« PreviousContinue »
The bonds which unite the two are close, but their courses are not parallel. English literary prose has had no such continuous history as the language, and there are sufficient reasons for regarding the prose of Alfred and his few contemporaries and successors as a chapter in the life of the English people which begins and ends with itself. For its antiquity and for its importance in preserving so abundantly the early records of the language, Old English prose is to be respected; but it was never highly developed as an art, nor was its vitality great enough to withstand the shock of the several conquests which brought about a general confusion of English ideals and traditions in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It is consequently in no sense the source from which modern English prose has sprung. It has a separate story, and when writers of the early modern period again turned to prose, they did so in utter disregard and ignorance of the fact that Alfred and Ælfric had preceded them by several centuries in the use of English for purposes of prose expression. Nor did the later writers unwittingly benefit by the inheritance of a previous discipline of the language in the writing of prose. In the general political and social cataclysm of the eleventh century, the literary speech of the Old English period went down forever, leaving for succeeding generations nothing but the popular speech upon which to build anew the foundations of a literary culture.
After the Conquest came the slow process of establishing social order. Laws must first be formulated, Normans, Scandinavians, and Saxons must learn to live in harmony with one another, above all must learn to communicate with one another in a commonly accepted speech, before literature could again lift its head. During all this period of the making of the new England, verse remained the standard form for literary expression. Such prose as was
written was mainly of a documentary character, wills, deeds of transfer and gift, rules for the government of religious houses, and similar writings of limited appeal. In the lack of a standard vernacular idiom, more serious efforts, such as histories and theological treatises, were composed in Latin, and to a less extent, in French. It was not until towards the middle of the fourteenth century that the various elements of English life were fused into what came to be felt more and more as a national unity. A wave of popular patriotism swept. over the country at this time, clearing away the encumbering foreign traditions by which the English had permitted themselves to become burdened. This new national feeling showed itself in various ways, in a renewed interest in English history, in the special respect now shown to English saints, and above all in the rejection of French and in the cultivation of the English language as the proper expression of the English people. At the same time men of riper and broader culture made their appearance in the intellectual life of the people. An age which produced three such personalities as those of Chaucer, Langland, and Wiclif cannot be regarded as anticipatory and uncertain of itself. Economic conditions also forced upon the humbler classes of people the necessity of thinking for themselves and of setting forth and defending their interests. In the larger world of international affairs the dissensions and corruptions of the church, culminating in the great schism of the last quarter of the century, compelled account to be taken of that whole order of theocratic government which the medieval world had hitherto accepted almost without question.
In this combination of circumstances, one man stands out pre-eminently in England as realizing the drift of events and the kind of action needed to regulate them. This man was Wiclif, a scholar and theologian, but not
merely a man of the study or the lecturer's chair. Wiclif's practical wisdom is particularly apparent in his deliberate choice of the English language as a means of exposition and persuasion. If English prose must have a father, no one is so worthy of this title of respect as Wiclif. Not a great master of prose style himself, Wiclif was the first Englishman clearly to realize the broad principles which underlie prose expression. He made a sharp distinction between prose and verse, and he foresaw, at least, the ends to be attained by a skillful use of the mechanism of daily colloquial speech for broader and less ephemeral purposes than those to which it had hitherto been applied. In a word, Wiclif was the first intelligent writer of English prose, a discoverer in the truest sense of the word. With him begins the long and unbroken line of English writers who have striven to use the English tongue as a means of conveying their message as directly and as forcibly as possible to their hearers and readers. The spirit of Wiclif is the spirit of Sir Thomas More, of Tindale, of Hooker, of Milton, of Burke, of Carlyle, of all the great masters of expositional and hortatory prose in the English language. Technical details have changed, exterior ornaments have varied, but the fundamental purpose and method have remained the same. With Wiclif and his period, therefore, we begin our study of the rise of English literary prose.
The later limits of the present undertaking have not so easily determined themselves. It would have been interesting to carry the discussion down to the masters of prose in the seventeenth century, to Milton, Clarendon, Jeremy Taylor, Burton, Dryden, for they are indeed the fruit of the sixteenth-century flower. But the close of the sixteenth century and the opening of the seventeenth century mark the end of the great originating period in the development of English prose. The tentative beginnings of Wiclifite prose
are by that time fully realized in models of the plain style not surpassed by any later writers. The literary and more narrowly artistic interests have entered, and experimentation in this direction has been carried almost to the extreme limits of the possibilities of the language. Scarcely any side of human activity remains unexpressed in English prose at the end of the reign of Elizabeth, and though it by no means follows that the prose of later times is less admirable, it is nevertheless different from the prose of this first fresh and tremendously energetic age of invention and experimentation.
Since that is the subject of the whole volume, it manifestly falls outside the province of these prefatory remarks to discuss the various processes and developments of this first formative period of English prose. It may be worth while to put down, however, as a kind of preliminary scaffolding, the opinions of one of the greatest of the early moderns, of one who from the vantage-ground of the end of a long life, cast his eye backward and formulated what seemed to him the prime moving causes and tendencies of writing in his day. Starting with the discussion of the origins of the fantastic or ornate literary style in Europe, Bacon continues with an analysis which, whether true for the whole European awakening or not, certainly applies in a peculiar degree to England, where the Renascence was from the first so largely a religious and theological movement:
“Martin Luther, conducted (no doubt) by an higher Providence, but in discourse of reason finding what a province he had undertaken against the Bishop of Rome and the degenerate traditions of the church, and finding his own solitude, being no ways aided by the opinions of his own time, was enforced to awake all antiquity, and to call former times to his succors to make a part against the present time, so that the ancient authors, both in divinity
and in humanity, which had long time slept in libraries, began generally to be read and revolved. *This by consequence did draw on a necessity of a more exquisite travail in the languages original wherein those authors did write, for the better understanding of those authors and the better advantage of pressing and applying their words. And thereof grew again a delight in their manner of style and phrase, and an admiration of that kind of writing; which was much furthered and precipitated by the enmity and opposition that the propounders of those (primitive but seeming new) opinions had against the schoolmen; who were generally of the contrary part, and whose writings were altogether in a differing style and form; taking liberty to coin and frame new terms of art to express their own sense and to avoid circuit of speech, without regard to the pureness, pleasantness, and (as I may call it) lawfulness of the phrase or word. And again, because the great labor then was with the people, (of whom the Pharisees were wont to say, Execrabilis ista turba, quæ non novit legem,) (the wretched crowd that has not known the law,] for the winning and persuading of them, there grew of necessity in chief price and request eloquence and variety of discourse, as the fittest and forciblest access into the capacity of the vulgar sort. So that these four causes concurring, the admiration of ancient authors, the hate of the schoolmen, the exact study of languages, and the efficacy of preaching, did bring in an affectionate study of eloquence and copie of speech, which then began to flourish. This grew speedily to an excess; for men began to hunt more after words than matter; and more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment. Then grew the flowing and watery vein of Osorius, the Portugal bishop, to be in price. Then did Sturmius spend such infinite and curious pains upon Cicero the orator and Hermogenes the rhetorician, besides his own books of periods and imitation and the like. Then did Car of Cambridge, and