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The main design of this book is to assist in directing students of English composition to the merits and the defects of our principal writers of prose. It is not, however, merely a collection of received critical opinions. It may be of some value to the inquirer after general information, as well as to readers more advanced than those kept specially in view.
The characteristics of the work are briefly these. It deals with prose alone, assigning books of fiction to the department of poetry; it endeavours to criticise upon a methodical plan, fully explained in an Introduction; it selects certain leading authors for full criticism and exemplification; and it gives unusual prominence to three select authors of recent date.
Little need be said to justify taking up Prose by itself. In criticising Poetry we are met by very different considerations from those that occur in the other kinds of composition. What is more, many people not particularly interested in Poetry are anxious for practical purposes to have a good knowledge of Prose style ; and when Prose and Poetry are discussed in the same volume, Prose is generally sacrificed to Poetry.
In excluding Romance or Fiction from a Manual of Prose Literature, I follow a division suggested by the late Professor George Moir, in his treatises on Poetry, Romance, and Rhetoric. Romance has a closer affinity with Poetry than with Prose: it is cousin to Prose but sister to Poetry; it has the Prose features, but the Poetical spirit.
The advantages of criticising upon a methodical plan in terms previously defined, will be at once apparent. Criticising methodically is like ploughing in straight lines : we get over the field not only sooner, but to much better purpose; besides, it is easier to see both what we accomplish and what we miss. As regards the defining of critical terms, it was a favourite position with De Quincey that “ before absolute and philosophic criticism can exist, we must have a good psychology.” The present work makes little pretension to be philosophic, much less to be absolute; but it is an attempt to apply in criticism some of the light thrown upon the analysis of style by the newest psychology. I am aware that methodical critical dissection is considered by many a cold disenchanting process. But however cold and disenchanting, it is indispensable to the student: it is part of the apprenticeship that every workman must submit to. Before learning to put a complicated mechanism together, we must take it to pieces, and study the parts one by one. If the student goes to work at random, picking up a hint here and a hint there, he is completely at the mercy of every pedantry that comes to him under the sanction of a popular name. true preservative against literary crotchets and affectations, is a comprehensive view of the principal arts and qualities, the principal means and ends, of style.
It may be said that criticism on a uniform plan tends to destroy individuality; that a book constructed on such a plan can be nothing but a featureless inventory. This can happen only if the plan is narrow, and if specific modes of the various qualities of style are not distinguished with sufficient delicacy. Uniformity of plan,
The only so far from destroying individuality, is really the best way to bring individual characteristics into clear prominence : if all are subjected to the same examination, the range of the questions being sufficiently wide, individualities are thrown into relief with much greater distinctness than they possibly could be by any other process. Comparison is the soul of criticism. In the following work, the account of each author contains a preliminary sketch of his character; the analysis that follows may be viewed as a means of tracing the outcome of that character in his style, and of making his peculiarities felt more vividly by bringing him into extended comparison with others.
The student should be warned emphatica'ly against such blind guides as declaim against the cramping influence of rules for composition, and urge us to work out our own individuality without regard to the precepts of the schools. Sound principles of composition do rot repress genius, but rather do genius a service by preventing it from dissipating itself in unprofitable eccentricities. There is every room for variety within the conditions adopted in the following work: indeed their chief recommendation is that they recognise diversity of style according to diversity of subject and purpose. Students often put the question, What should we do to acquire a good style ? A principal aim in this Manual is to make students familiar with the fact that there are varieties of good style. Instead of aiming blindly at the acquisition of “ a good style,” the writer or the speaker should first study his audience, and consider how he wishes to affect them; and then inquire how far the rhetorical precepts that he has learnt will help him to accomplish his purpose, and how far rhetorical teachers can direct him to the causes of success in those that have best accomplished the same ends in the same circumstances.
Regarding the prominence given to the modern authors, I have only to repeat that the work is intended mainly for students, and to say that the most rewarding study for them, in the first instance at least, lies in the more recent (which are also the higher) developments of prose style. With the same eye to the primary destination of the work, I have said comparatively little about prose writers anterior to the age of Elizabeth.
The biographies of the various writers are brief; but every pains has been taken to make them accurate. The biographies of the three selected modern men will be found to bs more complete than any hitherto published.
January 25, 1872.
PREFACE TO SECOND EDITION.
The alterations that I have made in revising this book for a second edition have been mainly in one direction. I have here and there omitted or modified passages that might have seemed to countenance the idea that goodness or badness in style might be pronounced upon, without reference to the effect aimed at by the writer. This I have done to prevent the slightest suspicion that the criticisms in this book consist in the dogmatic application of any absolute standard of style. In spite of the tolerably plain disclaimer in my first Preface, this absoluteness of view has been not only suspected, but alleged. It is true I have not been able, after diligent search, to find the quotations by which the allegation was supported; nevertheless, I wish to place the purpose of the book in this respect beyond the possibility of honest misapprehension.
Since the first edition was issued, Mr Trevelyan's biography of Lord Macaulay has appeared, and Mr H. A. Page has published two volumes on the Life and Writings of De Quincey. My sketches of Macaulay and De Quincey can, in consequence, no longer pretend to be “ more complete than any hitherto published.”
December 22, 1880.