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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VIII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 1. Henry St. John’s Earlier Life and Letters

THE HISTORICAL and political writings of Henry St. John, from 1712 Viscount Bolingbroke, to which we must mainly confine ourselves in the present chapter, were, nearly all of them, composed in the latter, and slightly longer, half of his life which followed on the great collapse of his party at the close of the reign of queen Anne. As to his contributions to philosophical literature, something will be said in the next volume of the present work; in the chief collections of his letters, the public and pragmatic element, for the most part, is so copiously mixed up with the private and personal, that they can hardly be subjected to a literary judgment. This is especially the case with Parke’s edition of his Letters and Correspondence, which extends over the last four years of the reign of queen Anne and ends with a despondent reference to her death. These letters, on Bolingbroke’s sudden flight to France, were secured by the exertions of his under-secretary Thomas Hare, and thus escaped being brought before the House of Commons at his trial in 1715, like some extracts from his correspondence. They are addressed to a large variety of correspondents, of whom lords Strafford (Raby), Orrery, Dartmouth and Shrewsbury, and Matthew Prior, are among the most frequent recipients of letters written in English, and the marquis de Torcy of the much smaller number written in French. They are, of course, invaluable to a student of the peace negotiations and of Bolingbroke’s direct share in them; and in those which adopt a more intimate tone, like the “long scrawl which is only from Harry to Matt, not from the Secretary to the Minister,” there is often a fair amount of malicious wit. Of Bolingbroke’s private letters, however, the most pleasing are to be found in the series addressed to his half-sister Henrietta, which are generally written in a natural vein, without a superfluity of the epigrammatic infusion in which the letters of this age abound. Even these, however, on occasion, exhibit Bolingbroke’s fatal propensity, when telling the truth, to conceal part of it.

St. John’s earliest withdrawal from public life to the consolations of philosophy and literature belongs to the early part of 1708, when he followed Harley out of office. His retirement was carried out with so much pompousness, and so little interfered with his habits of self-indulgence, that it exposed him to much ridicule on the part of his friends, including brutal sarcasm from Swift; and it is not known to have been productive of any compositions in prose or in verse. After his return to public life in 1710, not many weeks before he received the seals as secretary of state (September, 1710), he had, not for the last time in his career, inspired the foundation by the tories of a journal to support them in a vigorous campaign against the whig government. Among the early contributors were Swift, Prior and Robert Freind.