Puritan and Anglican
The Speaker, December 15, 1900
Puritan And Anglican. By Edward Dowden. London: Kegan Paul
Professor Dowden's new book, Puritan and Anglican, deals with the literary aspect of the two great movements of the seventeenth century, the political aspect of which was represented by the Civil War. The word "Anglican" is a little misleading, and even, in these days of Church crises, alarming. We cannot help thinking that Professor Dowden would have done better to have employed the loose, but familiar, phrase "Cavalier" for the loyalist section, despite the fact that it calls up rather humorous images of George Herbert swaggering in big top-boots, and Jeremy Taylor draining flagons and fighting watchmen.
The reader need go no further than the first page in order to convince himself that Dowden has a grip on the whole subject. Such a sentence as this on the Elizabethan age, "The literature of pleasure never attained to such seriousness," has a fine and scornful edge for the present age, of which it may be truly said that the literature of pain never attained so garrulous a frivolity. Professor Dowden, as a great Shakesperian student has, in studying the Puritans and Cavaliers, the enormous advantage of thoroughly comprehending the fountain-head.
While Professor Dowden fully realises the broad and noble ideals of the school who may be called the Cavalier mystics, such as Vaughan and Sir Thomas Browne, he does full justice to the Puritans. We hardly think, however, that he quite realises one great point of difference between the Cavalier religious movement and the Puritan religious movement. They were not only different movements, they were movements in two different senses of the word. It is highly probable that the religious ideals of Oliver Cromwell were infinitely inferior to those of Sir Thomas Browne. But the point of Puritanism was this: that however Cromwell might stand alone in genius or policy, his religious ideals practically united him with the meanest drummer in his army. On the other hand, we should laugh at the mere idea of Browne's archaeological emotions and mystical charity being shared by his butler or keeping his gardener awake at night. The footmen of the learned physician were not, we may be sure, interested in the smallest degree in the question of whether the soul was miraculously remade at the Resurrection, or whether the elephant slept standing upright. The Puritan movement, if it be judged side by side with the best types of Cavalier ethics, can only appear clumsy, bitter and offensive. If justice is to be done to it, we must remember that it was a movement in the sense that we speak of the movement that produced the Reform Bill; while the movement of Cavalier idealism was merely a movement in the sense that we speak of the movement that produced The Yellow Book. This element in the matter, the question of the numbers involved, is rather kept out of sight by Professor Dowden's constant comparison of the two schools. It is, indeed, an element in history that we constantly forget, that we forget when we talk of the Athenians as democrats, instead of as aristocrats ruling crowds of slaves, or when we compare the morality of a mob of early Christians with the morality of a single pagan like Marcus Aurelius. It is not only important in any historic crisis whether the voting was black or white, it is also important whether there was, in election language, a heavy poll. Of the various movements whereby new masses of men have been brought on to the stage of serious action Puritanism was one of the most remarkable. It had the unique value of theology, that it brought a philosophical problem of some sort to knock at every man's door. On the other hand, it had all the disadvantages of a revolution. Cavalier idealism had all the advantages of a fad.
In dealing with the Religio Medici Professor Dowden is just and sympathetic, but not frantic with admiration, as he ought to be. A man can always find fresh and noble principles of criticism in a work that he really loves, and Professor Dowden's Sir Thomas Browne leaves us vaguely unsatisfied. He can see that Browne was an exalted mystic, but he does not give the peculiar flavour of his mysticism, a mysticism which, to our mind, owed much to his literary style. Style, in his sense, did not mean merely sound, but an attempt to give some twist of wit or symbolism to every clause or parenthesis: when he went over his work again he did not merely polish brass, he fitted in gold. This habit of working with a magnifying-glass, this turning and twisting of minor words, is the true parent of mysticism, for the mystic is not (as Professor Dowden, in this essay, seems to indicate) a man who reverences large things so much as a man who reverences small ones, who reduces himself to a point, without parts or magnitude, so that to him the grass is really a forest and the grasshopper a dragon. Little things please great minds.
Professor Dowden's study of George Herbert is altogether admirable. Nothing in the book is better than the fine passage in which he points out that Herbert's ideal of a priest, "amiably inquisitorial and benevolently despotic," was suited to any other age rather than that crisis of strenuous individualism. But perhaps Professor Dowden takes Herbert's political aspect too seriously. Herbert was a child in the best sense of the word. His Temple was built with a box of bricks. His charm and power lie not in his views on any subject, but in that infantile familiarity with celestial things which made him, with an almost irreverent lightheartedness, praise his Creator in rebuses and charades. We may leave him safely in a divine nursery. Sir Thomas Browne was a grown man, grey with learning and experience, but the two had this in common, that they both suggest the idea of shelter; to them the Church was a fortress and storehouse of learning, dignity and peace. And as we think of this image and seek to fairly appreciate the two schools, there cannot but rise before us the terrible scene in Grace Abounding in which Bunyan, cowering in the church, was struck down by a blinding fear that the church itself would fall down upon him, because his conscience was not clear.
With Professor Dowden's forcible study of Bunyan no fault can be found, but in his long and able treatment of Milton we do not by any means always find ourselves in agreement with him. Especially we fail to follow his attempt to prove the spirit and theories of Paradise Lost to be mainly Hebraic and Scriptural. To our mind Lecky's European Morals and Dante's Divine Comedy are vastly more similar than the beauty of the Old Testament and the beauty of Paradise Lost. There are no theories in the Old Testament. The conception that gives a grand artistic unity to the Hebrew books, the conception of a great and mysterious protagonist toiling amid cloud and darkness towards an end of which only fragments are revealed to his agents, has no counterpart in Milton. The "With whom hath he taken counsel?" of the prophet is not there: the God of the Old Testament never explains himself intellectually; the God of Milton never does anything else. The much-quoted object "to justify the ways of God to men" would have appeared mere ridiculous blasphemy to Isaiah. This sublime Jewish sentiment of the loneliness of God ("I have trodden the wine-press alone and of the peoples there was no man with me") is perpetually violated in Milton, whose Deity is always clearing Himself from charges as if He were at the Old Bailey. The least superstitious of us can feel the thrill of the elemental faith of the Jews, can imagine a voice thundering out of the sky in mysterious wrath or more mysterious benediction. But who can help laughing at the idea of a voice out of the midnight sky suddenly beginning to explain itself and set right an unfortunate misunderstanding?
We wish that Professor Dowden had given the large space which he has devoted to defending the frigid and repellent Miltonic religion to a more exhaustive study of the towering and intoxicating Miltonic style. Poets commonly say something with their style vastly different and vastly superior to what they say with their mere meaning. And whenever Professor Dowden treats Milton in this aspect he would be a bold man who would seek to add anything to the judgment.
Perhaps the finest article in the whole book is that on Butler, the author of Hudibras. In him we see the gradual chilling of the national heart by the ice-fiends of judgment and prudence, which went on until the nation which had once produced the two great schools of faith and valour to which Professor Dowden's work is devoted, reached in the rationalism of the earlier eighteenth century that impartiality which is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance.