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The Glory Of English Prose
The Judicious Hooker And Shakespeare
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

One of the great creators of English prose who lived at the same time as Ralegh and Shakespeare was Richard Hooker, who is generally known as "the Judicious Hooker."

He was born in Devon, two years after Ralegh, in 1554.

He must very early in life have made his mark as a man of learning and piety, for when he was only thirty-one he was made Master of the Temple. The controversies in which he there found himself involved induced him to retire when he was only thirty-seven into the country, for the purpose of writing his famous books, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

It is the first great book on the English Church, and it is full of magnificent prose. It was divided into eight parts; and in the first one, before he had got far into it, he penned the exclamatory description of law which will live as long as the language:—
"Her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world; all things in heaven and earth do her homage, the very least as feeling her care, the greatest as not exempted from her power."
And in the same first part will be found a passage on the Deity which portrays faithfully for us the humble wisdom of both the man and his age:—
"Dangerous it were for the feeble brain of man to wade far into the doings of the Most High; whom although to know be life, and joy to make mention of His name; yet our soundest knowledge is to know that we know Him not as indeed He is, neither can know Him; and our safest eloquence concerning Him is our silence, when we confess without confession that His glory is inexplicable, His greatness above our capacity to reach. He is above and we upon earth; therefore it behoveth our words to be wary and few."
Shakespeare was born ten years later than Hooker, in 1564, and his share in founding English prose as we know it is, of course, not comparable with that of Hooker, for of Shakespeare's prose there remains for us but little. Whenever he rose to eloquence he clothed himself in verse as with an inevitable attribute, but on the rare occasions when he condescended to step down from the great line to "the other harmony of prose" he is as splendid as in all else. In Hamlet we have this sudden passage:—
"I have of late, (but wherefore I know not), lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

"What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? "
And the most beautiful letter in the world is that written by Antonio to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. When it is remembered that it was out of his friendship for Bassanio that Antonio entered into his bond with Shylock, the supreme exquisiteness of the few words from friend to friend render this letter unsurpassable:—
"Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit, and since, in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and me if I might see you at my death; notwithstanding, use your pleasure; if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter."
Well did Shakespeare know that such a letter must make an instant appeal to the sweet heart of Portia: "O love!" she cries, "despatch all business, and be gone!"

All great poets are masters of a splendid prose, and had Shakespeare written some notable work of prose we may be sure it would even have surpassed the noble utterances of all his wonderful contemporaries.

It has been said that no language in the world has yet ever lasted in its integrity for over a thousand years. Perhaps printing may confer a greater stability on present languages; but whenever English is displaced, the sun of the most glorious of all days will have set.

Your loving old
G.P.

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