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It was, among the earliest secular books in the vulgar tongue ; and, measured by the light and learning of its times, it is one of the “monuments of mind” among historical land-marks; and the first bold impression struck by More and Elyot imparted their type to a large progeny.
There is much of fashion in style. The history of literature is, in great part, a record of these fashions. “Prose and verse," says D’Israeli,* “have been regulated by the same caprice that cuts our coats and cocks our hats.” First after the restoration of letters came a swarm of commentators and compilers. Verbosities attended the early dearth of intellect : for barren thoughts cannot bear the exposure of terse expression, and seek to veil lack of fruit by foliage of words. Hence frivolities are usually verbose, whilst the style in which deep thought finds utterance is oftener simple and unadorned. Cicero was a more popular model than Tacitus. This troop, who long infested literatureafterwards unhappily revived by Johnson,—were first, according to D'Israeli, routed by the facetious Erasmus. Then followed the epigrammatic era, succeeded by a short reign of epics. Spenser's “ Faëry Queen" did much, however, to elevate the national conception of literature : but the polemical writers of the time of Elizabeth did more. Of these I would place Thomas Cartwright and Hooker among the foremost. They were the fathers of the stalwart English of Sir Thomas Browne, and the manly sermons thundered forth to king and crowd by brave old Bishop Latimer : and which, modulated by time and epoch, characterized the quiet vigour of “ The Golden Grove.”
But let us first take a specimen from that prince of old English divines, Hooker. Hear what he says of Rome, and contrast his quiet power in speaking of her, with the feeble frenzy of some modern writers. How well he manages his thoughts, and how clearly they run, in well chosen words, through his lengthy sentences :
“The Schools of Rome teach Scripture to be so unsufficient, as if, except traditions were added, it did not contain all revealed and supernatural truth, which absolutely is necessary for the children of men in this life to know, that they may in the next be saved. Others, justly condemning this opinion, grow likewise into a dangerous extremity, as if Scripture did not only contain all things in that kind necessary, but all things simply, and in such sort that to do anything according to any other law were not only unnecessary but even opposite unto salvation, unlawful, and sinful, Whatsoever is spoken of God or things appertaining to God otherwise than as the truth is, though it seem an honour, it is an injury. And as incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation, so we must likewise take great heed lest, in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly, to be less reverently esteemed. I therefore leave it to themselves to consider whether they have in this first point, or not, overshot themselves; which God doth know is quickly done, even when our meaning is most sincere, as I am verily persuaded theirs in this case was.”
Mark the manly power of this simple language: how fitly the words are chosen ; how craftily managed is the relation and proximity of the different members of each sentence to the rest, and likewise of the sentences themselves, each to each, forming a natural sequence in the
* Curiosities of Literature.
+ Jeremy Taylor. This work was written at the Golden Grove, his residence, in Carmarthenshire,
well-put argument,—the predicate following close to the subject. Oh! right well was English begun by great and good old Hooker!
Most writers are fond of putting several ideas in the same sentence, but few can manage to do it without some injury to the force of what they mean to express; and fewer still can do so without some slight sacrifice of clearness. Let the reader test this; and shutting up the JOURNAL, and taking up his pen, let him write down Hooker's thoughts, as nearly as he can as Hooker has expressed them, and then let him compare his version with the original. It will teach him much. Then let him read the following passage from a modern divine, who publishes much, and who is so good and right-intentioned a man that I will not attach his name to his style of writing, of which this is by no means an extreme specimen :-
“And we, for these great practical contrasts, which will be brought out in the clear light of God's judgment-day, and which nothing in earth, or hell, or heaven, can alter or modify, must have our own sets of spiritual and carnal men; of those who can make it clear to us that they believe, and of those who cannot: divisions which are so many premiums to hypocrisy, so many hindrances to honest men, so many temptations to him whose experiences have acquired for him the title “religious,” to think that he has not a world and flesh and devil to struggle with, while he may be convincing a looker-on, by his ordinary behaviour, that he is an obedient slave of all three; tempt those who are treated as carnal and worldly to believe what they are told of themselves, to act as if they had not that longing for good, which they yet know that they have, and which God does not disown, for His Son has awakened it, though His servants may be stifling it."
How terribly confused is this complication of words; this jumble of ideas! What a muddle of language! What does it mean? Can anyone translate it into intelligible sentences of moderate length ?
I know of few better models among old writers, of clear and powerful style, than Sir Thomas Browne's works afford us. How admirably he enlarges in the following passages on the Divine truth, that from those to whom much is given much is required. I take it from his “ Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors." He says of such men as do not use their gifts, that
“ Having received excellent endowments, they have sat down by them, and have frustrated the intention of their abilities. For certainly, as some men have sinned in the principles of humanity, and must answer for not being men; so others offend if they be not more. Magis extra vitia, quàm cum virtutibus * would commend those : these are not excusable without an excellency. For great constitutions, and such as are constellated unto knowledge, do nothing till they outdo all; they come short of themselves if they go not beyond others; and must not sit down under the rank of worthies. God expects no lustre from the minor stars; but if the sun should not illumine all, it were a sin in nature.”
It is the great beauty of this passage that it clothes great truths and deep thoughts in terms so plain and intelligible that though written two hundred years since, no child of common intellect can fail to understand them. Nevertheless it contains some of the more difficult modes of expression. It is epigrammatic antithetical and figurative, and yet so terse that not a word can be spared. Here is another sentence, less difficult to write well, but quite as good in style, and as forcible in effect. He is condemning the herd who “cry aloud in worship of an echo,"--as Byron has it--and who are always ready to indorse any dogma, so long as they can thereby sail with the stream in
* “Rather to be without vices than with virtues.”
good company, and nestle under the wing of authority,a sin which strikes at the root of that mental progress, to which investigation is vital, This is a fault“ whereby," he says, “ either from a temperamental inactivity, we are unready to put in execution the suggestions or dictates of reason; or by a content and acquiescence in every species of truth, we embrace the shadow thereof, or so much as may palliate its just and substantial acquirements. Had our forefathers sat down in these resolutions, or had their curiosities been sedentary, who pursued the knowledge of things through all the corners of nature, the face of truth had been obscure unto us, whose lustre in some part their industries have revealed.
“ Certainly the sweat of their labours was salt unto them, and they took delight in the dust of their endeavours. For, questionless, knowledge then was no slender difficulty; and truth, which wise men say doth lye in a well, is not recoverable by exantlation.”*
Right well does this vigorous and stout-hearted writer follow out the same bold counsel in a subsequent chapter, thus :
“But the mortallest enemy unto knowledge, and that which hath done the greatest execution upon truth, hath been a peremptory adhesion unto authority; and inore especially the establishing of our belief upon the dictates of antiquity. For (as every capacity may observe) most men of all ages present, so superstitiously do look upon the ages past, that the authorities of the one exceed the reasons of the other. Whose persons, indeed, being far removed from our times, are now become out of the distance (range) of envies; and are conceived to approach the nearer unto truth itself, Now hereby methinks we manifestly delude ourselves, and widely walk out of the track of truth. For just men impose hereby a thraldom on their times which the ingenuity of no age should endure, or indeed the presumption of any did yet enjoin. Thus Hippocrates, about two thousand years ago, conceived it no injustice either to examine or refute the doctrines of his predecessors; Galen the like, and Aristotle the most of any. Yet did not any of these conceive themselves infallible; but when they either deliver their own inventions or reject other men's opinions, they proceed with judgment and ingenuity; establishing their assertions, not only with great solidity, but submitting them also unto the correction of future discovery.
“Secondly, men that adore times past consider not that those times were once present, that is, as our own are at this instant; and we ourselves to those to come, as they unto us at present: as we rely on them, so will those on us, and magnify us hereafter who at present condemn ourselves.”
Let us descend now to much more modern examples of clear and vigorous English. Very different was the style of Burke; but amidst its grandeur we find equal clearness, and, with all its defective logic, force of language no less perfect. Here are passages, as specimens, in which, with the terrors and horrors of the French Revolution before him, he thus, in some measure, paints perils in the course which Browne extols :
" When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly he estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us, nor can we know distinctly to what port to steer. * * Nothing is more certain than that our manners, our civilisation, and all the good things which are connected with manners and with civilisation, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles ; and were indeed the result of both combined, -I mean the spirit of a gentleman and the spirit of religion. The nobility and the clergy-the one by profession, the other by patronage—kept learning in existence, even in the midst of arms and confusions, and whilst governments were rather in their courses than formed. Learning paid back what it received to nobility and to priesthood, and paid it with usury, by enlarging their ideas and by furnishing their minds.”
* This is, indeed, a very hard word. It means being drawn out: from Exavedev, from avrlos, sentina.
Burke excelled both in making his long sentences perfectly intelligible and effective ; and also in using very short ones quite as effectively, and as steps in reasoning : a plan it were well for argumentative writers to avail themselves of more largely than is fashionable now. Here is an example :
« These public affections, combined with manners, are sometimes required as supplement, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law. The precept given by a wise man as well as a great critic, for the construction of poems, is equally true as to States. Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto. There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely."
Here is another example :
“Humanity cannot be degraded by humiliation. It is its very character to submit to such things. There is a consanguinity between benevolence and humility. They are virtues of the same stock. Dignity is of as good a race; but it belongs to the family of fortitude."
These consecutive apothegms in short sentences are telling, and constitute a good model. His invective was always forceful, chiefly from his skilful use of sarcastic antithesis, scathing without passion. Here are examples :
"The moral scheme of France furnishes the only pattern ever known which those who admire will instantly resemble. It is indeed an inexhaustible repertory of one kind of examples. In my wretched condition, though hardly to be classed with the living, I am not safe from them. They have tigers to fall upon animated strength. They have hyenas to prey upon carcases. The national menagerie is collected by the first physiologists of the time, and it is defective in no kind of savage nature. They pursue even such as me into the obscurest retreats, and haul them before revolutionary tribunals. Neither sex nor age, nor the sanctuary of the tomb, is sacred to them. They have so determined a hatred of the privileged orders that they deny even to the departed the sad immunity of the grave. They are not wholly without an object. This turpitude purveys to their malice, and they unplumb the dead for bullets to assassinate the living.”
Here is a passage which I transcribe from a double motive. One is, that it excellently exemplifies the merits in Burke's style I have already named :
“In one thing I can excuse the Duke of Bedford for his attack upon me and my mortuary pension. He cannot readily comprehend the transaction he condemns. What I have obtained was the fruit of no bargain; the production of no intrigue ; the result of no compromise ; the effect of no solicitation. * * * I was entirely out of the way of serving or of hurting any statesman or any party when the Ministers so generously and so nobly carried into effect the spontaneous bounty of the Crown. Both descriptions have acted as became them. When I could serve them, the ministers considered my situation. When I could no longer hurt them, the revolutionists trampled on my infirmity. My gratitude, I trust, is equal to the manner in which the benefit was conferred. It came to me indeed at a time of life, and in a state of mind and body, in which no circumstance of fortune could afford me any real pleasure. But this was no fault in the royal donor, or in his ministers, who were pleased, in acknowledging the merits of an invalid servant of the public, to assuage the sorrows of a desolate old man.”
Here is another striking passage from the same letter (to a noble lord, in 1796) :
“To be ill spoken of, in whatever language they speak, by the zealots of the new sect in philosophy and politics, of which these noble persons think so charitably, and of which others think so justly, to me is no matter of uneasiness or surprise. To have incurred the displeasure of the Duke of Orleans or the Duke of Bedford, to fall under the censure of Citizen Brissot, or of his friend the Earl of Lauderdale, I ought to consider as proofs--not the least satisfactory--that I have produced some
part of the effect I proposed by my endeavours. I have laboured hard to earn wbat the noble lords are generous enough to pay. Personal offence I have given them none. The part they take against me is from zeal to the cause. It is well! It is perfectly well! I have to do homage to their justice. I have to thank the Bedfords and the Lauderdales for having so faithfully and so fully acquitted towards me whatever arrear of debt was left undischarged by the Priestleys and the Paines.”
Perhaps the attentive reader will observe some similarity of style, and no slight affinity in the powers of sarcastic invective in the following passages from a writer of the same time :
JUNIUS TO THE DUKE OF BEDFORD. “Let us consider you, then, as arrived at the summit of worldly greatness ; let us suppose that all your plans of avarice and ambition are accomplished, and your most sanguine wishes gratified in the fear, as well as the hatred of the people : can age itself forget that you are now in the last act of life? And is there no period to be reserved for meditation and retirement ? For shame, my lord, let it not be recorded of you that the latest hours of your life were dedicated to the same unworthy pursuits, the same busy agitations, in which your youth and manhood were exhausted. Consider that, although you cannot disgrace your former life, you are violating the character of age, and exposing the impotent imbecility, after you have lost the vigour, of the passions."
Both Burke and Junius thus excelled in the use of antithesis ; and it is difficult to say which surpassed the other in the elegance of style or vigour of invective. Here is—
JUNIUS TO THE DUKE OF GRAFTON. "If Nature had given you an understanding qualified to keep pace with the wishes and principles of your heart, she would have made you, perhaps, the most formidable minister that ever was employed under a limited monarchy to accomplish the ruin of a free people. When neither the feelings of shame, the reproaches of conscience, nor the dread of punishment, form any bar to the designs of a minister, the people would have too much reason to lament their condition if they did not find some resource in the weakness of his understanding. We owe it to the bounty of Provi. dence that the completest depravity of heart is sometimes strangely united with a confusion of the mind, which counteracts the most favourite principles, and makes the same man treacherous without art, and a hypocrite without deceiving." - The power of antithesis was never more skilfully wielded. It far surpasses Seneca and Young, both of whom delighted in, but overdid it. Junius and Burke rise from comparison to antithesis, as in the foregone passage, by natural transition, and use the latter chiefly as a climax. Its power depends, like that of most other figures and modes of expression, on its natural aptness to the subject. In the last-cited passage from Junius mark how the effect is increased by the unexpected contrasts of the ideas he brings together : treachery without art, and hypocrisy without deceiving. How strikingly akin, and yet how admirably distinguished are the contrasted species of each genus of vice. How inimitably is the fraudulent intent and the impotent effect expressed in these few words of quiet and crushing satire! How very erringly Blair says that this kind of antithesis " belongs only to pieces of professed wit and humour, and can find no place in grave compositions."
The great merits of the various specimens of good style we have now cited consist of the clearness of the ideas, the precision with which they are expressed, the judicious selection of the words used, and the correct structure of the sentences.
(To be continued.)