The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 10/Remarks on Bishop Burnet's History





THIS author is in most particulars the worst qualified for an historian that ever I met with. His style is rough, full of improprieties, in expressions often Scotch, and often such as are used by the meanest people[1]. He discovers a great scarcity of words and phrases, by repeating the same several hundred times, for want of capacity to vary them. His observations are mean and trite, and very often fake. His Secret History is generally made up of coffeehouse scandals, or at best from reports at the third, fourth, or fifth hand. The account of the pretender's birth, would only become an old woman in a chimney-corner. His vanity runs intolerably through the whole book, affecting to have been of consequence at nineteen years old, and while he was a little Scotch parson of 40 pounds a year. He was a gentleman born, and in the time of his youth and vigour, drew in an old maiden daughter of a Scotch earl to marry him. His characters are miserably wrought, in many things mistaken, and all of them detracting[2], except of those who were friends to the presbyterians. That early love of liberty he boasts of, is absolutely false; for the first book that I believe he ever published, is an entire treatise in favour of passive obedience and absolute power; so that his reflections on the clergy, for asserting, and then changing those principles, come very improperly from him. He is the most partial of all writers that ever pretended so much to impartiality; and yet I, who knew him well, am convinced that he is as impartial as he could possibly find in his heart; I am sure more than I ever expected from him; particularly in his accounts of the papist and fanatick plots. This work may be more properly called A History of Scotland during the author's time, with some digressions relating to England, rather than deserve the title he gives it. For I believe two thirds of it relate only to that beggarly nation, and their insignificant brangles and factions. What he succeeds best in is in giving extracts of arguments and debates in council or parliament. Nothing recommends his book but the recency of the facts he mentions, most of them being still in memory, especially the story of the Revolution; which, however, is not so well told as might be expected from one who affects to have had so considerable a share in it. After all, he was a man of generosity and good nature, and very communicative; but, in his ten last years, was absolutely party-mad, and fancied he saw popery under every bush. He has told me many passages not mentioned in this history, and many that are, but with several circumstances suppressed or altered. He never gives a good character without one essential point, that the person was tender to dissenters, and thought many things in the church ought to be amended.

Setting up for a maxim, Laying down for a maxim, Clapt up, and some other words and phrases, he uses many hundred times.

Cut out for a Court, a pardoning planet, Clapt up, Left in the lurch, The Mob, Outed, A great beauty, Went roundly to work: All these phrases used by the vulgar, show him to have kept mean or illiterate company in his youth.

  1. His own opinion, however, was very different, as appears by the original MS. of his History, wherein the following lines are legible, though among those which were ordered not to be printed: "And if I have arrived at any faculty of writing clear and correctly, I owe that entirely to them [Tillotson and Lloyd]; for as they joined with Wilkins in that noble though despised attempt, of an Universal Character, and a Philosophical Language, they took great pains to observe all the common errours of language in general, and of ours in particular. And in drawing the tables for that work, which was Lloyd's province, he looked farther into a natural purity and simplicity of style, than any man I ever knew. Into all which he led me, and so helped me to any measure of exactness of writing, which may be thought to belong to me." The above was originally designed to have followed the words "I knew from them," vol, i, p. 191, l. 7, fol. ed. near the end of A. D. 1661.
  2. Many of which were stricken through with his own hand, but left legible in the MS.; which he ordered in his last will, "his executor to print faithfally, as he left it, without adding, suppressing, or altering it in any particular." In the second volume, judge Burnet, the bishop's son and executor, promises that "the original manuscript of both volumes shall be deposited in the Cotton Library." But this promise does not appear to have been fulfilled; at least it certainly was not in 1736, when Two Letters were printed, addressed to Thomas Burnet, esq. In p. 8 of the second letter, the writer asserted, that he had in his own possession "an authentick and complete collection of the castrated passages."