1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Temple

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:500-02.



SIR WILLIAM TEMPLE, a well-known statesman and miscellaneous writer, possesses a high reputation as one of the chief polishers of the English language. He was the son of Sir John Temple, master of the Rolls in Ireland in the reigns of Charles I. and II., and was born in London in 1628. He studied at Cambridge under Cudworth as tutor; but being intended for public life, devoted his attention chiefly to the French and Spanish languages. After travelling for six years on the continent, he went to reside with his father in Ireland, where he represented the county, of Carlow in the parliament at Dublin in 1661. Removing, two years afterwards, to England, the introductions which he carried to the leading statesman of the day speedily procured him employment in the diplomatic service. He was sent, in 1665, on a secret mission to the bishop of Munster, and performed his duty so well, that on his return a baronetcy was bestowed on him, and he was appointed English resident at the court of Brussels. The peace of western Europe was at this time in danger from the ambitious designs of Louis XIV., who aimed at the subjugation of the Spanish Netherlands. Temple paid a visit to the Dutch governor, De Witt, at the Hague, and with great skill brought about, in 1668, the celebrated "triple alliance" between England, Holland, and Sweden, by which the career of Louis was for a time effectually checked. In the same year he received the appointment of ambassador at the Hague, where he resided in that capacity for about twelve months, on terms of intimacy with De Witt, and also with the young Prince of Orange, afterwards William III. of England. The corrupt and wavering principles of the English court having led to the recall of Temple in 1669, he retired from public business to his residence at Sheen, near Richmond, and there employed himself in literary occupations and gardening. In 1674, however, he with some reluctance consented to return as ambassador to Holland; in which country, besides engaging in various important negotiations, he contributed to bring about the marriage of the Prince of Orange with the Duke of York's eldest daughter Mary. That important and popular event took place in 1677. Having finally returned to England in 1679, Temple was pressed by the king to accept the appointment of secretary of state, which, however, he persisted in refusing. Charles was now in the utmost perplexity, in consequence of the discontents and difficulties which a long course of misgovernment had occasioned; and used to hold long conversations with Temple, on the means of extricating himself from his embarrassments. The measure advised by Sir William was the appointment of a privy council of thirty persons, in conformity with whose advice the king should always act, and by whom all his affairs should be freely and openly debated; one half of the members to consist of the great officers of state, and the other of the most influential and wealthy noblemen and gentlemen of the country. This scheme was adopted by Charles, and excited great joy throughout the nation. The hopes of the people were, however, speedily frustrated by the turbulent and unprincipled factiousness of some of the members. Temple, who was himself one of the council, soon became disgusted with its proceedings, as well as those of the king, and, in 1681, finally retired from public life. He spent the remainder of his days chiefly at Moor Park, in Surrey, where Jonathan Swift, then a young man, resided with him in the capacity of amanuensis. After the Revolution King William sometimes visited Temple in order to consult him about public affairs. His death took place in 1698, at the age of sixty-nine. Throughout his whole career, the conduct of Sir William Temple was marked by a cautious regard for his personal comfort and reputation; a quality which strongly disposed him to avoid risks of every kind, and to stand aloof from those departments of public business where the exercise of eminent courage and decision was required. His character as a patriot is therefore not one which calls for high admiration; though it ought to be remarked, in his favour, that as he seems to have had a lively consciousness that neither his abilities nor dispositions fitted him for vigorous action in stormy times, he probably acted with prudence in withdrawing from a field in which he would have only been mortified by failure, and done harm instead of good to the public. Being subject to frequent attacks of low spirits, he might have been disabled for action by the very emergencies which demanded the greatest mental energy and self-possession. As a private character, he was respectable and decorous: his temper, naturally, haughty and unamiable, was generally kept under good regulation; and among his foibles, vanity was the most prominent.

The works of Sir William Temple consist chiefly of short miscellaneous pieces. His longest production is Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands, composed during his first retirement at Sheen. This is accounted a masterpiece of its kind, and, when compared with his Essay on the Original and Nature of Government, written about the same time, shows that he had much more ability as an observer and describer, than as a reasoner on what he saw. Besides several political tracts of temporary interest, he wrote Essays on Ancient and Modern Learning; the Gardens of Epicurus; Heroic Virtue; Poetry; Popular Discontents; Health and Long Life. In these are to be found many sound and acute observations expressed in the perspicuous and easy, but not very correct or precise language, for which he is noted. His correspondence on public affairs has also been published.

Of all his productions, that which appears to us, in matter as well as composition, the best, is a letter to the Countess of Essex on her excessive grief occasioned by the loss of a beloved daughter. As a specimen of eloquent, firm, and dignified, yet tender and affectionate expostulation, it is probably unequalled within the compass of English literature. This admirable piece will be found among the extracts which follow.

The style of Sir William Temple is characterised by Dr. Blair as remarkable for its simplicity. "In point of ornament and correctness," adds that critic, "he rises a degree above Tillotson; though, for correctness, he is not in the highest rank. All is easy and flowing in him; he is exceedingly harmonious; smoothness, and what may be called amenity, are the distinguishing characters of his manlier; relaxing sometimes, as such a manner will naturally do, into a prolix and remiss style. No writer whatever has stamped upon his style a more lively impression of his own character. In reading his works, we seem engaged in conversation with him; we become thoroughly acquainted with him, not merely as an author, but as a man, and contract a friendship for him. He may, be classed as standing in the middle between a negligent simplicity and the highest, degree of ornament which this character of style admits." In a conversation preserved by Boswell, Dr. Johnson said, that "Sir William Temple was the first writer who gave cadence to English prose: before his time, they were careless of arrangement, and did not mind whether a sentence ended with an important word or an insignificant word, or with what part of speech it was conclude." This remark, however, has certainly greater latitude than Johnson would have given it if published by himself. It is true that some of Temple's productions are eminently distinguished by harmony and cadence; but that he was the first who introduced the latter, will not be admitted by any one who is familiar with the prose of Drummond, Cowley, Dryden, and Sprat.