Seventeenth century prose: of Milton, Bunyan and Browne.

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       Literary production in the age, though poor compared to that of the age just gone has more variety than it appears at first sight. The age developed a noble body of prose literature, too in addition to verses, which may well claim the attention of students of English literature.


The prose of Milton, Browne and Taylor is involved, intricate and learned. The construction is that of Latin. It is the prose for learned discourses. It cannot serve for conversation. A change came in the later seventeenth century with the spread of science and commonsense and under the influence of French prose. Apart from Bunyan, Browne and Jeremy Taylor, English prose of the seventeenth century is enriched by the writings of Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), Izaak Walton (1593-1683).
Milton, Bunyan & Browne


      The case of Milton's prose writings is peculiar. Milton was a poet in essence. But, for twenty years he took holiday from versification and plunged into the thick of the political and religious feud of the time from 1639 to 1660; he was engaged in writing pamphlets on church, government, divorce, liberty etc. He descended into what he calls "the cool element of prose" and wrote about twenty-one pamphlets in English, besides some in Latin. Their subjects belong to his time and have little interest for modern readers. Areopagitica (1644), one of the pamphlets is a noble and impressive plea for the liberty of the press. Some of the most beautiful sentences in the book, for instance, those on good books are still quoted. They are also interesting as pieces of self-revelation.



      It is the style of the prose of Milton that is our main concern. The pamphlets are improvisions cast off at the white heat of controversy and hurried through the press. Milton himself had regarded them as inferior writings. Hence they make formidable reading. The author is careless of the shape and limits of sentences. Sometimes sentences run through whole pages, meandering in endless bypaths and the reader is apt to lose himself in a labyrinth. A passionate vehemence marks his prose, rich fancy and ripe scholarship throw it beyond the range of the understanding of the ordinary reader. In short, it is the prose of the great poet who is thrown into the thick of a fight, Milton's prose has Latin syntax and is magniloquent.



      Bunyan (1628-88) is story-teller of Puritanism, just as Milton is its singer. John Bunyan belongs to the Restoration period. His career was a chequered one. He was born in a poor family of tinkers, spent twenty years of life in Bedford jail for his religious views and became a village preacher later on. His immense popularity as a preacher led to his being called Bishop Bunyan. Bunyan was a voluminous writer. Three of his works deserve mention today - Grace Abounding (1666) the famous Pilgrim's Progress (1678) and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. His writings are mainly allegorical. The Pilgrim's Progress ranks very high among English prose allegories. The Christian idea of a Heavenly City inspiring the earthly pilgrim to reach it is the topic of the prose allegory. It is the concrete vitality of his allegorical abstractions and the vivid power of narration that makes the book a perfect work of art. Bunyan had all the qualities of a perfect story-teller-insight into character, humour, pathos and rich imagination. For this Bunyan has been called "the founder of the modern novel" (perhaps with an exaggeration). Bunyan occupies a unique place in the development of English prose style. Though based on the Bible, it has some individual features too. It is simple, clear, flowing, forceful and has a colloquial ease. At times when emotion is concerned, it becomes terse, coloured and vivid, The appeal of the style is at once to the unlettered and the cultured.



      Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a physician by profession and a preacher by inclination. He was a learned man, widely and variously read and lived a life of undisturbed peace in an age of religious and political turmoil. His books are only five in number; of these Religio Medici and Urn-Burial have claims upon the attention of the literary student. Religio Medici (the religion of the medical man) is a confession of his faith and a defence of himself from the charge of irreligion that was brought against him. It covers a wide field theology, science, history etc,; it is a work of erudition. His other works include The Garden of Cyrus and Christian Morals. It is as stylist that Browne is famous and was praised highly by the romantic writers. "He shows the ornate style of his time in its richest bloom. His diction is strongly Latinised, sometimes of the limit of obscurity..... His sentences are carefully wrought and artificially combined into paragraphs..... The diction has a richness of effect, unknown among other English prose writers. The rhythm is harmonious and finished with carefully attuned cadences." (Albert). Very few poets in their verses have given such a rich feast to the ear as the doctor had done in his prose. Seldom has English stretched itself to the harmonies which Browne controls in his long sentences, marshalled with words many of them of Latin origin and all of them well-sounding.



      The age which produced Sir Thomas Browne also possessed in Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) the most eloquent preacher that the English church possessed. He is best remembered for his Holy Living (1650) and his Holy Dying (1651), but his sermons surpass these in the passion and splendour of their language.



      The prose of Milton, Browne and Taylor is involved, intricate and learned. The construction is that of Latin. It is the prose for learned discourses. It cannot serve for conversation. A change came in the later seventeenth century with the spread of science and commonsense and under the influence of French prose. Apart from Bunyan, Browne and Jeremy Taylor, English prose of the seventeenth century is enriched by the writings of Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), Izaak Walton (1593-1683). Thomas Fuller wrote The Holy War, The Holy State and the Porfane State, Church History of Britain etc. He lacks the splendour of Browne and the opulent variety of Burton, but he has considerable contributions to the prose literature of the time. The famous work of Walton is The Complete Angler. The book is intended for the instruction of fisherman, but it is popular with countless readers for its pleasant gossipy style, its simple painting of an English country side. It is in the form of a dialogue between an angler and a hunter.



      The Authorised Version of the Bible (1611) has a great influence on the English prose of the seventeenth century. The 1611 translators of the Bible succeeded in blending the peculiar excellences of all the previous translations. It has the strength and sweetness of all ages. The shortness of the Biblical verses compelled restraint and curbed the tendency of the language of overflow into unending and formless sentences.



      Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy which appeared in 1621 is another interesting prose work, The style is discursive and involved, yet it is the greatest medical treatise written by a layman.

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