Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Introduction by Henry Craik
THE AUTHORS represented in this volume begin with men whose life belonged in part to the reign of Elizabeth; they end with those who had reached manhood before the close of the Commonwealth. The period was a critical one for English prose. The glory and the daring, the marvellous creative power of the Elizabethan agethese were gone, and our literature was about to pass through a severe ordeal. The rich harvest which the Elizabethans had gathered was drawn from two sources. Something had been inherited from the native stock, which could trace its origin back to ages long before that of Chaucer. There had been no slight intermixture therein of the formal and unnaturalof the pedagogic, and even of the pedantic. But it had its excellences as well. It saved itself by its simplicity and directness; by its marvellous power of using for literary purposes the language of everyday life; above all, by its faculty of assimilating the romantic spirit, which set it free from the artificialities of the homily, and gave to it the quickening force of artistic effort. The native stock, then, was barren neither in promise nor in performance when there came to it the breath of a new life, partly stimulating, partly controlling, from the Classical and Romance literatures. It was the glory of the Elizabethans to absorb these without losing what was best and most characteristic in the native stock. It was through this added wealth that they achieved their greatness. But their achievements did not belong, in any large part, to the domain of prose. What they did in that domain was, at the best, to show what were the possibilities of English prose. We have books, indeed, both before the age of Elizabeth, and others produced in that age, which show a charm of diction that later ages may strive in vain to reproduce. But such books belong to no school; they conform to no set mode; they haunt us with a reminiscence of the poetical romance, and contain no germ that can develop into a full tree, much less spread into a forest. It would be possible to speculate how the defects might have been supplied, how the secret might have been solved, and a standard for prose fixed as securely as for poetry. All that was hardest of attainment it would seem that the Elizabethans had attained. What they wanted we might judge was but a trick of art. But whether they cared not for the achievement, or the achievement was impossible, they reached to no such perfection, and left no such memory of their sway, in prose as in poetry. The Elizabethan prose did, indeed, in some high examples, show that it had not forgotten the simplicity, the directness, the wealth of romance, and that it was ready also to claim its inheritance in a larger language, enriched by the classics; but for the most part these two streams run apart and do not mingle, and even in such a detail as the choice of words, the Elizabethans often indicate their debt to each rather by a copious variation of their vocabulary, by a deliberate repetition of the same word in its native and in its classical dress, than by any power of moulding a new and richer language, and a more lissome style, out of the double storehouses at their disposal. The poets and the dramatists of the age of Elizabeth completed their work quickly, and attained, by leaps and bounds, to the consummate perfection of their diction. But prose style grows more slowly; and its growth is hindered rather than quickened by the very variety of its subject. Poetry is more apt to reflect the forms of monarchy; it has its set usages, its prescribed modes, its court terms; and even he who can do but little towards extending its sway, generally recognises and obeys its current fashions. But prose, on the other hand, governs only as a republic. Each individual writer would fain interpret its dictates after his own fashion. According to what he has to say, according to the story he has to tell, the argument he has to support, the theory he has to develop, his prose style must vary. More than half of those who write scarcely think of the form in which they cast their story or their thoughts. It is only when they have passed their apprenticeship in the art that they become conscious of the rules, and recognise with submission how few those are, and how consummate should be their endowments, who dare attempt to deviate from these rules, and impose upon the republic a style of their own.
It is quite possible to conceive that a new and stronger effort of the glory and the rapture of the Elizabethans might have done much to enrich us with a prose style as consummate and as commanding as that of their poetry. Whether it could have endured is another matter. Prose has to serve purposes so various, and often so vile, that it is hard to conceive it possible for it to abide by any type of perfect and unadulterated form. However that might have been, no such conquest was achieved by the age of Elizabeth. Its glories faded, its rapture grew cold, its creative power waned, before it accomplished for prose what it did for poetry; and it was left for future generations slowly to travel, step by step, to a prose style; first, to become artificial and involved; then, by means of individual whims and caprices, to learn variety; thereafter to conform to rule, and to acquire stateliness and formality; then to dwindle off, in the decrepitude of age, to modishness, tawdriness, slipshod familiarity, or, worse than all, the narrow groove of technicalityleaving it to the unaided power of each writer to rescue himself from the prevailing vice of the style of his day. To understand how different is our debt to the Elizabethans in poetry and in prose, let us remember how close is the bond that binds Tennyson to Spenser, and how hopeless it would be for any one to repeat the style of Bacon without suggesting the impression of a masquerade.
But if the age of Elizabeth did not leave to us in prose, as in poetry, the rich inheritance of its imperial sway, it yet gave us an indication of what it might have achieved in prose. This volume opens with Bacon; and in scarcely any author can we trace such possibilities of style as in his pages. It is true that much of Bacons work loses its place as the highest literature by reason of its technicality. We have to study his style at its best, not in his most recondite, but in his most popular books. Setting aside that one amongst the Elizabethans who brooks no comparison, either in his own or any age, there is none in whom the rich endowment of his generation centres more notably than in Bacon. More than any one he showed in perfection that union of literature with practical wisdom which we can trace in so many from the days of Sir Thomas More to his own. None showed such variety of expression, and none with more consummate skill could bend to his purpose the resources of his own tongue blended with the added stores of classicism. He could bring to his prose just the right tincture of classical dignity, without losing that pungency of savour which came from the tradition of direct and familiar speech which was of native growth. Never losing its characteristic individuality, he can yet vary his style with his theme; and the expression fits his thought with such perfection that (as is remarked in the introduction to the extracts which follow) it seems as if his aphorisms, and the thoughts that flower about them, often grew out of the aptness of a phrase that has suggested itself to his fancy.
But the promise of Bacon did not endure. The conditions of the time were adverse, even had the genius of the Elizabethans not waned, after the efforts they had made and the achievements they had won. To an age of creation there succeeded one of analysis. One of the first to point out the decadence in prose which followed the age of Elizabeth was Dean Swift; and this decadence he finds to consist chiefly in the loss of simplicitythe best and truest ornament of most things in human life. It is to that loss of simplicity that Swift traces back even the vices of English prose in his own day, which he would fain correct by the dictates of an Academya device least of all suited for a style so defiant of all rule and fashion as that of Swift himself.
Swifts proposal was due to his conviction that the loss of simplicity was owing to the absence of any controlling force, and such a force, it is conceivable, might have come through the instinctive obedience which is paid to genius. The genius of the Elizabethans did not exact that obedience in prose as it did in poetry. And the altered conditions soon made it impossible. New inquiries aroused curiosity, new interests claimed attention, new controversies occupied the field; it soon became impossible that prose style should conform to one simple fashion, or mould itself after one type, however perfect. Before English prose came to acquire regularity, and established for itself some sort of standard, more than three generationseach of them eventful, stirring, and contentiouswere to pass; the old simplicity and directness, the old echo of a homely colloquialism, were almost overwhelmed beneath an unavoidable artificiality; and the new style was evolved out of a century of struggle and disorder.
One conspicuous fashion in the prose of the Elizabethans transmitted itself to the Jacobean agethat of Euphuism. We may easily exaggerate the evils of the fashion, and caricature its absurdities. But it was not the product solely of affectation. It was its misfortune rather than its fault that it never commanded the allegiance of any consummate artist, who might have used what was good in it, and discarded what was bad. In the instinct that prose style must, in order to attain literary perfection, set before itself a certain standard of grace, and not be too timid of formality, Euphuism was right; and we are the richer for the efforts of the Euphuists. The fashion lingered on to the next generation; but it lingered with more depth and earnestness of feeling. Take, for instance, the Euphuism, if we may so call it, of Donne. His quaintnesses and oddities are not due to extravagance, but rather to the very earnestness which seeks to enforce itself by strained expressions. It is to this quality that we owe what the seventeenth century called wit. Its object was not to excite laughter, but to compel attention, and stimulate curiosity, by a subtle intricacy which aroused and startled the reader, and which reveals the writers inmost personality. To a later age it may seem quaint and curious, even affected; but to understand it so in a seventeenth-century writer is to misread the literature of the day.
But side by side with this many influences were at work. As the century advanced men took sides in the pitched battles of religion and politics; and the literary instinct was often overpowered by the controversial. The works of the time inevitably fell into groups according to their adherence to one side or the other, and each of these groups had its own fashions and modes. Men wrote too hotly and too eagerly to study style. We must add to this, that even on the literary side they were torn in different directions. There was an antagonism in their minds between the reverence for authority, the imitation of classical works, and the stubbornness of independence. The antagonism is often seen working in the same menconspicuously in the case of such a man as Ben Jonson. The very multiplicity of their subjects bewilders them, and gives them something of fantastic variety by their discursiveness, as in the case of Burton. The force and directness of the drama had given place to minute analysis of character, as in Overbury, Earle, and Samuel Butler. Sometimes the classicism overpowers originality, as in the slavish copying of classical models by Hayward and May. Sometimes style seems to be everything, and a writer never loses sight of the formal dignity of address befitting his calling, as in Sir Thomas Browne or Sir Kenelm Digby, or Drummond. Sometimes, again, style seems to be altogether neglected, and the writer is absorbed only in his subject, as with Selden, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and Ussher. Sometimes the most fantastic, either in style or subject, seems to be the only object of pursuitas with the extravagances of Urquhart, the odd eccentricities of Fuller, or the whimsical theories of Harrington. No literature ever passed through the throes of a severer struggle; none was ever more near to losing all balance in the wilderness of variety, the only saving quality of which was its thorough earnestness.
But with all this, there was a steady development. English prose had perhaps lost its best chance of rising to the highest level when the Elizabethan age passed without leaving a standard warranted by its authority. The floods of controversy, of misdirected effort, of exaggerated individualism, passed over it. But in time it attained to a more serene atmosphere. In Jeremy Taylor, and we might add, in a lesser degree, in Leighton, we see the evolution of order from disorder. Taylor inherited something from the Euphuists: he caught his note of earnestness from such a man as Donne; but in his prose we have a sense of greater security and restfulness than in any that had gone before. The fretfulness of controversy, the restlessness of individualism, the perpetual pursuit of intricacy, and the ceaseless desire to startle the reader, all the seare calming down. The note of his books is earnestness; but it is earnestness which flows calmly. Contrast his prose with that of Milton, powerful as that is with the very heat of the fight, and sounding as it were with the echo of the war-trumpet. We cannot deny its power, we cannot resist its excitement. But yet we are compelled to hear in it rather the echoes of what had gone before than to recognise it as the harbinger of a new and more self-contained prose. To Milton prose was an unnatural medium, which he never subdued to his purposes. As a prose writer he commands admiration only where he enlists sympathy. He used the weapon provided for him by his age with consummate power: but it was a weapon which he seized as he found it, which owed its force to the arm that wielded it, and which he left with no sharpness added to its temper, no new polish to its surface, no new facility in its contrivance.
On the whole the elements of greatest hopefulness for English proseits earnestness, its dignity, its conscious gracewere perhaps best summed up, in that age, in Jeremy Taylor: and to him more than to any other may be ascribed the handing on of the torch from the preceding to the next generation, and the preserving of its flame clear and undimmed amidst the heated struggles and cloudy controversies of the time. But others played no small part in the development of English prose. The glory of Taylor is shared by Clarendon, whose work, with all the occasional involution and irregularity of his style, stands unrivalled for its vivid picture of the Epic struggle in which he had played so conspicuous a part: for its careful adjustment of the parts, and above all for the surpassing skill of its character drawing. The chief impression of his prose is its studied restraint, and the instinct which makes him feel the exact point at which description should cease, and which compels his readers to accept each sentence, not as a mere literary ornament, but as contributing something essential to the description in hand. A history written under such conditions as that of Clarendon can never, in the nature of things, become a type which any successors could follow; but none the less, in spite of all its irregularities, his prose has left as distinct an impression on our literature as his personal action has upon our constitution.
Another strain of English prose has to be taken into account in estimating the inheritance which this age bequeathed. From Hales and Chillingworth to Cudworth and Henry More there is a distinct genealogical connexion. Prose style was in no wise the aim, nor did it engage much of the attention of the English Rationalists or Platonists. But undoubtedly their work, in its care, its balanced thought, its elaborate arrangement of argument, above all in its air of philosophic calmness, did impart something of its character to later English prose. Doubtless the range of such writings must be small, and their influence cannot tell powerfully on the form of a general literary movement. Fancy, imagination, humourthese stand outside their sphere, and yet by these literary form must be largely shaped. But the language of the schools must still play its part; and it was something that alongside of the strained but powerful phrases of a philosopher like Hobbes, and the amorphous diction of such a writer on religion as Lord Herbert of Cherbury, there should be carried on the sane, albeit somewhat tame, moderation of the school of Hales and Chillingworth, of Henry More and Cudworth.
Before the period closes we have a foretaste in LEstrange of the literary craftsman of another age and type. His task came perilously near to hackwork, but he discharged it with something of the rollicking boldness, if with all the slipshod carelessness, of a generation to which, although older in years, he essentially belongs.