Of Francis Bacon by Max Patrick

Bacon's concern to do justice to the achievements of past generations extended to the advocacy of biographies.

'I do find it strange', he wrote in the Advancement, ' . . . that the writing of lives should be no more frequent'.

He commenced various studies of the Tudors and wrote brief sketches of Julius and Augustus Caesar, but The History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh was the only work in this genre which he brought to completion. He wrote it soon after his release from the Tower in 1621, partly to ingratiate himself with King James by immortalising that monarch's grand-father, and partly because he regarded Henry VII as 'one of the most sufficient kings of all the number', as a ruler whose times deserved treatment and whose accomplishments merited recognition,

'for he was a wise man, and an excellent King'. Nevertheless, as Bacon pointed out in a prefatory letter, 'I have not flattered him, but took him to life as well as I could, sitting so far off and having no better light'.

Bacon did not delineate Henry VII as noble but as a dextrous politician who accomplished worthy goals and lacked magnanimity. The biography is couched in a continued narrative which is felicitously phrased and illuminated by vivid details such as the story of how the royal monkey tore up the royal notebook. Though there is some over-attention to incidentals, the history is based on careful research; it is at once graced and marred by imaginary speeches put into the mouths of the characters. However, the explorations of the causes behind the events make the life a significant contribution to the rise of modern historiography.

Bacon was likewise concerned with his own reputation.

'I work for posterity,' he wrote in 1625, and in his will be bequeathed his reputation 'to men's charitable speeches and to foreign nations and the next ages'.

Despite this apparent expectation that time would justify his ways to men, the controversies over his character, career, and ideas which chequered his reputation while he lived have persisted for four hundred years. Though lauded by some as the greatest Englishman who ever lived, as a universal genius distinguished in law, politics, science, philosophy, and literature, he has been damned by others as a pseudo-scientist and corrupt judge who turned traitor to his talents as well as to his friend Essex, and gave to a self-centred career what was meant for mankind. In one respect alone, his importance has been unanimously recognised: in the history of English literature he is securely established as superb stylist, a great essayist, and a pioneer biographer, as a major contributor to the utopian genre, and as the author of a majestic treatise on the advancement of learning. But here lies an irony of fame: Bacon had no confidence in English as a medium for lasting communication. Though he resorted to it for immediate purposes, he preferred to compose his important works in Latin or to have them translated into what he called 'the universal language'. Such a Latin work, he thought, would 'live and be a citizen of the world as English books are not'. Yet his firmest reputation rests upon what he regarded as ephemeral writings in the vernacular and on the translations into it of his Latin masterpieces.

Bacon's outstanding characteristic was a virtuosity which his critics have variously termed 'marvellous versatility' and 'incomparable ductility'. It is discoverable even in his hand-writing and is most remarkable in the infinite variety with which he adapts different styles of writing to different occasions, subjects, and readers. It reaches its nadir in the obsequious adeptness with which he moulded his talents to serve the wishes and the whims of kings, favourites, and men of influence. 'I am bold to think it, till you think otherwise', he wrote to Queen Elizabeth early in his career; and later, in like manner, having expressed to Buckingham his disapproval of some monopolies, he retreated into pliancy by adding, 'Howsoever, let me know your will, and I will go your way'.

Bacon could adjust himself to almost any role: he could be a Jonathan or a Judas to a friend, a sycophant or a ruthless enemy to a superior, an advocate of moderation or an extravagant exhibitionist. In such respects he differed from his seventeenth-century contemporaries more in degree than in nature. For they too were prone to assume personae and to live more richly with their masks than without them. Thus John Donne moved through the roles of poet-rake, scholar, and man of God; Ben Jonson lived as a romantic but wrote as a classicist; and Robert Burton found vitality when he cast off the don and became an imaginary Democritus Junior. Even men on trial for their lives or condemned to death acted out heroic roles with gusto. Bishop Andrews dramatized his sermons into artfully intense performances, and the Dean of St Paul's found lugubrious satisfaction when he posed in his death shroud.

The assuming of such roles was not the result of insincerity but sprang from a genuine baroque impulse which led men to give themselves totally and fervently. The study of rhetoric trained students to throw themselves into assigned personae, to support either side of a controversial subject and to lend to it all their talents. Thus it is that Milton was able to identify himself with his Satan so dynamically that some readers of Paradise Lost have mistaken the devil for the hero of the epic.

Here then is the clue to Bacon's multiple sensibility, to his inconsistencies and complexities. He tended to lose himself in the role of the moment. At its worst, this flexibility meant that he became all things to all men. At its best, it entitled him to John Aubrey's supremely felicitous tribute:

'All that were great and good loved and honoured him'
« NEXT » « Francis Bacon » « Biographies » « Library »