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T. E. Lawrence, Hakluyt - First Naval Propagandist

The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, &c. By Richard Hakluyt. With introduction by John Masefield. Illustrated. In 8 Volumes (April-October, 1927.) (J.M. Dent and Sons. £3 the set.) [Vol. 1. only reviewed.]

The Spectator, 10 September 1927

Parts of Hakluyt are no end good. We have all heard of his writings as the sea-epic of England, which does for our ocean story what Malory did for the dim beginning of the homeland: and like Malory, Hakluyt was a clergyman, with an unclerical bee in his bonnet. Only there the parallel ends, Hakluyt preaches. He thought that England's heritage was the high sea and feared (in the days of Elizabeth!) that we were neglecting it. So he compiled a blue-bookish thesis, to prove that we had been, were, and would ever be great in so far as we were active on the seas and beyond them. His book was propaganda, himself more sustained and more industrious than most writers-with-a-moral; and he has been justified in the ten generations which have succeeded him.

More than most writers. Yet I'm not sure that Hakluyt is a writer, really. Take this first volume. It starts with Geoffrey of Monmouth, and goes through Bede, to the Cinque Ports, via the Steelyard to the Hansa towns, and back to the Libel of English Policy. The first 250 pages are dry and dusty quotations (except the history of King Edgar, where Dr. Dee makes us chuckle) in the manner of some schools of Modern History. His own age, by the voice of Michael Drayton, called him 'industrious.' Mr. Masefield quotes this in his interesting introduction, but goes further, to call him an 'almost perfect' editor. I doubt whether many people will agree. Hakluyt's English is not fine, but plain and sensible. His adjectives are judicious, his sentences cumbrous and involved, like so much sixteenth-century prose, in its elaborate adolescence. His language is sober: whereas Adlington (for example) had a trick of words which clash on his reader's minds, and jet out sparks of delight. Hakluyt does not surprise us. It would be difficult to write well with your eye on a Secretary of State. He tries to keep his eyes on two or three Secretaries of State at once, to judge by his epistles dedicatory.

Perhaps he was too conscientious. He was marshalling facts in his brief, and scorned to rush his hearers away on a current of emotion. Also he thought completeness the duty of an editor. Did not Raleigh begin his history with the Creation? We would have preferred from him 'Memoirs of the Court of Elizabeth.' Hakluyt was collecting the materials of the maritime history of England, and aimed to be exhaustive, every-sided and authoritative. The Times Law Reports do much the same in their province. If his questions were still being ventilated, in suspense, we might approve such seriousness. But the very completeness of his victory has made him superfluous with the superfluousness which would have been Nelson's had he survived Trafalgar. Especially to-day when our national mind is wandering in the shades of a spiritual Jutland, trying to turn over a new leaf. Are we to thank God for the R.A.F., in the new phase?

Pending our assault upon the next element, we can give Hakluyt thanks for having started our ancestors so well with the history of the last one. He made researches into all the past that was available to him, and collected the yet abundant but fading stories of his contemporaries. The contemporaries were the better activity, for him. Since the age of Elizabeth the archives and muniment rooms of England have been ransacked, and we no longer want his help to study Florence of Worcester and the rest. But without Hakluyt any quantity of Elizabethan sailors' tales would have been lost. We owe him Purchas, too. He inlaid everything he came across, good or bad, in his collections. Where his sources wrote well, we have it well. Where they wrote badly, we have it unadorned. That is one conception of the duty of an editor; and Hakluyt, being scientific, accordingly robbed us of what might have been a masterpiece. Malory passed all his stuff through the mill of his personality, and gave us a miracle of goodness. He reaps the reward of being yet read, though a fairy-tale; and of having brought forth masterpieces. This Arthurian cycle has a way of transfiguring its servants, even when they are old men, and called Tennyson. From Spenser to the 'Waste Land' our thought-maggoty poets have forgotten their riddled minds in the splendid legend.

Poor Hakluyt's truth has had a more homespun fate: and I do not think that even this brave effort of Messrs. Dent (the volumes are handy and well-printed) will bring him into fashion. He is more a quarry than a book, though a most excellent quarry. For me the peak of this first volume of the new edition is Richard Johnson's four pages (352-356) of life among the Samoyedes. He was a servant of Richard Chancelour, who writes many dull pages about his voyages to Russia. Among them this story of Johnson glows like a jewel. If only the servant had written more and the master less! There is colour, too, in the title grant of the Merchant Adventurers, and Master Steven Burrough, in a single priceless paragraph, brings Sebastian Cabot to life among his lusty ship's company. Henry Lane pleads his case in the Russian manner before the Czar, and gives us the thrill of strange proceedings, as strange as Anthony Jenkinson's Malestrand, the great whirlpool, into which whales were sucked, with a strange pitiful cry.

Anthony Jenkinson was a friend of Mr. Hakluyt, and his journeys in Russia bulk largely in this first volume. Unfortunately  Hakluyt let him off the writing of a proper account of his adventures, and printed, instead, the severely business-like reports rendered by him to his firm in London. These are the notes for a book rather than a book, and they are tantalizing, because they lift the veil of life for a moment, only to drop it. Jenkinson saw a review of the Russian army (123), made notes of mujik life (434-436), visited semi-nomad Tartars in their hordes (441, 450), was nearly shipwrecked in the Caspian, rode across Persia, compounded with brigands on the banks of the Oxus, and spent Christmas in Boklara, after manifold adventures. He could write, too, and had a bright eye and the spirit of his time. He tells us how he set up the red cross of St. George over the waves of Caspian 'for honour of the Christians,' supposing it had not been seen there before. Hakluyt should have provoked his friend to write him a special tale, which would have been worth all the careful scholarship which goes before and after. It would have been alive, with the liveliness of some of the tales which follow in the succeeding volumes. But they must wait for another time, lest I grow as long as Hakluyt, in reviewing him.


Source: MIP
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 6 January 2006

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