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Edmund Spenser and the impersonations of Francis Bacon online

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Bacon's eloquence as " really little more than an applica-
tion of classical lore to contemporary men and conditions,"
but this hardly seems an adequate description. In that
particular instance at any rate there are good reasons, as
I have explained, for doubting the accuracy of Jonson's
statement, and, as regards any notes constructed on such
lines, it is obvious that they cannot be relied upon as
biography. Jonson, however, does not say that they are
biography. My conclusion is that these notes on Bacon

' The passage in Jonson's Timber is as follows : " Scriptorum catalogus.
Cicero is said to be the only wit that the people of Rome had equalled to
their empire. Ingenium par imperio. We have had many, and in their
several ages (to take but the former seculuiit) sir Thomas More, . . . Lord
Egerton, the Chancellor, a grave and great orator, and best when he was
provoked. But his learned and able (though unfortunate) successor, is he
who hath filled up all numbers, and performed that in our tongue, which
may be compared or preferred either to insolent Greece or haughty Rome.
In short, within his view, and about his times, were all the wits born, that
could honour a language or help study. Now things daily fall, wits grow
downward, and eloquence grows backward ; so that he may be named and
stand as the mark and okactj of our language."

The lines in the first folio of Shakespeare are :

Leave thee alone, for the comparison

Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome

Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.

* The corresponding passage in Jonson is as follows :

" Z>tf Shakespeare tiostrat. — Augustus in Hat. — . . He . . . had an
excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed
with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped.
Sufflatninandus erat, as Augustus said of Haterius."



5i6 SPENSER AND THE BACON IMPERSONATIONS chap.

represent an effort to place him, as a man for whom
(latterly at any rate) Jonson entertained great admiration
and reverence, in a better light with posterity than that
in which he stood towards his own generation ; that, in
short, they are material for works of art, founded on, but
not strictly adhering to, fact, and constructed with all the
care which Jonson knew how to bestow on his writings/

Of the admiration evoked by Bacon's conversational
powers there is plenty of evidence. Perhaps the account,
from which I give an extract, in A. Wilson's Life and Reign
of King fames I. (Kennett's History) is as interesting as
any, from the fact that he was the friend and companion
of the third Earl of Essex, the son of Elizabeth's favourite.
The passage also contains an account of Bacon's appearance,
which corresponds with that given in the New Atlantis^
and a reference to his defects and fall :

He was of a middling Stature ; his Countenance was indented
with Age before he was old ; his Presence grave and comely ; of
a high-flying and lively Wit, striving in some things to be rather
admir'd than understood ; yet so quick and easy where he would
express himself, and his Memory so strong and active, that he
appear'd the Master of a large and plenteous Store-house of
knowledge, being (as it were) Natures Midwife, stripping her
Callow Brood, and cloathing them in new Attire. His Wit was
quick to the last. ... In fine he was a fit Jewel to have beauti-
fied and adorned a flourishing Kingdom, if his Flaws had not
disgraced the Lustre that should have set him off.

It has been suggested that, during the latter period of
Bacon's life, Jonson was employed by him in a literary
capacity. The poem addressed by Jonson to Bacon on
his sixtieth birthday contains evidence of this, for the
scene is placed in York House, and the relationship of
master and servant is indicated in the lines :

This is the sixtieth yeare
Since Bacon, and my lord, was borne.

The expression " his lord " is used in a similar way by
Aubrey in a note relating to the early days of Thomas

' There was probably also a patriotic motive.
" See p. 103 above.



XVIII SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF BACON 517

Hobbes/ when he was in the service of one of the Earls
of Devonshire :

In his youth he was unhealthy. . . . His lord, who was a
waster, sent him up and down to borrow money, and to gett
gentlemen to be bound for him, being ashamed to speake him
selfe : he tooke colds, being wett in his feet (then were no
hackney coaches to stand in the streetes), and trod both his
shoes aside the same way. Notwithstanding he was well be-
loved. Tliey lov'd his company for his pleasant facetiousnes and
good-nature.

This is instructive as showing what the relations were,
though in a general way a scholar's life in a great house-
hold in those days was probably favourable for study
and observation. Aubrey apparently did not contemplate
the publication of this, for he has a marginal note in the
MS., " This only inter nos." - A pleasanter, though possibly
more idealised portrait occurs, in the same " Life," of
Hobbes, when employed as a servant to Bacon ^ :

The Lord Chancellour Bacon loved to converse with him. He
assisted his lordship in translating severall of his Essayes into
Latin, one, I well remember, is that Of the Greatties of Cities :
the rest I have forgott. His lordship was a very contemplative
person, and was wont to contemplate in his delicious walkes at
Gorhambery, and dictate to Mr. Thomas Bushell, or some other
of his gentlemen, that attended him with inke and paper ready
to sett downe presently his thoughts. His lordship would often
say that he better liked Mr. Hobbes taking his thoughts then
any of the other, because he understood what he wrote, which
the others not understanding, my Lord would many times have a
hard taske to make sense of what they writt.

The relations between Bacon and Ben Jonson would,
if he was in Bacon's household, be on similar lines, and
Bacon's rank and affluence at that time, and his position
in the State, would naturally command great respect.
But apart from this, Bacon's personal qualities compelled
admiration, and the well-known testimony of Jonson as to
Bacon's attitude in adversity suggests that he may have been

1 Author of the Z«'/a///(Jw, etc., 1588- 1679.

2 Brie/ lives, cd. Andrew Clark, 1S98.

3 "■ This, I beleeve, was after his first lord's death." — Note by Aubrey.



5i8 SPENSER AND THE BACON IMPERSONATIONS chap.

among the " good pens which forsake me not,"^ that is after
Bacon's fall. The note (from Jonson's Timber') is as follows:

My conceit of his person was never increased toward him by
his place or honors. But I have and do reverence him for the
greatness that was only proper to himself, in that he seemed to
me ever, by his work, one of the greatest men, and most worthy
of admiration that had been in many ages. In his adversity I
ever prayed that God would give him strength ; for greatness he
could not want. Neither could I condole in a word or syllable
for him, as knowing no accident could do harm to virtue, but
rather help to make it manifest.

This testimony receives confirmation from such accounts
as that of Bacon's apothecary, Peter Boener : " he was
always the same both in sorrow and in joy." ^

Further evidence that Ben Jonson was one of Bacon's
" pens " is found in a passage in Archbishop Tenison's
Baconiana (1679): "The Latine translation [of the
Essays] was a work performed by divers hands ; by those
of . . . Mr. Benjamin Jonson (the learned and judicious
poet) and some others whose names I cannot now recall."
The introduction of Bacon and Jonson in the ephemeral
piece, " The Great Assises holden in Parnassus by Apollo
and his Assessours," 1 644, which has been cited as
evidence of a literary connection between the two men,
carries, in my opinion, no such meaning.^

Posthumous tributes, no doubt, cannot be taken
absolutely literally ; they represent a general estimate.
Bacon's correspondence shows evidence of keen distress,
exasperation, etc., from time to time. But it seems quite
clear that he had a wonderfully sanguine disposition, and
that his mind quickly reverted to its normal condition of
serenity and hopefulness. The calmness with which,
after the first shock, he bore his disgrace and punishment
seems to have offended some. Thus when he left London
for Gorhambury under his sentence of banishment, within
a month of his release from the Tower, Chamberlain

• Letter to Tobie Matthew of June 1623 {Life^ vii. 429).
^ .Spedding, Life, vii. 525.

' Jonson's expression, however, " my l<ing," in the birthday ode is, I
think, of great significance, liaving regard to the context and his views of life.



xvni SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF BACON 519

reports of him as " having (as should seem) no manner of
feeling of his fall, but continuing as vain and idle in all
his humours as when he was at highest." This was on
23rd June 162 1, and Spedding remarks that "on the
8th of October he was ready to send a fair manuscript
of his 'History of Henry the Seventh' to the King," ^
which, to those who are familiar with that work, must
appear a truly wonderful performance. In some private
notes for an interview with the King, which Spedding
attributes to March 1622, Bacon evidently alludes to
such criticisms, and replies with a sharp jest, " I am said
to have a feather in my head. I pray God some have
not mills in their head, that grind not well." - And in
the same month he writes in a letter to Buckingham, " For
I confess it is my fault, though it be some happiness to
me withal, that I do most times forget my adversity." ^
Poignant appeals continued to come from him up to the
time of his death, but they were probably not the index
of his normal attitude. In the same way, as I regard the
play of Timon of Athens as an expression of Bacon's feelings
at his fall, notably Timon's last words ■* and the comments
of Alcibiades on the epitaph at the end,^ so I regard the
dirge in Cymbeline as the true self-expression, after the
recovery of intellectual and spiritual calm.

Bacon seems to have been very imprudent in his
actions, and to have laid himself open to the worst
constructions, which, in the days of his power, were
exaggerated by malice and envy, sometimes by contempt.^
Against such rumours Bacon had little chance, owing to
the remoteness of his mind from the ways and thoughts
of the general world, and his heedlessness so long as

^ Spedding, Life, vii. 302.

2 Ibid. p. 351.

3 Ibid. p. 341.

* " Lips let sour words go by and language end : . . . Sun, hide thy
beams ! Timon hath done his reign."

o This is another example of a passage which, in its details, has no
relevance to the character of the story. Compare the remarks on this subject
in Chapter V.

fi Compare pp. 486-488 above.



520 SPENSER AND THE BACON IMPERSONATIONS chap.

things went well. He was also criticised for inordinate
ambition and pride, and even Bishop Goodman, who is an
exceptionally tolerant writer for those times, says " Over
other men he did insult." ^ The fact seems to be that
Bacon was carried away and, as it were, enraptured by
prosperity, and it was from this cause, rather than from
evil intentions, that such impressions probably came
about. His reckless extravagance and splendour of
living, for which he was ridiculed, censured and admired,
according to men's dispositions and conditions, no doubt
also created prejudice against him. But here again it is
necessary to look below the surface, and I believe the
source of these habits is to be found largely in that
element of " childishness " in his character to which I
have already alluded, and in the instinct of self-idealisa-
tion, which appears, not only in his writings (as 1 have
endeavoured to show), but in all the circumstances of his
life. A few quotations will illustrate these remarks.
This, for example, from Aubrey :

When his lordship was at his country house at Gorhambury,
St. Albans seemed as if tlie court were there, so nobly did he
live. His servants had liveries with his crest (a boare . . .) j
his watermen were more employed by gentlemen then any other,
even the king's.

King James sent a buck to him, and he gave the keeper fifty
pounds.

If this is true the present was, I suppose, worth about
;^400 in modern money. In any case the story illustrates
the impression of Bacon's character at the time.

Extract from Bacon's letter to the King on being
made Viscount St. Albans :

You found me of the Learned Counsel, Extraordinary, with-
out patent or fee ; a kind of individuum vagnm. You established
me, and brought me into Ordinary. Soon after, you placed me
Solicitor, where I served seven years. Then your Majesty
made me your Attorney or Procurator General. Then Privy
Counsellor, while I was Attorney ; a kind of miracle of your
favour, that had not been in many ages. Thence Keeper of

' Court of King Javifs, i. 203.



XVIII SOME CHARACrERISTICS OF BACON 521



your Seal ; and because that was a kind of planet and not fixed,
Chancellor. And when your Majesty could raise me no higher,
it was your grace to illustrate me with beams of honour ; first
making me Baron Verulam, and now Viscount St. Alban. So
this is the eighth rise or reach, a diapason in music, even a good
number and accord for a close. And so I may without supersti-
tion be buried in St, Alban's habit or vestment.^

It might be supposed that this grandiose vision was
the expression of pride and self-satisfaction. Satisfaction
no doubt there was in attainment, but it is clear from
the rest of the letter alone that pride was not really the
motive by which Bacon was animated.

There is, I believe, a prevailing idea that Bacon was
a man of systematic industry, whose philosophic inquiries
must have occupied his entire leisure. This, however, is
a delusion, which a perusal of his recognised works should
dispel. He had a prodigious discursive faculty, and
something original to say on all he touched, but he never
pursues any train of ideas further than suffices to illus-
trate, in an attractive way, some general principle which
he has in mind. He also had a phenomenal memory,
and the impression of erudition and original research
which some of his writings convey is found on inquiry to
be produced largely by his practice of adapting (as a rule
without acknowledgment) the speculations of other writers
to his own purposes, making them appear, through his
peculiar and inimitable style, as his own. No doubt this
was, to some extent, due to egotism and conscious craft ;
but I think that it was mainly the outcome of his habit
of writing, or frequently of dictating, from memory.
Any idea which occurred to him, or which he came across,
at once set going a whole train of suggestion, which found
illustration from innumerable sources in the storehouses of
his mind. Nothing, however, which he writes is complete,
and when he comes to the labour of detail he evades it
in some dexterous phrase, which nevertheless is often
more suggestive than any practical result. But the point

' Speckling, Life, vii. 168. Written early in 1621, within llirce months
of Bacon's fall.



522 SPENSER AND THE BACON IMPERSONATIONS chap.

is that such a method made no great demand on his
time. Bacon, qua philosopher, writes always as a poet.
With grand ceremonial he marks out the site, pours the
libations, and in inspiring tones summons others to the
work ; but he builds nothing himself.

The Natural History (with its curious and mis-
leading headings, " experiment solitary " and " experiments
in consort") perhaps more than any other of his philo-
sophic works conveys the impression of systematic
labour ; but the introduction by Mr. Ellis (Spedding,
Works, ii.) shows that this was not the case, a large
portion of the work being simply taken from other
writers. It may be said that this, in itself, would have
been a great labour, but the probability is that it was
mainly an effort of memory. There is evidence, for
instance, that Bacon's collection of literary phrases called
the " Promus " was largely so compiled, as it appears that
many of the quotations are slightly inaccurate, and the
extraordinary flourishes in some of the MS. suggest that
it was put together at great speed, and perhaps, in places,
in a spirit of fantasy. The Comentarius Solutus, to
which I have alluded, also bears evidence of having been
compiled under similar rapid impulse of ideas. Rawley,
Bacon's chaplain, testifies, from personal knowledge, as to
the " celerity " with which he wrote, and he has a note on
Bacon's " Apothegms " (composed " for my recreation in my
sickness " in 1624) that " This collection his lordship made
out of his memory, without turning any book." A more
wonderful feat of memory (though not by any means of
that only) is found in the History of King Henry VH.
to which I have alluded above. The irksomeness which
Bacon found in detail and the co-ordination of facts
appears throughout his writings. Thilosophically this is
illustrated by such phrases as " The soul delights in the
wide champaign of generalities and will not be bound to
particulars" {Adv. of Learning), and in such a paragraph
as this from the same treatise :

Thus have I concluded this portion of learning touching civil
knowledge, and with civil knowledge have concluded human



XVI 1 1 SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF BACON 523



philosophy ; and with human philosophy, philosophy in general.
And being now at some pause, looking back into that I have
passed through, this writing seemeth to me, si fiuw/uam fallit
iviago, as far as a man can judge of his own work, not much
better than that noise or sound which musicians make while they
are tuning their instruments; which is nothing pleasant to hear,
but yet is a cause why the music is sweeter afterwards. So have
I been content to tune the instrument of the Muses, that they
may play that have better hands.

In his dealings in the practical world evidence of the
same trait appears in the rather neat jest of King James
about Bacon as his Chancellor : De mmiviis non curat Lex.
This is alluded to by Bacon himself in a note in a
memorandum for a conference with Buckingham, written
some two years after his fall : " The call for me, it is
book-learning. You know the king was wont to do me
the honour as to say of me de minimis tion curat lex : if
good for anything for great volumes. I cannot thridd
needles so well." (Spedding, Life, vii. 445.)

Though Bacon had many acquaintances, it is evident
that he had few, if any, intimate friends. His brother
Anthony, who lived with him, was in his confidence.^
But he seems to have had spiritual intimacy (which alone
constitutes friendship in the case of such minds) with one
man only, Jeremiah Bettenham, a Reader of Gray's Inn,
who is mentioned by Aubrey as " his lordship's intimate
and dearely beloved friend." The appeal which this man
made to him was evidently wholly on the contemplative
side, as is shown by the beautiful words in the inscription
on the memorial (a summer-house or covered seat) which
he erected to his memory in Gray's Inn Gardens — " viri
innocentis, abstinentis et contemplativi " — and in the letter
which Bacon wrote to his cousin, Sir Thomas Hobby, on
Bettenham's death, which occurred in 1606 :

Good Cousin : No man knoweth better than yourself what
part I bear in grief for Mr. Bettenham's departure. For in good
faith I never thought myself at better liberty than when he and 1

^ He is alluded to in the "scribble" on the b.ick of the Northumherlami
Manuscript as " Anthony comfortc and consort." lie died in 1601.



524 SPENSER AND THE BACON IMPERSONATIONS chap.

were by ourselves together. His end was Christian and comfort-
able, in parfite memory and in parfite charity, and the disposition
of that he left wise, just and charitable. ^

Towards the close of his life Bacon seems to have
felt an attraction of a similar quality towards the young
George Herbert, to whom he dedicates his translations
of certain Psalms in a brief letter signed, with a simplicity
seldom used by him in such matters, " your affectionate
friend." -

Something must be attributed to Bacon's health,
which was far from good. Also he seems to have had
an exceptionally sensitive nervous organisation. Curious
about the effects of drugs as about everything else, he
makes frequent notes of prescriptions and of his own
sensations. He appears to have suffered from bad
digestion,^ and to have been extremely sensitive in
body to the effects of the mind. In the Comentarius
Solutus he refers to " a symptome of melancholy such as
long since w'*^ strangness in beholding and darksome-
ness " ; and again, " I was taken much with my
symptome of melancholy and dout of p''sent perill."
Farther on in the same collection occurs the following
entry :

I have found now twyse upon amend m' of my fortune dis-
position to melancholy and distast, specially the same happenyng
against y^ long vacacion when company failed and business both,
for upon my SoUicit'* place I grew indisposed and inclined to
superstition. Now upon Milles place I find a relaps into my
old symptome as I was wont to have it many years agoe, as after
sleepes ; strife at meats, strangnesse, clowdes, etc.

He tries varieties of drinks, and the following entry
suggests a want which a cup of tea might have satisfied :

' Spedding, life, iii. 297 sq.

'^ Spedding, Works, vii. 275.

■'' " I desired Dr. Hammond to visit you from me, whom I was glad to
have here [at Twickenham], being a physician, and my complaint being want
of digestion." — Letter from Francis Bacon to his brother Anthony, 1594-95
(Spedding, Life, i. 353).



XVIII SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF BACON 525

I have ever had opynion that some comforting drink at 4
a clock howre w'=^ is the howre of my languishing were proper
for me.

Further evidence of a delicate constitution is found in
his mother's letters. Chamberlain also alludes to it in a
letter to Carleton in 16 17, referring to Bacon's absence
from his court owing to indisposition : " But in truth the
general opinion is that he hath so tender a constitution
both of body and mind that he will hardly be able to
undergo the burden of so much business as his place
requires. . . ." (Spedding, Life, vi. 200.)

Rawley states that Francis Bacon was subject to
fainting - fits, and attributes them (according to the
astrological notions of the time) to the influence of the
moon : " It may seem the moon had some principal
place in the figure of his nativity : for the moon was
never in her passion, or eclipsed, but he was surprised
with a sudden fit of fainting." Spedding refers to Lord
Campbell's comment on this that " no instance is recorded
of Bacon's having fainted in public," but Aubrey gives
an instance of his fainting at first hand :

I remember Sir John Danvers told me, that his lordship
much delighted in his curious garden at Chelsey, and as he was
walking there one time, he fell downe in a dead-sowne. My
lady Danvers rubbed his face, temples, etc., and gave him cordiall
water : as soon as he came to himselfe, sayde he, " Madam I am
no good footman."

Aubrey also has an interesting note about the activity
of Bacon's imagination :

His lordship would often drinke a good draught of strong beer
(March beer) to-bedwards, to lay his working fancy asleep : which
otherwise would keep him from sleeping great part of the night.

This is confirmed in a letter of Lady Anne Bacon written
to Anthony Bacon in 1590 :

I verily think your brother's weak stomach to digest hath
been much caused and confirmed by untimely going to bed, and
then musing nescio (juid when he should sleei).



526 SPENSER AND THE BACON IMPERSONATIONS chap.

One of his speculative preoccupations was the pro-
longation of life, which he evidently regarded as a
possibility of science. Thus he notes in a list following
the New Atlantis, headed " Magnalia Naturae" :

The prolongation of life. The restitution of youth in some
degree. The retardation of age. The curing of diseases counted
incurable.

He recurs to this thought in the course of his writings,
with a certain consciousness of impiety, or, at any rate,
of the risk of being charged with it. It will be found
developed in the explanation of " Orpheus, or Philosophy "
in the Wisdom of the Ancients. There are further notes
on the subject in his " Medical Remains " printed at the
end of Spedding, Works, vol. iii., described as " An
extract by the lord Bacon, for his own use, out of the
book of the prolongation of life, together with some
new advices in order to health," A {^^^ of the most



Online LibraryEdward George HarmanEdmund Spenser and the impersonations of Francis Bacon → online text (page 46 of 55)