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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

§ 16. His Miscellaneous Works: Essays

Temple’s general judgment of the political and social characteristics of a people whom he learnt to know well, not only by long sojourns among them, but because, as he relates with pardonable pride, his visits were welcomed by them as are those of the swallow in the spring, is laid down in his sympathetic but unprejudiced Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands (1672). They present themselves as the expansion of a summary of the condition of the country, sent in, according to custom, at the close of an ambassador’s stay there; but they are put together under the impression of the great and, as it seemed to Temple, decisive catastrophe, which had suddenly brought to the brink of destruction a state, “the Envy of some, the Fear of others, and the Wonder of all” its neighbours. It is the growth of that polity’s greatness, due to moral, as well as physical, causes—to the principle of tolerance as well as the control of the sea—which this admirable essay demonstrates with equal lucidity and conviction.

During the same period of leisure, he produced, in 1667 or 1668, An Essay upon the present State and Settlement of Ireland, which, though censuring the process of the late settlement, advises no remedy for existing results beyond that which had been commended by Spenser. In 1673, Temple published An Essay upon the Advancement of Trade in Ireland, which asserts “the true and natural ground of Trade and Riches” to be the “Number of People in proportion to the Ground they inherit,” but proposes some useful developments of the export trade suggested to him by his own residence in Leinster.

Part 1 of the Miscellanea contains A Survey of the Constitution and Interests of the Empire and other principal European countries, with their Relations to England in the Year 1671, presented in that year to Arlington: a clear exposition of the political situation and of the reasons for and against England’s joining France against the Dutch, with a specially luminous account of the general history of Spanish politics and of the rise of the United Provinces to the rank of a first-rate power. It will be noted that this diplomatic summary, clear as it is, opens with sentences of almost Clarendonian length. To a later period seems to belong An Introduction to the History of England (published in 1695), which may possibly have been intended as an introduction to Kennett’s History, the editors of which, however, proposed to use Milton for the period before the Norman conquest. Temple shows a characteristic contempt for mythology, and treats no part of his subject very assiduously till he comes to the reign of William the Conqueror, whom he holds to have been unjustly censured by ecclesiastical writers. Like all Temple’s writings, this abridgment is very readable, though, unlike most of them, the work of a dilettante. Of much greater interest is his Essay upon the Original and Nature of Government (written about 1672), which is noticeable as arguing, in direct contravention of the theory of a social contract elaborated by Hobbes and Locke, that state government arose out of an extension of paternal and patriarchal authority. It is not too much to say that, in this argument, Temple was before his times; Locke takes no notice of his speculations.

Temple’s essays, or, as they were called, Miscellanea, appeared in three parts; the first in 1680, the second in 1690 and the third, two years after the author’s death, in 1701. The most widely read of these essays, Upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1690), was inspired by that quarrel between the ancients and the moderns which, for more than two years, had divided the literary world of Paris, and was, in its turn, the origin of the celebrated controversy on the Letters of Phalaris between Bentley and Charles Boyle. But neither in this nor in the companion essay, Upon Poetry, does Temple show to much advantage. His knowledge is too superficial for his task. He has a bowing acquaintance with many authors, but he is not on intimate terms with any. He has sauntered through the outer courts of literature, but he has never penetrated to the sanctuary. It is interesting, however, to note his opinions on French literature. In poetry, he mentions only two names, Ronsard for the past and Boileau for the present. For prose, he names Rabelais, Montaigne, and, among the moderns, Voiture, La Rochefoucauld and Bussy-Rabutin, whose Histoire Amoureuse de Gaule (1665) had a succès de scandale in this country as well as in France. Of the French language, Temple justly observes that, as it “has much more Finess and Smoothness at this time, so I take it to have had much more Force, Spirit, and Compass in Montaigne’s Age”; while, of Rabelais, he says that he “seems to have been Father of the Ridicule, a man of universal learning as well as wit.” Was it this praise which led to the publication, in the following year (1693), thirty-three years after the author’s death, of Sir Thomas Urquhart’s translation of the third book of Pantagruel, followed, in 1708, by that of the fourth and fifth books from the pen of Pierre-Antonius Motteux, one of the 84,000 refugees whom the revocation of the edict of Nantes sent to this country? The most agreeable of Temple’s essays are those Upon the Cure of the Gout (part 1), Upon the Gardens of Epicurus, or Of Gardening (part II) and Upon Health and Long Life (part III). The latter is especially interesting for the light that it throws upon the notions of the age as to health and longevity, and the specifics in use for the cure of ordinary ailments. Thus, we learn that alehoof or ground-ivy is “most sovereign for the eyes” and “admirable in Frenzies” and that the constant use of alehoof ale is a “specifick Remedy or Prevention of the Stone”; that “the Spirit of Elder is sovereign in Cholicks, and the use of it in general very beneficial in Scurvies and Dropsies”; and that “for Rheums in the Eyes and the Head a leaf of Tobacco put into the Nostrils for an Hour each Morning is a Specifick Medicine.”

In the essay Of Gardening, written in 1685, Temple gives an agreeable account of his own garden at Sheen, which was renowned for its fruit trees, discoursing of his grapes and figs, his peaches and apricots, with that complacent sense of superiority which is the foible of most gardeners. The essay entitled Gout, written in 1677, gives much information as to various cures for that malady of statesmen, and, incidentally, introduces us to several of Temple’s diplomatic colleagues in a new and entertaining light. Temple’s style was highly thought of in his own day. “It is generally believed,” said Swift, “that this author has advanced our English tongue to as great perfection as it can well bear.” But this is the exaggerated praise of an editor. Lamb’s “plain, natural, chit-chat” is nearer the mark. Temple writes like a fine gentleman at his ease, without any affectation, but with considerable negligence. His syntax is sometimes faulty, and his expression does not always fit his thought. Though his sentences are kept, as a rule, within convenient bounds, they straggle occasionally and leave trailing ends. To agree wholly with Johnson that “Temple was the first writer who gave cadence to English prose,” is to forget Browne and Taylor; but Temple has a true feeling for cadence; in this alone he is Cowley’s superior. It is largely through this quality that he rises at times beyond the level of “natural chit-chat,” as in the fine passage in praise of poetry and music which concludes the essay Upon Poetry and ends with the often quoted comparison between human life and a froward child.