FIFTEENTH CENTURY PROSE
The Fifteenth century is comparatively barren and non productive in the field of English literature. During this time little poetry of quality was written. The English and Scottish poets were very poor imitators of Chaucer both in the command of subject matter and versification. But the prose literature of this age recorded considerable progress. Unlike the poetry of this age prose suffered from no retrogression. There was a perceptible increase in skill due to increased practice. There was a growing perception of the beauties of rhythm and cadence and there was the development of various prose styles including the ornate and the plain. The English prose certainly moved forward during the 15th century to a richness that was unknown to the preceding age. During the 15th century prose made some remarkable progress because the English men shaped the rough material of their native tongue to form a literature for providing instruction and entertainment. But still English prose of the 15th century amounts for little originality and artistic value. The slow progress of prose on national lines was due to the influence that Latin exercised on the minds of the prose writers of this age. They were fascinated by Latin constructions. They were also contented to be the translators of French works of repute. Prose in the century was developed much on trial and error basis.
The promising prose writers of the century sought to impart directness, vigour and simplicity. It was due to their efforts that the prose of the age developed and various kinds of prose works were written. It is interesting to observe that English prose writers attempted different kinds of prose during this period. Fisher and Cranmer (1489-1556) popularized theological writings and historical prose was presented in The Chronicle of England by Capgrave (1393-1464) who wrote in a business like fashion. Philosophical prose appeared in The Governance of England by Fortescue (c. 1394-1476). Elyot (c. 1490-1546) popularised educational prose and prepared the way for medical prose in the Castle of Health. William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible is highly praiseworthy.
The English Prose of the 15th century was cultivated and promoted by the following writers:
Sir John Fortescue
Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas Malory
REGINALD PEACOCK (1392-1461) is one of the important prose writers of the 15th century. Peacock’s prose, often rugged and obscure, is marked by his preference for English words over Latin. His two works were The Repressor of over-much Blaming of the Clergy (c. 1445) and The Book of Faith. His books were among the earliest of English controversial works and they mark a victory over the once all important Latin.
SIR JOHN FORTESCUE (1394-1476) was an important prose writer who made some contributions in the development of 15th century English prose. In contrast to Peacock, he stands for clarity of ideas. Fortescue avoids Peacock’s pattern of long complicated sentences. H. S. Bennet in his Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century writes “in common with other 15th century writers Fortescue is not capable of writing a highly complex prose but what straight forwardness, simplicity and clear thinking could accomplish may be seen in almost every pages of The Governance of England”.
WILLIAM CAXTON (1422-1490) the English printer was also a remarkable prose writer of the 15th century. It would be difficult to overestimate the debt of Caxton to English literature. He printed almost every English work of real quality known in his days including Chaucer and Malory. In addition Caxton made and printed twenty four translations from French, Dutch and Latin texts, of which the most remarkable were the two earliest, the Recuyell of the Histories of Troye (1471) and the Game and Playe of Chesse (1475). At first he wanted to employ the elegant and ornate style but soon he became conscious of his limitations and switched to a simpler style. He decided to write in “Englysshe not ouer rude, ne curious,
but in suche termes as shall be vnderstanden by goddys grace.” To make himself more certain of being understood he sometimes placed the French word beside the English word. This practise was especially cultivated by Caxton. He avoided rustic terms and became intelligible to all his readers. The best of his prose can be found in his explanatory prefaces.
JOHN FISHER (1459-1535), a religious divine and the Bishop of Rochester, opposed Henry V111 during Reformation, was imprisoned and finally beheaded. He wrote much in Latin and in English and he is represented by a small collection of tracts and sermons and a longer treatise on the Psalms. Though they are of no great quantity, his prose works are in the nature of much importance. They are the first of the rhetorical religious books that for several centuries were to be an outstanding feature of English prose. In addition they mark a distinctive step ahead in the evolution of English prose style. They are written in the style of an orator: the searching after the appropriate word, the frequent use of rhetorical figures of speech and a rapid and flowing rhythm. In the style of Fisher we can observe the beginning of an ornate style. Fisher proved to be the direct ancestor of the prose style of the great 17th century prose writer Jeremy Taylor.
HUGH LATIMER (1485-1555) is another prose writer of the 15th century who was punished by Henry V111 because of his resistance against some of his reforms. Latimer’s prose work consists of two volumes of sermons published in 1549. These works are remarkable for their plain and dogmatic exposition, their graphical power and their homely appeal. He is first among the writers of plain style.
SIR THOMAS MORE (1478-1535) is much known for his Latin works owing to their elegance and wit. This includes Utopia which presents the picture of an imaginative ideal state based on the socialistic pattern. His English prose works include The Lyfe of John Picus, The Historie of Richard 111 and a number of tracts and letters. He writes ably and clearly but with no great distinction of manner. He is the first writer of the middle style.
SIR THOMAS MALORY, died 1471, was well known for his romance Morte’d Arthur. The famous Arthurian legends were joined to a great prose romance written with a uniform dignity and fervour. It is a skilful blend of dialogue and narrative, full of colour and life. The style has a transparent clarity and is poetic making Malory the first great prose stylist. Few writers of the century had been more successful than Malory in the use of dialogue and narrative. His dialogue is singularly terse and direct so that Malory’s prose is as capable of irony as Chaucer’s verse.
As we look back at the prose of the 15th century we see a variety of very developed and condensed prose.
SIXTEENTH CENTURY/ELIZABETHAN PROSE
The Elizabethan Age has well been called as a young age. It was full of boundless vigour, reawakened intellectual esteem and soaring imagination. The best of the age is found in drama and next in poetry. As prose, unlike verse, does not admit any substantial restriction hence Elizabethan prose developed substantially. For the first time prose had risen to a position of first rate importance. The dead weight of the Latin tradition was passing away and English prose was acquiring a tradition and a universal application. During the 15th century Latin dominated as the medium of expression while English came to its own in the 16th century. With the arrival of mass printing, English prose became the popular medium for works aiming both at amusement and instruction. The books which date from this period covered many departments of learning. The early Elizabethan use of prose was rich, gaudy and overflowing. It is far from commonly accepted principle of simplicity as it was colourful, blazing, rhythmic, indirect and polished.
The sixteenth century prose can be categorised into two periods: a) prose writings before 1579 and b) prose during the later half of the 16th century. During the early years Sixteenth Century Prose was cultivated by Elyot, Cavendish, Cheke, Willson and Ascham.
SIR THOMAS ELYOT is the author of The Governance of England (1531). The book is a fine specimen of a perfect combination between matter and manner. Elyot’s style is classical and he is rather too much given to long sentences. He lacks the deliberate classical plainness of his younger contemporary Ascham.
GEORGE CAVENDISH wrote the biography of Cardinal Wolsey. Cavendish wrote in a rhetorical style and with no simplicity. SIR JOHN CHEKE’s actual composition was in Latin. He wrote the Heart of Sedition. In this work Cheke shows himself vigorous in arguments and eloquent in impression. SIR THOMAS WILLSON’s main work is Art of Rhetoric (1553). In this book he recommends purity and simplicity of the language. He lays emphasis on the necessity of writing English for Englishmen.
ROGER ASCHAM is the representative of the earliest
English prose up to 1579 does not show any marked progress and after this date it registered a rapid growth and improvement. The later 16th century prose took its various forms such as Prose romances, Pamphlets, Translations, Critical prose, Sermons, Dramatic prose, Character writing, Essays etc.
During the later half of the 16th century a number of prose romances were produced. They were all written in Euphuistic style, a prose style cultivated by John Lyly. John Lyly’s first prose work Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1579) made him a foremost figure of his day. He repeated the success in Euphues and his England (1580). Euphuism is the first consciously fabricated prose style in English.
All through the period there was a flood of short tracts on religion, politics, and literature. In its buoyancy and vigour, its quaint mixture of truculence and petulance, Elizabethan pamphleteering is refreshingly boyish and alive. It is usually keenly satirical, and in style it is unformed and uncouth. The most notable among the pamphleteers were THOMAS NASHE (1567-1601), ROBERT GREENE (1560-92) and THOMAS LODGE (1558-1625). These pamphleteers cultivated a journalistic style characterised by vigour, force and raciness.
Sermon writings rose to a level of literary importance in this period. Donne was the most notable and his sermons contain his finest prose work. Numbered 160 Donne’s sermons show his unflinching faith in God and Christianity and his oratorial skill. Donne’s sermons, of which the finest is probably Death’s Duell (1630), contain many of the features of his poetry. The other prominent sermon writers are James Ussher and Joseph Hall. JAMES USSHER (1581-1656), born and educated at
The zeal for learning and spirit of adventure, which were prominent features of the early Elizabethan age, were strongly apparent in the frequent translations. The translators cared little for verbal accuracy, and sometimes were content to translate from a translation, say from a French version of a Latin text. They worked in many varied fields. Of the classics, Virgil was translated by PHAER (1558) and STANYHURST (1562); Plutarch’s Lives by NORTH (1579); Ovid by GOLDING (1565 & 1567), TURBERVILLE (1567), and CHAPMAN (1595); Homer by CHAPMAN (1598). All Seneca was translated into English by 1581, and Suetonius, Pliny and Plutarch’s Morals were translated by
The birth of literary criticism during this period indicates the growing stature of the national literature and the realisation of the need to establish the principles of writing. The critics turned to the classics for their guides and models. They were chiefly concerned with three topics: the status and value of poetry, the importance of classical models, the merits and demerits of rhyme. Stephen Gosson attacked poetry as immoral in his Puritanical treatise The School of Abuse (1579) and
Beginning in the pamphlets, character sketches, and other miscellaneous writings English essay developed in the works of Bacon. The English essay has its roots in the Elizabethan period, in the miscellaneous work of Lodge, Lyly and Greene and other literary free lancers.
SEVENTEENTH CENTURY PROSE
The development of English prose in the 17th century can be divided into two periods: 1) prose in the age of
During the mid 17th century or rather the Age of Milton the development of prose carried on from the previous age. In spite of the hampering effects of the civil strife, the prose output was copious and excellent in kind. There was a notable advance in the sermon writing; pamphlets were abundant; and history, politics, philosophy and miscellaneous kinds were well represented. There was a remarkable advance in prose style.
The prose of this age was cultivated in a style very different from the Elizabethan and Sixteenth century prose. The prose writers used a grand style which Bacon and Hooker never anticipated. It was loose in structure, over coloured, elaborate and way ward. The writers indulged too freely in the use of Latinised words of classical construction. Despite some drawbacks, the prose of this period has many qualities. It has the freshness of form. The Seventeenth century is the first great period of modern English prose when it was forming under the classical influence but independent of the French impact. In subject matter it represents the self conscious and personal interest of the time. It was also a period of biography, autobiography, history and personal essays. The prose of this age possesses a strongly religious or theological and philosophical character.
The important prose writers of this period are Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Thomas Fuller, Jack Walton and John Milton.
ROBERT BURTON (1577-1613) made notable contribution by The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). It is an elaborate and discursive study of melancholy, its species and kinds, its causes, results and cure. The book, though laboured and saturnine in tone, shows an underlying common sense and a true sympathy with humanity. Its learning is immense and unconventional, being drawn from many rare authors; its humour curiously crabbed, subdued, and ironical; and its ‘melancholy’ though pervading, is not oppressive. The diction has a colloquial naturalness; the enormous sentences, packed with quotation and allusion, are loosely knit. Both as a stylist and as a personality
SIR THOMAS BROWNE (1605-82), born at
Browne was a great literary stylist. He shows the ornate style in its richest bloom. His diction is strongly latinised and he has the scholastic habit of introducing Latin tags and references. His sentences are carefully wrought and artistically combined into paragraphs. The diction has a richness of effect unknown among other English prose writers. The prose is sometimes obscure, rarely vivacious, and hardly ever diverting: but the solemnity and beauty of it have given it an enduring fascination.
JEREMY TAYLOR (1613-67) is the most important literary divine of the age. A learned, voluble, and impressive preacher, who carried the same quality into his prose works which consisted of tracts, sermons, and theological books. His popular works were The Liberty of Prophesying (1647), Holy Living (1650), and Holy Dying (1651). In his writings he is fond of quotations and allusions and of florid, rhetorical figures, such as simile, exclamation, and apostrophe; and his language is abundant, melodious and pleasing.
THOMAS FULLER (1608-61) had an original and penetrating mind. His literary works are of great interest and value. His serious historical books include The History of the Holy War (1639), dealing with the crusades, and The Church History of Britain (1655). Among his pamphlets are Good Thoughts in Bad Times (1645) and An Alarum to the Counties of England and Wales (1660). The work that has given him his reputation is The Worthies of England published after his death by his son in 1662.
JOHN MILTON (1608-74) was not only a great poet but also a finest writer of prose whose work is among the finest controversial writing in the language. Most of his prose was written during the middle period of his life (1640-60). The prose works have an unusual interest because they have a direct bearing on either his personal business or public interest. In all he has written twenty-five pamphlets (21 in English, 4 in Latin).He wrote his pamphlets on themes like divorce, episcopacy, politics, education, liberty of the press etc. His greatest prose work is Areopagitica (1644) which is a noble and impassioned plea for the liberty of the press.
While considering the prose style of
The other prose writers in the age of
With the exception of the works of Dryden and Bunyan, the prose work of the Restoration times is of little moment. Dryden’s prose is almost entirely devoted to literary criticism and Bunyan’s contribution shows a remarkable development of the prose allegory. The remainder of the prose writers deal with political, historical, theological and other miscellaneous subjects.
JOHN DRYDEN (1631-1700) is the representative writer of the Restoration age. For forty years he continued to produce an abundance of literary works of every kind ----- poems, plays and prose works. Dryden’s versatility is apparent when we observe that in prose, as well as in poetry and drama, he attains to primacy in his generation. In prose Dryden has one rival, John Bunyan. No single item of Dryden’s prose work is of very great length; but in his Essay of Dramatic Poesie (1668), in his numerous dedicatory epistles and prefaces, and in scanty stock of his surviving letters we have a prose corpus of some magnitude. The general subject of his prose work is literary criticism, and that of a sane and vigorous quality. The style is free but not too much. There are slips of grammar, but not too many. Dryden has been given the credit of inaugurating the new era of English prose. He has also been considered as the father of English prose.
JOHN BUNYAN (1628-88) alone contests the supremacy of Dryden in the domain of Restoration prose. His first book Grace Abounding (1666) is a spiritual autobiography dealing with the spiritual history of his birth, childhood and youth. There is sincerity in expression and a remarkable simplicity. The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is his masterpiece. It is an allegory which takes the form of a dream fragment. The whole book is remarkable for a powerful narrative style enriched by beauty, simplicity and vividness of language. Bunyan was the first writer who used a very simple and appealing prose. His other famous works are The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) and The Holy War (1682).
Except for Grace Abounding, all Bunyan’s major works are allegorical and in each case the allegory is worked out with ease, force, and clearness. His allegorical personages are fresh and apt, and are full of an intense interest and a raw dramatic energy. Bunyan’s style is unique in prose. Though it is undoubtedly based on Biblical models, it is quite individual. It is homely, but not vulgar; strong, but not coarse; equable, but not monotonous; it is sometimes humorous but it is never ribald; rarely pathetic, but never sentimental.
LORD HELIFAX (1633-95) ranks high as orator; as an author his fame rests on a small volume called Miscellanies containing a number of political tracts. In his writings Helifax adopts the manner and attitude of the typical man of the world: a moderation of statement, a cool and agreeably acid humour, and a style devoid of flourishes.
SIR WILLIAM TEMPLE (1628-99) was an example of the moneyed, leisured semi amateur in literature who wrote little but elegantly. His chief works were his LETTERS (1700), MEMOIRS (1691) and MISCELLANA, a series of essays (1680, 1690 & 1701). His style resembles that of
It was a strange coincidence that two diary writers SAMUEL PEPYS (1633-1703) & JOHN EVELYN (1620-1706) were working at the same time during this period.
Though the prose writings of Restoration are not great in bulk, it shows a profound change in style. Previous writers, such as Browne, Clarendon, and Hobbes, had done remarkable and beautiful work in prose, but their style had not yet found itself. It was wayward and erratic, often cumbrous and often obscure, and weighted with a Latinised construction and vocabulary. In Dryden’s time prose begins definitely to find its feet. It acquires a general utility and permanence; it is smoothened and straightened, simplified and harmonised. This is the age of average prose and it prepares the way for the works of Swift and Addison.
Not that Dryden’s style is flawless. It is sometimes involved and obscure; there are little slips of grammar and many slips of expression; but on the average it is of high quality. In the case of Bunyan the style becomes plainer still. But it is powerful and effective. Pepys and Evelyn have no pretensions to style as such, but their work is admirably expressed.
In some writers of the period we find this desire for unornamented style degenerating into coarseness and ugliness. Such a one is JEREMY COLLIER (1650-1726), who’s Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) caused a great commotion. THOMAS SPRAT (1635-1713) wrote on the newly formed Royal Society in a close, naked, natural way of speaking. JOHN LOCKE (1632-1704), in his famous An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) wrote with a style bare to bald but clear.
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY PROSE
THE FIRST HALF OF THE 18TH CENTURY
The 18th Century was doubtlessly an age of great prose. Matthew Arnold calls it a century of prose and suggests that even the poetry of the period was prosaic or versified prose. The period has only one great poet Alexander Pope while it produced prose writers of very high quality like Addison, Steele, Swift, Defoe and Johnson.
Daniel Defoe (1659-1731) was a journalist and pamphleteer who wrote with extra ordinary felicity and effect on an infinite variety of subjects. His prose work is in amazing bulk and variety. Like most of the prose writers of the period Defoe turned out a mass of political tracts and pamphlets. He issued his own journal The Review in 1704 which was in several ways the forerunner of The Tatler and The Spectator. His best known work was The True Born Englishman (1701). His The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702) invited official wrath. His novels like Robinson Crusoe were landmarks in the growth of prose. His prose is noted for extraordinary minute realism and colloquial style.
The most important contribution in 18th century prose has been made by Richard Steele (1672-1729) and Joseph Addison (1672-1719) through their well known periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator. Temperamentally Richard Steele was a moralist but he had none of the cynicism which had characterised the century. He wrote dramas but it was due to his essays that he finds his place in literature. He had variation and sentimental aspiration and a form of sincere piety as proved by his first book The Christian Hero. His lesson is that conduct should be regulated not by the desire for glory but by conscience. He started his journal The Tatler in 1709, The Spectator in 1711 and several other short lived periodicals The Guardian (1713), The Englishman (1713), The Reader (1714), and The Plebeian (1719). Steele is remarkable for his witty prose and humorous style. His characters are also humorous.
Steele’s alliance with
The aim of Steele’s essays was didactic; he desired to bring about a reformation of contemporary society manners, and is notable for his consistent advocacy of womanly virtues and the ideal of the gentleman of courtesy, chivalry, and good taste. His essays on children are charming, and are full of human sympathy.
Joseph Addison was famous for drama, poetry and essays. But it is in fact almost entirely as an essayist that he is justly famed. Together with Steele he protected the periodical essay in The Tatler and The Spectator. The first object of Addison and Steele was to present a true and faithful picture of the 18th century. The next object was to bring about a moral and social reform in the conditions of the time. The best of his essays are centred round the imaginary character of Sir Roger de Coverley and hence known as Coverley Papers.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was another writer who made new experiments in prose writings. His Gulliver’s Travels, The Tale of a Tub and The Battle of Books are powerful satires written in prose. His Journal to Stella is a long narrative in which political situation is reported when he was in
In addition to these, other prose writers of the period were John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), Lord Bolingbroke (1678-1751), George Berkeley (1685-1753), and Earl of Shaftsbury (1671-1713). The writings of Arbuthnot were chiefly political and includes the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, The History of John Bull and The Art of Political Lying. Bolingbroke prided himself on being both a patron of letters and a man of letters. His Letter to Sir William Wyndham, A Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism and The Idea of a Patriot King reflect the Tory sentiments and are written with lucidity, vigour and rhetoric.
The prose of first half of the 18th century made a distinct advance. Periodical literature occupied a prominent place. Defoe’s Review (1704), Steele’s The Tatler (1709) and The Spectator (1711) and The Plebeian (1719) are some prominent periodicals of this time. With the advancement of periodical press the short essay takes a great stride forward. The works of Addison and Steele has already been mentioned. Other essayists of the time were Swift and Pope who contributed to the periodicals. Allegorical prose narratives were another feature of the time for example Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and
The most outstanding feature of the prose of this era is the development of middle style of which one of the chief exponents was
THE SECOND HALF OF THE 18TH CENTURY
During this period we find the development of prose in the hands of Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, Gibbon and Burke.
Samuel Johnson (1709-84) is a first rate writer of prose. His early works appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine during 1738 and 1744. For the said periodical he wrote imaginary parliamentary debates embellished in his own vigorous style. In 1747 he began working on his Dictionary which was his great contribution to scholarship. While working on the Dictionary he also wrote periodical essays for The Rambler. In these essays we find the mannerisms which are evident of his trenchant force and vigour. He wrote RASSELAS (1759) which was meant to be a philosophical novel but it was actually a number of Rambler essays strung together. During 1758-60 he contributed papers for The Idler, The Universal Chronicle and Weekly Gazette. These essays were lighter and shorter than those of Rambler. In 1765 he published his truly great work---- his edition of Shakespeare for which he wrote a fine preface, a landmark in Shakespeare criticism and scholarship. His travel book titled A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) shows the faculty of narrative. His last work and a substantial work was The Lives of the Poets (1777-81), planned as a series of introduction to the works and lives of fifty two poets. The book is regarded as a fine piece of literary criticism. Johnson’s prose style has often been criticised as pompous, artificial and verbose. However it only reflects one aspect of his writing. In his early works, notably in The Rambler, and in Rasselas, the prose is heavy, rhetorical, and full of affectation and highly Latinised. These early mannerisms disappear in his later writings. In The Lives of Poets his prose has ease, lucidity, force and vigorous directness of conversation.
The prose of Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74) is of astonishing range and volume. His The Citizen of the World (1759) is a series of imaginary letters from a china man whose comments on the English society are both simple and shrewd. He wrote many essays in the manner of
Edward Gibbon (1737-94) was an eager reader of history from his early years. His private historical studies led him to become a Roman Catholic when he was sixteen which resulted in his expulsion from
Edmund Burke (1729-97) shares with Gibbon the place of the great prose stylist of the age. The works of Burke can be divided into two groups: his purely philosophical writings and his political pamphlets and speeches. His philosophical writings were composed in the earlier part of his career. A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) is a parody of the style and ideas of Bolingbroke. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) is his most philosophical book. His political works are his most substantial claim to fame. In variety, breadth of view and illuminating power of vision they are unsurpassed in the language. They fall into two categories: speeches and pamphlets. It is in his speeches that Burke’s artistry and power is at its best. The greatest of them are his speeches on American Taxation, on Conciliation with the Colonies and on the Impeachment of Warren Hastings. Of his best known pamphlets, the first to be produced was Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), which shows all his peculiar qualities and methods. Between 1790 and 1797 he published a number of pamphlets, of which Reflection on the Revolution in
The prose of this period has many men and many manners. The simplest prose of this period is found mainly in the works of the novelists. The excellent middle style of
NINETEENTH CENTURY PROSE
Poetry dominated the literary scene of the first half of 19th century more popularly known as the Romantic period. Due to the presence of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron and Keats the literary limelight was focussed on poetry. Jane Austen and Walter Scott were the prominent names in Novel. Hence prose was at the third rank in the stature of literary popularity. However the prose of this period was no mean genre and we have essayists like Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt enlarging the horizon of English literature through their contributions. Apart from these two we have Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Shelley and Keats also writing some substantial prose works.
It is a fact that the age did not produce a pamphleteer of the first rank but the productivity of the age is marked in the immense productivity of the political writers. Apart from a steep rise in periodicals the age witnessed the beginning of daily journals which are still very strong elements in literature and politics. Some of the dailies that started are The Morning Chronicle (1769), The Morning Post (1772), The Times (1785) etc. A race of strong literary magazines sprang to life: The Edinburgh Review (1802), The Quarterly Review (1809), Blackwood’s Magazine (1817), The London Magazine (1820), and The Westminster Review (1824).
Though Wordsworth and Coleridge are great poets but they also contributed in the development Romantic prose by their critical works and treatises. Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads is a fine specimen of prose and critical theory which blasted the ailing dogmatic classical dictates of literature in general and poetry in particular. Coleridge’s prose, like his poetry, was scrappy, chaotic and tentative. In bulk it is massive; in manner it is diffuse and involved; but it possesses a breadth, a depth and a searching wisdom that is rare and admirable. The prose of Coleridge is philosophical and literary in theme. In 1796 he started a periodical The Watchman in which he contributed typical essays showing considerable weight and acuteness of thought. He contributed some miscellaneous prose in The Morning Post. In 1808 he started a series of lectures on poetry and allied subjects. In 1817 he published Biographia Literaria and Sibylline Leaves. Biographia Literaria is his most valuable prose work. After long philosophising the book discusses Wordsworthian theory of poetry in a masterly fashion. The book places Coleridge in the first rank of critics. Second only in importance in establishing Coleridge as the greatest of English critics are his lectures on Shakespeare and other poets.
Shelley and Keats also wrote some prose of good consideration. Shelley’s Defence of Poetry (1821) is soundly written and is a strong exposition of the Romantic point of view. His letters show him as a man of common sense and not merely the crazy theorist of popular imagination. His prose style is somewhat heavy but clear. As a prose writer, unlike Wordsworth, Keats made no attempt at a systematic formulation of his views on his art. His Letters give a clear insight into his mind and artistic development. Written with a spontaneous freshness and an easy intimacy, they are the most interesting letters of their times. Apart from poems and exquisite novels Sir Walter Scott also compiled a mass of some beautiful miscellaneous prose. Among them are his prefaces to the editions of Dryden (1808), Swift (1814), Lives of the Novelists (1821-24), Life of Napoleon (1827) and the admirable Tales of a Grandfather (1828-30). His articles, pamphlets, journals and letters are a legion in themselves.
Charles Lamb (1775-1834) began his literary career as a poet, attempted a tragic play and compiled Tales from Shakespeare with his sister Mary Lamb. His substantial critical work is found in his specimens of English Dramatic Poets, who lived about the time of Shakespeare (1808) which is remarkable for its delicate insight and good literary taste. But all these writings are of little importance compared with his essays. The first of his essays appeared in The London Magazine in 1820 when Lamb was forty five. The original series was published as The Essays of Elia (1823) and a second under the title of The Last Essays of Elia (1833).
The essays of Lamb are unequalled in English. They are on a variety of subjects ranging from chimney sweeps to old china. They are touched with personal opinions and recollections so oddly obtruded that interest in the subject is nearly swamped by reader’s delight in the author. It is said that no essayist is more egotistical than Lamb; but no egotist can be so artless and yet so artful, so tearful yet so mirthful, so pedantic and yet so humane. It is this delicate clashing of humours, like the chiming of sweet bells, which affords the chief delight to his readers.
His style bears the echoes and odours of older writers like Browne and Fuller. It is full of long and curious words and it is dashed with frequent exclamations and parentheses. The humour that runs through the essays is not so strong but it is airy and elfish in note; it vibrates faintly but never lacks precision. His pathos is of the same character; and sometimes, as in Dream Children, it deepens into a quivering sigh of regret. He is so sensitive and so strong, so cheerful and yet so unalterably doomed to sorrow.
William Hazlitt (1778-1830) held unusual political and literary views and headstrong temperament that made him centre of controversies and battles throughout his life. A lecturer of literature by profession Hazlitt was a representative literary critic of the period. From 1814 till his death he contributed to The Edinburgh Review, while others of his articles were published in The Examiner, The Times and The London Magazine. His early writings were consisted of miscellaneous philosophical and political works but his reputation rests upon the lectures and essays on literary and general subjects published between 1817 and 1825. His lectures on Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817), The English Poets (1818), The English Comic Writers (1819) and The Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth (1820) are good examples of literary criticism and scholarship. The best of his essays are collected in The Round Table (1817), Table Talk, or Original Essays on Men and Manners (1821-22) and The Spirit of the Age or Contemporary Portraits (1825).
Hazlitt’s writing is remarkable for its fearless expression of an honest and individual opinion, his ability to communicate his own enjoyment and his gift for evoking unnoticed beauty. His judgements are based on his emotional reactions rather than on objectively applied principles. Hence they are sometimes marred by personal bias but, for the most part, they show his enthusiasm guided by a strong common sense. In style he stands in contrast to De Quincey’s elaborate orchestration of the complex sentence and the magic of the delicate word tracery. His brief, abrupt sentences have the vigour and directness which his views demand. His lectures have manly simplicity and something of the looseness of organisation which is typical of good conversation. His lectures and essays show a fondness for the apt and skilfully blended quotation and for the balanced sentences. His diction is always pure and his expression is concise.
Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) is one of the authors whose work has to be rigorously sifted. He wrote a large amount of prose; most of which is hackwork, a fair proportion is of good quality, and a small amount is of highest merit. His Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), appeared in The London Magazine, is a series of visions that melt away in the manner of dreams. The best of his work is contained in The English Mail Coach (1849), Suspiria de Profundis (1845) and On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts (1827). A great part of his work is dreary and diffuse. He displays a wide range of knowledge. His style is apt to stumble into vulgarity but when inspired he gives to the English tongue a wonderful strength and sweetness. In these rare moments he plunges into an elaborate style and imagery but never looses grip, sweeping along with sureness and ease. In rhythm and melody he is supreme.
With all its immense production, the Victorian age produced poets like Tennyson, Browning and Arnold; novelists like Dickens, Thackeray and Eliot. It revealed no supreme writer like Shakespeare but the general literary level was very high and it was an age of spacious intellectual horizon, noble endeavour and bright aspirations.
With regard to prose, the greater proportion is written in middle style, the established medium in journalism, in all miscellaneous work and in majority of the novels. Outside this mass of middle style, the style of Ruskin stands highest in the scale of ornate ness; of the same kind is the scholarly elegance of Walter Pater. The style of Macaulay and Carlyle are peculiar brands of the middle style.
During the Victorian age novel had thrust itself into the first rank with Dickens, Thackeray and Eliot. Short story developed as a new species. Essays had expanded as a giant literary type with Macaulay, Carlyle, Pater, Ruskin and many others. Of the minor essayists Dickens in his The Uncommercial Traveller and Thackeray in his The Roundabout Papers practised the shorter Addisonian style that was enlarged by Ruskin, Pater and Stevenson. The lecture became a prominent literary species with Carlyle, Thackeray and Dickens publishing their lectures in book form. But it was Ruskin who, like Coleridge, gave a distinct style and manner to it.
John Ruskin (1819-1900), with no need to earn a living, settled down to a literary career. He developed his own advanced notions on art, politics, economics and other subjects. In art he was particularly devoted to the landscape painting of Turner. In social and economic issues he was an advocate of an advance form of socialism. His ideas appear innocuous today but the Victorian public received them with shock and dismay. First he received only jeers from his adversaries but gradually he freely expounded his opinions in lectures, pamphlets and books. He began with a book Modern Painters which turned out to be his longest book with its first volume published in 1843 and the fifth and last in 1860. The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) is a shorter and more popular work. The Stones of
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) is considered as the most representative and honourable name in Victorian prose that not only enriched the genre but also exerted a tremendous impact on the age. His earliest works were translations, essays and biographies. The best work of this period are his translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1824), his The Life of Schiller (1825) and his essays on Burns and Scott. Then came Sartor Resartus (1833-34) in a series in Fraser’s Magazine. It is an extraordinary book which pretended to contain the opinions of a German professor but under the thin veil of fiction Carlyle disclosed his own spiritual struggles during his early troubled years. Though the style is violent and the meaning is obscure but it has energy and a rapturous ecstasy of revolt. Carlyle then switched over to historical writings which he did in his own unconventional style. His major historical works are The French Revolution (1837), a series of vivid pictures rather than history, but full of audacity and colour; Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (1845), a huge effort relieved by his volcanic methods; Life of John Sterling (1851), a slight work but more genial and humane; and The History of Frederich 11 of Prussia (1858-65), an enormous work in scale and detail both. He wrote numerous works dealing with contemporary events that include Chartism (1840), Past and Present (1843), and Letter-day Pamphlets (1850). The series of lectures which he delivered in 1837 was published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841).
Now it is difficult to understand why Carlyle was valued so highly in moral and political affairs. His works have froth and thunder but little of anything is solid and capable of analysis. However he was a man of sterling honesty, of sagacious and powerful mind which he applied to the troubles of his time. His opinions were widely discussed and accepted. His books had the force of ex cathedra pronouncements. Carlyle’s style was entirely his own. At the first glance a passage seems rude and uncouth: with many capital letters in the German fashion, with broken phrases, he proceeds amid a torrent of whirling words. Yet he is flexible to a wonderful degree; he can command a beauty of expression; a sweet and piercing melody. His style has the lyrical note that requires only the lyrical metre to become great poetry.
Macaulay (1800-59), at
Walter Pater (1839-94) is known both as a stylist and a literary critic. He devoted himself to art and literature producing some remarkable volumes on these subjects. The collection of his first essays appeared as Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). The essays were chiefly concerned with art. Imaginary Portraits (1887) deals with artists and Appreciations (1889) is on literary themes with an introductory essay on style. Pater was a representative of the school of aesthetic criticism. He was a strong believer of the theory of art for art’s sake. He focused his attention always on form rather than subject matter. His own style is among the most notable of the Victorian prose writers. It is the creation of immense application and forethought; every word is conned, every sentence proved and every rhythm appraised. It is never cheap, but firm and equable.
The earlier published works of the renowned Victorian novelist R L Stevenson (1850-94) were consisted of collection of essays titled An Inland Voyage (1878), Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879) and Virginibus Puerisque (1881). In the essays he appears to be a master of easy, graceful style which is the result of much care and a close attention to artistic finish. Any list of Victorian prose stylists will be incomplete without mentioning the name of Matthew Arnold.