Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

ma mie—that is how the heart gives utterance, without colifichets, with no quips and cranks of speech, very dear to fancy, and of very liberal conceit. And Sainte-Beuve cites an admirable saying : All peasants have style. They speak as Nature prompts. They have never learned to play with words; they have picked up no tricks, mannerisms, and affectation like Osric and Oronte in the plays. They were not trained to write essays, and never got veterans to discourse to them on Style. Yet, as Sainte-Beuve says, they have style, because they have human nature, and they have never tried to get outside the natural, the simple, the homely. It is the secret of Wordsworth, as it was of Goldsmith, as it was of Homer.

Those masters of style of whom I have spoken were almost all French-Molière, Madame de Sévigné, Voltaire, Sainte-Beuve. Style, in truth, is a French art; there is hardly any other style in prose. I doubt if any English prose, when judged by the canons of perfect style, can be matched with the highest triumphs of French prose. The note of the purest French is a serene harmony of tone, an infallible nicety of keeping; a brightness and point never spasmodic, never careless, never ruffled, like the unvarying manner of a gentleman who is a thorough man of the world. Even our best English will sometimes grow impetuous, impatient, or slack, as if it were too much trouble to maintain an imperturbable air of quite inviolable good-breeding. In real life no people on earth, or perhaps we ought to say in Europe, in this surpass the English gentleman. In prose literature it is a French gift, and seems given as yet to the French alone. Italians, Spaniards, and Russians have an uncertain, casual, and fitful style, and Germans since Heine have no style at all.

Whilst we have hundreds of men and women to-day who write good English, and one or two who have a style of their own, our French critics will hardly admit that we show any example of the purest style when judged by their own standard of perfection. They require a combination of simplicity, ease, charm, precision, and serenity of tone, together with the memorable phrase and inimitable felicity which stamp the individual writer, and yet are obvious and delightful to every reader. Renan had this; Pierre Loti has it; Anatole France has it. But it is seldom that we read a piece of current English and feel it to be exquisite in form apart from its substance, refreshing as a work of art, and yet

, hall-marked from the mint of the one particular author. We have hall-marks enough, it is true, only too noisily conspicuous on the plate; but are they refreshing and inspiring ? are they works of art? How is it that our poecry. even our minor poetry of the day, has its own felicitous harmony of tone, whilst our prose is notoriously wanting in that mellow refinement of form which the French call style ?

If I hazard a few words about some famous masters of language, I must warn you that judgments of this kind amount to little more than the likes and dislikes of the critic himself. There are no settled canons, and no accepted arbiter of the elegances of prose. It is more or less a matter of personal taste, even more than it is in verse. I never doubt that the greatest master of prose in recorded history is Plato. He alone (like Homer in poetry) is perfect. He has every mood, and all are faultless. He is easy, lucid, graceful, witty, pathetic, imaginative by turns; but in all kinds he is natural and inimitably sweet. He is never obscure, never abrupt, never tedious, never affected. He shows us as it were his own Athene, wisdom incarnate in immortal radiance of form.

Plato alone is faultless. I will not allow any Roman to be perfect. Cicero even in his letters is wordy, rhetorical, academic. Livy is too consciously painting in words, too sonorous and diffuse for perfection; as Tacitus carries conciseness into obscurity and epigram into paradox. Of Latin prose, for my own part, I value most the soldierly simplicity of Cæsar, though we can hardly tell if he could be witty, graceful, pathetic, and fantastic as we see these gifts in Plato.

One of the most suggestive points in the history of prose is Boccaccio's Decameron, where a style of strange fascination suddenly starts into life with hardly any earlier models, nay, two or three centuries earlier than organic prose in any of the tongues of Europe. For many generations the exquisite ease and melody of Boccaccio's language found no rival in any modern nation, nor had it any rival in Italy, and we have no evidence that anything in Italy bad prepared the

way for it. It is far from a perfect style, for it is often too fluid, loose, and voluminous for mature prose; but as a first effort towards an orderly array of lucid narrative it is an amazing triumph of the Italian genius for art.

Prose, as you all know, is always and everywhere a plant of much later growth than poetry. Plato came four or five centuries after Homer; Tacitus came two centuries later than Lucretius; Machiavelli came two centuries after Dante; Voltaire a century after Corneille; Addison a century after Shakespeare.

And while the prose of Boccaccio, with all its native charm, can hardly be called an organic, mature, and mellow style; in poetry, for nearly a century before Boccaccio, Dante and the minor lyrists of Italy had reached absolute perfection of rhythmical form.

Although fairly good prose is much more common than fairly good verse, yet I hold that truly. fine prose is more rare than truly fine poetry.

I trust that it will be counted neither a whim nor a paradox if I give it as a reason that mastery in prose is an art more difficult than mastery in verse. The very freedom of prose, its want of conventions, of settled prosody, of musical inspiration, give wider scope for failure and afford no beaten paths. Poetry glides swiftly down the stream of a flowing and familiar river, where the banks are always the helmsman's guide. Prose puts forth its lonely skiff upon a boundless sea, where a multitude of strange and different crafts are cutting about in contrary directions. At any rate, the higher triumphs of prose come later and come to fewer than do the great triumphs of

verse.

When I lately had to study a body of despatches and State papers of the latter half of the sixteenth century, written in six modern languages of Europe, I observed that the Italian alone in that age was a formed and literary language, at the command of all educated men and women, possessed of organic canons and a perfectly mature tyre. The French, German, Dutch, English, and Spanish of that age, as used for practical ends, were still in the state of a language held in solution before it assumes a crystallised form. Even the men who wrote correct Latin could not write their own language with any real command. At the death of Tennyson, we may remember, it was said that no less than sixty poets were thought worthy of the wreath of bay. there six writers of prose whom even a log-rolling confederate would venture to hail as a possible claimant of the crown ? Assiduous practice in composing neat essays has turned out of late ten thousand men and women who can put together very pleasant prose. It has not turned out one living master in prose as Tennyson was master in

verse.

I have spoken of Voltaire as perhaps the greatest master of prose in any modern language, but this does not mean that he is perfect, and without qualification or want. His limpid clearness, ease, sparkle, and inexhaustible self-possession have no rival in modern tongues, and are almost those of Plato himself. But he is no Plato; he never rises into the pathos, imagination, upper air of the empyrean, to which the mighty Athenian can soar at will. Voltaire is never tedious, wordy, rhetorical, or obscure; and this can be said of hardly any other modern but Heine and Swift. My edition of Voltaire is in sixty volumes, of which some forty are prose; and in all those twenty thousand pages of prose not one is dull or laboured. We could not say this of the verse. But I take Candide or Zadig to be the high-water mark of easy French prose, wanting no doubt in the finer elements of pathos, dignity, and power. And for this reason many have preferred the prose of Rousseau, of George Sand, of Renan, though all of these are apt at times to degenerate into garrulity and gush. There was no French prose, says Voltaire, before Pascal ; and there has been none of the highest flight since Renan. In the rest of Europe perfect prose has long been as rare as the egg of the great auk.

In spite of the splendour of Bacon and of Milton, of Jeremy Taylor and of Hooker, and whatever be the virility of Bunyan and Dryden, I cannot hold that the age of mature English prose had been reached until we come to Defoe, Swift, Addison, Berkeley and Goldsmith. These are the highest types we have attained. Many good judges

canons

hold Swift to be our Voltaire, without defect or equal. I should certainly advise the ambitious essayist to study Swift for instruction, by reason of the unfailing clearness, simplicity, and directness of his style. But when we come to weigh him by the highest standard of all, we find Swift too uniformly pedestrian, too dry; wanting in variety, in charm, in melody, in thunder, and in flash. The grandest prose must be like the vault of Heaven itself, passing from the freshness of dawn to the warmth of a serene noon, and anon breaking forth into a crashing storm. Swift sees the sun in one uniform radiance of cool light, but it never fills the air with warmth, nor does it ever light the welkin with fire.

Addison, with all his mastery of tone, seems afraid to give his spirit rein. Il s'écoute quand il parle : and this, by the way, is the favourite sin of our best moderns. We see him pause at the end of each felicitous sentence to ask himself if he has satisfied all the

as to propriety of diction. Even in the Spectator we never altogether forget the author of Cato. Now we perceive no canons of good taste, no tragic buskin, no laborious modulations in the Vicar of Wakefield, which in its own vein is the most perfect type of eighteenth century prose. Dear old Goldie! There is ease, pellucid simplicity, wit, pathos. I doubt if English prose has ever gone further, or will go further or higher.

After all I have said I need not labour the grounds on which I feel Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, Macaulay, and Carlyle to be far from perfect as writers and positively fatal if taken as models. Old Samuel's Ciceronian pomp has actually dimmed our respect for his good sense and innate robustness of soul. Burke was too great an orator to be a consummate writer, as he was too profound a writer to be a perfect orator. Gibbon's imperial eagles pass on in one unending triumph, with the resounding blare of brazen trumpets, till we weary of the serried legions and grow dizzy with the show. And as to Macaulay and Carlyle, they carry emphasis to the point of exhaustion ; for the peer bangs down his fist to clinch every sentence, and · Sartor' never ceases his uncouth gesticulations and grimace.

In our own century Charles Lamb and Thackeray, I think, come nearest to Voltaire and Madame de Sévigné in purity of diction, in clearness, ease, grace, and wit. But a living writer-now long silent and awaiting his summons to the eternal silence—had powers which, had he cared to train them before he set about to reform the world, would have made him the noblest master who ever used the tongue of Milton. Need I name the versatile genius who laboured here in Oxford so long and with such success? In the mass of his writings John Ruskin has struck the lyre of prose in every one of its infinite notes. He has been lucid, distinct, natural, fanciful, humorous, satiric, majestic, mystical, and prophetic by turns as the spirit moved within him. No Englishman-hardly Milton himself-has ever so completely mastered the tonic resources of English prose, its majesty and wealth of rhythm, the flexibility, mystery, and infinitude of its mighty diapason.

Alas! the pity of it. These incomparable descants are but moments and interludes, and are too often chanted forth in mere wantonness of emotion. Too often they lead us on to formless verbosity and a passionate rhetoric, such as blind even temperate critics to the fact, that it is possible to pick out of the books of John Ruskin whole pages which in harmony, power, and glow have no match in the whole

range

of our prose. And now I know I must not end without hazarding a few practical hints—what betting men and undergraduates call tips '—for general remarks upon literature have little interest for those whose mind runs on sports, and perhaps even less for those whose mind is absorbed in the Schools. But, as there are always some who dream of a life of ' letters,' an occupation already too crowded and far from inviting at the best, they will expect me to tell them how I think they may acquire a command of Style. I know no reason why they should, and I know no way they could set about it. But, supposing one has something to say-something that it concerns the world to knowand this, for a young student, is a considerable claim, 'a large order,' I think he calls it in the current dialect, all I have to tell him is this. Think it out quite clearly in your own mind, and then put it down in the simplest words that offer, just as if you were telling it to a friend, but dropping the tags of the day with which your spoken discourse would naturally be garnished. Be familiar but by no means vulgar. At any rate, be easy, colloquial if you like, but shun those vocables which come to us across the Atlantic, or from Newmarket and Whitechapel, with which the gilded youth and journalists - upto-date' love to salt their language. Do not make us 'sit up' too much, or always 'take a back seat; ' do not ask us to ride for a fall,' to hurry up,' or ' boom it all we know.' Nothing is more irritating in print than the iteration of slang, and those stale phrases with which “the half-baked' seek to convince us that they are in the swim' and 'going strong '--if I may borrow the language of the day —that Volapük of the smart and knowing world. It offends me like the reek of last night's tobacco.

It is a good rule for a young writer to avoid more than twenty or thirty words without a full stop, and not to put more than two commas in each sentence, so that its clauses should not exceed three. This, of course, only in practice. There is no positive law. A fine writer can easily place in a sentence one hundred words, and five or six minor clauses with their proper commas and colons. Ruskin was wont to toss off two or three hundred words and five-and-twenty commas without a pause. But, even in the hand of such a magician this ends in failure, and is really grotesque in effect, for no such

« AnteriorContinuar »