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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

§ 13. Qualities of his Style

It does not form part of our present task to estimate the influence of Bolingbroke upon his contemporaries or upon posterity, except in so far as it was due to his literary qualities. We have not to examine here what there was of intrinsic force in his statesmanship, whether in office or in opposition, or even what there was of inner veracity in his arguments as a political and historical writer—for he knew the value of truth, though he did not love it as much as he hated Walpole. If he is now read, he is read (except by professed historical students) for his style; and, supposing Burke to have had some reason for terming him a “presumptuous and superficial writer,” his style must bear part of the blame. It is Bolingbroke’s style as a writer—not as an orator—of which alone posterity is capable of forming an estimate. As a matter of course, the oratorical element in his writings, almost from first to last, is considerable; but though, during his brief public career under queen Anne, he was, beyond a doubt, the most effective speaker in the House of Commons, not a single one of his great speeches has come down to us.

Bolingbroke’s style as a writer has the supreme merit—the merit without which all others are, or ought to be, vain—of perfect lucidity. His readers are never left in the slightest doubt as to what he means, or at least as to what he desires them to understand him to mean. And this result he obtains without effort, without any assumption of severe superiority, or any display of overwhelming exuberance. Indeed, his style might almost be called the normal style of English prose, after which even the style of Burke seems to be, in some respects, transnormal. In what measure the lucidity of Bolingbroke as a writer is due to his early and close familiarity with French, it is difficult to decide; at the same time, his style, with hardly an exception worth noting, is perfectly free from gallicisms.

But Bolingbroke’s prose is not only clear; it has the strong flow of a river fed from many contributory sources—and yet a flow diversified by currents and eddies of all sorts: movements of anger, scorn and dignified withdrawal into self, of irony and sarcasm, of witty turn or opportune anecdote. We recognise in him the well, if not widely, read man of letters rather than the scholar whose mind has been imbued by his studies; it is the phrases which have commended themselves to his literary instinct, and these are what he reproduces or adapts. What he yet lacks has been diversely defined. Yet, if his political writings be compared with those of Burke, or even with those, whatever may be their blemishes, of Milton, the balance must rise in their disfavour. For, notwithstanding the extraordinary elasticity of mind which seconded Bolingbroke’s perseverance of purpose, posterity, like his contemporaries, refuses to be persuaded by his political writings, while Burke convinced fervent admirers of the French revolution (such as Gentz) that they were in the wrong, and Milton holds in awe even those who continue to revere the eikon which he sought to break.