Seventeenth Century Prose Style

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History of English Prose Style

Pre-Ciceronian Prose

In the late 14th century English once again becomes the dominant written language. Scholars begin translating the Bible into Middle English.

By the 16th Century scholars are enthusiastically borrowing and coining words from Latin, French and even Italian; hence the sometimes vitriolic attacks on “ink-horn terms.” School boys are reading Latin plays. Teachers are beginning to write English prose that consciously imitates Latin prose styles and syntax. The “plain style” of Hakluyt and Deloney become popular models.

Ciceronian Style

Ciceronian style is particularly dominate during the Tudor era in the mid to late 16th Century. The form and sound of prose (euphonics) are often more important than content.

Ciceronian style Emphasizes:

  1. Balance—parallelism
  2. Antithesis—opposition used for emphasis

    Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has few pleasures

    Usually requires parallelism.

  3. Alliteration
  4. Copia is a virtue; the fullness of rhetorical expression—endless repetition and elaboration
  5. Anadiplosis, Gradatio; Repetition of the last word/phrase in a clause, in the next:

    Pleasure might cause her read,
    Reading might cause her know;
    Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain (Sidney Astrophil and Stella).

Anti-Ciceronian Style

Bacon (like Erasmus in 1528) objects to the Ciceronian style as a type of “delicate learning” in which writers begin “to hunt more after words than matter.” The anti-Ciceronian battle cry was “Things, not words,” or as Claudius says to Polonius “More matter and less art.” Expressiveness is favored over beauty. This style is sometimes called Attic, Senecan or Baroque style.

The era is rich with examples of inductive writers, writers who often doesn’t know what they will write until they write it. Quite often used by writers of meditational writing, writers for whom writing is discovery, writers who begin with a topic but no form. These writers tend to use both Seneca and Tacitus as models. These are writers for whom:

In a single word, the motions of souls not their states of rest, had become the themes of art. . . . Ideas of motion take the place of ideas of rest” (M. W. Croll).

M. W. Croll divides Anti-Ciceronian style into two basic styles:

Curt Style (stile coupe)

  • Short clauses that could stand alone but are often linked to other clauses, though the “links” may be of different sizes and asymmetric. Compared to a chain in style and syntax, appropriate for exploration.
  • Expected connectives and reflexive pronouns are missing, resulting in seemingly unbalanced sentences, without the coordinating conjunctions and or but.
  • Uses colons and semi-colons. Typically associated with stoic thought.

Curt Style Main Stylistic Traits

  1. Colons and semi-colons set off short members.
  2. First member (clause) likely a complete and self-contained statement of the whole idea of the period. followed by successive elaborations, new ideas of the first.
  3. Asymmetrical—varying lengths of members, though they may begin a pattern of starting them with the same word (a pattern soon broken).
  4. and, but, or frequently omitted; except in Browne, who uses them to connect two synonymous statements of an idea:

    ’Tis true, there is an edge in all firm belief, and with an easy metaphor we may say the sword of faith.

  5. Brevity is the central characteristic.

Loose Style

Loose connectives, asymmetrical sentences, things left “up in the air.” Typically associated with the more skeptic aspects of 17th century. This is the style of Browne, Bacon and Donne’s letters. Meditative.

Frequently writers begin with an idea stated in one form and then follow it with a series of clauses and phrases that expand, elaborate, modify and restate the original idea, often via metaphors, analogies.

Not like Ciceronian, because it is too organic, and not pre-meditated. Jonson’s prose comedies are good examples of the loose style.

Loose Style Main Stylistic Traits

  1. Co-ordinating conjunctions used as links : and, but, for, whereas, nor, and not—and correlatives though, yet, as, so.
  2. Absolute participle (dangling -ing) frequent; Browne favors them early in a period.
  3. Parenthesis.
  4. Relative pronouns (which, that) may not have an obvious referrent.

Parataxis Gk. “Placing side by side”; opposite of hypotaxis. Clauses and phrases arranged independently, so that they may stand alone; sometimes without the usual connectives, as here:

I came, I saw, I conquered.

Hypotaxis Gk. “Subjection” Clauses or phrases arranged so that they depend on each other for meaning. Opposite of Parataxis.

Antiquity held too light thoughts from objects of mortality, while some drew provocatives of mirth from anatomies, and jugglers showed tricks with skeletons, when fiddlers made not so pleasant mirth as fencers, and men could sit with quiet stomachs while hanging was played before them.