Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/468

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453
PROSE


translated Guevara, Castiglione and Amyot, brought with them not a few of the ingenious exotic graces of those originals, and prepared the way for the startling innovations of Lyly in his famous didactic romance of Euphues (1579). The extravagances and eccentricities of Lyly outdid those of his continental prototypes, and euphuism became a disturbing influence which, it may be, English prose has not, even to the present hour, entirely succeeded in throwing off. In spite of its overwhelming popularity, it was opposed in its own day, not merely by the stately sobriety of Hooker, in whom we see Latin models predominant, but by the sweetness of Sir Philip Sidney in his Arcadia. Raleigh wrote English prose that was perhaps more majestic than any which preceded it, but he revelled in length of sentence and in ponderosity of phrase, so that it is probable that the vast prestige of The History of the World on the whole delayed the emancipation of English prose more than it furthered it. The direct influence of the euphuistic eccentricity was seen for some time in the work of poets like Lodge and Greene, and divines like Lancelot Andrewes; its indirect influence in the floweriness and violence of most careful prose down to the Restoration. Bacon, whose contempt of the vernacular is with difficulty to be excused, despaired too early of our national writing. Donne cultivated a rolling and sonorous majesty of style; and Burton could use English with humour and vivacity when he gave himself the chance, but his text is a prototype of the vicious abuse of quotation which was a crowning fault of prose in the early 17th century. In spite of the skill with which, during the civil wars and the Commonwealth, certain authors (such as Jeremy Taylor, Howell, Fuller, Milton, Izaak Walton) manipulated prose, and in spite of the extraordinary magnificence of the Ciceronian periods of Sir Thomas Browne, it was not until shortly before the Restoration that English prose reached its perfection. According to Dr Johnson, Sir William Temple (1628–1699) “ was the first writer who gave cadence to English prose; before his time they were careless of arrangement, and did not mind whether a sentence ended with an important word or an insignificant word, or with what part of speech it concluded.” The tendency was all in favour of brevity and crispness, and in particular of shorter sentences and easier constructions. Not a little of the majesty of the earlier age was lost; but for practical purposes, and in the hands of ordinary men, prose became a far more useful and businesslike implement than it had hitherto been. The short treatises of Halifax, if we compare them with similar writings of a generation earlier, display the complete change of style; or we may contrast the clear and sarcastic sentences of South with the undulating quaintness of Joseph Hall. The range of English speech was first comprehended perhaps by Dryden, who combined dignity and even pomp of movement with an ease and laxity at occasion which gave variety to prose, removed from it its stilted and too prelatical elevation at inappropriate moments, and approximated it to the ordinary speech of cultivated persons. This then may be called the foundation of modern English prose, which has extended into no departments not recognized, at least in essence, by Bunyan, Dryden and Temple. The ensuing varieties of prose have been mainly matters of style. In the 18th century, for instance, there was a constant alternation between a quiet, rather cold elegance and precision of prose-writing, which was called the Addisonian manner, and a swelling, latinized style, full of large words and weighty periods, in which Johnson was the most famous but Gibbon perhaps the most characteristic proficient. But as far as grammatical arrangement and the rules of syntax are concerned, it cannot be said that English prose has altered essentially since about 1680. It is, however, to be noted that in the course of the 19th century the use of short sentences, and the habit of neglecting to group them into paragraphs, introduced a heresy not known before; and that, on the other hand, there has been a successful attempt made to restore the beauty and variety of early 17th-century diction, which had suliered a long decline from the Restoration onwards.

Icelandic.-The independent invention of prose by the exiled aristocrats in the Heroic Age of Iceland is one of the most singular facts in literary history. It resulted from the fact that story-telling grew to be a recognized form of amusement in the isolated and refined life of an Icelandic household from the 9th to the 11th century. Something of the same kind had existed in the courts of Norway before the exodus, but it was in Iceland that it was reduced to an art and reached perfection. It is remarkable how suddenly the saga, as a composition, becamea finished work; it was written in a prose which immediately presented, in the best examples, “ a considerable choice of words, a richness of alliteration and a delicate use of syntax ” (Vigfusson). The deliberate composition of sagas began about the year 1030, and it is supposed that they began to be written down soon after 1100. It is distinctly recorded that Ari Fródi (1067–1148) was the first man in Iceland who wrote down stories in the Norse tongue. Many of Ari's books are lost, but enough survive to show what Icelandic prose was in the hands of its earliest artificer, and the impress of his rich and simple style is felt on all the succeeding masterpieces of the great age of Icelandic history and biography. But the Greater Sagas, as they are called, the anonymous stories which followed the work of Ari and were completed in the 13th century, exhibit prose style in its most enchanting fullness, whether in the majesty of Njala, in the romantic art of Laxdaela, or in the hurrying garrulity of Eyrbyggia. There followed a vast abundance of sagas and saga writers. The great historian, Sturla (1214–1284), is the latest of these classic writers of Iceland, and after his death there was a very rapid decline in the purity and dignity of the national prose. By the opening of the 14th century the art of writing in the old noble language had become entirely lost, and it was not until the 17th century that it began to revive as an archaeological curiosity and a plaything for scholars. “ For an Icelander of the present day to write modern history in saga style is a ludicrous absurdity,” and the splendid living prose of the 12th century remains unrelated, a strange and unparalleled portent in the history of European literature. Of its beneficial effect on later Scandinavian, English and even Teutonic style there can be no question.

Spain.—In Castilian Spanish, as in the other languages of Europe, verse is already far advanced before we meet with any distinct traces of prose. A didactic treatise for use in the confessional is attributed to a monk of Navarre, writing in the I3th century. Between 1220 and 1250 a chronicle of Toledo was indited. But the earliest prose-writer of whom Spain can really boast is King Alphonso the Learned (1226–1284), in whose encyclopedic treatises “ Castilian makes its first great stride in the direction of exactitude and clearness ” (Fitzmaurice-Kelly). Almost all the creditable prose of the end of the 13th century is attributed to Alphonso, who was helped by a sort of committee of subsidiary authors. The king's nephew, Juan Manuel (1282–1347), author of the admirable Conde Lucanor, carried prose to a further point in delicacy and precision. The poet Ayala (1332–1407) was another gifted artificer of Spanish prose, which suffered a setback in the hands of his successors, Santillana and Mena. It rose once more in The Sea of Histories of Pérez de Guzmán (1378–1460), who has been compared to Plutarch and St Simon, and in whom the lucid and energetic purity of Castilian prose is for the first time seen in its perfection. In the 15th century the shapeless novel of chivalry was predominant, while in the age of Charles V. poetry altogether overshadowed prose. The next great writer of prose whom we meet with is Guevara, who died in 1545, and whose Dial of Princes exercised an influence which was not confined to Spanish, and even extended to English prose (in North's well-known version). The historians of this period, prolix and discursive, were of less value. The earliest picaroon novel, Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), the authorship of which is unknown, introduced a new form and exhibited Castilian prose style in a much lighter aspect than it had hitherto worn. Still greater elegance is met with in the mystical and critical writings of Juan de Valdés and in those of Luis de León; of the latter Mr Fitzmaurice-Kelly says that “ his concise eloquence and his classical purity of expression rank