Sunday, 14 July 2013

Elizabethan Prose

The Elizabethans had a genius for poetry and drama but their prose is often intolerable. They enriched the language by adding to its vocabulary many new words and phrases. But some of their prose is heavy, pompous and undisciplined. This pomp and their indiscipline 

Elizabethan Prose picture

are one product of a quest of persuasiveness. They occur chiefly in the works of those who sought to achieve their object by writing periodic prose in the manner of Cicero. Other peculiarities mark the work of those who tried to achieve it by writing what is called euphemistic prose. This was a style John Lily made fashionable. Hooker modeled his style on the structure of
the Ciceroni-an periods. His style is a typical example of the way in which the educated Englishman of the day under the influence of the Renaissance were trying to give to English prose the clarity, the massive dignity and rhythm of the choice of classical Latin. Latin construction sometimes plays havoc with the sentences. The style now and then has “a monstrous beauty, like the hind quarters of an elephant.” It is unfit for tine discussion of the ordinary affairs of life. Hooker has sought to please his plenipotentiaries by trying to make English prose as pliant, rich and dignified as Latin prose. But he has often sacrificed the two important essentials of good style i.e. perspicuity and appropriateness.

Lyly was a conscious and skillful artist and introduced euphemistic prose. The distinctive feature of Euphemism are the courtly affectation of smart sayings, epigram and antithesis. In each sentence he tried to achieve balance, rhythm and perspicuity by neatly pointed antitheses and parallel construction But the resulting effect is generally unspeakably artificial and tedious to the modern ear. He tried to give to English prose a definite and obvious brilliance by his peculiar method of writing. It must be said that Lyly hit upon a fundamental aesthetic principle when he devised a prose style that was distinct from colloquial speech. He sought to satisfy the Englishman’s desire “to hear a finer speech than the language will allow.” But in this quest of persuasiveness he often scarified the virtue of appropriateness.

Bacon’s Essays, much of the prose in Shakespeare and the Authorized Version of the Bible show the evolution of a prose style that combines dignity and rhythm with simplicity of expression. Bacon’s writing is the distillation of many manners of prose writing up to 1602. The two main defects of English prose were unwieldiness and a tendency to “find writing”. Bacon is the first scientific philosopher to write English in a clean, and terse style. The Essays have a note of authority about them. There is in his writing pithiness and relevance that hitherto had rarely been found in prose. But despite the brevity of his utterance, Bacon was Elizabethan in his power of imaginative suggestiveness. In their final form the essays are illumined with beautiful and moving imagery. Bacon’s prose seems at times to lack appropriateness. He uses the same idiom and the same rhythm in his essays on ‘Death’ or ‘Truth’ and in his essays on trivial themes such as ‘Travel’, and ‘Masques and Triumphs’. The Authorized version of the Bible of 1611 is a production that towers above anything hitherto done in English prose. It is simple and concrete in language, rich and graphic in imagery and possesses supreme lyrical power. It yields its meaning with the utmost ease and directness. Bacon’s Essays and the Authorized version of the Bible helped to show to the writers of that age that the vernacular was capable of achieving literary excellence and dignified rhythm.

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