Thursday, January 22, 2015

Francis Bacon - Poet, Philosopher, Reformer, Genius

This day being the anniversary of Francis Bacon’s birth, I thought it would be a good occasion to try and show how much he has been misrepresented by those who should know better. You need to know that from his early years he excelled as a poet, and that, as he said, his natural gift was in literature, not in politics or law, and that his genius was not only phenomenal but well recognized. And that his own interests and mentality have often been seen as in complete harmony with the author Shakespeare.

Here is a quote from the poet and politician Edmund Waller (1606-1687):

“Not but that I may defend the attempt I have made upon Poetry, by the examples (not to trouble you with history) of many wise and worthy persons of our own times; as Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Francis Bacon, Cardinal Perron (the ablest of his countrymen) and the former Pope; who they say, instead of the Triple-Crown, wore sometimes the Poet’s ivy, as an ornament, perhaps, of less weight and trouble. But, Madam, these nightingales sung only in the spring; it was the diversion of their youth;” published around 1645.

We may assume ‘his youth’ as referring to an age not beyond 25 and maybe much earlier, so by 1586 at the latest he was already considered one of England’s skilled poets. This early reputation suggests that Waller was referencing a common understanding of Bacon’s poetic skills that was still extant long after he stopped circulating his poems under his own name, and that was never published, but passed around some of his friends in manuscript.

Then we also have Edmund Howes (continuing the work of John Stow’s Annales, or General Chronicle of England, 1615):

Our modern, and present excellent Poets which worthily florith in their owne works, and all of them in my owne knowledge lived togeather in this Queenes raigne, according to their priorities as neere as I could, I have orderly set downe (viz) George Gascoigne Esquire, Thomas Churchyard Esquire, Sir Edward Dyer Knight, Edmond Spencer Esquire, Sir Philip Sidney Knight, Sir John Harrington Knight, & Sir Thomas Challoner Knight, Sir Frauncis Bacon Knight, & Sir John Davie Knight, Master John Lillie gentleman, M. Willi. Shakespeare gentleman, Samuell Daniell Esquire, Michaell Draiton Esquire, of the bath, M. Christopher Marlo gen., M. Benjamine Johnson gentleman, John Marston Esquier, etc."

Again, though this was published in 1614-1615, Bacon’s reputation as one of the country’s ‘excellent poets’ was likely based on works in manuscript and not published for the general public and likely even from many years prior to Shake-speare’s first published poetry in 1593. This is because if Bacon had been circulating his poetry since his youth or even in the early 1580s, then at least some of it would have found its way into print by someone by the 1590s. But it seems to have been either all retracted at some point or else it was not under his own name. The interesting thing is how this reputation of Bacon’s lasted so long after he seemed to have stopped writing poetry since again the reference is only to a time of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

Now, besides some modern Shakespeare scholars trying to deny Bacon as ever having a reputation of a skilled poet, they also want to portray him as a somewhat average educated person for his milieu, which was above average in education. And that he had average and limited intellectual and literature skills, though fond of writing a lot of prose, saying merely that he was “an industrious statesman and lawyer with a vast output in both Latin and English, all of which display an analytical mentality completely different from that which produced the works of Shakespeare.”

And many repeat this without question. But from an earlier, and probably better read scholar we have this:

George L. Craik, LL.D., Professor and Chair of History and of English Literature in Queen’s College, Belfast, in his thorough review of all of English Literature, and who made a special study of Bacon’s works, even writing a book on him, wrote in his English Literature, and of the History of The English Language, from The Norman Conquest, 1874, his expert scholarly judgment of Bacon’s uncommon genius and the temperament of his writing:

“…the acknowledgement that he was intellectually one of the most colossal of the sons of men has been nearly unanimous. They who have not seen his greatness under one form have discovered it in another; there is a discordance among men’s ways of looking at him, or their theories respecting him; but the mighty shadow which he projects athwart the two bygone centuries lies there immovable, and still extending as time extends, . . . .He belongs not to mathematical or natural science, but to literature and to moral science in its most extensive acceptation,--to the realm of imagination, of wit, of eloquence, of aesthetics, of history, of jurisprudence, of political philosophy, of logic, of metaphysics and the investigation of the powers and operations of the human mind. . . . All his works, his essays, his philosophical writings, commonly so called, and what he has done in history, are of one and the same character; reflective and, so to speak, poetical, not simply demonstrative, or elucidatory of mere matters of fact.  What, then, is his glory?—in what did his greatness consist? In this, we should say;--that an intellect at once one of the most capacious and one of the most profound ever granted to a mortal—in its powers of vision at the same time one of the most penetrating and one of the most far-reaching—was in him united and reconciled with an almost equal endowment of the imaginative faculty; and that he is, therefore, of all philosophical writers, the one in whom are found together, in the largest proportions, depth of thought and splendor of eloquence.  His intellectual ambition, also,--a quality of the imagination,--was of the most towering character; . . . . His Advancement of Learning and his Novum Organum have more in them of the spirit of poetry than of science; and we should almost as soon think of fathering modern physical science upon Paradise Lost as upon them.”

This goes quite a bit beyond the average well-educated intellectual.

And many have likened Bacon’s mentality to that of Shakespeare’s, such as:

“In Bacon’s works we find a multitude of moral sayings and maxims of experience from which the most striking mottoes might be drawn for every play of Shakespeare,--aye, for every one of his principal characters . . . testifying to a remarkable harmony in their mutual comprehension of human nature.” Georg Gottfried Gervinus, Eminent German political historian and literary critic, Professor at the universities of Gottingen and Heidelberg, 1835-1853 (not continuously). Many others, like Gervinus, see that much of Bacon’s mentality was hardly any different from Shake-speare’s, despite the contrast in content and in prose as opposed to verse.

Here is another scholarly opinion on Bacon’s natural gifts and exceptional genius:

“To call Bacon the founder of scientific method is to mistake the character of his mind, and to do him an injustice by resting his fame upon a false foundation. Unwearied activity, inexhaustible constructiveness—that, and not scientific patience or accuracy, was his characteristic. …and we underestimate him upon another side when we speak as if the Inductive Philosophy had been the only outcome of his ever-active brain. His project of reform in Law was almost as vast as his projects of reform in Philosophy. . . .And he was often employed by the Queen and Lord Burleigh to write papers of State. All this was done in addition to his practical work as a lawyer. And yet his multiplex labours do not seem to have used up his mental vigour; his schemes always outran human powers of performance. His ambition was not to make one great finished effort and then rest; his intellectual appetite seemed almost insatiable.”

William Minto, Professor of Logic and English at Aberdeen, author of a Manual of English Prose Literature, 1874.

And keep in mind that most of this that Professor Minto cites was accomplished in the last half of Bacon’s adult life. So what did he focus most of his genius and youthful vigor on in the first half of his adult life? Unfortunately, it seem that for many scholars and students of literature today who should admire what kind of man he was and what he has accomplished, that instead what could be said of them is that “Who deserves greatness deserves your scorn”.

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