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himself with wit in advance, so to speak, by keeping voluminous notebooks, in which he jotted down every clever sentence that occurred to him, so that on some suitable occasion he might introduce it in conversation. He also picked up and recorded the epigrammatic or witty sayings of others. Realizing that some of these notes of his were excellent of their kind, he published them in the first edition of his “Essays.” In later editions the simple notes were developed into more consecutive and perfectly rounded compositions.
Of course there was nothing particularly new in the mere form of these epigrammatic and highly condensed sentences, for under the name
proverbs and epigrams they had been known since the beginning of literature; but the accident which led Bacon to shape a group of such condensed sayings into a rounded essay gave a new form to written and published prose, the modern development of which we see in Carlyle, and especially in Emerson.
Perhaps the first prose writer to show the full effect of the style of the English Old Testament was Milton. He caught at the very beginning and turned most effectively to his uses that peculiar prose cadence which takes the place of metre in poetry. He also gave his writings the imaginative quality of the Old Testament prose poetry. As Milton's prose was employed for the most part in controversial literature, however, it
is as a poet that he will be remembered in literary history.
Almost at the same time another writer gave
In his “parables
The most simple written expression of conversation, however, is found in friendly letters. When paper became cheap enough so that letters could easily be written, this style had a natural and spontaneous development. Steele was the first to suggest the idea of printed letters filled with town gossip. His “ Tatler,"
Tatler," " Spectator," and “Guardian ” were little more than daily letters in which the gossip and conversation of the wags and wits at the coffee-houses were communicated to a much larger circle of friends. Addison, who had been brought up on the English Bible, was quick to see the value of this method of literary composition, and in the “ Spectator he added to the mere secular town gossip of Steele something of the moral style of the New Testament. So it was that conversational letterwriting became a literary form of the English language. Here was the beginning of the essay in its most popular form. Johnson and Goldsmith followed in the steps of Steele and Addison; and finally in Charles. Lamb the humorous letter-like essay reached its zenith of perfection. Almost at the same time that Steele and Addi-'
giving us form
of essay was added to English literature by Swiftswift
Swift most unclerical and morally repulsive men among the great writers of English literature, still I believe that a careful study of his work will show that he was the literary type par excellence of the preacher of his day. That was the day of “hell-fire, thunder-and-lightning” sermons. The preachers got their cue from the prophets of the Old Testament. As soon as the Bible was translated they seized upon the denunciations of the old Hebrew preachers as furnishing exactly the literary form they were in need of, and brandished their new-found weapons with almost demoniac glee. They were intensely in earnest, and were fighting the devil upon his own ground. The warfare was prodigious, and it is not strange that the amenities of peace were often brushed ruthlessly aside. As General Sherman said, War is hell
war upon the devil as well as human combat. In this ferocious moral attack upon the sins of the world Dean Swift was easily the greatest giant of them all. · Morose and illnatured as he was, he meant well, even in his
Modest Proposal” for eating children. His satirical arrows never missed, and they were shot with almost superhuman strength. If the devil was at that time leading his forces in person, how he must have wished that the great Dean were upon his side!
We may see the influence of Swift in Carlyle, and also in the later work of Ruskin (“Fors Clavigera ”). But in his field of devilish satire, Swift stands supreme in English literature, and perhaps in any literature. .
The letter-writing style as used by Richardson in “ Pamela" and " Clarissa Harlowe" became incorporated in the English novel; and in Thackeray we see the good-humored and humorous preaching of Addison perfectly assimilated and adapted to the requirements of the novelist. Indeed in recalling Bunyan, Swift (in “Gulliver”), Goldsmith, and Thackeray, we realize what a debt the novel owes to the essay.
One more element remains to be considered, and that is the lyrical form and use of prose. De Quincey in his “ Confessions of an English Opium-Eater," and even more in “ The English Mail Coach" and “Suspiria de Profundis" (which were in the nature of a sequel to the “Confessions "), was the first to show the peculiar lyrical powers of prose in modern essay writing, though in " Ecclesiastes” and other parts of the Old Testament we have as thorough-going “prose poetry” as ever De Quincey gave us. But De
Quincey was far outdone in this field by one who followed him, namely, Ruskin, in whose hands lyrical prose has reached its extreme development. In the novel, too, it was immensely exploited by Dickens.
The latest development of the English prose essay is a return to the Greek of Plato, and no better representative of this rejuvenescence of the classic spirit could be found than Matthew Arnold. But these Hellenic moderns have also been largely influenced by the French style of such men as Sainte-Beuve, Flaubert, and Daudet, to mention three out of a multitude.
In the following section we shall endeavor to see what prose style may be in view of all that has
STYLE, OR THE ARTISTIC ELEMENT IN PROSE
BEFORE proceeding with a general consideration of prose style, let us pause to note an objection that the reader may possibly raise at this point. Why, he will ask, should you give so much space to "style" in introducing the “ Best English Essays”? Is not the matter of far more importance in a literary composition than the manner? 1
1 De Quincey says of England: "In no country upon earth, were it possible to carry such an axiom into practical effect, is it