The Establishment of Modern English Prose
|When prose ceases to be precious, prose constitutes a public community. ... In the prose of King Alfred’s Wessex, equally with that of the age of Queen Anne, we meet the shape of a world.|
The last chapter (how good he is at
writing them) presents a complex and compelling argument, that is, in
some respects, familiar. Eliot’s view that we are still fighting the
English civil war is not quoted, but “dissociation of sensibility” is.
The seventeenth century is still the battleground.
Interestingly, though, the combatants are not always the ones we are used to see pitched against each other. Instead of the traditional bouts—court versus puritan culture, the Cambridge platonists taking on Hobbes—we are shown an unexpected one: Bunyan (a true heir of Cranmer) lived at the same time as Spratt and Wilkins, who, as representatives of the Royal Society, wanted to purge our language of metaphor. Following R. F. Jones, Robinson sees the Royal Society’s project of reforming the language as a crucial stage in the establishment of the modern sensibility. The closing paragraph of the book has some reflections on the consequences of “a culture in which plain statements are the central object of worship”. He doesn’t use “worship” lightly; the word is crucial to his central thesis—the religious fulfilment of prose. When the indicative is a verb’s chief mood, fiction is bound to be seen as subversive of our (attenuated) language. Hence Robinson observes that “the most secure achievements” of post-enlightenment novelists “have been comic”. Is this what the next book is going to be about?
Because the book takes us up to the close of the seventeenth century, Dryden is a central figure. Robinson is careful not to submit to the paradigms either of organic growth or the upward sweep of progress. In his thesis Dryden is not easy to place. Of course his work is something of a consummation; in his sentences “the shape always seems so beautifully that of the sense.” He inherits the prose of Cranmer and must have been indebted to him, but perhaps already the excluding stringencies of Spratt and Wilkins are beginning to be felt. His similarity to Cranmer lies in “the perfect naturalness of the complex sentence in an English prose that is at the same time close to speech”. But Robinson goes on to note that there are equally remarkable differences:
|Dryden is so fluent, in prose or verse, that one has to make an effort to remember how much all his prose, and most of his couplets, leave out, even of John Dryden the man. Sense becomes an exclusive and reductive positive.|
To appreciate the significance of this judgement, we have to go back to the early chapters; there Robinson alerts us to a number of hitherto ignored topics. If competing claims about the seventeenth century are well-known, the world of medieval prose and its punctuation is not. What emerges, as well as some fascinating incidentals (did you know that the semi-colon probably originated in Venice?), is the importance of the voice. To appreciate the centrality of speech we have to combine knowledge of classical and medieval rhetoric—the world of oratio, of the period and the virgule—as well as an honesty about how we actually read. I like Robinson’s humour and gusto:
|Everything I read I hear. . . . Comparing notes with friends and pupils I find this disability is still not uncommon. Anyway, I think it brings us closer to the middle ages. The great divide is not between reading aloud and reading silently, but between reading with a voice real or imagined and reading without a voice at all.|
Yes, I read like that. And for those who do, there’s the promise that
we might appreciate that medieval punctuation was rhetorical rather
than syntactic. This is in part because the medieval notion of a sentence
wasn’t grammatical. A more helpful notion than sentence is “period—meaningful
units constructed out of sounds and pauses. (At this point I’d better
add that if you teach “A” level English Language, you’ll find the opening
chapter and the appendices a stimulating read).
The importance of voice leads to what I found the most illuminating chapter in the book—“Prose rhythm”. How many times have you and I floundered in a class when we’ve been asked to say exactly what prose is? Nobody seems very clear. It’s certainly not a syntactic category. Robinson helps by making the distinction between verse and prose in terms of rhythm. Prose does have rhythm, it does employ feet; but, following Quintillian—“to my inexpert judgement . . . a very intelligent writer”, when the run of feet exceeds three prose lapses into verse. Rhythm, then, is a necessary part of prose. And so is sound; the alliterative tradition is not dead in our language.
Everything comes together in the chapter on Cranmer—sound, rhythm, sense, and syntactic complexity fuse to form a world. Robinson discusses several aspects of the various prayer books, including the incomparable Collects. Cranmer is meant to be spoken, so his prose articulates ideas through the subtle orchestrations of the human voice and in the logical forms of a lucid grammar. He is not, in Robinson’s phrase, a wanderer. The sub-text here is that this is the way in which a fully formed and distinctly English culture emerges:
|We have at last arrived at the moment when oratio and well-formed sentence coincide, but the coincidence is not for the sake of conveying information or describing the external world. The main clause of these well-formed sentences of the Collects is not indicative, but imperative. So the well-formed sentence was developed in English not as a result of the activities of the Royal Society, to purify the language and make it fit for science, but to approach God.|
In the light of this we can understand Robinson’s uneasiness with Dryden. Did the man who inherited so much and perfected it with such fluency also concede too much to those who demanded a prose chiefly of statements? On the page before the above quotation Robinson talks about a passage from Cranmer’s Defence, which, he says, rises with splendour and fervour to a doxology. He comments that this is what we demand of prose that conducts an argument and adds:
|All the same, it isn’t a John-Stuart-Mill or Bentham kind of argument. I believe Cranmer’s manner is really more intellectual, more truly a work of mind. If modern prose is expected to convey information briskly and efficiently along its metalled ways, Cranmer is not less efficient but is more whole. Cranmer’s prose does not need to exclude so much of the human psyche as Mill’s.|
If it comes to a choice between Cranmer and Mill (and perhaps it does),
I think I’ve got to declare whose side I’m on. I suspect some readers
will find this hard to take, but to me the case for Cranmer is enticing.
In a different academic style (though still a piece of Cambridge writing),
the theologian Catherine Pickstock argues in After Writing that it is
“the articulations of a model of a liturgical attitude which alone offers
a genuine restoration of the subject and of language as such”. Significantly,
the sub-title of her book is: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy.
In his book Robinson works out a literary and historical complement
to Pickstock’s theology and philosophy: language has its true place
in the worship of God.
If this all sounds a shade solemn, let me assure the reader that Robinson writes with his characteristic racy lightness. He writes so well; he’s conversational, open, pithy and tosses out suggestions for further research with good natured generosity. I like the way he’s proud of being Thomas Burnet’s (spelt Burnett in the Index) first modern publisher. As a reader who knows his writings would expect, Robinson is funny: was “the poor turn-out at Bosworth attributable to the King’s failure to get his message across?” What also comes across is the pleasure he has had in exploring the largely undiscovered country of apparently obscure technicalities. In one sense .he knows he’s something of an amateur. In a more important one, he’s the confident (and confidence inducing) professional. He’s learned to see and judge. Quite often I stumbled through a quoted passage of More or Raleigh, aware that I didn’t really know what to make of their language. The deftly written discussion that followed made me see I had a trusty and nimble footed guide.
His confidence comes from his conviction that in matters of language the Aristotelians were wrong and the Cambridge (we have to use the term broadly) school of literary criticism was right. De Saussure must be in error. There can’t be a mental signified as well as the sound and shape of the verbal signifier. Language and thought are identical. When we think in words, that’s exactly what we do; the thought is in the words and nowhere else. As Robinson says, Wittgenstein is the anchor for this, but then he adds that “as a matter of fact I came to it myself as an ordinary part of a literary education.” Pound, Eliot, Richards and Leavis saw through the fallacy that language was merely the dress of thought; and behind them stand Newman, Carlyle and Coleridge.
As I’ve indicated, he has other debts. This is a very Anglican book. Cranmer created a liturgy for the English church and in so doing made the culture of the nation. Robinson has ecumenical sympathies so he resists being a narrow party man; Bunyan is given an eminent place, and he praises the prose of the Protector rather than that of the royal martyr. But the dedication shows where he stands: “To the Prayer Book Society of England”. And with thy spirit.
Paul Dean in English Studies 81:1, February, 2000
[the relevant part of this review begins mid-sentence]
… the brilliant but cumbersomely titled book by Ian Robinson, The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. [Paperback edition retitled Cranmer's Sentences] R. W. Chambers has been discarded too hastily, Robinson thinks: the continuity from Old English prose down to the Restoration is visibly a matter of the survival of ancient punctuation practices which mark off periods rather than grammatical sentences and assume the voice reading aloud rather than the mind silently absorbing. (The old punctuation devices continue to appear even in printed texts.) Robinson is particularly illuminating on Biblical and liturgical translation, paying due homage to the genius of Tyndale but feeling that a triumph of undissociated sensibility belongs to Cranmer, whose “feat is the perfect unification of the new Renascence syntactic organization with the old tradition of the phrasal movement of the human voice”, a claim he proves by inspired literary analysis. Indeed, many pages are devoted to readings of Old and Middle English texts as well as to a remarkable range of writers from Chaucer to Dryden (the latter too highly rated for my taste). It is a virtual history of English prose, informed by contemporary linguistic theory and valuable glances at Wittgenstein. The attention to detail never flags, the erudition is lightly worn, the prose is fittingly that of a human voice speaking to us, warm and engaging in its resonance. Robinson intimates he has several other books in progress; let us hope publishers will snap them up, for there is nobody else doing the kind of work he does, and it is essential.