ePub 版

It was their aim to please a people of fine taste and delicate ear; who were accustomed, from the recitations of rhapsodists and dithyrambists, and the perpetual occurrence of dramatic exhibitions, to the flow of verse and the graces of language. The orators therefore cultivated a style which, by a rhythmical arrangement of the words, satisfied the ear with its numerous cadence, and yet did not seem unadapted to the purposes of business, nor to the unpremeditated expression of the passions, by being restricted to the regular recurrence of a certain number of syllables, precisely adjusted in their length and accent.

The prose style which they formed, and which has been adopted by all polished nations, however it may attain the effects of verse, is separated from it by an immutable law. It is rhythmical, but not metrical. The various members of each sentence correspond by an apt position, a proportionate length, and a similar form; each important part is terminated by an expressive and pleasing turn of modulation ; but an exact repetition of the same cadences, a strict limitation of the same syllables, or any precise or monotonous disposition of the words is carefully avoided. Verse is in its very nature artificial ; it is the poet's intention and business to display a high result of art, and the hearer or reader is disappointed unless he can easily recognize the effect of art, and ascertain the harmony of every line: but the art of the prose writer is to conceal his art ; to satisfy the ear by a dextrous arrangement, without destroying its resemblance to the language of conversation with which it is connected, or weakening the conviction of its being the natural and immediate expression of the understanding and the heart.

This form of prosaic composition, like all other excellences in art, first arose and was expanded amongst the Greeks, and was by them transmitted to the Romans, who continued to cultivate it with equal success. The magnificence and amplitude of Livy's prose contend with the majesty of his subject, the fortunes of Rome through seven hundred years of intestine struggle, and external warfare and triumph. In Cicero we have every variety of style; the simplicity of familiar epistles, the subtlety and elegance of philosophic argumentation, the force and fulness of rapid and indignant eloquence; and his perfection in each kind entitles him, perhaps, to the very first name amongst prose writers. At the revival of literature in Europe, each nation, as it became acquainted with the models of classic elegance, formed its prose style upon the same principles : but Italy, as she was first in poetry, so undoubtedly produced in Boccaccio the earliest example of numerous and elegant prose.

Before we trace its progress in England, it will not be improper to advert a little to the origin and character of the language upon which it had to work. The history of a language is in some degree that of the people to whom it belongs, and in all cases declares its progress in civilization, and the advance of the popular mind. The progress of thought is closely connected with the improvement of language, because we think in words, and therefore the accuracy of our

thoughts must greatly depend on the precision of our words. Language also is the vehicle of instruction: the communication of knowledge must be facilitated by the improvement of the instrument. The expansion, therefore, of the powers of a language, the manner in which it passed from barbarous and scanty rudeness, to copiousness and elegance, is one of the most pleasing and attractive inquiries to the curiosity of a liberal mind. And if there be any language which deserves such an investigation, our own, whose opulence and flexibility were never surpassed, which enshrines such stores of brilliant genius and profound wisdom, which is destined to be spoken by a considerable part of mankind, and to impart the principles of piety, virtue and truth to the whole world, may claim this attention. On this topic, however, we can only glance. In the time of Alfred, (900), our language was almost pure Saxon, with a slight admixture of the Latin, and British or Celtic. The Saxon, a language of Teutonic origin, allowing for the difference of time, had a great resemblance to the modern German, and liberally partook of its excellences and defects. Its words were forcible, clear and expressive, but these merits were counterbalanced by a troublesome variety of grammatical forms, and a harsh, inverted and cumbersome structure. From Alfred to the conquest, (1066), it received some alterations from the Norman-French, which, at the latter period, was introduced into our island as a distinct language, and for a long time continued the dialect of the higher classes. The NormanFrench was created by a union of one of the northern, or Teutonic languages, with the Latin : the latter predominated ; and as the grammatical structure of each was destroyed by the combination, there arose a new one of much simplicity in its formation, and containing a great number of Latin words. Such a language, from its origin and qualities, was well adapted to coalesce with and improve the Anglo-Saxon: and, after a gradual approximation, which the intercourse of the Normans and Saxons must naturally occasion, the most valuable portion of both languages united in the formation of the English. In the reign of Edward III. it had already so far advanced to maturity, as soon after to be fit for the use of such a poet as Chaucer, and to encourage the great reformer Wickliffe to undertake and complete a translation of the whole bible, which now exists in manuscript.

Perhaps, even at that early period, the language would have been fixed, if the unhappy political circumstances which arose in the contests of the houses of York and Lancaster, had not interrupted the nation in its attention to literary pursuits. However we may regret those fierce and bloody contentions, it was well for the utility and fame of the language, that it did not so early assume a definite character. In the midst of those troubles, its powers were still increasing; and, at their happy termination under Henry VII., classical learning was generally introduced, a new impulse was given to the industry and curiosity of mankind, by the discovery of America, the invention of printing, and the light of the reformation, the seeds of future excellence were planted by a sound education, and it was reserved to the great men who appeared under Elizabeth and James, rich in native genius, stimulated by the general and rapid progress of the age, and nurtured with all the elements of ancient wisdom, to enlarge, refine, and establish the language in which they clothed their immortal works.

At this auspicious moment, when the speech of our island, like its native oak, the monarch of the woods, whose growth is slow, but proportioned to its duration, had attained its full maturity of amplitude, fecundity, and strength, when its massy trunk was perfect, and all its hard knots and twisted boughs shot forth, when it had yet lost none of the green honours of its youth, or its wide-spreading and multitudinous leaves, the writings of the reformers and fathers of the English church, especially the Liturgy and the standard version of the Bible, fixed it in undecaying vigour, and consecrated it to perennial bloom. It is almost impossible to appreciate the influence of these two sacred works on the English character, intellect, and language. They differ from all other books, in the peculiar circumstance of their being necessarily and frequently read or heard by the greatest part of the community. They are read by those who scarcely read any thing else ; they are heard by those who cannot read at all. They are heard and read so frequently, that they must make an impression on the memory. They are not confined to the higher or more literary classes, but are known, perhaps most familiarly, by the poor and illiterate. They are treasures of the sublimest poetry, the most thrilling and affecting eloquence; they present the purest and most exalted views of the divine nature, the most accurate and faithful picture of the

« 上一頁繼續 »