Charles Williams Book Summary #27: Bacon (1933)
Last week, I posted a summary of CW’s play A Myth of Francis Bacon. It was performed in 1932. The next year, CW decided to expand upon his work in that play and write a full-length biography of Sir Francis Bacon. It was published by Arthur Barker in 1933.
I have never liked biographies. They are nearly always written in a very strange style, with a tendency to stick unrelated facts into one sentence: “Born at the turn of the century, he sported a goatee and horn-rimmed spectacles.” That sort of thing. (I hate the vague-modifier sentence construction in any context). Williams does not commit these syntactical sins. However, his biography is (as you will be unsurprised to learn) written in a [different] very strange style, with the assumption that the reader already knows all the outer facts of Bacon’s life.
I didn’t know much at all about Bacon when I picked up this book, and at first I thought I was not going to be able to read it. It was wildly confusing. Williams uses an enormous number of titles and nicknames for each person, without explanation. For instance, he will arbitrarily refer to Robert Deveraux, the Earl of Essex, as “the Favourite” or “the Earl” or any number of phrases about the one who was in the Queen’s eye or something like that. He switches from personal names to peerage titles without warning. Now, this is a somewhat common British trait, so I shouldn’t fault him too badly for it. But he does lay it on pretty thick.
He also skips plain exposition in favor of immediate, deep, profound analysis. CW had a remarkable ability for seeing into the core of something (or someone) right away—or at least of imagining such a core, and putting it forward as factual truth. And yet he doesn’t present those interpretations up front in the book, the way we would nowadays in our thesis-statement driven essay-writing style. No, he assumes these insights and assumes that the reader shares them.
Here are a couple of examples.
On page 153, he claims that:
The Monarch in action, then, was the proper concern of Bacon’s political thought, as mankind in action was of his moral, as nature in action was of his contemplative, as the word in action was of his creative, and himself in action of his person. The five movements march and countermarch through all his affairs.
And from that point onwards in the book he refers to those five movements of thought without reminding the reader of what they are.
He also asserts that “Absurd and contradictory, false and hypocritical as it may seem, Bacon believed in doing things for love” (164). Well, how the heck does he know that? It’s the Fallacy of Intentionality (or “Crit Fic”) in its worst form. But, see, CW does here what he does in all his literary criticism: he writes about others as if he were writing about himself. He analyzes their poetry the way he wants his poetry analyzed. He writes about their minds the way he wants his mind to be appreciated.
There’s my Intentional Fallacy for the day.
He also comes up with little organizing mantras, such as “Perfection and Preservation,” and uses them over and over throughout the book. Again, he doesn’t explain them. Perfection of what? Preservation of what? But then again, he applies them to nearly anything Bacon had to deal with in his life, so it ends up being Perfection and Preservation of nearly everything.
He talks about The Prerogative, The Instauration, and other big Latinate abstractions, again, without any explanation. But an explanation gradually dawns on the mind of even a dull reader like myself, through repetition and context. The Instauration is the big change that Bacon wanted to institute in what we would call Scientific Reasoning: in logic, in research, in experimentation, leading eventually to the Scientific Method. The Prerogative is the debate over the Queen’s/King’s power (as opposed to Parliament’s) in the 16th and 17th centimes in England. Aha.
The upcoming crisis of King and Parliament, which was to break out in the 1640s, is always looming throughout this narrative. Indeed, the story becomes increasingly lively, and eventually I was completely drawn in and found it to be quite compelling. The crazy story of Queen Elizabeth’s infatuation with the Earl of Essex, their subsequent power play, and his final treason and execution, is as page-turning as a novel.
Well. Almost. OK, not exactly. I’d love to read an historical novel depicting those events, by the way. Do you know of a good one? How about any novels depicting the life of Shakespeare, while we’re at it?
Speaking of Shakespeare, CW fills his study of Bacon with many comparisons to Shakespeare. Once he writes: “If Shakespeare had, per impossible, been in Bacon’s place, he would have been Chancellor a dozen years earlier than Bacon was—if he had decided to be” (103). And yet he makes funny little nods at the authorship controversy, leaving open the tiniest crack in case Bacon wrote the plays. But of course he didn’t: “If indeed Bacon wrote the plays, he contained himself marvellously well over this in his letters” (116) and:
If Bacon had been in Shakespeare’s place there would have been many fewer jokes in the plays… But the real difference is metaphysical; it is between a man possessed of a particular vision of the universe and a man possessed of no vision but of the universe. It would almost be easier to believe that Bacon wrote Milton (103).
There are some strange, occult moments in this biography. There is an odd theory of pre-natal psychological development:
James may have disliked duelling from a natural horror born in him from that pre-natal crisis when his mother by the light of the candles caught from the overthrown table saw the daggers flashing over her musician and favourite, and felt her husband’s arm holding her away from interference with the savage deed” (205).
There are theological and moralizing digressions, such as this one:
There is, it seems, a law in things that if a man is compelled to choose between two good actions, mutually exclusive, the one which he chooses to neglect will in course of time avenge itself on him. Rightly considered, this is a comfortable if chastening thought, for it implies that the nature of good is such that it can never, not even for some other mode of itself, be neglected. If ever it is, for whatever admirable reasons, set on one side it will certainly return. (255)
And there is a summary conclusion in which “his Fortune” is personified as a woman who plays hide-and-seek with him.
Yet overall, I found this to be an enlightening book. It overwhelmed me with its enormous vision and sweeping insight. I would still prefer to read a basic factual biography of Bacon that assumed no prior knowledge, but since I had to read this anyway to get through CW’s works, I’m glad I learned a lot about the Elizabethan era along the way.