Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 10. Its style and influence

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XVI. Elizabethan Prose Fiction

§ 10. Its style and influence

The style of the Arcadia represents a successful attempt at a picturesque prose, for the result is picturesque if somewhat extravagant. Other contemporaries were engaged upon the same quest, but, while Sidney avoids their several extravagances, he indulges in others of his own making. He avoids, for instance, the devices of Euphuism, the more obvious absurdities of bombastic, pedantic phrase, as well as those “tricks of alliteration” and other “far-fetched helps” which “do bewray a want of inward touch.” His excesses, on the other hand, are those of a poet who forgets that he is now committed to prose. He enters upon a pedestrian task, unprepared to forego poetical flight; and, freed from the restraints which verse imposes, he strains even the limits of a more willing prose. With coherence of structure he is not greatly concerned. His sentences, long and rambling, are yet incapable of expressing his wealth of thought, and are, therefore, expanded by frequent parentheses. When he aims at emphasis, he occasionally employs Lyly’s trick of antithesis, or, perhaps, the epigrammatic effect of the oxymoron: but his favourite artifice is that of a jingle of words, which lacks effect as it lacks dignity.

The same excess characterises his use of ornament, for which he depends, not upon erudite display, but, rather, upon a free use of clever conceits in which sentiment is ascribed to inanimate objects. Sparingly used as an accompaniment to highly wrought verse, the device is capable of excellent results, but, when frequently employed in ordinary prose, it soon becomes smothered by its own sweetness. Sidney, in short, rides the “pathetic fallacy” to death; he is for ever hearing “tongues in trees”; and commonplace thought, arrayed in delicate fancy, often leads to grotesque effect.

Sidney’s prose style is, however, not all extravagance, it contains much that suggests the happier moods of a cultured mind. The famous prayer of Pamela, for instance, reads with a noble liturgical ring; pregnant apophthegms, scattered here and there, gleam like jewels of thought, while even the writer’s foibles could produce, at times, distinctly virtuous results, when they enter into some of his most glowing descriptions. Sidney’s extravagances were, in fact, not altogether a vain display. Lyly, in an age of poetry, gave to prose the subtle effects of harmony and balance; Sidney incidentally showed how dull prose might be lit up with flowers of fancy; and his work is, for all time, a rich mine of poetic ore.

The popularity of the work may be gauged from its frequent reappearances, as well as from its subsequent influence upon various writers. Upon the drama, in particular, its influence was considerable. It popularised the new machinery of the disguise of the sexes; it also suggested fresh situations arising out of fanciful realms such as Arden and Bohemia; while its love-passages must also have induced greater interest in the characterisation of women. It furnished episodes for more than one type of work. It supplied King Lear with the underplot of Gloucester and his sons; Quarles with the material for his metrical tale Argalus and Parthenia (1629). Dramatic works, like Day’s Ile of Guls (1606), Beaumont and Fletcher’s Cupid’s Revenge (1615) and Shirley’s Arcadia, are, in some sort, adaptations of its theme, while Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is indebted to it for certain figures and phrases. Moreover, it inspired Lodge’s Rosalynde, and lady Wroth’s Urania (1621), both of which are imitations in novel form; and, lastly, its style set the fashion which helped to ring out the reign of Lyly.