Prolix and Prolific


haucer often used a pastiche of ornate or aureate style to mock the quiddities of theological controversy. On the doctrine of predestination he remarks in “The Nun’s Priest ’s Tale”:

That in scole is greet altercacioun, In this mateere, and greet disputisoun

only to add some thirteen lines later:

I wol not han to do of swich mateere; My tale is of a cok, as ye may heere

The monosyllables, ultimately derived from Anglo-Saxon sources, are employed to emphasise practicality and individuality rather than the vapid learning traced within the polysyllables; there is a clear indication here that practical experience, and the specific circumstances of the story, are of more significance. The “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” has in fact been described as a “parody of the excesses of rhetoric.”The word “tale” itself comes from Old English, which may in turn suggest that Chaucer is drawing upon a stock of popular or common lore to match the Latinate quibblings of the “clercs.” In “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” Chaucer also berates false learning in the guise of alchemy—“Oure termes been so clergial and so queynte”—where the vocabulary of the pursuit is the principal object of scorn. This will be seen to be a characteristic English device, in a language which is so flexible and accommodating that it can parody its own excesses. In the miracle plays the comic pomposity of various “Vertues” is delivered in aureate speech— “My inwarde afflixyon yeldeth me tedyouse to your presens”—only to be deflated by the rough and homely demotic of the “Vices.” It is such a common trait in English comedy that it almost passes unnoticed, but the incompatibility of styles is an important feature of the English imagination; it suggests that experience and individual sensation represent the true sources of the language.

There is a celebrated line from Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella which embodies the English disdain both for book-learning and for the ornamentation of mere words: “Foole, said my Muse to me, looke in thy heart and write.” But we may also look to Sidney’s contemporary William Shakespeare for a willing adumbration of this theme. One of his first plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost, is a satire upon pedantry and bookishness. When Ferdinand, King of Navarre, and his three lords pledge themselves to spend three years “lyuing in Philosophie,” their studies making up a “lyttle Achademe,” and to abjure the company of women, they are being impractical; they are sinning against common sense. In a similar false spirit the schoolmaster in the same play, Holofernes, addresses his companions in an obfuscatory style. “Yet a kind of insinuation, as it were, in via, in way, of explication, facere, as it were, replication, or rather ostentare, to show, as it were, his inclination, after his undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather unlettered, or ratherest unconfirmed fashion . . .” This is the comedy of aureate bookishness, which was already present in the mystery plays. It can be argued that the figure of the pedant was borrowed from the commedia dell’arte or the commedia erudita, but an instinctive disregard for the bookish scholar is also of native growth.

There was a form of English parody, in part deriving from More’s Utopia, whereby a learned treatise was constructed as a standing joke against the learned themselves. Donne’s “Biathanatos,” an essay upon suicide in which it is argued that “Self-homicide is not so Naturally Sinne, that it may never be otherwise,” is just such a work. It purports to be a learned disquisition upon the justification for suicide; since such an act would result in eternal damnation, however, it is clear that Donne is satirising the excesses of scholarly discourse. He even cites Sir Thomas More “(a man of the most tender and delicate conscience that the world saw since Saint Augustine) not likely to write anything in jest mischievously interpretable,” a description in which irony is heaped on irony. Donne knew well that Utopia was written “in jest,” and his “Biathanatos” is a production of the same type. He employs false logic and introduces false learning; his arguments are inconsistent and his conclusions bathetic; he employs a hundred allusions and quotations from obscure sources, with an apology that “I did it the rather because scholastique and artificiall men use this way of instructing.” It is the method of Swift and Sterne. It allows him to pose as the diffident scholar advancing an absurd proposition, and also permits him to horrify his readers with such pronouncements as that upon the early Christians whose children were “taught to vexe and provoke Executioners, that they might be thrown into the fire.” One of his editors has also suggested that “the mere physical appearance of the book might suggest a satire on casuistry as each page in the original edition is so festooned with brackets and indices and marginalia,” and that its style of “bloated parentheses and meandering subordinate clauses” may be of similar comic intent. 2 It might be argued that John Donne’s somewhat parlous circumstances at the time of composition—he had been dismissed from court service and forced into premature retirement—provoked him into the contemplation of self-murder. But that is precisely why he parodied the venture. It might as well be argued that Swift’s Modest Proposal for the eating of children was authentic because there was a genuine Irish famine. If there is one characteristic aspect of the English imagination, it lies in mocking that which comes too close for ordinary self-expression. It is a question of satirising emotion, or even passion, itself.

Walter Raleigh’s History of the World is replete with learned quotations and allusions—“Peter Lombard, the schoolmen Beda, Lyranus, Comestor, Tostatus and others affirm . . .” Yet these words are a “lift” from a Latin original. The invocation of many names is perhaps deliberately designed to impress, or confuse, the casual reader; in the English theatrical spirit, it represents a parade of learning. Yet it also suggests a certain detachment, a lack of complete seriousness, a whimsicality. Nikolaus Pevsner noticed a curious aspect of national sensibility in the sense that “England was the first country to break the unity of interior and exterior.”In Raleigh’s panoply of “exterior” learning, of adapted and assimilated knowledge, is not Pevsner’s maxim comprehended?

It has been demonstrated by scholarly exegesis that throughout his HistoryRaleigh depends upon the borrowing of other writers’ material, upon unascribed translation and collation, to such an extent that one commentator has described the work as a “patchwork of citations and quotations . . . with long lists of authorities presented in bewildering confusion.” 4 But this is by no means a specific or isolated instance. The history of literary learning in England is the history of inconsequence and random accretion. We may remark once more upon Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy , the favoured book of Johnson and of Keats, which is replete with prolix and half-assimilated information. It is an encyclopaedic and synthetic work, marshalling sources and authorities with dexterity, but it is also curiously hesitant and ambivalent about any conclusions which might be plucked from this wealth of material; it leaves the reader, in the words of one critic, “poised uneasily between two equally unauthorised authorities.”Samuel Johnson declared that the Anatomy was filled with the “scourings of the Bodleian”; the history of dreams might be followed by a disquisition upon genealogy, the transcription of a fever-fit succeeded by an encomium on marriage. Aphorisms and anecdotes are mingled with appeals to the ancients; quotations follow and surround paraphrases, while the course of a sentence proceeds uneasily through a maze or labyrinth of subordinate clauses. “Yet re vera he was an illiterate idiot, as Aristophanes calls him, irrisor & ambitiosus as his Master Aristotle terms him, as Zeno, an enemy to all arts & sciences, as Athenaeus, to Philosophers & Travellers, an opiniative ass, a caviller, a kind of Pedant.” “What madness ghosts this old man, but what madness ghosts us all? For we are, ad unum omnes, all mad, semel insanivimus omnes, not once, but always & semel & simul & semper ; ever and altogether as bad as he.” The sentences spiral, take the form of a double helix, or, to use a less anachronistic metaphor, follow the serpentine line of English beauty. The Anatomy is a work of compilation and exegesis, not of analysis or speculation, so it becomes a thoroughly native product. Burton’s unsystematic corpus grows by accumulation or aggregation in the manner of an early English cathedral. He poses as the bookish scatter-brain, an old English persona created by Geoffrey Chaucer; only out of embarrassment or humility does he offer his scholarship to the reader. In the English style, too, he deplores the pedantry of scholastic or speculative learning. “What is most of our Philosophy, but a Labyrinth of opinions, idle questions, propositions, metaphysical terms . . . Philology, but vain criticisms? Logick, but needless sophisms? Metaphysicks themselves but intricate subtilties, & fruitless abstractions?” Instead he pursues the way of the antiquarian, citing the examples of history and the experience of the ages in order to demonstrate his theme. The English seem to relish unsystematic learning of this kind, in the same manner that they embarked upon “Grand Tours” of Europe in pursuit of a peripatetic scholarship.

Burton’s historical disposition also fostered in him a kind of fatalism which has already been noted in the Anglo-Saxons. As if by instinct, too, the same imaginative precepts are advanced. He invokes that trinity of preoccupations—the world as prison, the world as theatre, the world as dream— which seems to characterise one aspect of the English imagination. He mixes humour with his philosophy, however, and colloquialisms with his aureate periods. Hippolyte Taine described the Anatomy as “an enormous medley, a prodigious mass of jumbled quotations,” but we have already discovered that “medley” is precisely the English genre. Burton is entranced by details and minute particulars; he is prone to anecdote, and allured by digression. “In this labyrinth of accidental causes, the farther I wander, the more intricate I find the passage, multae ambages & new causes as so many by-paths offer themselves to be discursed.” It seems a particular English trait, to wish to encompass everything, to fill a book or a stage with crowds, to list everything, and yet at the same time to lament that all is vanity and emptiness.

The Anatomy is also a parodic work which mocks its own learning. Burton invented several “classical” quotations for the sake of euphony or sense. The meaning which he attempts to convey is also often lost in the labyrinth of metaphor and reference, so that eventually Burton seems to mean nothing at all. “But where am I? Into what subject have I rushed?” The very structure of Burton’s book, laid out as a “synopsis” divided and subdivided into sections and categories, is an elaborate parody of continental discourse—such as that by Ramus—which similarly divides its content into theses and propositions. Thus in the “synopsis of the first partition” one “subsection” lists “Dotage. Phrensy. Madness. Extasy. Lycanthropia. Chorus Sancti Viti. Hydrophobia. Possession or obsession of devils. Melancholy.” The principle is one of false methodology or, as one commentator has put it, “the unsuitability of the intellectual approach to melancholy”and thus “the futility of scholarly learning.”That is why the book is inconsistent and contradictory, with non sequiturs and egregiously false trails leading nowhere. Burton claimed that his book is “nemenis nihil,” nothing from nobody. He coined neologisms or introduced deliberately archaic words; he chose the most obscure terms, and created a confusing syntax as if the whole exercise were no more than an elaborate joke. He was empirical, anecdotal, sensational.

He is also the best companion for Sir Thomas Browne, whose own prolix and prolific learning was not untouched by parody, and whose wit was tempered by fatalism and melancholy. Browne was trained in medicine, as we have seen, but in English fashion he was also an amateur scientist devoted to experiment; he weighed mice and chickens, before and after he had strangled them, to see if the release of their vital spirits lowered their weight. He put toads and spiders together in a glass vessel, to test their “natural antipathy.”8 He was firmly of the belief that witches were possessed by the devil and, even while studying the transactions of the Royal Society, was moved to ask his son, “what kind of stone is that wch stoned St. Stephen, pebble, flint or freestone?” He had an infinite capacity for practical research and empirical learning. In other words he was unlike the continental philosophers, who worked from first principles or according to system. Like Burton and Sterne, he abjured the subtle mysteries of scholastics and metaphysicians. He wished “to condemne to the fire those swarms and millions of Rhapsodies, begotten onely to distract and abuse the weaker judgements of Scholars, and to maintainethe Trade and Mystery of Typographers.”

In Religio Medici he discusses the principles of his faith in relation to his profession as a physician, but this is the merest excuse for a work that is digressive and theatrical, curiously knit and finely polished. Of other theological works he writes elsewhere that “There are a bundle of curiosities, not onely in Philosophy but in Divinity, proposed and discussed by men of the most supposed abilities, which indeed are not worthy our vacant hours, much less our more serious studies; Pieces only fit to be placed in Pantagruels Library, or bound up with Tartaretus De Modo Cacandi,” a sentence which itself may serve as a type or epitome of Browne’s prose where an arresting cadence is filled with witty sententiousness and arcane allusion. His writing so abounds in intricate and convoluted argument that we might use the image of Anglo-Saxon interlace as the form of his thought; he revels in inconsistency and paradox in order to illustrate the limitations of scholastic argument and the infirmity of speculation. One passage, for example, affirms the union of opposites in the workings of creation and generation. “God, being all things, is contrary unto nothing, out of which were made all things, as so nothing becomes something, and Omneity informed Nullity into an essence.” Coleridge wondered whether this sentence itself were an “excellent Burlesque on some parts of the Schoolmen.” The element of burlesque is surely present, if only in an oblique fashion. Like Raleigh before him Browne borrows or steals without fully acknowledging the debt; in the process he builds up a patchwork of quotations and sources in a somewhat theatrical display of learning. It is Coleridge, too, who elucidates the native cast of Thomas Browne’s thought when he describes him as “Fond of the Curious, and a Hunter of Oddities & Strangenesses . . . a useful enquirer into physical Truth & fundamental Science.” His empirical tendencies are thereby aligned with his individualism and even his eccentricity.

Like Donne in “Biathanatos,” Browne parodies and mocks the language of pedantic learning. Humour emerges, too, in his discussion upon the lamprey, a fish resembling an eel. “Whether Lampries have nine eyes, as is received, we durst refer it unto Polyphemus, who had but one, to judg it.” His scepticism, his delight in oddity, his humorous exaggeration, his plangent rhetoric, are all of a piece. Indeed his own work, like that of Burton, resembles some panopticon of the English imagination; in whichever direction we choose to look, we glimpse some fugitive historical trait.

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