Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 128.djvu/717

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707
MODERN ENGLISH PROSE.

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 dif-