Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

NOTES

617

INTRODUCTION

In the period just preceding that covered by the present volume, English prose had passed through a critical and disordered phase. In spite of some notable achievements even in prose, and occasional flashes of consummate perfection in style, the Elizabethans left us, in that sphere, no permanent inheritance, no accepted standard of diction. They had, indeed, enriched the language by free adaptations from various sources ; they had kept alive the tradition of a racy colloquialism, instinct with life and vigour ; and they had added the polished deftness- albeit somewhat affectedof Euphuism, with its copiousness of rich metaphor and quaint antithesis. The resources of the language were bewildering in their multiplicity, and had need of the ease and leisure of peace and quiet for their orderly development. Instead of that, as the seventeenth century advanced, men's minds were made restless, first by intricacy in thought, with its corresponding involution of style, and then by the hot controversies of politics and religion, which made prose laboured, earnest, and even eloquent, but shut it out from the calmness necessary for artistic grace or literary finish. Its earlier qualities were not indeed lost, although they were under a cloud that hindered their free development. There were still those who, to use the words of Atterbury, would prize “that dance of words which good ears are so much pleased with." The rich draperies of Euphuism were not altogether abandoned ; and the very earnestness that moved the generation which lived through the struggle between loyalty and puritanism, served to keep alive the tradition of directness, of vivid colloquialism, which never disappeared from English prose. But we have only to

VOL. III

B

glance through the authors represented in the preceding volume in order to see how hard was the struggle through which our prose style had to pass, and how disordered and even lurid were some of its phases. The manner of writing was subordinated to the immediate needs of the strife : men had to argue, to contend, to preach, or to narrate, and they had no time for literary art. They lost themselves in the development of obscure systems: they were over-burdened with a learning that had no sense of proportion. They often attained, it is true, to impressive force and dignity of eloquence, but it is by the very tragic energy of their earnestness. We find no unity of aim, no natural resemblance in their methods. The solemn eloquence of Clarendon, the fascination of Browne's religious melancholy—these are inheritances, rich, indeed, but, like so much in the literary work of the age, they are monuments, not examples or types. Side by side with them, we find a bewildering contrast of miscellaneous effort, by turns fantastic, reckless, solemn and portentous; always instinct with force of a kind; often depressed by pedantry; but having in it no principle of development, upon which literary art could make a sure and steady advance.

Before the close of that period, some calm had succeeded to the storm. In Hales and Chillingworth, philosophy had reached a more restful haven ; in Jeremy Taylor, Herbert, and Leighton, devotional writings had escaped from the hurtle of controversy, and breathed in a more peaceful atmosphere. As it recovered rest, English prose became more dignified and stately, and on these lines of dignity and stateliness, its forward movement was to take its course. “I found myself in a storm,” writes Locke, just after the Restoration, “which had lasted almost hitherto, and therefore cannot but entertain the approaches of a calm with the greatest joy and satisfaction.” He puts into words what might have been uttered by the spirit of our literature, which breathed more freely after an intense, but, for her, a gloomy struggle.

The new period is typified by the names which meet us at the beginning of this volume. It is not for his style, orderly, methodical, and dignified as it is, that Bishop Pearson is chiefly remarkable ; but when we come to Evelyn, we have in him one who fitly represents the new spirit in English prose. His style may be cumbrous, artificial, even tedious; but it is impossible to deny its stateliness, its dignity, its consummate calm. It lacked much which the succeeding generation was to bring, and which was fully attained by those who follow him in this volume. The long roll of his sentences was monotonous, and the reader instinctively calls for the relief of variety. But the essential elements of regularity, formal order, and restraint, were distinctly present. He retains much of the pedantic learning and far-fetched allusion which were so rife in the preceding age; but he retains also—and for this we have to thank him—the richness of ornament and metaphor that prevent an impression of dulness and barrenness. Luxuriance of fancy had yet to be pruned ; the spirit of the succeeding generation was to bring greater lucidity and exactness of thought and method, and as a result the cumbrous period was to be shortened, and the movement of our prose made more quick and natural. But even what is best in the full ripeness of the later harvest owes something to the luxuriance of such prose as that of Evelyn.

As we pass in review the various specimens which this volume presents to us, the differences and contrasts are apt to perplex, and to leave upon us the impression of a confused and miscellaneous aggregate, with no definite aim, and no principle of development. To some extent the impression is a true one. The struggle of the previous generation was not entirely over, and it was a hard task to attain to any orderly style out of the mass of various material from which the selection had to be made. But as we proceed to classify and arrange our authors, we find that the advance was gradual but sure, and that the new generation was evolving order out of chaos. First we have a regular sequence of writers, who attended very little to niceties of style, but confined themselves to methodical treatment of their subject; who aimed at clearness and definition, and avoided those more intricate disquisitions that had perplexed their predecessors. The series fitly opens with Bishop Pearson ; it proceeds through Barrow and South, Stillingfleet and Sprat on the one hand, and through Boyle, Locke, Newton, and Shaftesbury on the other, representing different phases of the same literary method. All of these, in their varying degrees, are in strong contrast with the preceding generation ; all of them are forerunners of the exact and restrained method, and the more ordered and regular style which was to be distinctive of the eighteenth century. On a lower level, but with the same avoidance of waywardness, extravagance, and intricacy, we have the plain and straightforward style of Bishop Burnet and Sidney, the common

« AnteriorContinuar »