Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1658/Modern English Prose

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Modern English Prose by George Saintsbury
Littell's Living Age, Volume 128, Issue 1658

From The Fortnightly Review.

MODERN ENGLISH PROSE.

In comparing for purposes of study the two great histories of Greece which England produced in the last generation, a thought, which has most probably often presented itself to other students, has frequently occurred to me. Much as the two works differ in plan, in views, and in manner of execution, their difference has never struck me so much as in the point of style. And the remarkable feature of this difference is, that it is not by any means the natural variation which we allow for, and indeed expect, in the productions of any two men of decided and distinct literary ability. It is not as the difference between Hume and Gibbon, and the difference between Clarendon and Taylor. In the styles of these great writers, and in those of many others, there is the utmost conceivable diversity; but at the same they are all styles. We can see (see it, indeed, so clearly that we hardly take the trouble to think about it) that each of them made a distinct effort to arrange his words into their clause, his clauses into their sentence, and his sentences into their paragraph according to certain forms, and that though these forms varied in the subtle and indescribable measure of the taste and idiosyncrasy of each writer, the effort was always present, and was only accidentally if inseparably connected with the intention to express certain thoughts, to describe certain facts, or to present certain characters. But when we come to compare Thirlwall with Grote, we find not a variation of the kind just mentioned, but the full opposition of the presence of style on the one hand and the absence of it on the other. The late Bishop of St. David's will probably never be cited among the greatest masters of English prose style, but still we can see without difficulty that he has inherited its traditions. It would be difficult, on the other hand, to persuade a careful critic that Grote ever thought of such things as the cadence of a sentence or the composition of a paragraph. That he took so much trouble as might suffice to make his meaning clear and his language energetic is obvious; that in no case did he think of looking beyond this is I think certain.

But the difference between these two great historians is very far from being a mere isolated fact, of little more interest or significance than a parallel between Macedon and Monmouth. It marks with extraordinary precision the date and nature of a change which has affected English literature to a degree and in a manner worthy of the most serious consideration. What this change is, and whether it amounts to an actual decay or to a mere temporary neglect of style in English prose writing, are questions which are certainly, of importance, and the answers to which should not, as it seems to me, lack interest.

If, then, we take up almost any book of the last century, we shall find that within varying limits the effort of which I have just spoken is distinctly present. The model upon which the writer frames his style may be and probably is faulty in itself, and still more probably is faultily copied; there may be too much Addison in the mixture, or too much Johnson; but still we shall see that an honest attempt at style, an honest endeavour at manner as apart from matter, has been made, however clumsy the attempt may be, and however short of success it may fall. But if we take up any book of the last forty or fifty years, save a very few, the first thing that will strike us is the total absence of any attempt or endeavour of the kind. The matter will, as a rule, have been more or less carefully attended to, and will be presented to the reader with varying degrees of clearness and precision. But the manner, except in so far as certain peculiarities of manner may be conducive or prejudicial to clearness and precision of statement — sometimes perhaps to apparent precision with any sacrifice of clearness — will in most cases be found to have been totally neglected, if a thing may be said to be neglected which' does not appear to have even presented itself within the circumference of the field of view. In other words, and to adopt a convenient distinction, though there may be a difference of manner, there is usually no difference of style, for there is no style at all.

Before going any further, it may be well to adopt a commendable, if antiquated and scholastic practice, and to set down accurately what is here meant by style, and of what it consists. Style is the choice and arrangement of language with only a subordinate regard to the meaning to be conveyed. Its parts are the choice of the actual words to be used, the further selection and juxtaposition of these words, the structure of the clauses into which they are wrought, the arrangement of the clauses into sentences, and the composition of the sentences into paragraphs. Beyond the paragraph style can hardly be said to go, but within that limit it is supreme. The faults incident to these parts (if I may be allowed still to be scholastic) are perhaps also worthy of notice. Every one can see, though every one is by no means careful to put his knowledge into practice, that certain words are bad of themselves, and certain others to be avoided wherever possible. The mere grammar of style teaches us not to say "commence" where we can say "begin," or "reliable" where we can say "trustworthy." The next stage introduces difficulties of a higher order, though these also are more or less elementary. Most people can see the faults in the following sentences: —

"Had he always written upon the level we behold here there could be little question that the author would have taken his place amongst the front rank of dramatists." Here "writing upon the level we behold here" is a combination of the most obviously incongruous notions. Again, "They did reject him of course, but his speech remains as a model for all true men to follow, as a warning to all who may adopt another course," etc. Here the unintentional repetition of the word course in an entirely different sense within the compass of a couple of lines is unpardonable. But these are mere rudiments; it is in the breach or neglect of the rules that govern the structure of clauses, of sentences, and of paragraphs that the real secret of style consists, and to illustrate this breach or observation is less easy. The task will be perhaps made easier if we consider first in the rough how the prevalent English style of the present day differs from that of past times.

Some five-and-thirty years ago De Quincey had already noticed and deplored the deterioration of which we speak. In his essay on style (reprinted in the sixth volume of his collected works) he undertakes to discuss at some length the symptoms and causes of the disease. De Quincey, as any one who is at all acquainted with his works is aware, gave considerable attention to the subject of style, and professed to be no mean authority thereon. There were, indeed, two peculiarities about him which prevented him from deserving a very high place as a referee on such matters. The first was his mistaken idea that extremely ornate prose — the prose which his ally John Wilson called "numerous," and which others have called Asiatic — was the highest form attainable, and that any writer who did not aim at this fell naturally into a lower class. The other was his singular crotchetisms, which made him frequently refuse to see any good in the style of writers to whom, for some reason or for no reason, he had taken a dislike. It will probably be allowed, not merely by persons who hold traditional opinions, but by all independent students of literature, that we must look with considerable distrust on the dicta of a critic who finds fault with the styles of Plato and of Conyers Middleton. The essay on style, however (at least its first part, for the latter portions go off into endless digressions of no pertinence whatever), is much more carefully written and much more carefully reasoned than most of De Quincey's work. The purport of it is, that the decay of style is to be attributed partly to the influence of German literature, but chiefly to the prevalence of journalism. No one will deny that the influence of newspaper-writing is in many ways had, and that to it is due much of the decadence in style of which complaint is made. But either the prevalent manner of journalism has undergone a remarkable change during the past generation, or else the particular influence which De Quincey supposes it to have had was mistaken by him. I do not myself pretend to a very intimate acquaintance with the periodical literature of thirty or forty years ago, and I am afraid that not even in the pursuit of knowledge could I be tempted to plunge into such a dreary and unbuoyant mare mortuum. With respect to the papers of to-day it is certainly not difficult to discern a peculiarity in their styles, or in what does duty for style in them. A large volume, for instance, might be profitably written, if, perhaps, not so profitably read, on the various stylistic peculiarities of the Times. There used to be the famous and memorable affectation of peculiar spelling, or what one might perhaps, after the story of King Sigismund, call the super-orthographicam style. Then, some ten years ago, there came the great "queen-of-Sheba" style, which consisted in opening an article with some fact or allusion which had the remotest (or not the remotest) connection with the subject. Of late, perhaps, there has been less unity; but one style has never been lacking — a style which might be called the magisterial, but which I (having been once informed by a great master thereof, with whom I presumed to differ, that "all persons of common sense and morality" thought as he did) prefer to call the common-sense-and-morality style. This style is convenient for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness. If you approve, you can point out not too enthusiastically that the view or proceeding in question is the only one which common sense and morality allow; if (which is possible) you do not understand, common-sense, by not understanding also, will help you out of the difficulty; and if you disapprove, morality will be as violently outraged as you like. Of the weekly papers, it is impossible not to admire the free-and-easy doctrinaire-ism of the Spectator, which is almost entirely an affair of style depending on a sedulous avoidance of ornate language, and a plentiful use of colloquial words and phrases about the least colloquial matters. Then there is the style of the Saturday Review in its political articles, a style which appears to be framed on the principle that thoughts and words economize weight by being meted out in small doses, and that a pound of buckshot will go farther than a pound of bullets. Lastly, the inquirer into such things will not neglect the peculiar aridity of certain of the older Quarterlies, which seem to have retained the ponderous clauses of other days, while neglecting the form which saved those clauses from being cumbrous. But in most of all this we shall find little to bear out De Quincey's verdict. Long and involved sentences, unduly stuffed with fact and meaning, are what he complains of; and though there is no doubt that we should not have to go far in order to find such at the present day, yet it does not appear, to me at least, that the main fault of contemporary English style is of this kind. On the contrary, the sin of which I should chiefly complain is the sin of over-short sentences, of mere gasps instead of balanced periods. Such a paragraph as the following will illustrate what I mean: "That request was obeyed by the massacre of six out of the surviving princes of the imperial family. Two alone escaped. With such a mingling of light and darkness did Constantine close his career." I think that any one who considers this combination of two mutilated clauses with an interjectional copula, and who perceives with what ease its hideous cacophony might have been softened into a complete and harmonious sentence, must feel certain that its present form is to some extent intentional. The writer might very well have written: "That request was obeyed by the massacre of six out of the eight surviving princes of the imperial family, and the career of Constantine was closed in a mixture of light and darkness." Why did he not?

Again, let us take a book of recent date, whose style has received considerable praise both in England and abroad — Mr. Green's "Short History of the English People." The character of Elizabeth is perhaps the most carefully written, certainly the most striking, passage in the book, and contains a most elaborate statement of that view of the great queen which many historical students now take. It enforces this view with the greatest energy, and sets it before us in every detail and difference of light and shade. But how inartistic it is! how thoroughly bad in conception, composition, and style! In the first place it occupies some seven printed pages of uuusual extent and closeness, each of which is at least equal to two of the ordinary octavo pages of an English classic author. Let any one, if he can, imagine one of the great masters who could both draw and compose, Hume or Middleton, Clarendon or Swift, giving us a character of fourteen pages. A portrait on the scale of Brobdingnag, with all features and all defects unnaturally emphasized and enlarged, could hardly be more disgusting.[1]

It is not necessary to multiply examples, which if all the defects of contemporary style were to be noticed and illustrated, would occupy a space longer than the present article. In all but a very few writers we shall observe with certain variations the same defects — inordinate copiousness of treatment combined with an utter inability, or at best an extreme unwillingness, to frame a sentence of due proportion and careful structure. It should certainly be possible to trace the origin and examine the nature of a phenomenon so striking and so universal.

The secret of the manner will not long escape us if we notice or can disengage the intention with which, willingly or unwillingly, this manner has been adopted. Nor is this intention very hard to discover. It is, as it appears to me, a desire to present the subject, whatever it may be, to the reader in the most striking and arresting fashion. The attention of the reading public generally has, from causes to be presently noticed, become gradually concentrated almost wholly upon subject-matter. Among what may be called, intellectually speaking, the lower classes, this concentration shows itself not in the preference but in the exclusive study of novels, newspapers, and sometimes of so-called books of information. A book must be as they say "about something," or it fails altogether to arrest their attention. To such persons a page with (as it has been quaintly put) no "resting-places," no proper names and capital letters to fix the eye, is an intolerable weariness, and to them it is evident that style can be only a name. Somewhat above them come the (intellectually) middle classes. They are not absolutely confined to personal adventure, real or fictitious, or to interesting facts. They can probably enjoy the better class of magazine articles, superior biographies, travels, and the other books that everybody reads and nobody buys. This class will even read poetry if the poet's name be known, and would consider it a grave affront if it were hinted to them that their appreciation of style is but dull and faulty. A certain amount of labour is therefore required on work which is to please these readers: labour, however, which is generally bestowed in a wrong direction, on ornament and trick rather than on really artistic construction and finish. Lastly there is the highest class of all, consisting of those who really possess, or might possess, taste, culture, and intellect. Of these the great majority are now somewhat alienated from pure literature, and devoted rather to social matters, to science, or to the more fashionable and profitable arts of design. Their demand for style in literature is confined chiefly to poetry. They also are interested more by their favourite subjects treated anyhow, than by subjects for which they care little treated well, so that even by them little encouragement is given to the cultivation and little hindrance to the decay of prose style.

Intimately connected with the influences that arise from this attitude and temper of the general reader, are certain influences which spring from such prevalent forms and subjects of literature as present themselves to the general writer. The first of these forms, and unquestionably the most constant and pervading in its influence, is now, as it was in De Quincey's days, journalism. No one with the slightest knowledge of the subject will pretend that the influence of journalism upon writing is wholly bad. Whatever may have been the case formerly, a standard of excellence which is in some respects really high is usually aimed at, and not seldom reached, in the better class of newspapers. Some appropriateness in the use of words, rigid avoidance of the more glaring grammatical errors, and a respectable degree of clearness in statement, are expected by the reader and usually observed by the writer. In these respects, therefore, there is no falling off to be complained of, but rather a marked improvement upon past times to be perceived. Yet, as regards the higher excellences of style, it is not possible that the influence of journalism should be good. For it must at any cost be rapid, and rapidity is absolutely incompatible with style. The journalist has as a rule one of two things to do; he has either to give a rapid account of certain facts, or to present a rapid discussion of certain arguments. In either case it becomes a matter of necessity for him to adopt stereotyped phrases and forms of speech which, being ready cut and dried, may abbreviate his labour and leave him as little as possible to invent in his limited time. Now there is nothing more fatal to the attainment of a good style than the habit of using such stereotyped phrases and forms. With the imperiousness natural to all art, style absolutely refuses to avail itself of, or to be found in company with, anything that is ready made. The rule must be a leaden one, the mould made for the occasion, and broken after it has passed. Every one who has ever seriously tried to write must be conscious how sorely he has been beset, and how often he has been overcome, by the almost insensible temptation to adopt the current phrases of the day. Bad, however, as the influence of journalism is in this respect, it is perhaps worse in its tendency to sacrifice everything to mere picturesqueness of style (for the word must be thus misused because there is no other). The journalist is bound to be picturesque by the law of his being. The old phrase, segnius irritant, is infinitely truer of pseudo-picturesque style as compared with literature which holds to its proper means of appeal, than it is of literal spectacle as compared with narrative. And the journalist is obliged at any cost irritare animos, and that in the least possible time.

This tendency of journalism is assisted and intensified by that of another current form of literature, novel-writing. A very little thought will show that if the novel-writer attains to style it is almost a marvel. Of the four constituent elements of the novel, plot, character, description, and dialogue, none lend themselves in any great degree to the cultivation of the higher forms of style, and some are distinctly opposed to it. The most cunning plot may be developed equally in the style of Plato and in the style of a penny dreadful. Character-drawing, as the novelist understands or should understand it, is almost equally unconnected with style. On the other hand description and dialogue, unless managed with consummate skill, distinctly tend to develop and strengthen the crying faults of contemporary style, its picturesqueness at any cost, its gasping and ungraceful periods, its neglect of purely literary effect.

Lastly, there must be noticed the enormous influence necessarily exerted by the growth of what is called scientific study (to use the term in its largest and widest sense), and by the displacement in its favour of many, if not most, of the departments of literature which were most favourable to the cultivation of style. In whatever quarter we look, we shall see that the primary effort of the writer and the primary desire of the reader are both directed to what are called scientific or positive results, in other words to matter instead of manner. In using the word science here, I have not the slightest intention of limiting its meaning, as it is too often limited, to physical science. I extend it to every subject which is capable of being treated in a scientific way. And I think we shall find that all subjects and all kinds of prose literature which are not capable of this sort of treatment, or do not readily lend themselves to it, are yearly occupying less and less the attention of both artists and audiences. Parliamentary oratory, which furnished a vigorous if a somewhat dangerous stimulant to the cultivation of style, is dead utterly. Pulpit eloquence, which at its worst maintained stylistic traditions, and at its best furnished some of the noblest examples of style, is dying, partly owing to the persistent refusal of the men of best culture and abilities to enter the clerical profession, partly to the absence of the serene security of a settled doctrine and position, but most of all to the demands upon the time of the clergy which modern notions enforce, and which make it utterly impossible for the greater number to devote a proper time to study. Philosophy, another great nurse of style, has now turned stepmother, and turns out her nurslings to wander in "thorniest queaches" of terminology and jargon, instead of the ordered gardens wherein Plato and Berkeley walked. History even, the last or almost the last refuge of a decent and comely prose, is more busy about records and manuscripts than about periods and paragraphs. Only criticism, the youngest and most hopeful birth of time as far as prose style is concerned, has not yet openly apostatized. It is true that even here signs of danger are not wanting, and that already we are told that criticism must be scientific, that its reading must not be desultory, and so forth. But on the whole there is little fear of relapse. The man who would cut himself a coat from another's cloth must bring to the task the knowledge and genius, the care and labour, of a skilled fashioner if he is to make good his claim of ownership. The man who has good work in perpetual contemplation is not likely to be satisfied with the complacent production of what is bad.

There is, moreover, one influence, or rather one set of influences, hostile to the attainment of style in the present day which I have as yet left unnoticed, and the approach to which is guarded by ground somewhat dangerous to the tread. It will, I think, appear to any one who contemplates the subject fully and impartially that style is essentially an aristocratic thing; and it is already a commonplace to say that the spirit of to-day, or perhaps the spirit of the times immediately behind us, is essentially democratic. It is democratic not in any mere political sense, but in the intolerance with which it regards anything out of the reach of, or incomprehensible to, the ordinary Philistine, working by the methods of Philistia. Intellectual and artistic pre-eminence, except in so far as it ministers to the fancies of the vulgar (great or small), is perhaps especially the object of this intolerance. Every one has witnessed or shared the angry impatience with which the ordinary Briton resents anything esoteric, fastidious, or fine. And the charms of prose style especially merit these epithets, and are not to be read by any one who runs, or tasted by any one who swallows in haste. Gaudy ornament is intelligible, graphic drawing is intelligible; but the finer cadences of the period, the more intricate strokes of composition, fall unregarded on the common ear and pass unnoticed by the common eye. To be tickled, to be dazzled, to be harrowed, are impressions of which the uncultured man is capable; they require little intellectual effort, and scarcely any judgment or taste in the direction of that little. But the music of the spheres would form but a sorry attraction in a music-hall programme, and Christopher Sly is not willing to accept nectar in exchange for a pot of even the smallest ale. And if the angry resentment of not a few readers gives the votary of style but little chance of an audience, it must be admitted that the lack of what I have called an aristocratic spirit gives the audience little chance of a performer. The conditions of modern life are unfavourable to the attainment of the peculiar mood of somewhat arrogant indifference which is the characteristic of the scholar. Every one knows Dean Gaisford's three reasons for the cultivation of the Greek language; and I for my part have no doubt that one of them most accurately describes an important feature of the Wesen des Gelehrten. It may not be necessary for him "to read the words of Christ in the original;" it may not be of absolute importance that he should "have situations of affluence opened to him." But it certainly is essential that he should "look down on his fellow-creatures from a proper elevation;" and this is what the tendency of modern social progress is making more and more difficult, at any rate in appearance. You cannot raise the level of the valleys without diminishing the relative height of the hills; and you cannot scatter education and elementary cultivation broadcast without diminishing the value of the privileges which appertain to superior culture. The old republic of letters was, like other old republics, a democracy only in name, but in reality a more or less close oligarchy, looking down on metics and slaves whose degradations and disabilities heightened its courage and gave a zest to its freedom. In letters, as in politics, we are doing our best to change all this; and the possible result may be, that every one will soon be able to write a Daily Telegraph article, and that no one will aspire to anything beyond.[2]

The general characteristics of style which the influence, combined or partial, of these forces has produced have been already indicated, but may perhaps now be summed up. Diffuseness; sacrifice of the graces of literary proportion to real or apparent clearness of statement; indulgence in cut-and-dried phrases; undue aiming at pictorial effect; gaudiness of unnatural ornament; preference of gross and glaring effects en bloc to careful composition. certain authors who are either free from these defects or have vigour enough to excuse or transform them must now be noticed.

For reasons obvious, though various, it is not my intention to discuss in any way at the present time the style of the author of "Sartor Resartus.". Mr. Carlyle being thus removed, there can be little question who must take the foremost place in a discussion as to the merits and demerits of modern English prose style. And yet, audacious or paradoxical as the assertion may seem, it is at least doubtful whether in strictness we can assign to Mr. Ruskin a position in the very highest rank of writers if we are to adopt style as a criterion. The objection to his manner of writing is an obvious one, and one which he might very likely take as a compliment: it is too spontaneous in the first place, and too entirely subordinate to the subject in the second. I hope that it may be very clearly understood that I can see passages in "Modern Painters" and in the "Stones of Venice" (for I must be permitted to neglect the legions of little books with parody-provoking titles which have appeared in the last three lustres) which, for splendour of imaginative effect, for appropriateness of diction, for novelty and grandeur of conception, stand beyond all chance of successful rivalry, almost beyond all hope of decent parallel among the writings of ancient and modern masters. But in every case this marvellous effect will, when carefully examined, be found to depend on something wholly or partially extrinsic to the style. Mr. Ruskin writes beautifully because he thinks beautifully, because his thoughts spring, like Pallas, ready armed, and the fashion of the armour costs him nothing. Everybody has heard of the unlucky critic whose comment on Scott's fertility was that "the invention was not to be counted, for that came to him of its own accord." So it is with Mr. Ruskin. His beauties of style "come to him of their own accord," and then he writes as the very gods might dream of writing. But in the moments when he is off the tripod, or is upon some casual and un-Delphic tripod of his own construction or selection, how is his style altered! The strange touches of unforeseen colour became splashed and gaudy, the sonorous roll of the prophetic sentence-paragraphs drags and wriggles like a wounded snake, the cunning interweaving of scriptural or poetic phrase is patched and seamy. A Balaam on the Lord's side, he cannot curse or bless but as it is revealed to him, whereas the possessor of a great style can use it at will. He can shine on the just and on the unjust; can clothe his argument for tyranny or for liberty, for virtue or for vice, with the same splendour of diction, and the same unperturbed perfection of manner; can convince us, carry us with him, or leave us unconvinced but admiring, with the same unquestioned supremacy and the same unruffled calm. Swift can write a jeu d'esprit and a libel on the human race, a political pamphlet and a personal lampoon, with the same felicity and the same vigour. Berkeley can present tar-water and the Trinity, the theory of vision and the follies of contemporary free-thinking, with the same perfect lucidity and the same colourless fairness. But with Mr. Ruskin all depends on the subject, and the manner in which the subject is to be treated. He cannot even blame as he can praise; and there must be many who are ready to accept everything he can say of Tintoret or of Turner, and who feel no call to object to any of his strictures on Canaletto or on Claude, who yet perceive painfully the difference of style in the panegyrist and the detractor, and who would demand the stricter if less obvious justice, and the more artistic if apparently perverted sensitiveness, of the thorough master of style.

But if we have to quarrel with Mr. Ruskin because he has not sufficient command of the unquestioned beauties of his style, because he is not, in Carew's words: —

A king who rules as he thinks fit
The universal monarchy of wit,

but is rather a slave to his own thoughts and fancies, a very opposite fault must be found with the next writer who falls to be mentioned. "We do not," says an author with whom I am surprised to find myself in even partial and temporary agreement; "we do not get angry so much with what Mr. Matthew Arnold says as with his insufferable manner of saying it." In other words, there is no fear of omitting to notice a deliberate command and peculiarity of manner in Mr. Arnold, whether that manner be considered "insufferable" or no. For myself I must confess, that though I have very rarely felt the least inclination to get angry with anything which the author of "Culture and Anarchy" may have chosen to say, and though I have in common with all the youth of Zion an immense debt to acknowledge to his vindication of our faith and freedom from the chains of Philistia, yet I could very frequently find it in my heart to wish that Mr. Arnold had chosen any other style than that which appears to afford him such extreme delight. Irony is an admirable thing, but it must be grave and not grimacing. Innocence is an admirable thing, but it should not be affected. To have a manner of one's own is an admirable thing, but to have a mannerism of one's own is perhaps not quite so admirable. It is curious that his unfortunately successful pursuit of this latter possession should have led Mr. Arnold to adopt a style which has more than any other the fault he justly censured twenty years ago as the special vice of modern art — the fault of the fantastic. No doubt the great masters of style have each a cachet which is easily decipherable by a competent student; no doubt, in spite of Lord Macaulay, Arbuthnot is to be distinguished from Swift, and the cunningest imitators of Voltaire from Voltaire himself. But to simulate this distinction by the deliberate adoption of mere tricks and manners is what no true master of style ever yet attempted, because for no true master of style was it ever yet necessary. Mr. Ruskin, to use the old Platonic simile, has not his horses sufficiently well in hand; at times the heavenly steed, with a strong and sudden flight, will lift the car amid the empyrean, at times the earth-born yoke-fellow will drag it down, with scarcely the assistance and scarcely the impediment of the charioteer. But even this is better than the driving of one who has broken his horses, indeed, but has broken them to little but the mincing graces of the Lady's Mile.

It is not possible to speak with equal definiteness of the style of a third master of English prose, who ranks in point of age and of reputation with Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Arnold. It would certainly be an over-hasty or an ill-qualified critic who should assert that Mr. Froude's style is always faultless; but, on the other hand, it may be asserted, without any fear whatever of contradiction carrying weight, that at its best it is surpassed by no style of the present day, and by few of any other, and that at its worst its faults are not of a venial character, for no fault in art is venial, but at any rate of a kind which may meet with more ready excuse than those of the writers previously noticed. These faults are perhaps two only — undue diffuseness and undue aiming at the picturesque. We have seen that these are the two most glaring faults of the age, and by his indulgence in them, and the splendid effects which he has produced by that indulgence, Mr. Froude has undoubtedly earned his place, if not as a säcularischer Mensch, at any rate as a representative man. No one, perhaps, who has read can fail to count among the triumphs of English prose the descriptions of the Pilgrimage of Grace in the "History," of Sir Richard Grenhvil's last fight in the "Short Studies," of the wreckers at Ballyhige in the "English in Ireland." There are also many shorter passages which exhibit almost every excellence that the most exacting critic could demand. But it is not to be denied that Mr. Froude has very frequently bowed the knee before the altar of Baal. It is unlawful to occupy twelve mighty volumes with the history of one nation during little more than half a century: it is unlawful for the sound critical reason of St. John, that if such a practice obtained universally, the world could not contain the books that should he written; and also for the reason that in such writing it is almost impossible to observe the reticence and compression which are among the lamps of style. It is unlawful to imagine and set down, except very sparingly, the colour of which the trees probably were at the time when kings and queens made their entrance into such and such a city, the buildings which they may or may not have looked upon, the thoughts which may or may not have occurred to them. Such sacrificings at the shrine of effect, such trespassings on the domains and conveying of the methods of other arts and alien muses, are not to be commended or condoned. But one must, at the same time, allow with the utmost thankfulness that there are whole paragraphs, if not whole pages, of Mr. Froude's, which, for practised skill of composition and for legitimate beauty of effect, may take their place among the proudest efforts of English art.

It will probably be agreed that the three writers whom I have noticed stand at the head of contemporary English prose authors in point of age and authority; but there are other and younger authors who must necessarily be noticed in any account of the subject which aims at completeness. Mr. Swinburne's progress as a prose-writer can hardly have failed to be a subject of interest, almost equally with his career as a poet, to every lover of our tongue. His earliest appearance, the essay on Byron, is even now in many respects characteristic of his work; but it does not contain — and it is a matter of sincere congratulation for all lovers of English prose that it does not contain — any passage at all equal to the magnificent descant on Marlowe, which closes its ten years younger brother, the essay on Chapman. In the work which has occupied this interval, the merits and defects of Mr. Swinburne as a prose-writer may be read by whoso wills. At times it has seemed as if the weeds would grow up with the good seed and choke it. Mr. Swinburne has fallen into the error, not unnatural for a poet, of forgetting that the figures and the language allowable in poetry are not also allowable in prose. The dangerous luxury of alliteration has attracted him only too often, and the still more dangerous licence of the figure called chiasmus has been to him even as a siren, from whose clutches he has been hardly saved. But the noticeable thing is that the excellences of his prose speech have grown even stranger and its weaknesses weaker since he began. In the essay on Blake, admirable as was much thereof, a wilful waste of language, not infrequently verging on a woeful want of sense, was too frequently apparent. In the notes on his poems, and in "Under the Microscope," just as was most of the counter-criticism, it was impossible not to notice a tendency to verbiage and a proneness, I will not say to prefer sound to sense, but unnecessarily to reinforce sense with sound. But at the same time, in the "Essays and Studies," and the essay on Chapman, no competent critic could fail to notice, notwithstanding occasional outbreaks, the growing reticence and severity of form, as well as the increasing weight and dignity of meaning. Mr. Swinburne, as a prose-writer, is in need of nothing but the pruning-hook. Most of his fellows are in want chiefly of something which might be worth pruning.

It is obviously impossible in the present article to notice minutely all even of the more prominent names in contemporary prose. Some there are among the older of our writers who yet retain the traditions of the theological school of writing, to which style owes so much. A good deal might be said of Cardinal Manning's earlier style (for his progress in this hierarchy has hardly corresponded with his promotion in the other), as well as of Dr. Newman's admirable clearness and form, joined as it is, perhaps unavoidably, to a certain hardness of temper. Mr. Disraeli's stylistic peculiarities would almost demand an essay to themselves. They have never perhaps had altogether fair play; for novel-writing and politics are scarcely friends to style. But Mr. Disraeli has the root of the matter in him, and has never been guilty of the degradation of the sentence, which is the crying sin of modern prose; while his unequalled felicity in the selection of single epithets (witness the famous "Batavian graces" and a thousand others) gives him a supply of legitimate ornament which few writers have ever had at command. Tastes, I suppose, will always differ as to the question whether his ornamentation is not sometimes illegitimate. The parrot-cry of upholstery is easily raised. But I think we have at last come to see that rococo work is good and beautiful in its way, and he must be an ungratefu1 critic who objects to the somewhat lavish emeralds and rubies of the "Arabian Nights." Of younger writers, there are not many whose merits it would be proper to specify in this place; while the prevailing defects of current style have been already fully noticed. But there is one book of recent appearance which sets the possibilities of modern English prose in the most favourable light, and gives the liveliest hope as to what may await us, if writers, duly heeding the temptations to which they are exposed, and duly availing themselves of the opportunities for study and imitation which are at their disposal, should set themselves seriously to work to develop pro virili the prose resources of the English tongue. Of the merely picturesque beauty of Mr. Pater's "Studies in the History of the Renaissance," there can be no necessity for me to say anything here. In the first place it cannot escape the notice of any one who reads the book, and in the second, if there be any truth in what has been already said, the present age by no means needs to be urged to cultivate or to appreciate this particular excellence. The important point for us is the purely formal or regular merit of this style, and this is to be viewed with other eyes and tested by other methods than those which are generally brought to bear by critics of the present day. The main point which I shall notice is the subordinate and yet independent beauty of the sentences when taken separately from the paragraph. This is a matter of the very greatest importance. In too much of our present prose the individual sentence is unceremoniously robbed of all proper form and comeliness. If it adds its straw to the heap, its duty is supposed to be done. Mr. Pater has not fallen in this error, nor has he followed the multitude to do evil in the means which he has adopted for the production of the singular "sweet attractive kind of grace" which distinguishes these studies. A bungler would have depended, after the fashion of the day, upon strongly coloured epithets, upon complicated and quasi-poetic cadences of phrase, at least upon an obtrusively voluptuous softness of thought and a cumbrous protraction of sentence. Not so Mr. Pater. There is not to be discovered in his work the least sacrifice of the phrase to the word, of the clause to the phrase, of the sentence to the clause, of the paragraph to the sentence. Each holds its own proper place and dignity while contributing duly to the dignity and place of its superior in the hierarchy. Let any reader turn to pp. 15, 16, or pp. 118, 119, of the book, and see, as he cannot fail to see, the extraordinary mastery with which this complicated success is attained. Often the cadence of the sentence considered separately will seem to be — and will in truth be — quite different from that of the paragraph, because its separate completeness demands this difference. Yet the total effect, so far from being marred, is enhanced. There is no surer mark of the highest style than this separate and yet subordinate finish. In the words of Mr. Ruskin, it is "so modulated that every square inch is a perfect composition."

It is this perfection of modulation to which we must look for the excellence that we require and do not meet with in most of the work of the present day, and it is exactly this modulation with which all the faults that I have had to comment upon in the preceding pages are inconsistent. To an artist who should set before him such a model as either of the passages which I have quoted, lapses into such faults would be impossible. He will not succumb to the easy diffuseness which may obliterate the just proportion and equilibrium of his periods. He will not avail himself of the ready assistance of stereotyped phraseology to spare himself the trouble of casting new moulds and devising new patterns. He will not imagine that he is a scene-painter instead of a prose-writer, a decorator instead of an architect, a caterer for the desires of the many instead of a priest to the worship of the few. He will not indulge in a style which requires the maximum of ornament in order to disguise and render palatable the minimum of art and of thought. He will not consider it his duty to provide, at the least possible cost of intellectual effort on the part of the reader, something which may delude him into the idea that he is exercising his judgment and his taste. And, above all, he will be careful that his sentences have an independent completeness and harmony, no matter what purpose they may be designed to fulfil. For the sentence is the unit of style; and by the cadence and music, as well as by the purport and bearing, of his sentences, the master of style must stand or fall. For years, almost for centuries, French prose has been held up as a model to English prose-writers, and for the most part justly. Only of late has the example come to have something of the helot about it. The influence of Victor Hugo — an influence almost omnipotent among the younger generation of French literary men — has been exercised in prose with a result almost as entirely bad as its effect in verse has been good. The rules of verse had stiffened and cramped French poetry unnaturally, and violent exercise was the very thing required to recover suppleness and strength; but French prose required no such surgery, and it has consequently lost its ordered beauty without acquiring compensatory charms. The proportions of the sentence have been wilfully disregarded, and the result is that French prose is probably now at a lower point of average merit than at any time for two centuries.

That an art should be fully recognized as an art, with strict rules and requirements, is necessary to attainment of excellence in it; and in England this recognition, which poetry has long enjoyed, has hardly yet been granted to prose. No such verses as we find by scores in such books as Marston's satires would now suggest themselves as possible or tolerable to any writer of Marston's powers; but in prose many a sentence quite as intolerable as any of these verses is constantly written by persons of presumably sound education and competent wits. The necessities of the prose-writer are, an ear in the first place: this is indispensable and perhaps not too common. In the second place, due study of the best authors, as well to know what to avoid as what to imitate. Lastly, care, which perhaps is not too much to demand of any artist, so soon as he has recognized and has secured recognition of the fact that he is an artist. Care is indeed the one thrice-to-be-repeated and indispensable property of the prose-writer. It is preeminently necessary to him for the very reason that it so easy to dispense with it, and to write prose without knowing what one does. Verse, at least verse which is to stand, as Johnson says, "the test of the finger if not of the ear," cannot be written without conscious effort and observation. But something which may be mistaken for prose can unfortunately be produced without either taste, or knowledge, or care. With these three requisites there should be no limit to the beauty and to the variety of the results obtained. The fitness of English for prose composition will hardly be questioned, though it may be contended with justice that perhaps in no other language has the average merit of its prose been so far below the excellence of its most perfect specimens. But the resources which in the very beginning of the practice of original composition in fully organized English could produce the splendid and thoughtful, if quaint and cumbrous, embroideries of "Euphues" and the linked sweetness of the "Arcadia," which could give utterance to the symphonies of Browne and Milton, which could furnish and suffice for the matchless simplicity of Bunyan, the splendid strength of Swift, the transparent clearness of Middleton and Berkeley, the stately architecture of Gibbon, are assuredly equal to the demands of any genius that may arise to employ them.

It is therefore the plain duty of every critic to assist at least in impressing upon the mass of readers that they do not receive what they ought to receive from the mass of writers, and in suggesting a multiplication and tightening of the requirements which a prosaist must fulfil. There are some difficulties in the way of such impression and suggestion in the matter of style. It is not easy for the critic to escape being bidden, in the words of Nicholas Breton, "not to talk too much of it, having so little of it," or to avoid the obvious jest of Diderot on Beccaria, that he had written an "ouvrage sur le style, où il n'y a point de style." For, unluckily, fault-finding is an ungracious business, and in criticising prose as prose the criticism has to be mostly fault-finding, the pleasanter if even harder task of discriminating appreciation being as a rule withheld from the critic. But I can see no reason why this state of things should continue, and I know no Utopia which ought to be more speedily rendered topic, than that in which at least the same censure which is now incurred by a halting verse, a discordant rhyme, or a clumsy stanza, should be accorded to a faultily-arranged clause, to a sentence of inharmonious cadence, to a paragraph of irregular and ungraceful architecture.

George Saintsbury 


  1. I cannot refrain from noticing an instance from this writer of the absurdity into which the passion for picturesque epithet betrays many contemporary authors. At Newbury, we are told, "the London trainbands flung Rupert's horsemen roughly off their front of pikes." Here roughly is in the Polonian sense "good." Visions of the sturdy and pious citizen discomfiting the debauched cavalier are aroused. But let us consider it with the sobriety proper to history and to art, and perhaps we shall ask Mr. Green to show us how so fling an enemy softly off a pike. Roaring like a sucking-dove would be nothing to this gymnastic effort.
  2. I have for the present thought it better to leave out of consideration the probable effect of the diminished study of classics in modern school and university education. That this effect is decidedly adverse to the cultivation of style is sufficiently obvious, but the subject is too complicated to he incidentally treated, and perhaps the diminution itself is too recent for its effects to have been as yet much felt.