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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XVI. The Essay and the Beginning of Modern English Prose

§ 1. The New Prose and its Causes

PERHAPS the most important literary achievement that falls within the period covered by this volume is the creation of a prose style, which, in structure if not in vocabulary, is essentially the same as that of to-day. Caroline prose, the prose of Milton and Taylor, of Browne and Clarendon, had produced, in the hands of genius, some of the noblest passages in our literature. But, at the restoration, men began to feel the need of an instrument upon which the everyday performer might play—an instrument suited to an age of reason, possessing, before all things, the homely virtues of simplicity, correctness, lucidity and precision. These qualities, indeed, were not unknown to English prose before the restoration. They are to be found in private letters, not meant for the public eye. Above all, they are to be found in the writings of the veteran Hobbes, who, like Bacon and Ben Jonson, with both of whom he had literary relations, disdained all superfluity of ornament, and was content to make his prose a terse and pregnant expression of a clear and vigorous intellect. But even Hobbes is by no means free from the besetting sins of the older prose—careless construction and trailing relative clauses.

The new prose was the work of a multiplicity of causes, all more or less reflecting the temper of the age. One of these was the growing interest in science, and the insistence of the new Royal Society on the need of a clear and plain style for scientific exposition.

  • There is one thing more about which the Society has been most solicitous; and that is the manner of their Discourse: which, unless they had been only watchful to keep in due temper, the whole spirit and vigour of their Design had been soon eaten out by the luxury and redundance of speech.… And, in few words, I dare say that of all the Studies of men, nothing may be sooner obtain’d than this vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue, which makes so great a noise in the World.… It will suffice my present purpose to point out what has been done by the Royal Society towards the correcting of excesses in Natural Philosophy, to which it is of all others, a most profest enemy. They have therefore been most vigorous in putting in execution the only Remedy that can be found for this extravagance, and that has been a constant Resolution to reject all amplification, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men deliver’d so many things almost in an equal number of words. They have exacted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native eas’ness, bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants before that of Wits or Scholars.