Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 12. Law’s Followers: John Byrom; Henry Brooke

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

§ 12. Law’s Followers: John Byrom; Henry Brooke

Although Law’s spiritual influence in his own generation was probably more profound than that of any other man of his day, yet he had curiously few direct followers. It is easy to see that he was far too independent a thinker to be acceptable even to the high churchmen whose cause he espoused, and, though he was greatly revered by methodists and evangelists, his later mysticism was wholly abhorrent to them. The most famous members of the little band of disciples who visited him at Putney were the Wesleys, John and Charles, who, two or three times yearly, used to travel the whole distance from Oxford on foot in order to consult their “oracle.” Later, however, there was a rupture between them, when Wesley, on his return from Georgia in 1738, having joined the Moravians, seems suddenly to have realised, and to have contended, in very forcible language, that, although Law, in his books (A Christian Perfection and A Serious Call), put a very high ideal before men, he had, nevertheless, omitted to emphasise that the only means of attaining it was through the atonement of Christ. This was largely the quarrel of Wesley, as, also, of the later methodists, with mysticism in general; “under the term mysticism,” he writes from Georgia, “I comprehend those and only those who slight any of the means of grace.”

George Cheyne, fashionable doctor, vegetarian and mystic, was another of Law’s friends at this time; but the most charming and most lovable of his followers was his devoted admirer, John Byrom. The relationship between these two men much resembles that of Johnson and Boswell, and we find the same outspoken brusqueness, concealing a very real affection, on the part of the mentor, with the same unswering devotion and zealous record of details—even of the frequent snubs received—on the part of the disciple. Byrom, in many ways, reminds us of Goldsmith; he possesses something of the artless simplicity, the rare and fragrant charm, which is the outcome ofa sincere and tender nature; he has many forgivable foibles and weaknesses, a delightful, because completely natural, style in prose and a considerable variety of interests and pursuits. He travelled abroad and studied medicine, and, though he never took a medical degree, he was always called Doctor by his friends; he was an ardent Jacobite, a poet, a mystic and the inventor of a system of shorthand, by the teaching of which he increased his income until, in 1740, he succeeded to the family property near Manchester.

Byrom, though a contemporary of Law at Cambridge, evidently did not know him personally until 1729, and his first recorded meeting with his hero, as, also, the later ones, form some of the most attractive passages of an entirely delightful and too little known book, The Private Journal and Literary Remains of John Byrom. It is from this journal that we gather most of our information about Law at Putney, and from it that, incidentally, we get the fullest light on his character and personality.

On 15 February, 1729, Byrom bought A Serious Call, and, on the following 4 March, he and a friend named Mildmay went down in the Fulham coach to Putney to interview the author. This was the beginning of an intimacy which lasted until Law’s death, and which was founded on a strong community of tastes in matters of mystical philosophy, and on the unswering devotion of Byrom to his “master.” They met at Cambridge, where Byrom gave shorthand lessons, and Law shepherded his unsatisfactory pupil; at Putney, in somerset gardens and, later, at King’s Cliffe.

Byrom, though scarcely a poet, for he lacked imagination, had an unusual facility for turning everything into rime. He sometimes wrote in very pleasing and graceful vein, and he had an undoubted gift of epigram; but he was particularly fond of making verse paraphrases of prose writings, and especially of those of William Law. His two finest pieces of this kind are An Epistle to a Gentleman of the Temple (1749), which versifies Law’s Spirit of Prayer; and the letter on Enthusiasm (1752), founded on the latter part of Law’s Animadversions upon Dr. Trapp’s Reply. This last poem is written with admirable clearness and point; Law’s defence of enthusiasm is one of the best things he wrote, and Byrom does full justice to it. “Enthusiasm,” meaning, more especially “a misconceit of inspiration,” the laying claim to peculiar divine guidance or “inner light,” resulting in anything approaching fanaticism or even emotion, was a quality equally abhorred and feared in the eighteenth century by philosophers, divines and methodists, indeed, by everyone except mystics. The first care of every writer and thinker was to clear himself of any suspicion of this “horrid thing.” Law’s argument, which is to the effect that enthusiasm is but the kindling of the driving desire or will of every intelligent creature, is well summarised by Byrom:—

  • Think not that you are no Enthusiast, then!
  • All Men are such, as sure as they are Men.
  • The Thing itself is not at all to blame
  • ’T is in each State of human Life the same,
  • That which concerns us therefore, is to see
  • What Species of Enthusiasts we be.
  • Byrom hoped that, by turning them into verse, Law’s later teachings might reach a larger public, and, in this, Law evidently agreed with him, looking upon him as a valuable ally. Byrom’s work certainly did not lack appreciation by his contemporaries; Warburton—who had no cause to love him—thought highly of it, and Wesley, who ascribes to him all the wit and humour of Swift, together with much more learning, says that in his poems are “some of the noblest truths expressed with the utmost energy of language, and the strongest colours of poetry.”

    Henry Brooke was another writer who was deeply imbued with Boehme’s thought, and his expression of it, imbedded in that curious book The Fool of Quality (1766–70), reached, probably, a larger public than did Law’s mystical treatises. In many ways, Brooke must have been a charming character, original, tender-hearted, overflowing with sentiment, but entirely incapable of concentration or even continuity of thought. His book is a brave one, full of high ideals. It is an extraordinary mixture of schoolboy pranks, romantic adventures, stories—ancient and modern—ethical dialogues, dissertations on mystical philosophy, political economy, the British constitution, the relation of the sexes, the training of a gentleman and many other topics. Mr. Meekly and Mr. Fenton (or Clinton) are Brooke’s two exponents of a very general and diluted form of “Behmenism.” The existence of the two wills, the formation of Christ within the soul, the reflection of God’s image in matter as in a mirror, the nature of beauty, of man and of God, the fall of Lucifer and the angles, and of Adam—all these things are discussed and explained in mystical language, steeped in emotion and sentiment.

    The Fool of Quality found favour with John Wesley, who reprinted it in 1781, under the title The History of Henry Earl of Moreland. In doing this, he reduced it from five volumes to two, omitting, as he says in his preface, “a great part of the mystic Divinity, as it is more philosophical than Scriptural.” He goes on to speak of the book with the highest praise, “I now venture to recommend the following Treatise as the most excellent in its kind of any that I have seen, either in the English, or any other language”; its greatest excellence being “that it continually strikes at the heart.… I know not who can survey it with tearless eyes, unless he has a heart of stone.” Launched thus, with the imprimatur of their great leader, it became favourite reading with generations of devout Wesleyans, and, in this form, passed through many editions.

    Mystics, unlike other thinkers, scientific or philosophical, have little chronological development, since mysticism can neither age nor die. They rarely found schools of thought in their own day. It is, therefore, not surprising that, in spite of various strains of a mystic tendency, the mysticism of Law and his small circle of followers had no marked influence on the main stream of eighteenth century thought. The atmosphere of the age was antagonistic to it, and it remained an undercurrent only, the impulse given by Law in this direction spending itself finally among little-known dreamers and eccentrics.