Printer Friendly

Chapter 1. English Literature 


FOUR BOOKS FOR STUDENTS OF ENGLISH LITERATURE

[3] THE making of an anthology of English prose is what must have occurred to many of its students, by way of pleasure to themselves, or of profit to other persons. Such an anthology, the compass and variety of our prose literature being considered, might well follow exclusively some special line of interest in it; exhibiting, for instance, what is so obviously striking, its imaginative power, or its (legitimately) poetic beauty, or again, its philosophical capacity. Mr. Saintsbury's well-considered Specimens of English Prose Style, from Malory to Macaulay (Kegan Paul), a volume, as we think, which bears fresh witness to the truth of the old remark that it takes a scholar indeed to make a [4] good literary selection, has its motive sufficiently indicated in the very original "introductory essay," which might well stand, along with the best of these extracts from a hundred or more deceased masters of English, as itself a document or standard, in the matter of prose style. The essential difference between poetry and prose--"that other beauty of prose"--in the words of the motto he has chosen from Dryden, the first master of the sort of prose he prefers:--that is Mr. Saintsbury's burden. It is a consideration, undoubtedly, of great importance both for the writer and the critic; in England especially, where, although (as Mr. Saintsbury rightly points out, in correction of an imperfectly informed French critic of our literature) the radical distinction between poetry and prose has ever been recognized by its students, yet the imaginative impulse, which is perhaps the richest of our purely intellectual gifts, has been apt to invade the province of that tact and good judgment, alike as to matter and manner, in which we are not richer than other people. Great poetry and great prose, it might be found, have most of their qualities in common. But [5] their indispensable qualities are different, or even opposed; and it is just the indispensable qualities of prose and poetry respectively, which it is so necessary for those who have to do with either to bear ever in mind. Order, precision, directness, are the radical merits of prose thought; and it is more than merely legitimate that they should form the criterion of prose style, because within the scope of those qualities, according to Mr. Saintsbury, there is more than just the quiet, unpretending usefulness of the bare sermo pedestris. Acting on language, those qualities generate a specific and unique beauty--"that other beauty of prose"--fitly illustrated by these specimens, which the reader needs hardly be told, after what has been now said, are far from being a collection of "purple patches."

Whether or not he admits their practical cogency, an attentive reader will not fail to be interested in the attempt Mr. Saintsbury has made to give technical rules of metre for the production of the true prose rhythm. Any one who cares to do so might test the validity of those rules in the nearest possible way, by applying them to the varied examples in this wide [6] survey of what has been actually well done in English prose, here exhibited on the side of their strictly prosaic merit--their conformity, before all other aims, to laws of a structure primarily reasonable. Not that that reasonable prose structure, or architecture, as Mr. Saintsbury conceives it, has been always, or even generally, the ideal, even of those chosen writers here in evidence. Elizabethan prose, all too chaotic in the beauty and force which overflowed into it from Elizabethan poetry, and incorrect with an incorrectness which leaves it scarcely legitimate prose at all: then, in reaction against that, the correctness of Dryden, and his followers through the eighteenth century, determining the standard of a prose in the proper sense, not inferior to the prose of the Augustan age in Latin, or of the "great age in France": and, again in reaction against this, the wild mixture of poetry and prose, in our wild nineteenth century, under the influence of such writers as Dickens and Carlyle: such are the three periods into which the story of our prose literature divides itself. And Mr. Saintsbury has his well-timed, practical suggestions, upon a survey of them.

[7] If the invasion of the legitimate sphere of prose in England by the spirit of poetry, weaker or stronger, has been something far deeper than is indicated by that tendency to write unconscious blank verse, which has made it feasible to transcribe about one-half of Dickens's otherwise so admirable Barnaby Rudge in blank-verse lines, a tendency (outdoing our old friend M. Jourdain) commoner than Mr. Saintsbury admits, such lines being frequent in his favourite Dryden; yet, on the other hand, it might be maintained, and would be maintained by its French critics, that our English poetry has been too apt to dispense with those prose qualities, which, though not the indispensable qualities of poetry, go, nevertheless, to the making of all first-rate poetry--the qualities, namely, of orderly structure, and such qualities generally as depend upon second thoughts. A collection of specimens of English poetry, for the purpose of exhibiting the achievement of prose excellences by it (in their legitimate measure) is a desideratum we commend to Mr. Saintsbury. It is the assertion, the development, the product of those very different indispensable qualities of poetry, in the presence [8] of which the English is equal or superior to all other modern literature--the native, sublime, and beautiful, but often wild and irregular, imaginative power in English poetry from Chaucer to Shakespeare, with which Professor Minto deals, in his Characteristics of English Poets (Blackwood), lately reprinted. That his book should have found many readers we can well understand, in the light of the excellent qualities which, in high degree, have gone to the making of it: a tasteful learning, never deserted by that hold upon contemporary literature which is so animating an influence in the study of what belongs to the past. Beginning with an elaborate notice of Chaucer, full of the minute scholarship of our day, he never forgets that his subject is, after all, poetry. The followers of Chaucer, and the precursors of Shakespeare, are alike real persons to him--old Langland reminding him of Carlyle's "Gospel of Labour." The product of a large store of reading has been here secreted anew for the reader who desires to see, in bird's-eye view, the light and shade of a long and varied period of poetic literature, by way of preparation for Shakespeare, [9] (with a full essay upon whom the volume closes,) explaining Shakespeare, so far as he can be explained by literary antecedents.

That powerful poetry was twin-brother to a prose, of more varied, but certainly of wilder and more irregular power than the admirable, the typical, prose of Dryden. In Dryden, and his followers through the eighteenth century, we see the reaction against the exuberance and irregularity of that prose, no longer justified by power, but cognizable rather as bad taste. But such reaction was effective only because an age had come--the age of a negative, or agnostic philosophy--in which men's minds must needs be limited to the superficialities of things, with a kind of narrowness amounting to a positive gift. What that mental attitude was capable of, in the way of an elegant, yet plain-spoken, and life-like delineation of men's moods and manners, as also in the way of determining those moods and manners themselves to all that was lively, unaffected, and harmonious, can be seen nowhere better than in Mr. Austin Dobson's Selections from Steele (Clarendon Press) prefaced by his careful "Life." The well-known qualities of [10] Mr. Dobson's own original work are a sufficient guarantee of the taste and discrimination we may look for in a collection like this, in which the random lightnings of the first of the essayists are grouped under certain heads--"Character Sketches," "Tales and Incidents," "Manners and Fashions," and the like--so as to diminish, for the general reader, the scattered effect of short essays on a hundred various subjects, and give a connected, book-like character to the specimens.

Steele, for one, had certainly succeeded in putting himself, and his way of taking the world--for this pioneer of an everybody's literature had his subjectivities--into books. What a survival of one long-past day, for instance, in "A Ramble from Richmond to London"! What truth to the surface of common things, to their direct claim on our interest! yet with what originality of effect in that truthfulness, when he writes, for instance:

"I went to my lodgings, led by a light, whom I put into the discourse of his private economy, and made him give me an account of the charge, hazard, profit, and loss of a family that depended upon a link."

[11] It was one of his peculiarities, he tells us, to live by the eye far more than by any other sense (a peculiarity, perhaps, in an Englishman), and this is what he sees at the early daily service then common in some City churches. Among those who were come only to see or be seen, "there were indeed a few in whose looks there appeared a heavenly joy and gladness upon the entrance of a new day, as if they had gone to sleep with expectation of it."

The industrious reader, indeed, might select out of these specimens from Steele, a picture, in minute detail, of the characteristic manners of that time. Still, beside, or only a little way beneath, such a picture of passing fashion, what Steele and his fellows really deal with is the least transitory aspects of life, though still merely aspects--those points in which all human nature, great or little, finds what it has in common, and directly shows itself up. The natural strength of such literature will, of course, be in the line of its tendencies; in transparency, variety, and directness. To the unembarrassing matter, the unembarrassed style! Steele is, perhaps, the most impulsive writer of the school [12] to which he belongs; he abounds in felicities of impulse. Yet who can help feeling that his style is regular because the matter he deals with is the somewhat uncontentious, even, limited soul, of an age not imaginative, and unambitious in its speculative flight? Even in Steele himself we may observe with what sureness of instinct the men of that age turned aside at the contact of anything likely to make them, in any sense, forget themselves.

No one indicates better than Charles Lamb, to whose memory Mr. Alfred Ainger has done such good service, the great and peculiar change which was begun at the end of the last century, and dominates our own; that sudden increase of the width, the depth, the complexity of intellectual interest, which has many times torn and distorted literary style, even with those best able to comprehend its laws. In Mrs. Leicester's School, with other Writings in Prose and Verse

(Macmillan), Mr. Ainger has collected and annotated certain remains of Charles and Mary Lamb, too good to lie unknown to the present generation, in forgotten periodicals or inaccessible reprints. The story of the Odyssey, abbreviated [13] in very simple prose, for children--of all ages--will speak for itself. But the garland of graceful stories which gives name to the volume, told by a party of girls on the evening of their assembling at school, are in the highest degree characteristic of the brother and sister who were ever so successful in imparting to others their own enjoyment of books and people. The tragic circumstance which strengthened and consecrated their natural community of interest had, one might think, something to do with the far-reaching pensiveness even of their most humorous writing, touching often the deepest springs of pity and awe, as the way of the highest humour is--a way, however, very different from that of the humorists of the eighteenth century. But one cannot forget also that Lamb was early an enthusiastic admirer of Wordsworth: of Wordsworth, the first characteristic power of the nineteenth century, his essay on whom, in the Quarterly Review, Mr. Ainger here reprints. Would that he could have reprinted it as originally composed, and ungarbled by Gifford, the editor! Lamb, like Wordsworth, still kept the charm of a serenity, [14] a precision, unsurpassed by the quietest essayist of the preceding age. But it might have been foreseen that the rising tide of thought and feeling, on the strength of which they too are borne upward, would sometimes overflow barriers. And so it happens that these simple stories are touched, much as Wordsworth's verse-stories were, with tragic power. Dealing with the beginnings of imagination in the minds of children, they record, with the reality which a very delicate touch preserves from anything lugubrious, not those merely preventible miseries of childhood over which some writers have been apt to gloat, but the contact of childhood with the great and inevitable sorrows of life, into which children can enter with depth, with dignity, and sometimes with a kind of simple, pathetic greatness, to the discipline of the heart. Let the reader begin with the "Sea Voyage," which is by Charles Lamb; and, what Mr. Ainger especially recommends, the "Father's Wedding-Day," by his sister Mary.

The ever-increasing intellectual burden of our age is hardly likely to adapt itself to the exquisite, but perhaps too delicate and limited, [15] literary instruments of the age of Queen Anne. Yet Mr. Saintsbury is certainly right in thinking that, as regards style, English literature has much to do. Well, the good quality of an age, the defect of which lies in the direction of intellectual anarchy and confusion, may well be eclecticism: in style, as in other things, it is well always to aim at the combination of as many excellences as possible--opposite excellences, it may be--those other beauties of prose. A busy age will hardly educate its writers in correctness. Let its writers make time to write English more as a learned language; and completing that correction of style which had only gone a certain way in the last century, raise the general level of language towards their own. If there be a weakness in Mr. Saintsbury's view, it is perhaps in a tendency to regard style a little too independently of matter. And there are still some who think that, after all, the style is the man; justified, in very great varieties, by the simple consideration of what he himself has to say, quite independently of any real or supposed connection with this or that literary age or school. Let us close with the words of a most

[16] versatile master of English--happily not yet included in Mr. Saintsbury's book--a writer who has dealt with all the perturbing influences of our century in a manner as classical, as idiomatic, as easy and elegant, as Steele's:

"I wish you to observe," says Cardinal Newman, "that the mere dealer in words cares little or nothing for the subject which he is embellishing, but can paint and gild anything whatever to order; whereas the artist, whom I am acknowledging, has his great or rich visions before him, and his only aim is to bring out what he thinks or what he feels in a way adequate to the thing spoken of, and appropriate to the speaker."

17th February 1886

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters