BLTC Press Titles


available for Kindle at Amazon.com


The Secret Doctrine, Volume I Cosmogenesis

H. P. Blavatsky


The Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas


The Secret Doctrine, Volume II Anthropogenesis

H. P. Blavatsky


Shakti and Shakta

John Woodroffe


English prose

by Sir Henry Craik

Excerpt:

PREFACE

The object of this collection is to show the growth and development of English Prose, by extracts from the principal and most characteristic writers. In the introductory notice to each author, only so much of biographical detail has been given as may enable the reader to judge the general circumstances of the author's life and surroundings, and the scope of his work; and to this is added a critical description of his style and methods, and of his place in the development of English Prose. It is thought that the specimens thus brought together may prove useful to the student of our literature, as a supplement to the histories of that literature now chiefly in use.

It has been judged best, as a rule, to modernise the spelling and to bring it into conformity with modern usage, except in a few instances where the expressions used belong to some peculiar dialect and represent a distinct and interesting variety. Peculiar words are printed in italics, and are explained in the notes at the end of each volume. For this arrangement the Editor alone is responsible.

INTRODUCTION

THE EARLIER HISTORY OF ENGLISH PROSE

The attraction of medieval literature comes perhaps more strongly from some other countries than from England. In France and Provence, in Germany and Iceland, there were literary adventurers more daring and achievements more distinguished. It was not in England that the most wonderful things were produced; there is nothing in old English that takes hold of the mind with that masterful and subduing power which still belongs to the lyrical stanzas of the troubadours and minnesingers, to Welsh romance, or to the epic prose of the Iceland histories.

The Norman Conquest degraded the English language from its literary rank, and brought in a new language for the politer literature. It did not destroy, in one sense it did not absolutely interrupt, English literature ; but it took away the English literary standard, and threw the country back into the condition of Italy before Dante—an anarchy of dialects. When a new literary language was established in the time of Chaucer, the Middle Ages were nearly over: and so it happened that for the greatest of the medieval centuries, the twelfth and thirteenth, the centuries of the Crusades, of the Hohenstaufen Emperors, of St. Francis, St. Dominic, and St. Louis, there is in English no great representative work in prose or rhyme. There are better things, it is true, than the staggering rhythms of Layamon, or the wooden precision of Orm : the Ancren Riwle is better. But there is no one who can be taken, as some of the writers in other countries

Vol. I E B

can—Crestien de Troies, for instance, or Walther von der Vogelweide, or Villehardouin—there is no one in England who can be taken for a representative poet or orator, giving out what can be recognised at once, and is recognised instinctively, as the best possible literary work of its own day and its own kind. The beauty of medieval poetry and prose is not to be found in England, or only in a faint reflected way. England d1d not possess the heart of the mystery. To spend much time with the worthy clerks who promoted Christian and useful knowledge in the thirteenth and fourteenth century dialects of Lincoln or Yorkshire, Kent or Dorset, is to acquire an invincible appetite for the glory of other countries not quite so tame, for the pride of life of the castles and gardens of Languedoc or Swabia, for the winds of the forest of Broceliande. Not in the English tongue were the great stories told. Almost everything in the literature of the Middle Ages that is out of the common, that is in any sense magical or inspired, comes from beyond the English borders.

For all this want of distinction there is some compensation. The early English literature, if not representative of what is keenest and strongest, or most exalted, in the intellect of Europe in these times, is admirably fitted to convey to after generations both the common sense and the commonplaces of Western civilisation, from the ninth century onward. A study of English literature alone would give a very false and insufficient idea of the heights attained in the progress of European literature as a whole: for there were worlds of imagination and poetical art which were open to some of the other nations, and not at all or very imperfectly to the English. But English literature contains and preserves, in a better and completer form than elsewhere, the common ideas, the intellectual and educational ground-work of the Middle Ages ; and that is something. The average mind at any rate is well represented. Prose and its development can be observed very fully and satisfactorily from a very early date. One of the chief interests of the early literature is that it reflects the process by which the native Teutonic civilisation of the English became metamorphosed by the intrusion of alien ideas, either Latin or transmitted through Latin ; by the struggles of the English mind to overcome and assimilate the civilisation of the Roman Empire. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes not so easy, to distinguish the two kinds of thinking, native and foreign. The alliterative heroic poetry of the Anglo-Saxons is inherited, not imported ; it is the product of centuries during which the German tribes were educating themselves, and making experiments in poetry (among other things) till they gradually formed the established epic type, which in essentials, in style and phrasing, and even in subject matter, is common to Continental Germany and Scandinavia, in early times, along with England. It may be compared, even by temperate critics, to the Homeric poetry of Greece, and the comparison need not be misleading. The AngloSaxon prose, on the other hand, much of which is contemporaneous with the heroic poetry, is generally derivative and Latin in spirit, repeating and adapting ideas that are very far removed from simplicity. While on the one hand there are analogies with the Homeric age and the Homeric poems in Anglo-Saxon society and poetry, on the other hand there are many things in the work of the Anglo-Saxon writers which make one think of the way European ideas are now being taken up, without preparation, in the East —of the wholesale modern progress of Japan, and its un-Hellenic confusion. The spectacle is sometimes painful; it cannot be called dull. The same sort of thing, the conflict of the two realms of ideas, German and Latin, went on in all modern nations, beginning in the first encounter of the Northern tribes with the intellectual and spiritual powers of Rome. This conflict is really the whole matter of early modern history. In England its character is brought out more plainly than elsewhere, and, in spite of the Norman Conquest and other interfering circumstances, the process or progress is continuous. For which reason, if for nothing else, it is convenient to begin at the beginning in dealing with the history of English poetry or prose.


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