MR. SAINTSBURY ON ENGLISH PROSE STYLE.*
THERE is nothing, perhaps, which strikes the student more forcibly than the variety and magnificence of our poetical literature. England, the most practical nation in the world, addicted to common-sense, and standing first in those arts which promote wealth and increase the comforts el mankind, is, at the same time, of all countries the most highly imaginative. Shakespeare displays, as far as a poet 04n, both sides of the national character. He is as much at home in every-day affairs, is the sagacity and sound sense prized by business men, as in the ideal world peopled by a Caliban and an Ariel, by the witches who cry " Hail !" to Macbeth, or by the ghost that unfolds his tale to Hamlet on the platform at Elsinore. Milton shows, though in smaller measure perhaps, the same union of gifts ; centuries before Chaucer had done the same; and if Spenser dwells as a poet almost wholly in an ideal world, as a man he possessed the instinct of the race, as may be seen in his View of the State of Ireland. Wordsworth, again, though blessed with an imagination which sometimes sees more deeply into the life of things even than Milton, had a homely and earthly side to his genius, which, as we know, is at times a little too obvious in his verse. Our poetry has its Crabbe and Shelley, its Coleridge and Pope ; to the catholic mind each class of poetry is welcome, while the greatest poets belong to neither class, but include both.
It has been said that in prose our literature is less distin- guished; but that is only because the vehicle employed is less perfect. If poetry be, as Shelley avers, 'the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds," prose must of necessity take the second place. If it does not rise so high, it covers more ground, and has, as Mr. Saintsbury points out with much elaboration, a harmony of its own. His essay, on "English Prose Style," touches on a number of points likely to interest every intelligent reader. In the main, we agree with him in regarding Dryden as the father of modern prose. He may be said to have removed difficulties in the con- struction of the sentence, to have smoothed excrescences, and to have avoided many of the pitfalls which caused some of his greater predecessors to stumble. No great space of time separates the prose of Milton from that of Dryden, but the contrast between them is most striking. There are passages in the Areopagitica, in the Reason of Church Government urged against Prelacy, and elsewhere, which for felicity of expression, as well as nobility of thought, have few equals in our literature. And everywhere there is the impress of a powerful mind, of a mind possessing unlimited resources, and yet much of Milton's prose is not only rancorous in invective, bat defective in construction. Half English, half Latin, and wholly barbarous, it forms a singular contrast to the perfect knowledge of poetic harmony and form displayed in Paradise Lost. Milton's great contemporary, jeremy Taylor, the most eloquent prose writer in the language, has pages which for rhythmical harmony are well-nigh unequalled. Read aloud, they fall on the ear like music ; and yet they are free from that debased construction known as poetical prose. But Taylor, like Milton, can be tortuous and careless, and his splendour of imagery frequently reminds one of an Eastern monarch who covershimself with jewels. We do not agree with Mr. Saintsbury that he is nowhere read with such literary advantage as in his sermons. On the contrary, we think that the mind of Taylor, as well as his style, is best seen in the Holy Living and Holy Dying and in the Liberty of Prophesying. But he wrote nothing that will not repay the student. His wealth of knowledge was as inexhaustible as his fancy, and his tender- ness of feeling is as conspicuous as his intellectual power. Taylor's books are living words, and not the outcome of a literary machine. Like Sir Thomas Browne, another masterly prose writer, he belongs essentially to the seventeenth century. The mantle of the great Elizabethans has fallen on his shoulders, and he is encumbered by its voluminous folds. John Bunyan,
* Eproimens of English Prose Style, front Malan to Hamming. Selected and Annotated, with an Introductory Essay, by George Saiutsbury. London : Kogan Paul and Co. 1885.
who was born fifteen years after Taylor, has a command of vernacular English unsurpassed by Defoe or by Swift, and a poetical imagination to which they had no pretension. For its purpose, no style could be more serviceable than Banyan's. It has simplicity without weakness, colloquial ease without vulgarity, and is as capable of elevation as of tenderness. It belongs to the man, and not to the age, whose prose masters worked with an instrument which, although far from faultless, was of wider compass and of more subtle construction.
It has been said, and in some respects it is true, that in the English literature of the seventeenth century there is a want of temperance and of proportion. This assertion, however, is only partially correct, and it should be remembered that it was the age that produced the purest prose in the language,—the Authorised Version of the Bible. The unsurpassable beauty of that work has been of late forcibly impressed upon the reader by the useful publication of a Revised Version. Mr. Saintsbury observes that he knows no more perfect example of English prose rhythm than the sixth and seventh verses of the last chapter of Solomon's Song in the Authorised Version. More beautiful till, if possible, are the exquisite verses 5 to 7 inclusive in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes; and the faultless language in which Habakkuk utters his noble expression of faith affords another fine example of rhythmical harmony :—
" Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in. the vines ; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat ; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls : yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation."
If Dryden's English is more modern and correct than the greatest of the seventeenth-century worthies, it is less spirit- stirring ; and neither in Dryden nor in his delightful suc- cessors, the Queen-Anne men, do we meet with the majestic utterances which take intellect and heart captive. Mr. Saints- bury links the name of Tillotson with that of Dryden in the reform of our prose, but observes that the latter is really entitled to almost the sole credit of opening it, "while Tillotson has enjoyed his reputation as a stylist, and still more as an originator of style, at a very easy rate." (By the way, has a writer who uses the barbarous word, "stylist," any right to pass judgment on style ?)—
" The age of English prose," Mr. Saintsbury writes, "which opens with Dryden and Tillotson produced, with the exception of Swift and Dryden himself, no writer equal in genital to those of the age before it ; but the talent of the writers that it did produce was infinitely better furnished with command of its weapons, and before the period itself had ceased, English prose as an instrument may be said to have been perfected. Even in Dryden, though not very often, and in his followers Temple and Halifax occasionally, there appear examples of the old slovenlinesses; but in the writers of the Queen Anne School these entirely disappear. To the present day, though their vocabulary may have in places become slightly antiquated, and their phrase, especially in conversational passages, may include forms which have gone out of fashion, there is hardly anything in the structure of their clauses, their sentences, or their paragraphs which is in any way obsolete. The blemishes, indeed, which had to some extent disfigured earlier English prose, were merely of the kind that exists because no one has taken the trouble to clear it away. Given on the one side a certain conversational way of talking English, inaccurate or rather licentious, as all conversational ways of speaking are, and on the other hand a habit of writing exact and formal Latin, what had happened was what naturally would happen. Dryden himself, who during the whole of his life was a constant critical student of language and style, may be said, if not to have accomplished the change single-handed, at any rate to have given examples of it at all its stages."
The good style is that which does its special .work the most perfectly, and this is often to be found in the literature of the eighteenth century. But few, if any, writers of that age have a great style; and it would have been out of place, for their sub- jects do not call for it. In authors like Addison, Swift, and Defoe, the harmony between style and matter is complete ; and of Johnson's best English, which is to be seen in the Lives of the Poets, the same truth holds good. Nearly all the conspicuous writers of the age, perhaps, were masters of a good style, with the exception of Bishop Butler, whose great work or works—for the sermons are well-nigh as masterly as the Analogy—are written in language which has the virtues of conciseness, and a singularly attractive genuineness of expression, but no quality of ease or grace. We scarcely agree with Mr. Saintsbury that "we shall never have a greater historian in style, as well as in matter, than Gibbon." His style is too uniformly splendid, and lacks elasticity.
Gibbon does not know how to rise and fall with his subject. He invariably walks on stilts, and one wishes to see him occasionally come down among his fellows. "The monotonous balance of every sentence," to quote the phrase of a gcod critic, wearies one at last. "I do not think," says Mr. Saintsbury, "that keeping an eye on style ever interfered with attention to matter in any com- petent writer." Probably not ; but when, as in Gibbon's case and as in Macaulay's case, style is prominently forced on the reader's notice, it is an indication that the writer's eye has been kept on it too constantly. Better, however, to have too much style than too little, and we prefer the elaboration of Gibbon to the negligence of Grote. The happy mean, perhaps, is to be found in Sonthey, in whose style, while it satisfies the most sensitive ear, there is no indication of labour. There are passages in the Life of Nelson and in the Peninsular War not to be sur- passed, we think, for what Mr. John Morley has justly called "exquisite modulation."
Poets are generally admirable writers of prose. Walter Scott, with his marvellous fertility and power of dictating his novels, was not likely to be a precise writer, but his style is good, for it is always adapted to its end ; and Mr. Saintsbury does it justice when he says that it has, on the whole, been rated much too low, and at its best is admirable English. We cannot say the same of Dickens, whose mannerisms, being readily copied, have done more, we think, to injure the language even than the tricks of style practised by Macaulay. The editor seems to think that English prose is degenerating ; and doubt- less there is the risk that in an age when so many persons write, and write too for a temporary purpose, style will be neglected. Slovenliness on the one hand, eccentricity on the other, are the faults against which we have to guard, and they will be best avoided by a careful study of the best writers. As an intro- duction to such a study, Mr. Saintsbury's volume may be found of service. His notes are concise and pertinent, and his endeavour "to provide, not a book of beauties, but a collection of characteristic examples of written style," is certainly success- ful. The outward form of the volume fits it for the drawing. room, but it merits also a place in the library.