The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XII. The English Pulpit from Fisher to Donne

§ 4. Colet and Longland

In formal arrangement, as in subject-matter, Fisher belongs to the old school of preachers. Colet already suggests the type of the future. In his fondness for critical exposition of the Scriptures, he is more modern than Fisher with his allegorical interpretations; in his unsparing exposure of abuses, he sets the tone to later preachers. Colet has not Latimer’s liveliness, but he has the same courage and directness. The man who could preach humility to Wolsey at his installation as cardinal, and the injustice of war to Henry VIII and his soldiers, just setting out for the French campaign, had, at any rate, the first essential of the preacher, conviction. His very earnestness is so conspicuous that it has led some critics to think that it alone gave power to his preaching. But there was probably more art in his method than has been commonly allowed. According to Erasmus, Colet had been long preparing himself for preaching, especially by reading the English poets: “by the study of their writings he perfected his style.” Some grace of expression might reasonably be expected from the man who could write the “lytelle proheme” to the grammar-book. The convocation sermon of 1512, which is the only complete specimen of Colet’s preaching, was delivered, according to custom, in Latin, but there appeared almost at once an English translation, which has been assigned with some confidence to Colet himself. Its theme—the reform of moral abuses in the church—does not lend itself to imaginative or poetical treatment, but Colet shows that he quite understands how to secure variety by an inversion, and to use an effective refrain. His final appeal to his hearers, that they shall not let this convocation depart in vain, like many of its predecessors, is dignified and yet touched with feeling. Few sermons of the sixteenth century are more famous or have had a more interesting history. Thomas Smith, university librarian at Cambridge, reprinted it at the Restoration with an eye to his own times, and added notes and extracts from Andrewes and Hammond. Further reprints followed in 1701 and 1708. Burnet thought of prefacing his History of the Reformation by a reprint of the sermon, “as a piece that might serve to open the scene.” No doubt, the theme, in all these cases, counted for more than any literary charm, but a merely bald and uninspired sermon could never have enjoyed so long a life.

When Colet died, Erasmus lamented “in the public interest the loss of so unique a preacher.” At the court, Colet had already before his death made way for John Longland, dean of Salisbury, afterwards bishop of Lincoln and chancellor of Oxford university. Sir Thomas More spoke of him as “a second Colet, if I may sum up his praises in a single word.” He had considerable reputation as a preacher, but it hardly outlived his day, or the day of the unreformed faith, and his printed sermons have long been very scarce. His sermons at court were delivered in English, but they were rendered into Latin before publication. The only works printed in English were two Good Friday sermons preached before the court in 1536 and 1538. There is much which recalls Fisher in their style. It is evident that Longland, too, takes pleasure in his English writing, and can make skilful use of repetition, cumulative effects, interrogations and strings of sounding words.

  • Where are your taberettes, your drunslades and dowcymets? where are your vialles, your rebeckes, your shakebushes; and your sweet softe pleasaunt pypes?
  • Nor can he resist the charm of aliteration, when he speaks of Christ’s “mooste pityous paynefull Passyon” and commends his hearers’ “submysse softe and sobre mournynge voyces.” Sometimes, he falls a victim to such a jangling trio as “multiloquie, stultiloquie, scurrilytye.” But, if Longland has much in common with Fisher, he also anticipates Hugh Latimer in his raciness, his use of colloquial terms and his spirited indictment of the fashions in dress. Who, he asks, are they who mourn and lament in this tabernacle of the body? “The jolye huffaas and ruffelers of this wolde? the yonge galandes of the courte?… noo, noo, noo.” Why, they study to make this body better in shape than God made it, “now with this fashion of apparel, now with that; now with this cutte and that garde. I cannot descrybe the thynge, nor I will doo.” The very serving-man must spend upon one pair of hose as much as his half year’s wages. “It is farre wyde and out of the nocke.” If an orthodox bishop could preach before the king on a Good Friday in this free strain, the way is already prepared for Latimer’s “merry toys” eleven years later.