Views and Reviews [II]
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254 ] Views and Reviews [II] The New English Weekly, 7 (20 June 1935) 190-91 While there are a number of persons living who can lay some claim to distinction as poets, there are not very many with an equal claim to distinction as masters of prose style. By prose I do not mean the imaginative prose of certain novelists, so much as the kind of prose which figures more largely in anthologies, the prose of historical narration and description, and of philosophical and scientific exposition and argument. There is more capacity than achievement. There is Mr. Herbert Read, whose In Retreat is in its kind one of the few prose masterpieces that our period will leave behind;1 there is Ezra Pound, who can write prose of the very highest quality whenever he forgets to write badly; and there is Mr. Wyndham Lewis whose proudopulenceisincapableofcontrition.Verylikelytherearemoreobscure writers whose steady and reliable excellence will appear more clearly with the passage of time. For of the nineteenth century, it is not now the writers most praised in their own time who still please. The stylists depart: Carlyle is too violent, Ruskin too unrestrained, Meredith too whimsical, Arnold appears conscious of his abilities to the verge of vulgarity and can hardly rise to emotional fervour without falling into intellectual confusion. Those writers remain who were more interested in their subject matter than in their style: Newman, Bradley, perhaps Maine and Bagehot.2 For interest in what one has to say, rather than conforming to or revolting from a conventional manner, is the essential thing: an interest in the subject, and a grasp of it, which give a proper intellectual and emotional balance, and prevent both conventionality and eccentricity. The prose writers of the eighteenth century – or rather of the period which includes Dryden and Johnson – have always seemed to me to provide the norm of English prose, something from which it cannot afford to depart too far. Here, at their best, is the perfect anatomy, the perfect development of muscle without brutality and of grace without fat, style neither strained nor relaxed, neither ascetic nor luxurious. Swift is probably the greatest; he is the one of whom it can most confidently be said, that he has no devices that can be mimicked. And here two reservations may be made. One is that a deliberate attempt to return to the style of any author or of [ 255 Views and Reviews [II] any period, however accomplished, must always produce an effect of insincerity even to the writer’s injustice. Lytton Strachey’s style, of course, had little to do with the eighteenth century: it was a derivative from Macaulay; but in some of the writing of Mr. David Garnett, and even in some of that of the late F. S. Oliver, I seem to detect a consciousness of the style of an earlier period which operates to their disadvantage. And my other reservation is that the eighteenth century alone will not teach us how to write in this period, our own and very different. The interests of the eighteenth century were comparatively limited, its problems comparatively simple. It isunlikelythatouragewilldevelopacharacteristiccommonstyle:ourindividual interests, and points of view are too divergent; our education indeed is so chaotic that no two persons in the same company can be assumed to have their minds stocked with the same furniture; you cannot make a quotation or an allusion to which the whole of any company can respond. Yet it would be to our interest if it could be our own age, rather than the eighteenth century, which would provide for us the norm of English prose. For some subjects we have to go outside the eighteenth century to find the standards by which to test the accomplishment of our time. There is new subject-matter, as of science, and there is old subject matter, such as theology, in the treatment of which that age gives us very little guidance. In theology we must go back to Caroline times. Anglicanism, an anthology of the theological literature of that period, edited by Dr. P. E. More and the Revd. F. L. Cross (S.P.C.K.) gives an admirable selection of such writing, much of it almost inaccessible.3 I do not pretend that the writers of this period were classic. It is the period of Hobbes and of Clarendon, a period of heavy Latinised prose and lumbering clauses. Yet the prose of these writers – and I do not mean the best...