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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.

XII. William Law and the Mystics

§ 11. Character of Law’s Prose: Law and Mandeville; The Spirit of Prayer; A Serious Call

Law is among the greatest of English prose writers, and no one ever more truly possessed than he “the splendid and imperishable excellence of sincerity and strength.” Those who least understand his later views, who look upon them as “idle fancies,” and on the whole subject of his mystical thought as “a melancholy topic” are constrained to admit, not only that he writes fine and lucid prose in A Serious Call, but that, in his mystical treatises, his style becomes mellower and rises to greater heights than in his earlier work. The reason for this cumulative richness is that the history and development of Law’s prose style is the history and development of his character. As applied to him, Buffon’s epigram was strictly true. Sincerity is the keynote of his whole nature, sincerity of thought, of belief, of speech and of life. Sincerity implies courage, and Law was a brave man, never shirking the logical outcome of his convictions, from the day when he ruined his prospects at Cambridge, to the later years when he suffered his considerable reputation to be eclipsed by his espousal of an uncomprehended and unpopular mysticism. He had a keen, rather than a profound, intellect, and his thought is lightened by brilliant flashes of wit or of grim satire. On this side, his was a true eighteenth century mind, logical, sane, practical, with, at the same time, a touch of whimsey, and a tendency to a quite unexpected lack of balance on certain subjects. Underneath a severe and slightly stiff exterior lay, however, emotion, enthusiasm and great tenderness of feeling. When he was still a young man, the logical and satirical side was strongest; in later years, this was much tempered by emotion and tenderness.

This description of Law’s character might equally serve as a description of his style. It is strong, sincere, rhythmical, but, except under stress of feeling, not especially melodious. A certain stiffness and lack of adaptability, which was characteristic of the man, makes itself felt in his prose, in spite of his free use of italics and capital letters. Law’s first object is to be explicit, to convey the precise shade of his meaning, and, for this purpose, he chooses the most homely similes, and is not in the least afraid of repetition, either of words or thoughts. A good instance of his method, and one which illustrates his disregard for iteration, his sarcastic vein and his power of expressing his meaning in a simile, is the parable of the pond in A Serious Call, which was versified by Byrom.

  • Again, if you should see a man that had a large pond of water, yet living in continual thirst, not suffering himself to drink half a draught, for fear of lessening his pond; if you should see him wasting his time and strength, in fetching more water to his pond, always thirsty, yet always carrying a bucket of water in his hand, watching early and late to catch the drops of rain, gaping after every cloud, and running greedily into every mire and mud, in hopes of water, and always studying how to make every ditch empty itself into his pond. If you should see him grow grey and old in these anxious labours, and at last end a careful, thirsty life, by falling into his own pond, would you not say, that such a one was not only the author of all his own disquiets, but was foolish enough to be reckoned amongst idiots and madmen? But yet foolish and absurd as this character is, it does not represent half the follies, and absurd disquiets of the covetous man.
  • Law’s use of simile and analogy in argument is characteristic. By means of it, he lights up his position in one flash, or with dexterity lays bare an inconsistency. His use of analogies between natural, and mental and spiritual, processes is frequent, and is applied with power in his later writings, when the oneness of law in the spiritual and natural worlds became the very ground of his philosophy. He had the command of several instruments and could play in different keys. Remarks upon the Fable of the Bees (1723), and The Spirit of Prayer (1749–50), while exhibiting different sides of the man, are excellent examples of the variety and range of his prose. The earlier work is biting, crisp, brilliant and severely logical, written in pithy sentences and short paragraphs, containing a large proportion of words of one syllable, the printed page thus presenting to the eye quite a different appearance from that of his later work. Remarks displays to the full Law’s peculiar power of illustrating the fallacy of an abstract argument, by embodying it in a concrete example. Mandeville’s poem is a vigorous satire in the Hudibrastic vein, and, in Law’s answer, it called out the full share of the same quality which he himself possessed. “Though I direct myself to you,” he begins, in addressing Mandeville, “I hope it will be no Offence if I sometimes speak as if I was speaking to a Christian.” The two assertions of Mandeville which Law is chiefly concerned to refute are that man is only an animal, and morality only an imposture. “According to this Doctrine,” he retorts, “to say that a Man is dishonest, is making him just such a Criminal as a Horse that does not dance.” This is the kind of unerring homely simile which abounds in Law’s writing, and which reminds us of the swift and caustic wit of Mrs. Poyser. Other examples could be cited to illustrate the pungency and raciness of Law’s style when he is in the mood for logical refutation. But it is only necessary to glance at the first half page of The Spirit of Prayer to appreciate the marked difference in temper and phrasing. The early characteristics are as strong as ever; but, in addition, there is a tolerance, a tender charm, an imaginative quality and a melody of rhythm rarely to be found in the early work. The sentences and phrases are longer, and move to a different measure; and, all through, the treatise is steeped in mystic ardour, and, while possessed of a strength and beauty which Plotinus himself has seldom surpassed, conveys the longing of the soul for union with the Divine.

    In A Serious Call, Law makes considerable use of his power of character drawing, of which there are indications already in Christian Perfection. This style of writing, very popular in the seventeenth century, had long been a favourite method for conveying moral instruction, and Law uses it with great skill. His sketches of Flavia and Miranda, “the heathen and Christian sister” as Gibbon calls them, are two of the best known and most elaborate of his portraits. Law’s foolish, inconsistent and selfish characters, such as the woman of fashion, the scholar, the country gentleman or the man of affairs, are more true to life, and, indeed, more sympathetic to frail humanity, than the few virtuous characters he has drawn. This is a key, perhaps, to the limitations of Law’s outlook, and, more especially, of his influence; for, in his view, a man’s work in the world, and his more mundane characteristics, are as nothing, so that one good person is precisely like another. Thus, a pious physician is acceptable to God as pious, but not at all as a physician.

    A Serious Call, as a whole, is a fine example of Law’s middle style, grave, clear and rhythmical, with the strong sarcastic tendency restrained; not, on the one hand, so brilliant as the Remarks, nor, on the other, so illumined as The Spirit of Prayer. Yet, it throbs with feeling, and, indeed, as Sir Leslie Stephen—himself not wholly in sympathy with it—has finely said, its “power can only be adequately felt by readers who can study it on their knees.” One can well imagine how repugnant it would have been to the writer that such a work should be criticised or appraised from a purely literary point of view; and yet, if William Law had not been a great literary craftsman, the lofty teaching of his Serious Call would not have influenced, as it has, entire generations of English-speaking people.

    On the whole, the distinguishing and peculiar characteristic of Law as a prose writer is that, for the most part, he is occupied with things which can only be experienced emotionally and spiritually, and that he treats them according to his closely logical habit of mind. The result is an unusual combination of reason and emotion which makes appeal at once to the intellect and the heart of the reader.