Prose Writing: in Eighteenth Century || Prose Writer

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      As we have noted, the age of Dr. Johnson is a golden period of English prose. This prose has astonishing range, quality and volume. Some of the masters of the prose of the period are Edmund Burke, the celebrated orator; Edward Gibbon, the great historian; Adam Smith, the great economist; Boswell, the biographer of "Dr. Johnson," and a host of others who are no more than mere names to the modern students.

Some of the masters of the prose of the period are Edmund Burke, the celebrated orator; Edward Gibbon, the great historian; Adam Smith, the great economist; Boswell, the biographer of "Dr. Johnson," and a host of others who are no more than mere names to the modern students.
Prose writting

      The intimacy which appeared in Restoration prose lives on in the days of Queen Anne, the most sociable period of English literature. Much of the prose of the age goes into the novel, but some of the fiction writers were talented in other ways.

      Daniel Defoe (1659-1731) who is often remembered only for Robinson Crusoe did much to establish English journalism and in his paper, The Review, he set the eighteenth century upon the task of composing the periodical papers. His novels are thrown into biographic form. His Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack and Rexona - all follow this method. Since it was his object to give to his inventions the air and semblance of touch, his stories are told as if they were stories of actual life, in the plain, matter-of-fact, business-like way appropriate to stories of actual life. His homely, easy, colloquial style lent itself admirably to his purpose.

      Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote the vision of life as he saw it. The long list of his satires extends from The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub to Gulliver's Travels. Swift has often been presented as diseased misanthropist who saw his fellowmen at the Yahoos of the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels. But this is not true. Swift had a mind vexed by the inconvenience and inadequacies of the physical apparatus of the human body. The Drapier's Letters reveal his hatred of political hypocrisy and his genuine understanding of the Irish people. Gulliver's Travels is the indictment of the human race for refusing reason and benevolence as the ways of life. His Journal of Stella, a narrative of his life in London during the time of his greatest political activity and influence is a wonderful revelation of the real tenderness which lay concealed in the depth of his fierce nature.

      Swift is one of the greatest English prose writers. He is a master of simple, direct, colloquial style. His prose is clear and it is a clarity sustained by the most vigorous mind of the century. Never is the meaning obscure and each argument is developed with a deadly certainty, not through rhetoric but by putting proper words in the proper places. His special field was satire and his favourite instrument was irony. The Battle of Books and A Tale of a Tub take rank among the finest prose satires in the language. The former grew out of a controversy related to the respective merits of ancient and modern literatures. The Tale of a Tub contains the essence of Swift's thought and style. It was designed to champion the Protestant church against the pretensions of the church of Rome and the extravagances of the dissenting sects. His Gulliver's Tavels was erected upon a great foundation of that misanthropy which was the basis of his thought. This most delightful children book turns out on closer inspection to be one of the bitterest satires on mankind ever described. In The Voyage of Lilliput which is largely concerned with the English politics of the time, we have an exposure of the infinite littleness and absurd pretensions of man. In The Voyage of Brobdingnag Guliver becomes the pigmy - the same moral is driven home. In The Voyage to Laputa, Swift scornfully attacks philosophers, projectors and inventors and all who waste their energies in pursuit of fantastic things. As a whole Gulliver's Travels has the multiple intentions of a masterpiece it can be read by children for its narrative and descriptive charm; it can be read by learned historians as an allegory of the political life of Swift's time; it can be read as a burlesque of voyage literature; it can be read as a masterpiece of misanthropy; it is perhaps best read as the ingenious reflections of a thoughtful man on the abuses of human reason. It attracts the readers by the unaffected directness and simplicity of its manner or by the subtlety of its reflections on man and his corrupt behaviour at court, at home or in his study.

      The names to Addison and Steele are always associated on account of their collaboration in the periodical essays. Steele founded, The Tatler, the first of the long line of the eighteenth century periodical essay. This was followed by the most famous of them, The Spectator in which Addison who had contributed to his friend's former enterprise now became the chief partner. Both Steele and Addison set themselves as moralists to break down two opposed influences - that of the immoral Restoration tradition of loose living and loose thinking on the one hand and that of Puritan fanaticism and bigotry on the other. They did not indulge in sweeping condemnations; they wrote good-humouredly, met all classes of readers on their own ground and made ample allowance for the ordinary failings of humanity; but at the same time they upheld the claims of decency and decorum. Manners, fashions, literature, stories, moral reflections - all took a turn as themes in their papers which were addressed consciously to a middle class audience. They wrote with an educational as well as with a purely moral aim. They discussed art, philosophy, the drama and poetry. The appreciation of Milton was spread among the English people by Addison's eighteen papers on Paradise Lost. Moreover, in the many papers in which they dealt with the leading figures of The Spectator Club and specially with the eccentricities of the delightful. Tory Squire, Sir Roger de Coverley, the essayist cultivated what is known as character writing. In the hands of Addison and Steele, the seventeenth century character study became personal vital: instead of catalogues of qualities, we have actual men moving amid real scenes and taking part in various incidents. The prose that Addison and steele wrote in their papers is lucid, clear and precise.

      In the eighteenth century the subjects of study to which man applied himself became more numerous and more systematic and it was the good fortune of England that prose in that age had become a pliant and serviceable medium. It was a century full of speculation and fierce questioning, a century with powerful minds that applied themselves to the problems of the nature of life. The greatest English man of letters between Pope and Wordsworth was Samuel Johnson. Johnson's powerful personality and his long literary career made him the dominating figure of the country. His edition of Shakespeare helped in the eighteenth century task of interpreting the text of the plays and one can often find clarity in Johnson when other editors remain obscure. The Preface to the edition, a brave piece of criticism, finally rescued the plays from the more pedantic judgements of Neo-classic criticism. His central work was the Dictionary upon which all later lexico-graphical studies have been based. In later years, he wrote The Lives of the Poets in which in a prose that often matches his conversation, he gives an account of English poetry from Cowley to Gray. In The Rambler and The Idler, he applied himself to the periodical papers and introduced in his essays a deeper moral gravity than Addison practised. Johnson's prose style is characterised by heaviness and pomposity. In place of the easy grace of Addison and the vigorous idiomatic colloquialism of Swift, Johnson gives us a style which is highly Latinised in vocabulary. In sentence structure, it is marked by elaborate balance and anti-thesis. His style, however, has an elegance that depends on balance and at its best it has great strength, nobility and dignity.

      Edmund Burke is pre-eminently an orator "the golden mouthed orator", 'the Demosthenes of England as he is called. His great works are the masterpieces of forensic art. Three of his speeches On American Taxation, On Conciliation with the Colonies and On the Impeachment of Warren Hastings have stood the test of time though the occasions which inspired them are long dead and gone. These speeches are characterised by a great wisdom, a broad and Catholic humanity, a glowing poetic imagination and an ornate and musical style. These are the permanent elements in the prose which was 'occasional'. Outside the speeches there are the philosophical writings, which include A Vindication of natural Society and Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Reflections on the Revolution in France is a magnificent political pamphlet, in which Burke denounces the Revolution as "the mother of all evil". Burke's gifts as a writer are nowhere better illustrated than in the last work. The permanent value of Burke's speeches and writings lies in their style. Burke's style is oratorical. He is a great rhetorician, rich in passionate declamation excelling where splendour and force are required. His prose is full of colour and splendour and vigorous rhythm. It recaptures the ornate style of the Elizabethan and Caroline prose.

      Edward Gibbon, another great prose-writer of the age is a great historian. His greatest work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a classic. He worked at it for six years. It is a work of scholarship and art. Its wealth of details is amazing. Gibbon has the true historian's sense of proportion; he "knows what and when to omit, to condense or give in full". His work is an organic whole, with the details properly subordinated to the main structure. His prose style is remarkable in its clarity, fullness and rhythm. But it has its limitations. It lacks ease and variety and tends to monotony.

      Adam Smith, a pioneer in economics, is the author of the famous book The Wealth of Nations. Its literary interest lies in the plain business-like prose in which economic theories are couched.

      Lastly, there is Boswell, the famous biographer, about whom Macaulay has said - "Homer is not more decidedly the first of the epic poets. Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second." Yet Macaulay calls him a fool. No mere fool could write such a work as The Life of Samuel Johnson one of the most living books which has given pleasure to generations of readers. He has brought to the work a bustling activity and curiosity which gives it so much vividness and variety. His hero-worship spirit paints Johnson no doubt as a king and a priest but it does not make him blind to the weaknesses of the great Doctor. Boswell writes in a clear, limpid and vivacious style which makes the book eminently readable.

      Among other prose writers of the age, Oliver Goldsmith showed individuality in his essays, and novels. He was not influenced by the elaborate rhetoric which Johnson had brought into vogue. He wrote in an easy informal way which carries on the tradition of Addison and Steele, David Hume and Gibbon developed the historical prose of the period; Edmund Burke was famous for his grand and rich poetical prose. In lighter prose the most important names are those of the later writers like Montague, Earl of Chesterfied and Horace Walpole.

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