Tuesday, October 08, 2019



Logan Pearsall Smith, Introduction to Donne's Sermons. Selected Passages (1919; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), pp. xiv-xv:
[S]ermons themselves, and especially old sermons, have fallen somewhat out of fashion; they are not often read now, and the collected and repubhshed editions of the great seventeenth century divines rest for the most part unopened on our shelves. People read novels, biographies, books of travel, social and political treatises instead of the sermons in which their grandfathers and grandmothers delighted: Hooker, Barrow, South, Tillotson are names indeed, but little more than names to most of us ; and even so great a writer of English prose, so exquisite an artist as Jeremy Taylor, is familiar to us only in extracts and selected passages. For modern theologians this old divinity, with its obsolete learning and forgotten controversies, has little more than an archaeological interest; while to the more secular-minded, the old divines, whose severe brows and square faces meet our eyes when we open their great folios, seem, with their imposed dogmas, their heavy and obsolete methods of exposition and controversy, almost as if they belonged to some remote geological era of human thought. We are reminded of Taine's image of them as giant mastodons or megatheria, slowly winding their scaly backs through the primeval slime, and meeting each other, armed with syllogisms and bristling with texts, in theological battle, to tear the flesh from one another's flanks with their great talons, and cover their opponents with filth in their efforts to destroy them.

And yet these old divines were great men and great writers, their voices enthralled the best and wisest of their own generation, and it is a misfortune for their fame, and a misfortune for our literature, that they put their wisdom and observation and deep feeling, their great gifts of imagination, and their often exquisite mastery of the art of expression into the hortatory and controversial form of the sermon which time has rendered obsolete.

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