Saturday, July 23, 2011
Bacon’s Contribution to the Development of English Prose
Saturday, July 23, 2011 by Faizan Bhatti
Tags: M.A. English
Question: Write a note on Bacon’s contribution to the development of English prose and indicate with suitable illustrations from some of his essays, the principal ingredients of his style.
Question: Write an essay on Bacon’s prose style, giving suitable illustrations.
Bacon made a valuable contribution to the development of English prose. Bacon did really great things in this sphere. When alliteration, antithesis, similes from “unnatural natural history” were the order of the day in English prose, Bacon showed that English was as capable as the classical languages of serving the highest purposes. He proved that it was possible in English also to express the subtleties of thought in clear, straightforward, and uninvolved sentences and, when necessary, to condense the greatest amount of meaning into the fewest possible words.
Bacon shows himself in his essays to be an accomplished rhetorician. He made for himself a style which was unmatchable for pith and pregnancy in the conveyance of his thoughts. When the bulk of English prose was being written in loose sentences of great length, he supplied at once a short, crisp, and firmly-knit sentence of a type which was quite unfamiliar in the English language. He rejected the conceits and overcrowded imagery o the euphuists, but he knew how to illumine his thought with suitable figures of speech, and give to it an imaginative glow and charm upon occasion. For the students of expression, Bacon’s essays are of endless interest and profit: the more one reads them, the more remarkable seem their compactness and their nervous vitality. They shock the sluggish attention of a reader into wakefulness as if by an electric current: and though they may sometimes fail to nourish, they can never fail to stimulate.
Emerson is the one modern writer with whom Bacon may be fairly compared, for their method is much the same. In each case, we have a store of trenchant and apparently disconnected sayings, where the writer tries to reach the reader’s mind by a series of aphoristic attacks. The best and most striking example of this kind of style in the essay called Of Expense. By comparing Bacon with his predecessors like Sidney and Lyly, we can see how widely he departed from the prolix methods of the time. In rhetorical power, musical cadence, quaint turns of speech, he was equalled by many of his contemporaries and was excelled by a few; but for clear, terse writing he has no equal except Ben Jonson, and even today his essays are models of succinct, lucid prose.
Bacon took one of the longest steps ever taken in the evolution of English prose. English prose was already rich and sonorous. Hooker and Releigh, still rank as two of the greatest stylists in English prose. While these two writers have majesty and strength, they did not command a style suited to all the purposes which prose has to serve. Their style was admirable for great themes and for moments of elevation, but not well-adapted to the pedestrian passages which must link such moments one to another. The sentences were inconveniently long and, even in the hands of the most skilful writers, were frequently involved and obscure. Parentheses were extremely common. The same is true of Bacon himself in his larger and more sustained works. But, in the essays, Bacon did set the example and furnish the model of condensed and lucid prose. The sentences are short; the grammatical structure is rarely ambiguous though it is sometimes loose with shortness came also flexibility. The new style of Bacon fitted itself as easily to buildings and gardens, or to suitors and ceremonies, as to death, adversity, and envy. It could be brought down to the familiarity of comparing money to muck, not good unless it be spread; and it could be raised to a comparison between movements of the human mind and the movements of the heavenly bodies.
Terseness of expressions and epigrammatic brevity are the most striking qualities of Bacon’s style in the essays. Bacon possessed a marvellous power of compressing into a few words an idea which ordinary writers would express in several sentences. Many of his sentences have an aphoristic quality. They are like proverbs which can readily be quoted when the occasion demands. Only Bacon could have written the following sentences which are the remarkable for their condensation and brevity:
(1) “Groans and convulsions, and a discoloured face, and friends weeping, and blacks, and obsequies and the like, show death terrible.” (Of Death)
(2) “A man would die, though he were neither valiant nor miserable, only upon a weariness to do the same thing so oft over and over.” (Of Death)
(3) “Death has this also; that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envy.” (Of Death)
(4) “Prosperity is not without many fears and distastes; and adversity is not without comforts and hopes.” (Of Adversity)
(5) “Certainly virtue is like precious odours, most fragrant when they are incensed or crushed: for prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue.” (Of Adversity)
(6) “A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others.” (Of Envy)
(7) “They are as men fallen out with the time; and think other men’s harms a redemption of their own sufferings.” (Of Envy)
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