Some Fruits of Solitude.  Wise Sayings on the Conduct of Human Life

By William Penn.  Edited in today's English by Eric K. Taylor

Herald Press, 2003 | ISBN 0-8361-9205-2

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

A good aphorism is a sweet form of thought: a poem meant for the intellect. You will certainly find this to be true in the literary product of William Penn's years of forced solitude. These wise sayings of a godly man—Penn's intellectual poetry—will stay with you long after you put the small book down.

Late in 1690, after the Crown accused him of treason, Penn went into seclusion in order to appeal the accusation and clear his name. In that three-year period, he wrote his Fruits of Solitude, and the second part, its companion, More Fruits of Solitude, he published in 1702, after a later period of separation from his family. His modern editor, Eric K. Taylor, explains this, of course, within the context of a short introductory biography of Penn and with suggested readings for further explorations of the life of this towering Quaker figure. Both Fruits of Solitude and More Fruits of Solitude are here included under one cover.

Taylor's edition preserves Penn's wisdom while at the same time making it accessible to the modern reader through a careful rewrite of the original published sayings. We recognize the scholarly need to preserve an author's work as it was written, or published, but it does not serve the wider community's need for knowledge if the works themselves, because of the language in which they were written, are unreadable. The fact that Penn wrote in English does not by itself mean that we can understand or enjoy his English of 300 years ago. Some words are obsolete; some literary objects no longer exist; some sentences no longer seem well formed. Still, we might make the attempt, stumble over the many archaisms, and thereby keep pure the piece—but how much fun is that, really?

There is a genuine need for translations, including translations that render the English language of an earlier era to the common language, the vernacular, the idioms, of a later age. Such are those small resurrections found in modern English translations of the standard King James Version of 1611.

By bringing back to life for the modern English reader a work whose literary beauty now seems, in the original, to be dead, Taylor does us all a service with this edition of Penn's Fruits. For the reader who might stumble over Penn's many allusions and scriptural references, Taylor is there with helpful endnotes. As a result of this modern translation, Penn's sayings take on a renewed vibrancy, and so what appeared to be alchemy is now subtlety.

Where Penn says to his seventeenth-century reader:

144. Where thou art Obliged to speak, be sure speak the Truth: For Equivocation is half way to Lying, as Lying, the whole way to Hell.

He now speaks to us thus:

144. When you speak, be sure to speak the truth, for misleading is halfway to lying, and lying is the whole way to hell.

Or from this:

36. Nor can we fall below the Arms of God, how low soever it be we fall.

To this:

36. Nor can we fall too low for the arms of God to uphold us, regardless of how low we seem to fall.

There are tough places that Taylor has had to tread, and his critics may well bicker about his choice of landings. For example, in the original Penn says:

70. Let nothing be lost, said our Saviour. But that is lost that is misused.

Taylor renders that elegantly as:

70. "Let nothing be wasted," our Savior said. But something is wasted if it is misused.

Now Penn is referring, of course, to John 6:12, and in KJV, NKJ, RSV, NRS, and NAS Bibles the word used is lost. In NIV, the Bible in Basic English, and other more recent translations, the word used is wasted. I think that no translator should be expected to solve every problem, or to take on issues that over-extend the literary purpose of his translation, so Taylor is certainly entitled to his landing zone.

Taylor's renewal of Penn's Fruits both surprises and satisfies. It makes a fine gift, makes worthwhile reading when you need something short but weighty, when you are looking for a thought that for you had been hitherto ineffable—when you are hungry for some wisdom. This translation also helps to put William Penn back into the corpus of must-read literature within the Quaker tradition.

Thomas Merton said that he lost interest in the Quakers after he "read the works of William Penn and found them to be about as supernatural as a Montgomery Ward catalog" (The Seven Storey Mountain). Had Merton been looking for the Spirit of Christ, instead of shopping for the supernatural, perhaps he would have lingered longer to savor the fruits of this Friend's solitude.

Copyright © 2003 by Merle Harton, Jr.

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