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THE ENGLISH ESSAY AND ENGLISH PROSE
T is interesting to note the form impressed upon nearly every species of writing by the
original mode of publication — a form retained in greater or less degree long after the merely mechanical method of publication had been wholly changed. Thus epic poetry was originally the chanted narrative of the wandering minstrel, telling of heroic deeds and strange adventures more or less historic. The lyric poem . was originally a song - of love or some other
intense emotion too shy to show its undraped form in any other atmosphere than the rosy twilight of the song. The modern short story was first told by travellers in taverns, and to this day it is not uncommon to find a little tavern vulgarity hanging about it. The first modern novel (Richardson's “ Pamela ") was a series of letters. Dickens and Thackeray were first published in shilling parts, and that method of publication so fixed upon the modern novel its characteristic
of lengthy formlessness that even to this day the defect is being thrown off with the utmost difficulty.
In early times, in Greece for example, prose had two methods of publication, namely, through the mouth of the orator in places of political debate, and through the mouth of the philosophic lecturer in his academic grove, where he talked with his pupils in a sort of conversational monologue (exemplified in the writings of Plato). As this latter kind of prose could not be indulged in by many, it received little or no attention rhetorically. Aristotle's treatise on rhetoric was devoted wholly to the art of public speaking.
So it came about that everything that was not an oration or a lecture was expressed only in poetry. That narrowing of the field of prose due to the original form of publication has persisted in the minds of many even to this day, and scholars and writers on rhetoric have taken little notice of the new-fangled forms of prose that began to come into use only so short a time ago as two hundred years. Our textbooks on rhetoric are still based on Aristotle, and Plato is held up as the only model of a perfect prose style for all occasions except those of public speaking.
The beginning of modern English prose as a fine art may be conveniently dated from the King James translation of the Bible. It is a curious thing that a translation should give us new forms of prose style, and that we should so constantly refer to the English Bible rather than simply to the Bible as originally written. The fact is that the most literary portions of the Bible were originally written as poetry; but when the translators had to turn this Hebrew poetry into English they of course found it impossible to make the translation take the form of English verse, and were confronted with the task of discovering a worthy expression in prose. The success of Hebrew poetry in English prose was so apparent, and came with such universal force into the education of every English-speaking man and woman, that English prose was exalted to a position that mere prose never could have held in Greece or Rome. It would not be difficult to trace all our modern prose poetry” and “
” and “impassioned prose' to such masterpieces as “The Book of Job,” “ The Psalms," “ Ecclesiastes," Song of Solomon," etc.
Even simple prose found a new form in the translation of the New Testament. Christ was not a lecturer or monologue talker, like Socrates. He merely
“conversed” with his disciples. In the New Testament for the first time we find ordinary conversation raised to the level of permanent literature. The addition to the possibilities of prose was one of the utmost importance,
1 The reader in looking over the dialogues of Plato will soon perceive that the lay characters are mere figures of straw set up for rhetorical purposes. Moreover, Socrates talked of philosophic ideas, while Christ appeared more as the friend offering sympathy, consolation, and advice.
and the New Testament formed the training school for all our most delightful conversational essayists from Addison to Lamb.
In addition to the oratorical and disquisitional (or lecture) styles handed down to us by the ancients, and the prose poetry and conversational styles given us by the Old and New Testaments, English literature had already received in embryo the story-telling style of the traveller in the inn as it had been caught and fixed in literature by Boccaccio in the “Decameron.” The
“ Decamwas soon reinforced by the Arabian Nights,” which had come into existence about the same time as the “Decameron," though unknown
” to the English.
We may now trace in the English prose essay (with side glances at English prose fiction) the unfolding and development of these five elementary prose types.
The first great English essayist, Bacon, was probably not so much influenced by the Bible as were all who followed him. He developed the conversational style in the essay in an original way from classic models, though the result was for secular purposes not unlike that for loftier purposes, which came from the sayings of Christ recorded in the Gospels. Bacon was an admirable conversationist, and he developed his powers in that line, and especially as a wit after the Elizabethan manner, by a systematic study of "apophthegms” (as he called them). He stocked