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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.

VII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 13. Its pervading Purpose

Burnet’s style and manner as a historical writer have been criticised with not less asperity than has the substance of his History; yet few modern readers will be ungrateful, and, therefore, unjust, enough—for who has not taken delight in at least much of his narrative?—to subscribe to Swift’s “I never read so ill a style.” It must not be forgotten that, though Clarendon’s Life was actually written before Burnet’s Memoirs were first taken in hand, and Clarendon’s History appeared many years before that of Burnet, he at least began his Memoirs without any English model. The comparison with Clarendon is not the less unavoidable, and has been made by a most competent hand—not wholly to the disadvantage of the divine as against the statesman. Although Clarendon’s rolling periods are unapproached by Burnet’s “jumping” sentences, the realism of the latter gives him the advantage over the somewhat conventional dignity of the former—as Ranke observes, in a different connection, he pleases his readers, though he may fail to convince them of the higher motives of his work. He is an excellent teller of stories—not the least so because he is master of the illustrative method, and never dwells at length on what he introduces incidentally. When, in accordance with the fashion of his age, he makes a supreme effort of style in the drawing of character, he is relatively lacking in finish; but he frequently achieves the effect of a likeness taken from life which Clarendon misses in his more artistically elaborated portraits. Yet the want of order and method which often shows itself in Burnet’s arrangement of events likewise interferes with the general effect of some of his characters. The Leibnitian principle non multa sed multum was not one of the maxims which guided him in composition, any more than it did in his literary activity at large.

Yet no conclusion could be less correct than the impression that, either in his History, or in any other part of his extraordinarily ample literary output, Burnet’s glance was ever more than temporarily diverted from the distinct aims and lofty ideals which he cherished. Any unprejudiced review of his most popular historical work, or of his historical writings in a body, or of the whole of his extant literary productions, including his pulpit deliverances, will lead to a corroboration of the fact, brought out in his “dying speech,” as he humorously calls the intended “conclusion” of The History of My Own Time, that the pervading purpose of them all was a vindication of freedom under the law as the guiding principle of ecclesiastical and political life. With this ideal, the teaching of the Cambridge Platonists had fascinated his early manhood; it had guided the efforts of the latitudinarian divines of whom, in more ways than one, he had become the most active representative in public life; and it had inspired the view of national political progress which the innumerable and, in part, superfluous, or even objectionable, details of his last historical work had been unable to obscure. And, to this work itself, it had imparted a vitality beyond that of the most entertaining—or even the most scandalous—memoirs.