record continues, till one rubs his eyes and thinks he must have picked up by mistake the last literary magazine. And for all these kaleidoscopic events there were waiting a multitude of writers, ready to seize the abundant material and turn it to literary account for a tract, an article, a volume, or an encyclopedia.

Three Good BooksIf one were to recommend certain of these books as expressive of this age of outward storm and inward calm, there are three that deserve more than a passing notice, namely, the Religio MediciHoly Living, and The Compleat Angler. The first was written by a busy physician, a supposedly scientific man at that time; the second by the most learned of English churchmen; and the third by a simple merchant and fisherman. Strangely enough, these three great books--the reflections of nature, science, and revelation--all interpret human life alike and tell the same story of gentleness, charity, and noble living. If the age had produced only these three books, we could still be profoundly grateful to it for its inspiring message.

Robert Burton (1577-1640). Burton is famous chiefly as the author of the Anatomy of Melancholy, one of the most astonishing books in all literature, which appeared in 1621. Burton was a clergyman of the Established Church, an incomprehensible genius, given to broodings and melancholy and to reading of every conceivable kind of literature. Thanks to his wonderful memory, everything he read was stored up for use or ornament, till his mind resembled a huge curiosity shop. All his life he suffered from hypochondria, but curiously traced his malady to the stars rather than to his own liver. It is related of him that he used to suffer so from despondency that no help was to be found in medicine or theology; his only relief was to go down to the river and hear the bargemen swear at one another.

Burton's Anatomy was begun as a medical treatise on morbidness, arranged and divided with all the exactness of the schoolmen's demonstration of doctrines; but it turned out to be an enormous hodgepodge of quotations and references to authors, known and unknown, living and dead, which seemed to prove chiefly that "much study is a weariness to the flesh." By some freak of taste it became instantly popular, and was proclaimed one of the greatest books in literature. A few scholars still explore it with delight, as a mine of classic wealth; but the style is hopelessly involved, and to the ordinary reader most of his numerous references are now as unmeaning as a hyper-jacobian surface.

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682). Browne was a physician who, after much study and travel, settled down to his profession in Norwich; but even then he gave far more time to the investigation of natural phenomena than to the barbarous practices which largely constituted the "art" of medicine in his day. He was known far and wide as a learned doctor and an honest man, whose scientific studies had placed him in advance of his age, and whose religious views were liberal to the point of heresy. With this in mind, it is interesting to note, as a sign of the times, that this most scientific doctor was once called to give "expert" testimony in the case of two old women who were being tried for the capital crime of witchcraft. He testified under oath that "the fits were natural, but heightened by the devil's coöperating with the witches, at whose instance he [the alleged devil] did the villainies."

Religio MediciBrowne's great work is the Religio Medici, i.e. The Religion of a Physician (1642), which met with most unusual success. "Hardly ever was a book published in Britain," says Oldys, a chronicler who wrote nearly a century later, "that made more noise than the Religio Medici." Its success may be due largely to the fact that, among thousands of religious works, it was one of the few which saw in nature a profound revelation, and which treated purely religious subjects in a reverent, kindly, tolerant way, without ecclesiastical bias. It is still, therefore, excellent reading; but it is not so much the matter as the manner--the charm, the gentleness, the remarkable prose style--which has established the book as one of the classics of our literature.

Two other works of Browne are Vulgar Errors (1646), a curious combination of scientific and credulous research in the matter of popular superstition, andUrn Burial, a treatise suggested by the discovery of Roman burial urns at Walsingham. It began as an inquiry into the various methods of burial, but ended in a dissertation on the vanity of earthly hope and ambitions. From a literary point of view it is Browne's best work, but is less read than the Religio Medici.

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661). Fuller was a clergyman and royalist whose lively style and witty observations would naturally place him with the gay Caroline poets. His best known works are The Holy War, The Holy State and the Profane State, Church History of Britain, and the History of the Worthies of England. The Holy and Profane State is chiefly a biographical record, the first part consisting of numerous historical examples to be imitated, the second of examples to be avoided. The Church History is not a scholarly work, notwithstanding its author's undoubted learning, but is a lively and gossipy account which has at least one virtue, that it entertains the reader. The Worthies, the most widely read of his works, is a racy account of the important men of England. Fuller traveled constantly for years, collecting information from out-of-the-way sources and gaining a minute knowledge of his own country. This, with his overflowing humor and numerous anecdotes and illustrations, makes lively and interesting reading. Indeed, we hardly find a dull page in any of his numerous books.

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667). Taylor was the greatest of the clergymen who made this period famous, a man who, like Milton, upheld a noble ideal in storm and calm, and himself lived it nobly. He has been called "the Shakespeare of divines," and "a kind of Spenser in a cassock," and both descriptions apply to him very well. His writings, with their exuberant fancy and their noble diction, belong rather to the Elizabethan than to the Puritan age.

From the large number of his works two stand out as representative of the man himself: The Liberty of Prophesying (1646), which Hallam calls the first plea for tolerance in religion, on a comprehensive basis and on deep-seated foundations; and The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living (1650). To the latter might be added its companion volume, Holy Dying, published in the following year. The Holy Living and Dying, as a single volume, was for many years read in almost every English cottage. With Baxter's Saints' Rest, Pilgrim's Progress, and the King James Bible, it often constituted the entire library of multitudes of Puritan homes; and as we read its noble words and breathe its gentle spirit, we cannot help wishing that our modern libraries were gathered together on the same thoughtful foundations.

Richard Baxter (1615-1691). This "busiest man of his age" strongly suggests Bunyan in his life and writings. Like Bunyan, he was poor and uneducated, a nonconformist minister, exposed continually to insult and persecution; and, like Bunyan, he threw himself heart and soul into the conflicts of his age, and became by his public speech a mighty power among the common people. Unlike Jeremy Taylor, who wrote for the learned, and whose involved sentences and classical allusions are sometimes hard to follow, Baxter went straight to his mark, appealing directly to the judgment and feeling of his readers.

The number of his works is almost incredible when one thinks of his busy life as a preacher and the slowness of manual writing. In all, he left nearly one hundred and seventy different works, which if collected would make fifty or sixty volumes. As he wrote chiefly to influence men on the immediate questions of the day, most of this work has fallen into oblivion. His two most famous books are The Saints' Everlasting Rest and A Call to the Unconverted, both of which were exceedingly popular, running through scores of successive editions, and have been widely read in our own generation.

Izaak Walton (1593-1683). Walton was a small tradesman of London, who preferred trout brooks and good reading to the profits of business and the doubtful joys of a city life; so at fifty years, when he had saved a little money, he left the city and followed his heart out into the country. He began his literary work, or rather his recreation, by writing his famous Lives,--kindly and readable appreciations of Donne, Wotton, Hooker, Herbert, and Sanderson, which stand at the beginning of modern biographical writing.

The Compleat AnglerIn 1653 appeared The Compleat Angler, which has grown steadily in appreciation, and which is probably more widely read than any other book on the subject of fishing. It begins with a conversation between a falconer, a hunter, and an angler; but the angler soon does most of the talking, as fishermen sometimes do; the hunter becomes a disciple, and learns by the easy method of hearing the fisherman discourse about his art. The conversations, it must be confessed, are often diffuse and pedantic; but they only make us feel most comfortably sleepy, as one invariably feels after a good day's fishing. So kindly is the spirit of the angler, so exquisite his appreciation of the beauty of the earth and sky, that one returns to the book, as to a favorite trout stream, with the undying expectation of catching something. Among a thousand books on angling it stands almost alone in possessing a charming style, and so it will probably be read as long as men go fishing. Best of all, it leads to a better appreciation of nature, and it drops little moral lessons into the reader's mind as gently as one casts a fly to a wary trout; so that one never suspects his better nature is being angled for. Though we have sometimes seen anglers catch more than they need, or sneak ahead of brother fishermen to the best pools, we are glad, for Walton's sake, to overlook such unaccountable exceptions, and agree with the milkmaid that "we love all anglers, they be such honest, civil, quiet men."