Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/466

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451
PROSE


needful that to plainness should be added various attractions and ornaments. The sentences must be built up in a manner which displays variety and flexibility. It is highly desirable that there should be a harmony, and even a rhythm, in the progress of style, care being always taken that this rhythm and this harmony are not those of verse, or recognizably metrical. Again, the colour and form of adjectives, and their sufficient yet not excessive recurrence, is an important factor in the construction of prose. The omission of certain faults, too, is essential. In every language grammatical correctness is obligatory. Here we see a distinction between mere conversation, which is loose, fragmentary and often, even in the lips of highly educated persons, slightly ungrammatical; and prose, which is bound to weed away whatever is slovenly and incorrect, and to watch very closely lest merely colloquial expressions, which cannot be defended, should slip into careful speech. What is required in good prose is a moderate and reasonable elevation without bombast or bathos. Not everything that is loosely said or vaguely thought is prose, and the celebrated phrase of M. Jourdain in Molière's Bourgeois gentilhomme: “ Par ma foi, il y a plus de quarante ans que je dis de la prose, sans que j'en susse rien,” is not exactly true, although it is an amusing illustration of the truth, for all the little loose phrases which M. Jourdain had used in his life, though they were certainly not verse, were not prose either, whatever the schoolmaster might say. On the other hand, it seems that Earle goes too enthusiastically in the contrary direction when he says, “ Poetry, which is the organ of Imagination, is futile without the support of Reason; Prose, which is the organ of Reason, has no vivacity or beauty or artistic value but with the favour and sympathy of the Imagination.” It is better to hold to the simpler view that prose is literary expression not subjected to any species of metrical law.

Greece.—The beginnings of ancient Greek prose are very obscure. It is highly probable that they took the form of inscriptions in temples and upon monuments, and gradually developed into historical and topographical records, preserving local memories, and giving form to local legends. It seems that it was in Ionia that the art of prose was first cultivated, and a history of Miletus, composed by the half-mythical Cadmus, is appealed to as the earliest monument of Greek prose. This, however, is lost, and so are all the other horoi of earliest times. We come down to something definite when we reach Hecataeus, the first geographer, and Herodorus, the first natural philosopher, of the Greeks; and, although the writings of these men have disappeared, we know enough about them to see that by the 4th century B.C. the use of prose in its set modern sense had been established on a permanent basis. We even know what the character of the style of Hecataeus was, and that it was admired for its clearness, its grammatical purity, its agreeable individuality—qualities which have been valued in prose ever since. These writers were promptly succeeded by Hellanicus of Lesbos, who wrote many historical books which are lost, and by Herodotus of Halicarnassus, whose noble storehouse of chronicle and legend is the earliest monument of European prose which has come down to us. When once non-metrical language could be used with the mastery and freedom of Herodotus, it was plain that all departments of human knowledge were open to its exercise. But it is still in Ionia and the Asiatic islands that we find it cultivated by philosophers, critics and men of science. The earliest of these great masters of prose survive, not in their works, but in much later records of their opinions; in philosophy the actual writings of Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and Empedocles are lost, and it is more than possible that their cosmological rhapsodies were partly metrical, a mingling of ode with prose apophthegm. We come into clearer air when we cross the Aegean and reach the Athenian historians: Thucydides, whose priceless story of the Peloponnesian War has most fortunately come down to us; and Xenophon, who continued that chronicle in the spirit and under the influence of Thucydides, and who carried Greek prose to a great height of easy distinction. But it is with the practice of philosophy that prose in ancient Greece rises to its acme of ingenuity, flexibility and variety, proving itself a vehicle for the finest human thought such as no later ingenuity of language has contrived to excel. The death of Socrates (399 B.C.) has been taken by scholars as the date when the philosophical writings of the Athenians reached their highest pitch of perfection in the art of Plato, who is the greatest prose writer of Greece, and, in the view of many who are well qualified to judge, of the world. In his celebrated dialogues—Crito, Gorgias, Phaedo, Phaedrus, the Symposium, most of all perhaps in the Republic—we see what splendour, what elasticity, what exactitude, this means of expression had in so short a time developed; how little there was for future prose-writers in any age to learn about their business. The rhetoricians were even more highly admired by the critics of antiquity than the philosophers, and it is probable that ancient opinion would have set Demosthenes higher than Plato as a composer of prose. But modern readers are no longer so much interested in the technique of rhetoric, and, although no less an authority than Professor Gilbert Murray has declared the essay-writing of the school of Isocrates to form “ the final perfection of ancient prose,” the works of the orators cease to move us with great enthusiasm. In Aristotle we see the conscious art of prose-writing already subordinated to the preservation and explanation of facts, and after Aristotle's day there is little to record in a hasty outline, of the progress of Greek prose.

Latin.—In spite of having the experience of the Greeks to guide them, the Romans obeyed the universal law of literary history by cultivating verse long before they essayed the writing of prose. But that the example of later Greece was closely followed in Rome is proved by the fact that the earliest prose historians of whom we have definite knowledge, Q. F. Pictor and L. C. Alimentus, actually wrote in Greek. The earliest annalist who wrote in Latin was L. C. Hemina; the works of all these early historians are lost. A great deal of primitive Roman prose was occupied with jurisprudence and political oratory. By universal consent the first master of Latin prose was Cato, the loss of whose speeches and “ Origines ” is extremely to be deplored; we possess from his pen one practical treatise on agriculture. In the next generation we are told that the literary perfection of oratory was carried to the highest point by Marcus Antonius and Lucius Licinius Crassus—“ by a happy chance their styles were exactly complementary to one another, and to hear both in one day was the highest intellectual entertainment which Rome afforded.” Unfortunately none but inconsiderable fragments survive to display to us the qualities of Roman prose in its golden age. Happily, however, those qualities were concentrated in a man of the highest genius, whose best writings have come down to us; this is Cicero, whose prose exhibits the Latin language to no less advantage than Plato's does the Greek. From 70 to 60 B.C. Cicero's literary work lay mainly in the field of rhetoric; after his exile the splendour of his oratory declined, but he was occupied upon two treatises of extreme importance, the De oratore and the De republica, composed in 55 and 54–57 B.C. respectively; of the latter certain magnificent passages have been preserved. The beautiful essays of Cicero's old age are more completely known to us, and they comprise two of the masterpieces of the prose of the world, the De amicitia and De senectute (45 B.C.). It is to the collection of the wonderful private letters of Cicero, published some years after his death by Atticus and Tiro, that we owe our intimate knowledge of the age in which he lived, and these have ever since and in every language been held the models of epistolary prose. Of Cicero's greatest contemporary, Julius Caesar, much less has been preserved, and this is unfortunate because Roman critical opinion placed Caesar at the head of those who wrote Latin prose with purity and perfection: His letters, his grammars, his works of science, his speeches are lost, but we retain his famous Commentaries on the War in Gaul. Sallust followed Caesar as an historian, and Thucydides as a master of style. His use of prose, as we trace it in the Jugurtha and the Catilina, is hard, clear and polished. The chroniclers who succeeded Sallust neglected these qualities, and Latin prose, as the Augustan age began, became more diffuse and more rhetorical.