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The Glory of English Prose / Letters to My Grandson By Stephen Coleridge Characters: 5380

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

My Dear Antony,

I could write you many letters like my last one about the Bible, and perhaps some day I will go back to that wonderful Book and write you some more letters about it; but now I will go on and tell you about some of the great writers of English prose that came after the translation of the Bible.

Those translators were the great founders of the English language, which is probably on the whole the most glorious organ of human expression that the world has yet known.

It blends the classic purity of Greek and the stately severity of Latin with the sanguine passions and noble emotions of our race.

A whole life devoted to its study will not make you or me perfectly familiar with all the splendid passages that have been spoken and written in it. But I shall show in my letters, at least some of the glorious utterances scattered around me here in my library, so that you may recognise, as you ought, the pomp and majesty of the speech of England.

One of the great qualities that was always present in the writings of Englishmen from the time of Elizabeth down to the beginning of the nineteenth century was its restraint.

Those men never became hysterical or lost their perfect self-control.

The deeper the emotion of the writer the more manifest became the noble mastery of himself.

When Sir Walter Ralegh, that glorious son of Devon, from which county you and I, Antony, are proud to have sprung, lay in the Tower of London awaiting his cowardly and shameful execution the next day at the hands of that miserable James I., writing to his beloved wife, with a piece of coal, because they even denied him pen and ink, face to face with death, he yet observed a calm and noble language that is truly magnifical-to use the old Bible word.

"For the rest," he wrote, "when you have travailed and wearied your thoughts on all sorts of worldly cogitations, you shall sit down by sorrow in the end. Teach your son also to serve and fear God while he is young, that the fear of God may grow up in him. Then will God be a Husband unto you and a Father unto him; a Husband and a Father which can never be taken from you.

"I cannot write much. God knows how hardly I stole this time when all sleep; and it is time to separate my thoughts from the world.

"Beg my dead body, which living was denied you; and either lay it at Sherburne, if the land continue, or in Exeter Church by my father and mother. I can write no more. Time and Death call me away.

"The Everlasting, Infinite, Powerful and Inscrutable God, that Almighty God that is goodness itself, mercy itself, the true life and light, keep you and yours, and have mercy on me and teach me to

forgive my persecutors and false accusers, and send us to meet in His Glorious Kingdom. My true wife, farewell. Bless my poor boy, pray for me. My true God hold you both in His Arms.

"Written with the dying hand of, sometime thy husband, but now alas! overthrown, yours that was, but now not my own.


Sir Walter Ralegh, long before he came to his untimely end, had written in his great History of the World a wonderful passage about death; it is justly celebrated, and is familiar to all men of letters throughout the world, so I will quote a portion of it for you:-

"The Kings and Princes of the world have always laid before them the actions, but not the ends, of those great ones which preceded them. They are always transported with the glory of the one, but they never mind the misery of the other, till they find the experience in themselves.

"They neglect the advice of God, while they enjoy life, or the hope of it; but they follow the counsel of Death upon the first approach. It is he that puts into man all the wisdom of the world, without speaking a word; which God, with all the Words of His Law, promises and threats, doth not infuse.

"Death which hateth and destroyeth man is believed; God which hath made him and loves him is always deferred. It is, therefore, Death alone that can suddenly make man to know himself. He tells the proud and insolent that they are but abjects, and humbles them at the instant; makes them cry, complain and repent; yea, even to hate their fore-passed happiness.

"He takes account of the rich, and proves him a beggar; a naked beggar which hath interest in nothing but in the gravel that fills his mouth. He holds a glass before the eyes of the most beautiful and makes them see therein their deformity and rottenness, and they acknowledge it.

"O eloquent, just and mighty Death! whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none have dared thou hast done; and whom all the world have flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised; thou hast drawn together all the far-stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words-HIC JACET."

Sir Walter Ralegh was born only a few miles down below Ottery St. Mary, in the same beautiful valley from which you and I, Antony, and the poet have come. The peal of bells in the old church tower at Otterton was given by him to the parish; and when "the lin lan lone of evening-bells" floats across between the hills that guard the river Otter, it should fall upon our ears as an echo of the melody that strikes upon our hearts in Ralegh's words.

Your loving old


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