Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Introduction by Henry Craik
THE SELECTIONS contained in this the concluding volume of the present series, extend from the beginning of the century to our own day. We are tempted, in comparing these two periods, to be misled by the analogy of the rapid changes which the century has seen in other spheres, and to seek for a wide contrast between English prose as it was written at the beginning and as it is written at the close of the nineteenth century. But, as a fact, the analogy is not real: and it would be more true to say that no equal number of years has shown so few, rather than so many marked changes in prose style. In most of its essential features, English prose is the same now as it was when the eighteenth century closed: and we might read sentences, paragraphs, and even pages from many books written at the beginning and at the end of the period covered by this volume without finding any marked distinction which would help us to decide to which part of it they belong. But on the other hand, we may safely say that there is no equal period which presents anything like the same individual variety, or which has turned and twisted the models of the past into as great a multiplicity of shapes, according to the endless eccentricities either of fashion or of taste; partly also, it is only fair to admit, in compliance with the exigencies of a boundless complexity of subject matter. It is just these two, apparently opposite characteristics, which make it so hard to pronounce a definite judgment upon the main tendencies of English prose in our day. It is comparatively easy to trace the progress of a marked and decisive change of taste or fashion, which moves forward by well-defined stages, compels obedience to its successive developments, and which presents itself finally in sharp contrast to its earliest phase. It is much more difficult, through a maze of bewildering variety amongst contemporary writings, to grasp any single law which regulates changes which are only slowly revealing themselves, and the ultimate tendencies of which we can at best only guess.
The prose of the eighteenth century at its best had been marked by a certain stateliness which combined with its formal severity, and perhaps in great measure owed to that formal severity a simple lucidity, which was its chief ornament. It is a common fallacy to believe that simplicity is always due to nature; it is quite as often due to the highest art. The eighteenth century had certainly lost, and lost beyond recall, the naïveté and freshness which had been the hall-mark of Elizabethan prose. But it had inherited from the seventeenth century an earnestness and directness which was the chief merit of that age, but which had been nothing but a spasmodic force until it had undergone the chastening discipline of taste and harmony. Such discipline the eighteenth century had brought: and, shaking off the uncouthness of pedantry and conceit, had graced English prose with something of the facile ease and natural flow of courtly and polished conversation. The language was recovering, after long and tortuous wanderings, the directness and lucidity which were amongst the best of its inherent traits; but the most that could now be hoped for was that the directness and lucidity should be the product of art and not of nature. What Johnson did for English prose was to establish such lucidity on the solid basis of fixed and logical rule, which made slipshod inaccuracy and vague ambiguity crimes to be arraigned before a tribunal that would give them short shrift. How consistent such rule was with eloquence, with simplicity, with matchless force, Johnson himself showed: and it was not his fault if feebler brains mistook his aims, and feebler hands first parodied and then perverted the model he had set them. That common form of intellectual perversity which thinks that it has sufficiently marked the place of Johnson in prose style by calling him turgid and sesquipedalian, inevitably leads its victims into a parody of his formality which lacks the faintest reflection of his virility and force.
Before the eighteenth century had passed, the tradition of stateliness had waned: and a degraded taste had preserved the formality as a tradition which served to mark what was held to be a literary manner and style. They seemed to have forgotten the very memory of the lucid simplicity and critical accuracy that had been its saving grace. To dabble in literature became unfortunately a fashion which was supposed to indicate a certain amount of cultivation. It was held to be a graceful accomplishment for the man of the world: and with increasing frequency it even became a calling and an occupation, pursued for profit; and while some of the best, with perhaps heedless superciliousness, disdained its overt pursuit, its ranks were crowded with those who reckoned it a distinction to have written what found its way into print. With such a class, a certain superficial formality which follows some fashion or tradition, was almost a necessity. They were bound either to write in obedience to such a fashion or not to write at all. Most of all was this modish pedantry essential in the days when journalism and the literature of periodicals became a regular occupation of an increasing number. The journalist almost necessarily falls into a certain mannerism: he could not perform his daily task if he did not. It is only when a man lives with his subject and has made it his own, that he can speak a language of his own; and he is happy, if in such a case he belongs to the chosen circle who can use that language with ease and freedom, and yet who never err against the rules prescribed by the genius of their native tongue.
In the earliest years of our century, all the influences which were most harmful were most rife. The best elements of eighteenth-century prose were gone, and only the worthless husks of a certain formal literary tradition were left. A new host were rushing into literature, who wished to pose as men of culture, and therefore thought it necessary above all things to make their writing something distinct from their ordinary conversationso as to satisfy themselves and others that it was literature. Journalism and periodical writing were becoming more widely spread, but, not yet having acquired the strength of experience which could hammer out a style of their own, were content to allow a stilted pedantry to pose for literary dignity.
But the evil of this habit told upon more than merely its baser instruments. Never did disintegration proceed more rapidly than in the quarter of a century that followed Johnsons death. The formalism became an accepted fashion, which to a certain extent influenced even such as Scott, and did its best to disfigure the masterpieces of his genius. It is true that in his case the effect is but slight, and that defects of style are scarcely more than flecks upon his genius; but it is equally true that what mars his style is not its carelessness and looseness, so much as a certain cumbrous and stilted diction that seems to repeat the fashion of the day. And if it was so with him, how much more with the lesser herd, whose style has only helped to commit them to a happy oblivion!
But against this formal pedantry, which was cumbrous without being dignified, and ponderous without strength, a reaction was certain to come. Journalism, at first in the quarterly and monthly reviewsif we may use the word in rather a larger sense than strict etymology would allowbecame a living force, and was compelled to develop a style of its own. It had to be terse and impressive, to have a certain swing and march of words; and, almost insensibly, it fell into certain mannerisms, which doubtless give a uniformity to the style of each writer, but nevertheless mark out his individuality. This is, if we consider it, an almost inevitable result of anonymous writing long pursued. Even if a man does not put his name on the title-page of a book, or sign it at the end of an article, yet he wishes his work to have a certain character of its own: it gives him a sense of continuity and of propriety; nay, even the rhythm and the turn of his phrases ease his pen, just as each blacksmith that knows the cunning of his craft gives his own peculiar swing and balance to the hammer. No one who has written anonymously has failed to experience the sense of discipline that compels him, up to a certain point, to adopt the tone and catch the mannerisms of the organ for which he writes. But the adepts learn to carry those mannerisms and catch that tone, after a fashion of their own. It was by a process something like this that the style of Jeffrey was evolved, with all its clear and sharply-cut phrasesand its alert and somewhat pedagogic self-complacency; and it was by the same process that the far more artistic style of Macaulay acquired its first bent and character. Inevitably in anonymous journalism, which aims at any high literary character, and does not stoop to catch attention by tricks of self-advertisement, a certain fashion imposes itself upon all its contributors, just as a fashion of phrase and tone impresses itself upon those who take part in the pleadings in the same Court or in the discussions in the same Assembly. Only the strongest and the most experienced can at once obey that unwritten law of fashion, and yet turn it to their own uses as Macaulay did.
But just as journalism was compelled to invent a style of its own, the crispness and quirk movement of which stood in distinct contrast to the waning traditions of the eighteenth century, so others sought to escape from undue formality by straining after fantastic ornament or exaggeration. The prose of De Quincey will always find some admirers attracted by its elaborate involution, its untiring amplitude of description and richness of ornament, which have all the appearances of eloquence except those that are true. We only see how limited and artificial it is when we imagine a prose style formed upon De Quinceys model, and adapting that model to changing needs. The spuriousness of the coin is soon detected when we attempt to pass it outside the narrow circle which De Quincey made his own, and where his ingenuity and inventiveness assure him a meed of respect. The prose of Landor is more chaste, more classic, and more rigid in the severity of its rules; but surely even his warmest admirers must feel that there is a strained note about it, and a certain stiffness of affectation in its elaboration. With Charles Lamb we have a quaintness of archaicism which loses all trace of artificiality only by the magic touch of genius.
How far exaggeration could go, and how far unquestionable genius could find contorted diction, and every conceivable antic of phraseology, a worthy and convenient means of picturesque description or impressive moralising, can never be seen in more striking manifestation than in the style which Carlyle deliberately adopted, and as tenaciously maintained. Genius must make its own laws; and however severe the strain upon our faith or upon our sense of proportion and harmony, we must hesitate to question the validity of these laws in their personal application. We may, however, be permitted to regret that the resources of such genius were not sufficient to find expression at less expense of uncouth phrase, and ejaculatory emphasis, and could not more frequently hold its course in that more serene stream of language which Carlyle can occasionally achieve, where the effect of the restraint and restfulness is perhaps not less picturesque than that of the hurtle and passion of words, and where the impression, if less startling, is certainly not less lasting. But if with all humility we ascribe to genius the right to frame its own laws, we need not surrender our independence in questioning whether these laws are of permanent or universal application. When genius has once used and then laid aside instruments that are of strange fashion and unwieldly form, then their use is gone. They may have served a good purpose in breaking a former yoke, or dethroning a formal tyranny; but they are unfit for weaker hands, and when grasped by imitators can only afford a spectacle for laughter to gods and men.
But no habit is more sure to find examples than that of imitation, and the penalties of travesty are just those which men learn with most difficulty. A style like that of Carlyle breeds a whole progeny of mimics, who fancy themselves followers, and think that the eccentricities of their model, if slavishly reproduced, will entitle them to the name of scholars and disciples. Above all things, the fashion of the day seems to pursue what is now held to be the picturesque or dramatic in diction, when the feelings are to be harrowed by an ejaculation, the heart is to be stirred by a disjointed sentence, and the ear arrested by a violent fracture of all natural sequence of words. The intention of such tricks is easily perceived, and there is always a large and appreciative public that will praise an intention which it thinks laudable, without critically inquiring whether the intention is achieved or not. After all, we must admit that the effort after a certain colloquial directness is something that lies deep in the genius of our language; and we must be lenient to a fashion which, albeit in a blind and devious way, is groping after that directness, and seeking to make that language a convenient and adaptable vehicle for such thoughts as may be current.
The truth is, that style in our own day is a complex matter, and he would be rash who should attempt to dogmatise either as to its character or its prospects. It was inevitable that, after a somewhat formal phase, there should come one of restless and somewhat lawless exaggeration. With an increased activity in writing, with an increased audience, with an increased range of subjects, it was also certain that eccentricities should be begotten, and that human ingenuity should set itself to devise something new without too much thought of its quality. We must remember also that there were influences from outside that could not but tell on our prose style. The study of Germanabove all, of German philosophyin the early part of the century, could not but disturb the rhythm of a period as it was conceived by Johnson. Science, as it advanced and specialised itself, drew farther and farther apart from literature, formed a language of its own, and threw back on literature a whole host of technical terms, which broke up our most characteristic idioms, and rendered it difficult to preserve a style at once simple and colloquial, and free from expressions which are strained by common custom from the technical use for which they were invented and intendedwhich, in short, belong strictly to the category of slang in its widest sense.
But when we have fully recognised all this, we must admit certain vigorous elements in the prose of our own day. The style which slavishly imitates marked individual peculiarities, and which attempts, at second-hand, to reproduce mannerisms and exaggerations which are hardly forgiven even to the originator, has in it all the elements of decay, and the very cheapness of its effects assures us that they will be short-lived. And, on the other hand, we must admit the presence of a certain taste, and an appreciation of what is best in style, that are certain to force us back to the best models and to make us draw from them a certain inspiration. We must admit also that, even when prose wanders far from the highest models, it strives to cut itself adrift from formality and pedantry, and to express, with an unmistakable dexterity, subtle turns of thought and ingenious intricacies of feeling which the prose of two or three generations ago would scarcely have attempted to convey. It moves lightly and easily; it aims at a colloquial familiarity which, as we must not forget, is one of the earliest and truest characteristics of the genius of the language. It is undoubtedly often slipshod and ambiguous, and the so-called ornaments often amount to little more than vague rhodomontade, which has all the vices of a spurious coinage. But, as we may see more than once in the history of our prose, false ornament, however distasteful, is, on the whole, a better and more healthy sign than no ornament at all: a prose style which moves too timidly, and fears all that is gorgeous lest it become tawdry, and all that is strenuous lest it become exaggerated, soon becomes afraid of its own shadow, and ceases to move at all. No prose can have in it the instinct of life and vigour, which does not to a large extent repeat the tone, and catch, in a certain measure, the current fashion of expression of its own day. Thought may drift into paradox; it may mistake self-complacency for boldness, and pertness for originality. But for that prose style is not to blame, and it must perforce assume something of the tone of its own day. If there is anything which we may venture to prophesy with some confidence, it is that all the swarm of ideas, all the jostling crowd of competing paradoxes, all the sprightly theories which are most attractive to ignorance just emerging into a little knowledgesymptoms so characteristic of our own daymust suffer a reaction, and must be followed by a period of rest. With that rest will come simplicity: and we need not despair that the prose style which will ultimately evolve itself out of the seemingly lawless and disorganised variety of our own day, will recover, in response to great accuracy of thought, that simplicity of diction by which alone accurate thought can convey itself. It will not be a less potent instrument because for a time it has bent itself to the needs of a restless age, and has acquired some fresh elasticity thereby.
But, whatever may be the future of our prose, we must remember that it has a history; and we shall best discover and preserve what is best in its genius by studying that history. Certain phases of it are gone beyond recall, and a pedantic archaicism will not avail one jot to resuscitate them. Certain notes have been lost, and steps have been taken downward which never can be retraced. But as we linger over its past, and study its best models, as we see how marvellously certain forms of expression, which were in their origin absolutely simple and natural, represent the very highest art in the adaptation of words to thought and to feeling, surely our reverence for our own language must be deepened, and at least some lingering notes from its finest music in the past must continue to echo through the future, and give inspiration to those who may hereafter be its masters.