A MANUAL OF ENGLISH PROSE LITERATURE.* THIS book has one
excellent characteristic : the author set to work with clear ideas of what he wanted to do, and how he meant to do it. He has given ass sort of hand-book of English prose-writers, com- bined with instruction in the science of composition. An extract from the preface will explain Mr. Minto's modus operandi :— "The main design of this book is to assist in directing students of English composition to the merits and defects of our principal writers of prose. It is not, however, merely a collection of received critical opin- ions. It may be of some value to the inquirer after general informa- tion, as woll as to readers more advanced than those kept specially in
"The characteristics of the work are briefly these. It deals with prose alone, assigning books of fiction to the department of poetry; it .endeavours to criticise upon a methodical plan, fully explained in an
* A Manual of English Prose Literalure, Biographical and Critical, designed mainly do Show Characteriaks of Style. By William Mint% M.A. Edinburgh and London : Blackwood and Sons.
introduction; it selects certain anthers for full criticism and exemplifi- cation; and it gives unusual prominence to three select authors of recent date."
Accordingly, we have, first, an introduction, in which the science of composition is expounded ; second, a lengthy and elaborate examination of the three recent authors honoured with "unusual prominence," viz., De Quincey, Macaulay, and Carlyle, and bio- graphies; the remaining writers, some two hundred and sixty in number, are arranged handbook fashion, grouped in chronological periods, and receive notices varying from twenty-four pages to a single line.
Mr. Mints is a disciple, but not a servile follower, of Herbert Spencer (Essay on the Philosophy of Style) and Bain (English Composition and Rhetoric). In Mr. Spencer's essay style is treated from the desideratum-points of economy of the mental energies and moral sensibilities. Mr. Minto's scope is the wider one of Bain; he discusses not only elements of style (including vocabu- lary, the sentence, paragraph, and figures of speech), and quali- ties of style (as intellectual and emotional qualities and ele- gancies), but also various kinds of composition (as descrip- tion, narration, exposition, and persuasion.) Although we do not endorse his dictum concerning our great writers —that "a well-trained schoolboy, without detriment to the characteristic flavour of their composition, would make mechanical improvements upon the best of them in every page "—there is no
disputing that a serious study of some good scientific investigation of composition is vastly improving to anyone intending -compo- sition of his own. No doubt men of large abilities will find out
for themselves many of the principles of which such works would have told them, just as a boy with that faculty of unconscious observation which is an indispensable characteristic of the good draughtsman, will discover for himself many of the artifices and principles expounded by drawing-masters ; but that is no reason for dispensing with the instruction, when it can be had. But as undeniably, scientific disquisitions on style and composition are among the stiffest of stiff reading. From their very nature, they are as dry as real-property law or mathematics ; while the colla- teral potentialities of the subject investigated render this dryness only the more exasperating. The student of law or mathematics can resign himself to bard fate in "contingent remainders" or Ivory's theorem," and there are no side-windows open to tempt him to more entertaining aspects of those crabbed subjects. But it is otherwise when you have to bind down your attention to an elabo- rate dissection of some pleasant author's style. You are tempted to imitate idle boys who read desultorily the selected bits of Eng- lish poetry in their " Exercitationes Iambiem," and to go on skipping from one to another of the passages chosen for illustration.
M. Jourdain, in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme, could not repress his astonishment at learning that he had been talking prose for more than forty years without knowing it. One can imagine readers new to this philosophy of style sympathising with Jour- damn, after perusing scientific definitions of the "periodic struc- ture," the "balanced sentence," and such like. We have heard a schoolboy describe himself as coming out of a football " scrim- mage " "covered with glory and perspiration," who would cer- tainly have stared if Mr. Bain or Mr. Mints had been by to tell him that he had uttered a "condensed sentence." Perhaps even Dickens hardly realised what he was doing, when he wrote of Miss Bolo as going home "in a flood of tears and a Bath-chair." "Condensed sentence," as the style-philosophers use it, is an arbitrary, inexpressive, and infelicitous phrase.
Mr. Minto's biographies of De Quincey, Macaulay, and Carlyle are interesting, and his minute investigation of their styles is acute, as well as elaborate. It is almost impossible to sample such criti- cism fairly. The following is a passage, selected rather because it separates readily from its context, than as representative in any special degree. After describing Macaulay's constitutional and intellectual vigour, retentive memory, and strong analogical faculty, Mr. Mints proceeds :—
"These brilliant powers were not without their natural weakness. He was so hurried a thinker, he was so enamoured of mere movement, that he could not rest to analyse minutely or to make certain that his instances and- comparisons were exactly to the point. True, he had strong sense, and with his wide command of facts was not likely to go far astray on practical questions. But compare him with a calm, medi- tative, original writer like De Quincey, and you become vividly aware of his peculiar deficiency, as well as his peculiar strength; you find a more rapid succession of ideas and greater wealth of illustration ; but you miss the subtle casuistry, the exact and finished similitudes, and the breaking-up of routine views. No original opinion requiring patient eonsideration or delicate analysis is associated with the name of Macaulay. It better suited his stirring and excitable nature to apply his dazzling powers of expression and illustration to the opinions of others. He was quick to expose false generalisations by producing contradictory instances, and he often generalised for himself with the utmost boldness, but none of his original generalisations possess any importance. The life of a misunderstood man like Goldsmith is a good test of a writer's power of breaking through false traditions. Macaulay's Life of Goldsmith repeats many vulgar errors, and contains nothing new except the opinion that Goldsmith was not an ill-used man, but might have lived comfortably had he been provident,—an opinion resulting from strong unsentimental sense, coupled with a special eye for plain matters of fact."
A little farther on, Mr. Minto makes against Macaulay the same charge which Macaulay made against "Satan Montgomery," of having stolen from Scott and spoiled in the stealing. Scott de- ' scribed the Peverils of the Peak as choosing their castle-site "on the principles on which an eagle selects her eyry ; Macaulay in the
Lays has a "lonely hamlet " that, "like an eagle's nest, hangs on the crest of purple Appennine ;" and thereupon Mr. Minto accuses Macaulay of the double crime of theft and "misapplication of the
stolen property," fir "there is little propriety in comparing a presumbly peaceful hamlet to the nest of an eagle; it is misplaced finery." This is really puerile. As to the comparison, the liken- ing of a village perched on a ledge of a mountain cliff to an eagle's nest is perfectly admissible as a physical similitude ; it is like the nautical phrase which styles a certain structure raised on a mast the "crow's neat ;" in neither case is the speaker bound to extend his comparison to the kind of beings inhabiting the two things which he couples together. The accusation of plagiarism is still more ridiculous ; a simile so common and obvious can no more be plagiarised than the comparison of a woman's lips to cherries, or her teeth to pearls. The habit of dissecting authors, weighing their "paragraphs," " persuasion," " unity of sentence," &c., and cutting them up into platefuls of figures of speech and qualities of style, seems to beget in Mr. Minto a bias towards this sort of hypercriticism. Thus, speaking of the maliciousness of Addison's humour, which in our opinion he very much exaggerates, Mr. Minto says, a propos of Baker's Chronicle :—
" Addison, ridiculing the simple ignorance of the Tory squires in the person of Sir Roger, makes him quote Sir Richard Baker as a great authority. Poor Sir Richard is visited quite as bitterly as his rustic admirer."
And then comes the quotation from the Spectator :— " The glorious names of Henry the Fifth and Queen Elizabeth gave the Knight great opportunities of shining, and of doing justice to Sir Richard Baker, who, as our Knight observed with some surprise, had a great many kings in him, whose monuments he had not seen in the Abbey."
Baker had begun his enumeration of English Kings with Brute and his fabulous successors. The italics are Mr. Minto's. Surely these are not very bitter words. Baker has but a bare half.page allotted him, and so far as style goes, the allotment may not be unjust. Yet we could wish that this most quaint and pleasant writer, with his Herodotus-like naiveté, had not been cabined quite so closely. Clarendon is disposed of in one scant page, with an estimate which we think very good, except that it ignores the dry humour scattered about the History. But surely Clarendon was worth a little more space. A propos of John Bunyan Mr. Minto dissents emphatically from Macaulay's opinion that no book shows as well as Pilgrim's Progress the wealth of the "old unpolluted English language." He says :—
c, The language is homely indeed, but it is not the every-day speech of hinds and tinkers ; it is the language of the Church, of the Bible, of Fox's Book of Martyrs, and whatever other literature Banyan was in the habit of perusing. As for the 'old unpolluted English language,' it needs no microscopical eye to detect in the Pilgrim's Progress a con- siderable sprinkling of vulgar provincialisms, and even of such Latin idioms as are to be found in his favourite old martyrologist, Fox."
Here, again, Mr. Minto's criticism nods a little. Macaulay's
phrase may be indefinite, yet its meaning is made suffi- ciently plain. We hardly know what Mr. Minto intends by "the language of the Church," but to our thinking, the language of the Bible is one with the "old unpolluted language" Macaulay referred to. While, as for the "vulgar provincialisms,"—which,
by the way, would be very much the language of hinds and tinkers, —does not the speech of our forefathers survive in that manner of speaking?
On the whole, however, we find Mr. Minto's criticisms, and especially his estimates, decidedly commendable ; and if niggling over sentence-dissection sometimes puts his eye out of focus and out of perspective, that is only occasionally so. He is particularly happy in some of his characterizations of the genius of his writers ; his estimates, for instance, of Hooker and Lamb are admirable ; equally excellent, too, are the short lives which he gives of writers of such rank as—we take names at random—Hooker, Lamb, Landor, Robert Hall. His shorter accounts of lesser writers, too, are good, and come fairly
• linde Slone Monuments in all Countries; their Age and Uses. By James Fergus- up to such standard of accuracy as is compatible with extreme , son, D.C.L., F.R.S., Sc. London: Murray. 1872. compression ; moreover, the book is rendered handy for reference by the adition of an index of the authors' names. Sir Philip Francis is included as "Junius," but very properly Mr. Minto does not label him so without giving a fair résumé of the "Junius" controversy ; yet, on the same principle, it was hardly right to ascribe Icon Basilike to Bishop Gauden without so much as a hint about the controversy as to its authorship. Of coarse, in dealing with so many prose-writers, the list includes many names which will be quite strange to ninety-nine readers out of a hundred; such names, for instance, as those of Walter Charleton and Thomas Ellwood will be new to most people. Ellwood, by the way (1639-1713) is spoken of as "another of the Quakers, a meek, industrious man." This hardly gives a correct notion of Ellwood, who, though meek by profession, had in him a considerable old Adam of stubborn combative- ness, and from his autobiography seems to have rather enjoyed such opportunities as he had of manifesting those qualities on principle. But we must not pick out captious instances ; Mr. Minto has, on the whole, produced, with discriminating labour, a good book.