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ENGLISH PROSE LITERATURE.
SITHE earliest form of our language is the Anglo-Saxon; and
from Anglo-Saxon the English of the present day has been derived by a process each step of which may easily be traced.
Change of orthography and of orthoepy, loss of inflection, the gradual elimination of many old words from the vocabulary, the gradual admission of many new ones into it, a less inverted order, and a simpler syntax, make up the whole difference between Modern English and Ancient Saxon. A complete survey of English Prose ought, therefore, to begin from Anglo-Saxon times, and to include a notice of Anglo-Saxon writers. But the design of this short Essay is less comprehensive, and it will be sufficient to commence our notice at an epoch when the language had so far assumed its present form as to be in a great degree intelligible to modern readers.
The age of Chaucer and Wiclif may therefore be taken as our point of departure. Both these writers have left us specimens of English Prose, though language and style were not then sufficiently formed to justify us in speaking of their composition as standard or classical. Some characteristics of their writing may, however, be briefly noted.
Chaucer, it may be premised, is the more refined and courtly author. His language may be taken to represent the speech of the upper classes of his time; and though it has been called “the well of English undefiled,” yet every now and then there bubbles up on
its surface a Norman-French word, and here and there a NormanFrench idiom may be discovered in its clear depths.
The prose writings of Chaucer consist of a Treatise on the Astrolabe, a work called The T'estament of Love, and two of the Canterbury Tales, viz., The Story of Melibeus and The Parson's Tale, which latter is a very long homily on Penance.
Wiclif is the author of several controversial and doctrinal tracts, but his translation of the Bible is the work which must be referred to as exhibiting the best specimen of his style. His language differs from that of Chaucer in being ruder and more homely. It seems fairly to represent the ordinary speech of the Saxon element of the population at the close of the fourteenth century, and is therefore more simply and purely English than Chaucer's.
The idiom of both these writers is too remote from modern usage to make it necessary to say anything of their style in its relation to the art of composition. It may be useful, however, to point out some of the philological or grammatical peculiarities by which it is characterized.
Among these are various inflections of the verb that have now entirely dropped off. Thus we have the suffix eth in the imperative mood, the suffix en for the infinitive. The genitive case of the noun is indicated by the termination is or es ; and e is sometimes added to mark the plural of the adjective. Hir and hem are used for their and them; ne represents nor'; y is commonly prefixed to the past participle; for each and such we find everich and swiche; and in sentences where we should now employ that as a relative, the ordinary relative which, followed by that as a conjunction, makes its appearance. We may add, that the order of the words is more inverted than in modern English ; and there are traces of the tendency, characteristic of the older forms of the Indo-European languages, to put the thing governed before that which governs it.
The next epoch in the history of our literature which calls for notice is that which we may designate as the Period of the Reformation.
There are, indeed, one or two writers who belong to the intermediate age. Such are Caxton and Sir John Fortescue, whose Discourse on the difference between an absolute and a limited monarchy is written in a language which exhibits a great advance from the days of Chaucer, and which cannot be considered as either obsolete or unintelligible to ordinary readers. - On these writers, however, we need not dwell. They are not sufficiently typical or representative to call for notice in an Essay which aims at merely stepping from one prominent point to another in its survey of English Prose Literature.
In the reign of Henry VIII. the language had assumed, in all essential features, the characteristics which still belong to it. It is English in which modern Euglishmen might, indeed, detect words unfamiliar to them, and idiomatic terms of expression that have ceased to be in vogue; but it is English which every one can understand, and which all should study who desire to have a full command over the resources of their native tongue.
Many of the writings of this period are theological, and, among others, the Sermons of Latimer may be referred to as illustrating, in their rude and homely but vigorous and racy idiom, the popular speech of the time. There is no finish or ease in Latimer's style; no felicitous expressions or graphic turns of language. His words are roughly put together, like a piece of very ordinary masonry. But we meet with force and directness of aim, and a manly outspoken sincerity, making it impossible to mistake his meaning. The two writers, however, whom we would select to represent the English of the Reformation Period are Sir Thomas More and Roger Ascham.
The style of both these authors is good. It is, indeed, simpler, more English, and, so to speak, more modern, than that of some writers who belong to a later age. More's History of Edward V. is regarded by Hallam as the first standard prose work in the English Language. The Toxophilus and the Schoolmaster of Ascham are both entitled to a place in the rank of classical English compositions. There is really very little in the style of Ascham to indicate that he lived and wrote three hundred years ago. Scarcely any of the words used by him are obsolete. He retains very few of the old grammatical inflections. A certain apparent stiffness in the turn of the sentences, an occasional difference of idiom, are the chief points that mark the interval of time by which we are divided from him.
A short step forward in the sixteenth century brings us to what is well known as the Elizabethan Age. To this epoch we may, with some latitude, regard all the writers as belonging who lie between Hooker on the one side and Milton on the other. And here we find ourselves amongst the earliest group of our great English Prose Writers. The names of Hooker, Sidney, Bacon, Ralegh, Taylor, and Browne at once suggest themselves. The type of prose to which we are now introduced is more elaborate and complex. The language exhibits new accessions; the style swells into a fuller volume, marches with a statelier stride.
There is great strength and dignity in the prose of Hooker, where we often encounter passages that roll along with a sort of organ melody. Sidney is stiffer and more formal and artificial, reflecting something of that euphuism of which Robert Lilly was the exponent. Ralegh leans more to the Saxon element in his language, and writes in a graphic, and at the same time manly and soldier-like style. Bacon is nervous and antithetical, rich in illustration, but in form a little hard and dry.
A marked characteristic of the prose of this epoch is its tendency to Latinisms. This tendency appears not only in the number of Latin words introduced, but in the attempt to naturalize Latin idioms, and in the use of a somewhat inverted order.
The employment of words from the Latin is carried to the greatest extent by Sir Thomas Browne; but we find a good deal of it in Burton, Taylor, Milton, and other writers.
There are many sentences in Browne which must have been altogether unintelligible to an ordinary Englishman, familiar only with his mother tongue.
If we examine the general features of the prose of this era, we shall find that the grammatical peculiarities in which it differs from our present language, are neither very numerous oor very marked. Such forms as hath for has, doth for does, are, of course, universally prevalent; and, as we know, they continued in use till a much later period. There is, also, a frequent difference of idiom in connection with the prepositions. For instance, of is used where from would now have place; for is often prefixed to the infinitive with to used gerundially.
The pronomial adverbs, such as herein, whereby, thereof, are found in connections where modern style has preference for the relative or demonstrative with a preposition.
Some verbs, again, are followed by a preposition, which now take a direct object : thus, Milton has obey to, and Bacon incur into. In these cases respectively we see the indications of a dative relation in accordance with the government of obedio in Latin, and a trace of the effect which a preposition in composition frequently has in Latin syntax. A matter to be especially noted, in the language of this age, is the use of particular words in a sense now obsolete, and
more closely connected with their etymological origin. The existence of such a book as Trench’s English Past and Present, which isor should be—in the hands of every student of English, makes it unnecessary to enlarge upon, or illustrate this point. It may be observed, however (though this also is referred to by Trench), that in the writers of this age imported words appear not only in a different sense, but in a more foreign garb.
Besides these matters of detail, there is an idiosyncrasy of style belonging to the epoch easy to perceive, but difficult to analyze. Let any one read carefully a page of Bacon's Essays, and a page of any moralist of the present century, and he will feel the interval that separates the language of the two writers. The one will be as intelligible to him as the other, but while the style of the latter fits itself to his mind as naturally as modern fashions in dress fit themselves to the body, that of the former is as remote and unfamiliar as an outfit of ruff, doublet, and trunk-hose. Though we find in the writers of this period many passages that are not only eloquent, but musical in their flow, yet there is, on the whole, a want of ease and smoothness. No care was employed. in shaping the sentences rhythmically: they are often weakened by small expletives, and end with a feeble word or in a halting way. The periods are generally longer, and the clauses more involved and accumulated, than accords with modern taste. In a word, the style of the epoch is marked by force, colouring, and weight, but is wanting in refinement and finish. It affords no model on which a modern can safely form himself, but a great many studies from which important materials for composition may be derived, and effective assistance and inspiration drawn.
The next epoch in our Prose Literature is that which lies between the Restoration and the accession of George II.-an interval of above sixty years. And here we find ourselves in the company of some of the greatest masters of English Prose. Less enriched with learning, less profound and elevated in thought, less gifted with imagination, than the writers of the Elizabethan Age already referred to, the representative authors of this period are pre-eminent in vigour, clearness, ease, and grace of composition. The names of Cowley, Dryden, Sprat, South, Addison, and Bolingbroke, at once suggest themselves as justifying this statement. In their hands the language seems to have made a very grcat advance towards its modern form and features. The Essays of Cowley-who is the earliest writer of the group-are wonderfully natural and