Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Introduction by Henry Craik
 
  IN the period just preceding that covered by the present volume, English prose had passed through a critical and disordered phase. In spite of some notable achievements even in prose, and occasional flashes of consummate perfection in style, the Elizabethans left us, in that sphere, no permanent inheritance, no accepted standard of diction. They had, indeed, enriched the language by free adaptations from various sources; they had kept alive the tradition of a racy colloquialism, instinct with life and vigour; and they had added the polished deftness—albeit somewhat affected—of Euphuism, with its copiousness of rich metaphor and quaint antithesis. The resources of the language were bewildering in their multiplicity, and had need of the ease and leisure of peace and quiet for their orderly development. Instead of that, as the seventeenth century advanced, men’s minds were made restless, first by intricacy in thought, with its corresponding involution of style, and then by the hot controversies of politics and religion, which made prose laboured, earnest, and even eloquent, but shut it out from the calmness necessary for artistic grace or literary finish. Its earlier qualities were not indeed lost, although they were under a cloud that hindered their free development. There were still those who, to use the words of Atterbury, would prize “that dance of words which good ears are so much pleased with.” The rich draperies of Euphuism were not altogether abandoned; and the very earnestness that moved the generation which lived through the struggle between loyalty and puritanism, served to keep alive the tradition of directness, of vivid colloquialism, which never disappeared from English prose. But we have only to glance through the authors represented in the preceding volume in order to see how hard was the struggle through which our prose style had to pass, and how disordered and even lurid were some of its phases. The manner of writing was subordinated to the immediate needs of the strife: men had to argue, to contend, to preach, or to narrate, and they had no time for literary art. They lost themselves in the development of obscure systems: they were over-burdened with a learning that had no sense of proportion. They often attained, it is true, to impressive force and dignity of eloquence, but it is by the very tragic energy of their earnestness. We find no unity of aim, no natural resemblance in their methods. The solemn eloquence of Clarendon, the fascination of Browne’s religious melancholy—these are inheritances, rich, indeed, but, like so much in the literary work of the age, they are monuments, not examples or types. Side by side with them, we find a bewildering contrast of miscellaneous effort, by turns fantastic, reckless, solemn and portentous; always instinct with force of a kind; often depressed by pedantry; but having in it no principle of development, upon which literary art could make a sure and steady advance.  1
  Before the close of that period, some calm had succeeded to the storm. In Hales and Chillingworth, philosophy had reached a more restful haven; in Jeremy Taylor, Herbert, and Leighton, devotional writings had escaped from the hurtle of controversy, and breathed in a more peaceful atmosphere. As it recovered rest, English prose became more dignified and stately, and on these lines of dignity and stateliness, its forward movement was to take its course. “I found myself in a storm,” writes Locke, just after the Restoration, “which had lasted almost hitherto, and therefore cannot but entertain the approaches of a calm with the greatest joy and satisfaction.” He puts into words what might have been uttered by the spirit of our literature, which breathed more freely after an intense, but, for her, a gloomy struggle.  2
  The new period is typified by the names which meet us at the beginning of this volume. It is not for his style, orderly, methodical, and dignified as it is, that Bishop Pearson is chiefly remarkable; but when we come to Evelyn, we have in him one who fitly represents the new spirit in English prose. His style may be cumbrous, artificial, even tedious; but it is impossible to deny its stateliness, its dignity, its consummate calm. It lacked much which the succeeding generation was to bring, and which was fully attained by those who follow him in this volume. The long roll of his sentences was monotonous, and the reader instinctively calls for the relief of variety. But the essential elements of regularity, formal order, and restraint, were distinctly present. He retains much of the pedantic learning and far-fetched allusion which were so rife in the preceding age; but he retains also—and for this we have to thank him—the richness of ornament and metaphor that prevent an impression of dulness and barrenness. Luxuriance of fancy had yet to be pruned; the spirit of the succeeding generation was to bring greater lucidity and exactness of thought and method, and as a result the cumbrous period was to be shortened, and the movement of our prose made more quick and natural. But even what is best in the full ripeness of the later harvest owes something to the luxuriance of such prose as that of Evelyn.  3
  As we pass in review the various specimens which this volume presents to us, the differences and contrasts are apt to perplex, and to leave upon us the impression of a confused and miscellaneous aggregate, with no definite aim, and no principle of development. To some extent the impression is a true one. The struggle of the previous generation was not entirely over, and it was a hard task to attain to any orderly style out of the mass of various material from which the selection had to be made. But as we proceed to classify and arrange our authors, we find that the advance was gradual but sure, and that the new generation was evolving order out of chaos. First we have a regular sequence of writers, who attended very little to niceties of style, but confined themselves to methodical treatment of their subject; who aimed at clearness and definition, and avoided those more intricate disquisitions that had perplexed their predecessors. The series fitly opens with Bishop Pearson; it proceeds through Barrow and South, Stillingfleet and Sprat on the one hand, and through Boyle, Locke, Newton, and Shaftesbury on the other, representing different phases of the same literary method. All of these, in their varying degrees, are in strong contrast with the preceding generation; all of them are forerunners of the exact and restrained method, and the more ordered and regular style which was to be distinctive of the eighteenth century. On a lower level, but with the same avoidance of waywardness, extravagance, and intricacy, we have the plain and straightforward style of Bishop Burnet and Sidney, the commonsense philosophy and somewhat commonplace rationalising of Clarke, Cudworth, and Hoadly; and the religious outpourings—simple even to uncouthness—of such men as Ellwood, Fox, and Penn. To none of these classes are we to look for the real development of prose style. Only a few of those named gave much thought to its niceties or graces; but they contributed something if it were only by the logical method of their exposition, and by the plain directness of their narrative. There were others, however, whose literary work is far more important in this connexion. Evelyn’s style is often cumbrous, artificial, and pedantic. But it preserved the rich vein of ornament and fancy that descended from the older Euphuism; and it added to abundance of metaphor, an orderly regularity, and an absence of involution, which Euphuism had not mastered. Evelyn wrote with a courtly grace that gave a tradition of dignity to English prose. Thomas Burnet had something of the older extravagance; but there was a rich vein in his eloquence which was not without its effect on his successors, although posterity accorded to him no such important place as he occupied in his own generation. From Evelyn to Temple was only a small step; but yet the luxuriance was pruned in Temple’s periods, and the courtliness has more of ease and less of artificiality. As is shown in the preface to the specimens of Temple’s prose in this volume, he shares with Tillotson, Halifax, and Dryden the distinction of typifying the strongest tendency in the prose of that generation. It is difficult to describe this by any short definition; but its most marked characteristics were ease and familiarity, combined with dignity and regularity. The qualities which Tillotson brought to the treatment of religious subjects were essentially of the same kind. Halifax typifies the same characteristics in his Political and Moral Reflections: and the consummate genius of Dryden brought these qualities to perfection in his critical essays. The debt which Dryden owed to Tillotson, was exaggerated by his own generosity; but his acknowledgment at least shows that the two were akin in their literary taste and judgment.  4
  The work which Dryden accomplished for English prose is treated fully in the preface to the selections from his prose in this volume. In him, as is there remarked, we have “an isthmus between two seas,” touching, on the one hand, the imagination and richness of the past, and on the other, the calmer and more critical instincts of the succeeding generation. To him we owe that perfection of ease, that familiar intercourse between author and reader, that constant reference to the common judgment of educated men, which gave its best note to English prose. When we pass from him to Steele and Addison, we find that the model he had formed has been adapted to new purposes for which by its nature, it was admirably fitted. It has lost some of the wealth of imagination which was the product partly of Dryden’s contact with the past, partly of his own genius. But it has gained, in the miscellaneous essay, a theme for which, of all others, its easy and yet graceful conversational tone was best suited, and in the treatment of which it acquired, in the hands of such successors, new delicacy and precision, even if it lost something of the exuberance which had belonged to it in the hands of Dryden.  5
  It is thus through Evelyn, Temple, and Tillotson, that we may trace the growth of English prose during this period, until it culminates in the rich storehouse of Dryden’s essays, and is refined and adapted to a tone of courtly and yet familiar conversation, varied and embellished by a subtle literary flavour, in the hands of Addison and Steele. The growing precision of thought, the scientific accuracy towards which the age was tending, helped towards this, and the authors previously named, although their purely literary claims are inferior, yet deserve some credit for their share in the work. But there are others, of more outstanding genius, who defy classification, who belonged to no hereditary line, and neither received from predecessors, nor transmitted to successors, the distinctive traits of their genius; but who, nevertheless, powerfully affected the prose style of our language. The first of these is Bunyan. We cannot detach from one another the elements of his style: its raciness, its homeliness, its copiousness, and its directness and force. Just as little can we distinguish his style from the earnestness of feeling, the vividness of description, the quaint turns of thought, that make his work a masterpiece. We cannot attempt to trace his literary genealogy, and must be content to accept his genius, without appraising it, as an addition to the literary wealth of our country. The next is Defoe. In both there is the same vividness of imagination which gives to its products all the force of reality, and which makes the language fluent, direct, and homely, because no trace of artificiality intervenes between the subject and the style. No man ever wielded his pen with more consummate ease: and no man ever made his style fit so aptly to his theme, and clothe imaginative creations with such an irresistible air of reality, as Defoe. It was impossible that any language could be handled as Defoe handled it, and yet not carry on its face the impress of his genius: but it is nevertheless true that his position is unique, and that we cannot look upon him, as we look upon Dryden or upon Addison, as marking a distinct phase in the development of English prose.  6
  The same may be said of the third and greatest of these masters of language, who belong to no class or school—Jonathan Swift. To use his own words, his “English was his own.” It may well be doubted whether in absolute command over language, any English prose author has ever equalled Swift. His style defies description or classification. It lends itself less than any, to imitation or to parody. It varies according to every mood. Its lucid simplicity is so perfect that its phrases once read, seemed to be only the natural utterances of careless thought, produced without effort and without art. Its very neglect of rule, and its frequent defiance of grammatical regularity, help to give to it force and directness. But such a style refuses to transmit the secret of its power, and must needs remain unique and solitary in its kind.  7
 
 
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