Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by J. H. Millar
Sir Roger LEstrange (16161704)
[Roger LEstrange was born in 1616. In the great Rebellion he narrowly escaped the gallows for his loyalty to the King, and upon the Restoration was rewarded by the office of Licenser of the press. Thenceforward he took an active part in political controversy, writing innumerable pamphlets, and conducting more than one journal, notably the Observator. After the Revolution he applied himself no less heartily to more serious literature, and translated the history of Josephus, Æsops Fables, Ciceros Offices, Senecas Morals, and other works. He died in 1704.]
TO the business of the pamphleteer LEstrange brought excellent natural parts, uncommon zeal, and indefatigable industry. But his tracts were necessarily written with no thought of the morrow, and being calculated to serve a purely temporary purpose, they are, at the best, only good journalism, and so have shared the oblivion which overtakes all that is merely journalism and nothing more. LEstranges importance as a writer depends, therefore, not upon the fact that he was the first English professional journalist with any pretension to letters, but, upon the qualities which distinguish his translations, and particularly his version of Æsop, where he allowed himself a very free hand. There is, indeed, to be found in all an easy flow of essentially modern prose, free from elaboration and conceit; but in the Æsop there is something more than simplicity and directness. There are a humour, a vivacity, an irresistible spirit and gusto, which combined with an inimitable vocabulary and the happiest gift of expression, make it a singularly entertaining and delightful book.
LEstrange has been accused of corrupting the language, and certainly he was not in the habit of inquiring too closely into the parentage or the associations of any term that seemed to him either striking or appropriate. But in literature we are to judge by results, and here the result is plainly a style so idiomatic, so pungent, and so telling as completely to justify his audacity. The flat-nosed, hunch-backed, blubber-lipped, big-bellied, baker-legged Æsop; the wife of Xanthus, horribly bold, meddling and expensive, easily put off the hooks and hard to be pleased again; the kite who comes powdering down on the frogs and mice; the lark who goes out progging for food for her little ones; the snake lazing at his length in the gleam of the sun; the weasel who tried what she could do with her wits when she could live no longer upon the square;these and a thousand other vivid and surprising turns of phrase must delight all but the purist as surely as they demonstrate the possibility of a literary employment of slang which, if attempted by any but an artist, would result in nothing save imbecility, vulgarity, and nonsense.