The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XV. Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time

§ 8. Plain and ornate style

Barnes represents the extreme views of the supporters of the native element in English against the foreign. This opposition is, in part, associated with the alternation in style which has been manifest most noticeably in the domain of prose, during the last three centuries—the recurrent movement between the plain, unadorned style and the rhetorical, ornate style. Each form has ebbed and flowed: neither, however, has existed absolutely alone. Each is exposed to its own danger: the plain may degenerate into the bald or the vulgar, the ornate into the extravagant or the gaudy.

Among the Elizabethans, Lyly and Sidney had endeavoured to beautify prose. In the first half of the seventeenth century, we meet with various devices to enrich literary style, exemplified by the “conceits” of Donne, Crashaw and other metaphysical poets, and, in prose, by the antitheses and tropes of Bacon, the quaintness of Burton and Fuller, the ornate splendour of Taylor, Milton and Browne. But the average reader found it difficult to comprehend their strange—often highly Latinised—vocabulary, their involved sentences, their farfetched allusions, their bold figures; and after the restoration arose the cry for a plainer, clearer style. A longing for an academy on the French model was several times expressed. In 1664, the Royal Society appointed a committee to improve the English language, but nothing resulted. One of the members of the committee was John Dryden, who had already (Rival-Ladies, dedication) lamented

  • that, speaking so noble a language as we do, we have not a more certain measure of it as they have in France, where they have an Academy, enacted for the purpose.
  • Dryden, however, was destined to take the lead in adapting the conversational English of the age to be a suitable medium for the varied aims of prose; and this simpler style he also introduced into poetry. His Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668) is written in straightforward conversational English, and may be regarded, indirectly at least, as a manifesto of the new prose. A direct manifesto had recently appeared in The History of the Royal Society, by Thomas Sprat. There he condemns “this vicious abundance of phrase, this trick of metaphors, this volubility of tongue, which makes so great a noise in the world.” He points out that the Royal Society had vigorously applied the only remedy 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 delivered 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 easiness, bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of artisans, countrymen and merchants before that of wits and scholars.
  • However plausible the Society’s preference might seem, however admirably the vernacular was handled by Bunyan and Defoe, as later by Cobbett, however effective was Locke’s plain bluntness, the unmeasured use of the language of the common people nearly destroyed literary English at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth. The language of the average man abounds in colloquial elisions and abbreviations, in careless constructions, in familiar catch-words and slang. These were indulged in by L’Estrange and other writers of periodicals and controversial pamphlets. Swift, Addison and Steele, on the other hand, sought to restore the purity of the language. In The Tatler (no. 230), Swift censures elisions like can’t do’t for cannot do it, the pronunciation of absolves instead of absolveth, and shortenings like phizz, mob, rep. He pillories banter, bamboozle, country put, kidney, adding “I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of mob and banter, but have been plainly bore down by numbers.”

    Accordingly, he appeals to Isaac Bickerstaff to make use of his

  • authority as censor, and by an annual Index Expurgatorius expunge all words and phrases that are offensive to good sense, and condemn those barbarous mutilations of vowels and syllables.
  • The Spectator (nos. 135, 147, 165) took up the theme of abbreviations of syllables and inroads of foreign words. In the first of these papers, Addison desiderates “something like an Academy, that by the best authorities and rules drawn from the analogy of languages shall settle all controversies between grammar and idiom.”

    The Spectator continued, for several generations, to be the general pattern for prose. Johnson reminds us of this when he says, “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”

    Occasionally, however, the model was diverged from; and style degenerated. Then, dignity was restored to prose, in different ways, by Johnson, with his Latinised diction, his antitheses, his balanced structure; by Gibbon, with his periphrases and his rolling periods; by Burke, with his eloquent copiousness and his glowing imagery.

    With the romantic revival came a vital change. Eighteenth-century poets, in their efforts to distinguish the language of poetry from the language of prose, had elaborated a conventional diction. The romantic poets eagerly sought to supersede this convention by vivid, appropriate words. To obtain these, they often ransacked the older treasures of the language. Prose, also, was influenced by the romantic movement, though more slowly; and, to a certain extent, was freed from artificiality and formality of diction. In the early nineteenth century, Southey is an instance of the perfection attainable in the simple style. Since then, there have been several movements away from the standard style, some of them towards elaborate, gorgeous, rhythmical prose. The earliest movement took various directions in De Quincey, Landor, Macaulay and Carlyle. About the middle of the century, contemporary with the word-painting and music of Ruskin’s prose and the simple beauty of Newman’s, many writers showed a tendency towards a slipshod colloquialism. The reaction that followed—the effects of which are not yet exhausted—is seen in the striving after the refinements of style associated with the names of Rossetti and Swinburne in verse, and of Pater and Stevenson in prose.

    Several of the suggestions to establish a censorship of English have been mentioned. But the greatest effort was Swift’s Proposal for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English Tongue (1712), in a letter to the earl of Oxford, then lord high treasurer. After repeating and amplifying his views in The Tatler, Swift asks Oxford to appoint a society with authority to remove defects in the grammar of English and gross improprieties, however well sanctioned by usage. Many words should be expelled, many more should be corrected, perhaps not a few should be restored. But the kernel of his proposal is

  • that some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our language for ever, after such alterations are made in it as shall be thought requisite. For I am of opinion, that it is better a language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing.
  • He does not, however, mean that the vocabulary is not to be increased.
  • Provided that no word, which a society shall give a sanction to, be afterwards antiquated and exploded, they may have liberty to receive whatever new ones they shall find occasion for.
  • This “petty treatise,” as Dr. Johnson terms it, had some effect, for Oxford nominated several persons, but the death of Queen Anne stopped the scheme.

    One of Johnson’s aims in compiling his Dictionary was to fix the English language; but, in the preface, he confessed he had been too sanguine.

  • We laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who … shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.
  • With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse invaders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the winds, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.
  • He hopes the spirit of English liberty will hinder or destroy an academy, but individual effort should seek to keep English from degenerating: “we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.”

    Johnson’s fear of degeneration has not yet been justified. And, when we survey what English has done in the past, when we see its capacity to-day both as an instrument of clear and exact communication and as a means of artistic literary expression, we may be confident that, instead of degenerating, it will continue to advance, and to increase in strength, copiousness and flexibility.