Page images







Ix a work, the chief purpose of which is to illustrate the periodical writings of the BRITISH CLASSICAL ESSAYISTS, the consideration of style must necessarily hold an important rank; and it is my wish that these volumes should include a satisfactory account of its progress, and its different stages. Without such a detail, and a series of quotations to define the actual state of style in successive periods, it will be impossible to appreciate the gradual improvements of the language, or to ascertain the peculiar merits, in this respect,

[blocks in formation]

of those classics which more immediately fall within our province.

To carry this plan into effectual execution, it will be proper to commence at that era when composition assumed some degree of polish and grammatical precision ; to trace it thence in all its ameliorations to the pages of Addison, and, after dwelling at some length upon this elegant author, to continue the research, in a succeeding volume, through that long chasm which occurs between the close of the Guardian and the appearance of the Rambler, a production which forms a new epoch in our style, and whence the series of our Essayists, and the chain of composition, remain uninterrupted and entire.

By the almost unanimous suffrage of criticism, the age

of Queen Elizabeth has been fixed upon as the period when our language, shaking off with gigantic strength the incumbrances of rude antiquity, first developed its powers, and asserted its pretensions to classical estimation. “From the authors which rose in the time of Elizabeth," observes Johnson, "a speech might be formed, adequate to all the purposes of use and elegance. If the language of theology were extracted from Hooker and the translation of the Bible; the terms of natural knowledge from Bacon; the phrases of policy, war, and navigation, from Ra

leigh; the dialect of poetry and fiction from Spenser and Sidney; and the diction of common life from Shakspeare, few ideas would be lost to mankind, for want of English words, in which they might be expressed *.”

This eulogium, however, is excessive; for, though the writers of the Elizabethan age merit much praise for the improvements which they effected in the diction of their fathers, they are still, in their prose compositions, abundantly quaint, uncouth, and tedious. They pared away, it is true, a considerable portion of the heavy matter which clogged the periods of their predecessors; but they preserved a quantity frequently sufficient to obscure their meaning, and to render their productions, to readers of the present day, almost insufferably prolix.

To this superabundance of materials, to the adoption of twenty words where ten would better answer the purpose, was added another defect more radically injurious to the genius and idiom of our language. Enraptured with the writings of pagan antiquity, which were then studied with uncommon ardour, and with all the intoxication of a first attachment, the literati of that day were not content with a profuse introduction of classical allusion, quotation, and my

* Preface to his Dictionary.

thology, but they rashly endeavoured to mould the very structure of the English language, in conformity to that of Greece and Rome. The consequence of this absurd attempt was a very frequent use of the most violent inversions, totally foreign to our idiom, and which imparted to composition an air of barbarous and pedantic stiff


These defects, the natural consequence, perhaps, of a peculiar state of literature, must for ever preclude the authors of Elizabeth's reign from being deemed models of style. To their efforts, however, much good may be attributed ; the public mind was awakened to a sense of the copiousness, the energy, and strength of its native tongue; the very faults to which we have alluded exhibited these qualities in a remarkable degree; and a wish to polish and refine, to cut off superfluities, and to render diction perspicuous, was soon after displayed, and produced a more accurate attention to selection of words and harmony of arrangement.

We shall begin our series of instances from the middle of Elizabeth's reign, dividing it into three periods; the first extending from 1580. to the restoration in 1660; the second from the restoration to the accession of Queen Anne, in 1702; and the third from this last era to the year 1714,

« PreviousContinue »