A History of Elizabethan Literature

By George Saintsbury | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX MILTON, TAYLOR, CLARENDON, BROWNE, HOBBES

DURING the second and third quarters of the seventeenth century, or (to take literary rather than chronological dates) between the death of Bacon and the publication of Absalom and Achitophel, there existed in England a quintet of men of letters, of such extraordinary power and individuality, that it may be doubted whether any other period of our own literature can show a group equal to them; while it is certain that no other literature, except, perhaps, in the age of Pericles, can match them. They were all, except Hobbes (who belonged by birth, though not by date and character of writing, to an earlier generation than the rest), born, and they all died, within a very few years of each other. All were prose writers of the very highest merit; and though only one was a poet, yet he had poetry enough to spare for all the five. Of the others, Clarendon, in some of the greatest characteristics of the historian, has been equalled by no Englishman, and surpassed by few foreigners. Jeremy Taylor has been called the most eloquent of men; and if this is a bold saying, it is scarcely too bold. Hobbes stands with Bacon and Berkeley at the head of English-speaking philosophers, and is, if not in general grasp, in range of ideas, or in literary polish, yet in acuteness of thought and originality of expression, perhaps the superior of both his companions. If Browne is the least of the five, it is only because his excellence is more purely literary,--a matter of expression rather than of sub-

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