Thursday, August 26, 2010

Douglas Bush, on Jeremy Taylor, in English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century

Douglas Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660, from the Oxford History of English Literature, Ed. F. P. Wilson and Bonamy Dobree, Oxford at the Claredon Press, 1962.

Taylor’s first publication (1638), an anti-Romanist sermon delivered at Oxford on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, and dedicated to the archbishop, was a thorny argument which contained no budding roses. His second book (1642) was a defence of episcopacy such as might have been expected from a young divine nurtured in the school of Laud. His anonymous Discourse concerning Prayer Ex tempore (1646) was a bold criticism of the new Directory for Public Worship and, enlarged in 1649 as An Apology for Authorized and Set Forms of Liturgy, was boldly dedicated to the king just before his execution. In these, along with a deep loyalty to the Church of England. (330)

…his first vital book, The Liberty of Prophesying (1647), a book which offended his royal master, though its liberalism was not un-Laudian. … As a whole the work is the best example of Taylor’s earlier prose, lucid, sober, unadorned, and animated by deep and sad conviction. (330)

Holy Living… the style, though not the plain, workmanlike instrument of The Liberty of Prophesying, has achieved the copious, limpid flow without much of the richness that we associate with Taylor. (332)

To us Holy Dying makes a much stronger appeal than its predecessor. Its compelling theme awakens in Taylor the qualities he shares with Browne and Shakespeare and the rest, with the authors of the mortalities and the many works du contemptu mundi. (332)

His book has nothing of the subtle and individual intellectualism of Donne’s Devotions. Taylor’s power is his capacity for feeling and expressing the great commonplaces. Even his circling repetitiousness has the effect of heightening the physical and spiritual frailty, the inescapable misery, of puny man, of multiplying mirrors in a labyrinthine charnel-house, and, thought we pay less heed to this, of multiplying the evidences of God’s chastening love and mercy. (332)

Like The Fairy Queen and Paradise Lost, Holy Dying may be viewed as an interwoven series of variations on contrasting themes, God and man, heaven and hell, good and evil, light and darkness, health and disease, life and death, and—when they are not united—Christianity and paganism. … Much of it is plain, to be sure, and even the most ornate passages are pure and simple in diction and, however solemn, almost lightly fluid in rhythm. Taylor’s mature prose is as remarkable for its natural and sensuous images as Donne’s is for the lack of them. Though he is stirred by pomp and circumstance, his characteristic imagery is common and fresh as the morning—water, wind, flowers, birds, stars, and above all the light of the sun. Perhaps Taylor’s closest affinity, temperamental and didactic as well as artistic, is with Spenser. When we compare Taylor’s best-known purple patch—‘But so have I seen a Rose newly springing from the clefts of its hood…’—with a parallel stanza in The Fairy Queen (II. Xii. 74), we may think that it is the divine and not the lay poet whose visual and decorative sense obscures his serious intention. (333-4)

…we should remember that purple patches quoted by critics or assembled in anthologies give a distorted view of Taylor’s pulpit style, as they do of Donne’s. The figurative and poetical element—that which offended Restoration preachers and attracts us—is not large in proportion to the bulk of relatively plain discourse. In Taylor’s prose in general, variations in style are determined by both his emotional involvement and the nature of his theme, purpose and audience. His emotions are as certainly involved in the plain Liberty of Prophesying and Unum Necessarium as in the most ornate periods of Holy Dying and the sermons, but in the latter his appeal to the mind much oftener becomes an appeal to the heart and imagination. He may take wing from any of his common themes, life and death, time and eternity, sin, repentance, and inexhaustible mercy. We cherish him most in the typical quiet moods that reveal his love for the familiar things of nature, the phenomena of water, earth, and sky. Like Spenser, Taylor has a special tenderness for small creatures, for those ‘little images and reflexes’ of God, children, lambs, roses and ‘the softest stalk of a violet’, ‘the little birds and laborious bees’, the lark struggling bravely against the wind. (334-5)

And while Taylor, like Spenser, is firmly on the side of the resolved soul, some of his readers (like some romantic misinterpreters of Spenser in parallel cases) may—to borrow further examples from L. P. Smith—retain the picture of the libertine who, full of ‘wine, and rage, and pleasure, and folly’, goes ‘singing to his grave’, and forget ‘the severities of a watchfull and a sober life’; may remember ‘the harlots hands that build the fairy castle’ and not ‘the hands of reason and religion’ that must pull it down. (335)


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