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THE QUINN & BODEN CO. PRESS
RAMWAY, N. J.
This book covers the period of discovery in the history of English literary prose. It begins with the latter half of the fourteenth century, when the writing of prose first assumed importance in the life of the English people, and it ends with the first quarter of the seventeenth century, when practice and experiment had made of English prose, in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, a highly developed and efficient means of expression.
The origins of English prose come relatively late in the development of English literary experience. This apparently is true of most prose literatures, and the explanation seems to lie in the nature of prose. Even in its beginnings the art of prose is never an unconscious, never a genuinely primitive art. The origins of prose literature can consequently be examined without venturing far into those misty regions of theory and speculation, where the student of poetry must wander in the attempt to explain beginnings which certainly precede the age of historical documents, and perhaps of human record of any kind. Poetry may be the more ancient, the more divine art, but prose lies nearer to us and is more practical and human.
Being human, prose bears upon it, and early prose especially, some of the marks of human imperfection. Poetry of primitive origins, for example the ballad, often attains a finality of form which art cannot better, but not so with prose. Perhaps the explanation of this may be that poetry is concerned primarily with the emotions, and the emotions are among the original and perfect gifts of
mankind, ever the same; whereas prose is concerned with the reasonable powers of man's nature, which have been and are being only slowly won by painful conquest. Whether this be a right explanation or not, it is certainly true that in its first efforts English prose is uncertain and faltering, that it often engages our sympathies more by what it attempts to do than by what it actually accomplishes.
In this book the purpose has been to show how the English mind approached the practical problem of the invention of prose, to point out what things seemed appropriately to be expressed in prose and what devices of language appropriately employed in the expression of them. The process was obviously one of the adaptation of language, a genuinely primitive inheritance like the traditions of poetry, to many differing and present needs. It was indeed closely bound up with the effort of the English people to find for itself the golden mean of expression between ephemeral colloquial discourse and the special and often highly conventionalized forms of poetic expression. The study of the origins of English prose is consequently concerned not only with the growth of the English mind, but, in the broadest sense, with the development of the English language.
Since literary prose is very largely the speech of everyday discourse applied to special purposes, it is in a way true that the origins of English prose are to be sought in the origins of English speech. No student of the speech would be content to pause short of the earliest English records in the four centuries which preceded the Norman Conquest. From the days of the first Teutonic conquerors of Celtic Britain, the English speech has continued in an unbroken oral tradition to the present time. But obviously English literary prose in its various stages has not been merely the written form, the echo, of this colloquial speech.