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The Glory Of English Prose|
5. 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
"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.
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
"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? "
"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
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
Your loving old