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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XVI. The Essay and the Beginning of Modern English Prose

§ 15. Temple’s Letters and Memoirs

Temple’s own letters—not including those to Dorothy—were published after his death by his quondam secretary, Swift (whose reverence for his patron certainly did not go deep), the first two volumes appearing in 1700, and the third in 1703. This correspondence, which includes many letters from Arlington, lord keeper Bridgeman, and others (with Clifford, notwithstanding their connection through lady Temple, her husband was quite out of touch from the first), fails to warrant the statement of its title-page, that it contains “an account of the most Important Transactions that pass’d in Christendom” during the period which the earlier volumes cover (1665–72); but it furnishes a lucid survey of unusual interest. In his Letters, even more conspicuously than in his Memoirs, Temple’s style is wholly unaffected and unambitious, and the early letter to his father in Ireland, giving an account of his visit to the slippery bishop of Münster, is an admirable specimen of lively narrative. It is worth noticing that not only Temple but most of the men of affairs who correspond with him write in the same straightforward and simple style—it was a period when much importance had begun to be attached in France to the clearness and readableness of diplomatic despatches, and it was natural that the same habit should have become more common in English diplomatic correspondence. In 1666, Temple was, as he says, “Young and Very New in Business”; but it was not long before he was engaged in the negotiations of which the result was a diplomatic masterpiece, the famous Triple Alliance of 1668, and in those which accompanied its break-up. A considerable number of Temple’s letters and other papers are in French, Latin or Spanish, in all of which tongues he was a proficient; but he naturally finds few opportunities for a display of literary taste as well as of linguistic ability. The personal interest of some of his letters is, however, considerable; not only his trust in his wife, but his modest and unaffected estimate of the value of his own public services, even in so exceptional an instance as the carrying through of the Triple Alliance and bringing “Things drawn out of their Center” back “to their Center again,” cannot fail to engage the sympathy of the reader.

The distinctive qualities of Temple as a writer of clear and agreeable prose are even more distinctive of his Memoirs, which are concerned with the later years of his career—from 1674, when the conclusion of peace with the Dutch and the general desire of inducing the French government to follow the example of the English brought him again to the front, to the conclusion of the peace of Nymegen, in 1678, and thence to his final withdrawal, at the very height of political agitation at home, from all further open share in public affairs. The second part professes to begin in 1672 (though it cannot really be said to go back beyond 1674), and was preceded by a first part beginning with 1665, which, at some unknown period of his life, and for reasons which can only be conjectured, was destroyed by the author himself. Thus, only the second part, published without authority in 1691 and republished by Swift in 1692, and the third part, published by him on his own motion, remain to us. But they are among the best examples of a class of literature which was as yet new in England—memoirs of affairs, as well as of personal experiences, conveying the information and instruction which they are designed to impart in a thoroughly readable and often highly attractive style. It would not be easy to find a more lucid account of the political results of the declaration of war by England against the Dutch, with which the narrative opens, or of the impasse to which the selfishness of party purposes and personal interests had reduced English politics when Temple bade them a long farewell. On the other hand, few memoirs or diaries of the time succeed better in suggesting a lifelike, and, at the same time, reasonable, conception of both the ways of talking and the ways of thinking of two princes so different from one another as were Charles II and William III (before his accession to the English throne). It is not a little to Temple’s credit as a diplomatist that he should have been able, in a very uncommon degree, to gain the confidence of both; it is hardly less to his credit as a writer that, especially in the case of Charles II, to none of whose weaknesses he was blind, he should have been able to show what there was in him that fitted him for his destiny.

In the preface to part III of these Memoirs, Swift is at pains to refute the objections taken against them “first, as to the Matter; that the Author speaks too much of himself; next, as to the Style; that he affects the Use of French Words, as well as some Turns of Expression peculiar to that Language.” Temple’s nature, no doubt, was, in a sense, self-centred, but his Memoirs preserve a due balance between egotism and a reticence about himself which would have detracted from the impression of veracity conveyed by them, besides depriving them of much of the human interest without which many valuable political memoirs have become virtually closed books. Temple’s Gallicisms of vocabulary and expression Swift seeks to excuse by more or less ingenious pleas; but, to modern English readers, Temple’s style will not seem to stand in need of defence, whether or not there were many French words which he blotted out, as Swift states, in order to put English in their place. On the other hand, if we may ourselves be guilty of the fault imputed to him, he was an excellent raconteur; and his good stories are all the better because they are neither too long nor too numerous. They often point a characteristic trait in princes or statesmen or, like the anecdote of Richelieu’s wrathful outburst against Charles I, illustrate the genesis of a whole Iliad of truths; occasionally, they are merely amusing “problems,” like the story of the old count of Nassau and the parrot. But the writer is at his best in the light-handed analysis of character and conduct (including his own) which shows the influence of French example far more notably than does his choice of words or phrases. Yet, even when speaking of himself, he could write with force, when it seemed in place:

  • I have had in Twenty Years Experience, enough of the Uncertainty of Princes, the Caprices of Fortune, the Corruption of Ministers, the Violence of Factions, the Unsteddyness of Counsels, and the Infidelity of Friends; Nor do I think the rest of my Life enough to make any new Experiments.