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

XV. The Progress of Science

§ 3. The Heritage of Bacon

The gap between the medieval science which still obtained in queen Elizabeth’s time and the science of the Stewarts was bridged by Francis Bacon, in a way, but only in a way. He was a reformer of the scientific method. He was no innovator in the inductive method; others had preceded him, but he, from his great position, clearly pointed out that the writers and leaders of his time observed and recorded facts in favour of ideas other than those hitherto sanctioned by authority.

Bacon left a heritage to English science. His writings and his thoughts are not always clear, but he firmly held, and, with the authority which his personal eminence gave him, firmly proclaimed, that the careful and systematic investigation of natural phenomena and their accurate record would give to man a power in this world which, in his time, was hardly to be conceived. What he believed, what he preached, he did not practise. “I only sound the clarion, but I enter not into the battle”; and yet this is not wholly true, for, on a wintry March day, 1626, in the neighbourhood of Barnet, he caught the chill which ended his life while stuffing a fowl with snow, to see if cold would delay putrefaction. Harvey, who was working whilst Bacon was writing, said of him: “He writes philosophy like a Lord Chancellor.” This, perhaps, is true, but his writings show him a man, weak and pitiful in some respects, yet with an abiding hope, a sustained object in life, one who sought through evil days and in adverse conditions “for the glory of God and the relief of man’s estate.”

Though Bacon did not make any one single advance in natural knowledge—though his precepts, as Whewell reminds us, “are now practically useless”—yet he used his great talents, his high position, to enforce upon the world a new method of wrenching from nature her secrets and, with tireless patience and untiring passion, impressed upon his contemporaries the conviction that there was “a new unexplored Kingdom of Knowledge within the reach and grasp of man, if he will be humble enough, and patient enough, and truthful enough to occupy it.”

The most sublime of English poets survived our period by a few years. A comparison between Dante’s and Milton’s great epics affords some indication of the advance in knowledge of this world and in the outlook on a future state which measures the progress made between the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century. As a poet (and, indeed, often in other activities of his life) Milton stood above, or at least, outside, the stream of tendency of the times through which he lived. Yet, in his poems (not in his political tractates—the most ephemeral of all literature) we see effects of the rising tide of science on literature.

Milton, one must never forget,—and indeed, it is not easy to do so,—was, for some years, a schoolmaster. He took a view of his profession which even now would be thought liberal; he advocated the teaching of medicine, agriculture and fortification, and, when studying the last of these, remarked that it would be “seasonable to learn the use of the Globes and all the maps.” Like lord Herbert of Cherbury, he held that the student should acquire some knowledge of medicine, he should know “the tempers, the humours, the seasons and how to manage a crudity.” Himself a sufferer from gout, he learnt, at any rate, the lesson of moderation. Mathematics, in his curriculum, led to the “instrumental science of Trigonometry and from thence to Fortification, Architecture, Enginry or Navigation.”

At the time of the writing of Paradise Lost, the learned had accepted the theory of Copernicus, although the mathematical proof afforded a few years later by Newton was still lacking. But the world at large still accepted the Ptolemaic system, a system which, as a schoolmaster, Milton taught. Mark Pattison has pointed out that these two

  • systems confront each other in the poem, in much the same relative position which they occupied in the mind of the public. The ordinary, habitual mode of speaking of celestial phenomena is Ptolemaic; the conscious or doctrinal exposition of the same phenomena is Copernican.