Contemporary English Prose. A Discussion of the Development of English Prose from Hobbes and Sir Thomas Browne to Joyce and D. H. Lawrence
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448 ] Contemporary English Prose1 A Discussion of the Development of English Prose from Hobbes and Sir Thomas Browne to Joyce and D. H. Lawrence Vanity Fair, 20 (July 1923) 51, 98 It is often said that there is in English no standard prose style. A more analytic statement of this criticism might be as follows: English prose, in comparison with that of the French, Italian and Spanish languages, developed late. Its early forms were constructed for special and limited uses; and by the time of Hobbes, English sensibility and thought had already expressed themselves in verse: to compare the verse of the time of Shakespeare with its prose is to compare an adult and independent mind with an immature and dependent one. No prose style has ever succeeded in comprehending the English mind even to the extent to which the style of Montaigne contains the French mind; hence at several periods the contrast of styles of minds which have very little in common. Hence the difficulty, at any moment, of assigning a style to that moment. If we read all of the best English prose, we may know how English prose has developed; but we shall find it very difficult to make any generalisations about it. Nevertheless, we can trace one or two currents in the nineteenth century down to our own generation, and mark their disappearance. Curiously enough, the most original talents in our literature of the greater part of that century were prose talents; neither Tennyson nor even Browning – I speak with deliberation – can occupy the place of importance of Ruskin, Newman, Arnold or Dickens. The great novelty was (perhaps) the style of Carlyle.2† Hitherto the usual prose style had followed in the tradition of Gibbon and of Johnson; the style of Macaulay is an eighteenth century style debased by journalistic exuberance and theatrical emotion; the style of Landor is an eighteenth century style affected by quaintness. Nevertheless Landor’s is a fine style; Macaulay’s is the remains of a fine style in the hands of a literary demagogue. Carlyle – a man of intellect without intelligence, and erudition without culture – had a unique and precious sensibility, which he exploited but did not train; but if open licence is better than concealed depravity, his style is healthier than Macaulay’s. [ 449 Contemporary English Prose The Fever of Carlyle The effect of his orgy, however, is visible not only in the work of his authentic descendents – such as George Meredith – but even in the work of those who appear to be of quite another type of mind. The dignified and easy prose style of the classical tradition, of which the chief fault was pomposity, and the most frequent trick antithesis, disappeared. Thackeray is often diffuse ; Ruskin often exaggerated and perverse; even Cardinal Newman, the possessor of the finest prose style of the nineteenth century, is limited to the autumnal coloring of his peculiar personal emotion. None of these writers, except Ruskin, can be said to have been influenced by Carlyle; and Ruskin, in vocabulary, structure and sensibility, is indeed very different from Carlyle; nevertheless, they all have something in common with him.3† Perhaps the simplest thing to say is that Carlyle partly originates and partly marks the disturbances in the equilibrium of English prose style.4† In English prose thereafter, no matter how antithetical to the prose of Carlyle it may be there is usually some exaggeration, some peculiar emotional limitation ,5† as it were a slightly feverish temperature, and of no other writer is this more true than of Walter Pater, whose prose was the model for the last ten years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. The result, the effect of Walter Pater’s influence, has been in the limitation of prose style to particular moods or things, such as one finds in the seventeenth century.6† The styles of Clarendon, Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor and Hobbes are all limited styles and very different from each other; but each within its own limitations is a very balanced and normal style. Walter Pater has a much wider range, but throughout that range his prose is restricted by its limited emotional range rather than by limited subject matter.7† The Influence of Pater Walter Pater was a literary descendant of Ruskin and Matthew Arnold; and even in the severe and reasoned wit of Arnold there is an occasional feverish glow. An analysis of the work of Pater would lead too far...