Fust could by some law of nature or device of man be wholly lost for a time. Could the brains and the types lie fallow for a generation or two it were no bad thing perhaps for the soil. But these wishes are idle. We must accept the present and all its works, and let the future do with them as it will let our children's children, if it please them, gather as their own The harvest that the dead have sown, The dead forgotten and unknown."

It is not easy to hit upon the precise note of any age, so as to fix and catalogue it for future use; and very far indeed from easy to do so for this manysided age. Even Carlyle, who was fond of this cataloguing work, and in his roaring rough-shod way not unskilful at it, would be hard put to it here. The Age of Shams would hardly serve, for that title would be as applicable to a score or more of the ages that have gone before, and to all probably that shall come after. There is more reason in another suggestion we have somewhere seen-the Age of Whitewash, to mark the more than Christian charity with which ruffians of every grade of ruffianism, from an emperor to a mere poet, have been scrubbed down and reproduced more golden and glittering than the Chryselephantine Zeus. But this again would carry us too far from our present purpose, which holds not of the domain of ethics but rather of the domain of æsthetics. So we have chosen the Alexandrian Age for our title. It is not, let us make haste to acknowledge, one of our own coining-a point, no doubt, in its favor; its significance, if any need an explanation, can very easily be explained.

After the final victory of Philip of Macedon at Charonea, the Greece that had been was no more. She was dead, politically and intellectually; politically she was dependent on Philip, intellectually she was dependent on the memories of her past greatness. The eastern conquests of Philip's triumphant son, his early death and the consequent disruption of his empire into the three kingdoms of Macedonia, Asia, and Egypt, had spread the Greek language and the Greek civilization everywhere. But the free Greek life that had made that lan

guage what it was, and inspired that literature, was dead. This civilization, which is properly called Hellenism, as Professor Jebb tells us, produced a literature no longer spontaneous and creative, but derived from that already existing. Greek Literature, in short, had now become, in the Professor's words, a polite industry in which success was to be achieved by obeying and inventing critical canons; and, as a natural and inevitable consequence, it had become the prey of mannerism and affectation.

This period of Greek literature is commonly known as the Alexandrian Age, from the fact that in the years when this Hellenism, such as it was, was at its prime, the great Egyptian city of Alexandria was the intellectual centre of the world, and its rulers, the Ptolemies, the great patrons of all of art and literature that the world had then to show. "The place, wrote Charles Kingsley of it as it was many centuries even after the era of the Ptolemies, when it had become a mere province of Rome, herself fast hastening to her fall,

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the place seemed fragrant with all the riches of Greek thought and song, since the days when Ptolemy Philadelphus walked there with Euclid and Theocritus, Callimachus, and Lycophron.

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To inquire into the causes which have brought our literature to its present pass, if haply they may be found to have any affinity to those which worked on the literature of Greece, would be interesting, but not to our purpose. Who was our Philip of Macedon? Who is our Alexander? When is the great division of Empire to be? Great questions !-but happily not ours to answer. Enough for us that the literary tendencies of the age (which Mr. Swinburne, who has, as every one knows, a neat hand at an epithet, has also marked as a ghastly, thin-faced time") are distinctly Alexandrian. Literature has become an industry, more or less polite; mannerism and affectation have-one can hardly say, indeed, begun to invade it; the temptation is rather to say, have taken entire possession of it.

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Probably if any champion of the age were to think it worth his while to protest against such a charge, he would

* 4 'Hypatia."

select for the particular point of his defence the great improvement in style that our literature shows everywhere, even in its most trifling and ephemeral work, the work of its daily newspapers, for instance. The sense for style, it will be said, has immensely grown of late years. Such a charge as that De Quincey brought against our fathers no one could bring against their sons. He, indeed, maintained that there never had been at any time in England a sufficient practical respect for the arts of composition, and that at the time he particularly censured this disrespect had increased to a most painful extent. "If you could look anywhere," he declared, "with a right to expect continual illustrations of what is good in the manifold qualities of style, it should reasonably be among our professional authors; but, as a body, they are distinguished by the most absolute carelessness in this respect. Whether in the choice of words or idioms, or in the construction of their sen

tences, it is not possible to conceive the principle of lazy indifference carried to a more revolting extremity Proof lies before you, spread out upon every page, that no excuse of awkwardness, or of inelegance, or of unrhythmical cadence, is so rated in the tariff of faults as to balance in the writer's estimate the trouble of remoulding a clause, of interpolating a phrase, or even of striking the pen through a superfluous word.” *

Now all this, it will be triumphantly affirmed, has been changed; of this contempt, at least, our literature has been completely purged. The recognition of the fact that something more goes to the making of good English prose than the random outpouring on paper of the first words that present themselves as sufficient to convey the writer's thought; that prose has, in fact, certain inevitable laws of its own no less than poetry; that, like poetry, it must combine something of the quality of architecture with something of the quality of music; that the words must, as it were, be built up with the necessary balance and proportion, and that the cadence of a well-adjusted sentence should be as clear and convincing as the measures of verse-the recognition of these indisputable truths has become, we shall be told, a much more general possession than it was but a very few

* See an essay on Style in volume xi. of De Quincey's collected works.

years ago. And this sense shows itself not only actively in our production, but in our judgments also. The general taste has greatly improved. We are more capable of testing and deciding for ourselves than we were. We are no longer affected with false glitter, and bow down before false idols; we have tumbled many a Dagon over the threshold, and torn the veil from many an impostor. But is this really so?

Among the many epigrams foisted upon the late Master of Trinity was one supposed to have been coined on a voluminous writer of the present day, of whom an ardent (female) admirer had just asserted that he had "so much He has,' was the answer, There can be no


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"" 'and all of it bad.' doubt that there is a great deal of style' in our current literature-it has, that is to say, a very distinctive form and manner of its own; but that this style is the very best possible, or even very good, is perhaps not quite so certain.

Some time last year Mr. Louis Stevenson wrote a short essay on the technical elements of style in literature. * Mr. Stevenson has himself a very pretty talent that way, and one was naturally glad to learn his idea of an art in which he had shown himself to be no mean proficient. And certainly Mr. Stevenson provided one with a very entertaining piece of reading; except in one passage where he became rather too technical for simple intelligences, and, finding the ordinary tongue apparently too limited for his purpose, had recourse to some mystic combinations of letters which might have had something to do with algebra, but had certainly nothing to do with literature. But entertaining as the paper was, it really explained nothing but the one fact-patent to every one with the slightest capacity for appreciating the beauties of style that there was nothing capable of explanation. And the singular part of the performance was that Mr. Stevenson was himself frankly conscious of the inutility of it all. "The amateur," he said, "will always grudgingly receive details of a method which can be stated, but can never wholly be explained." And

"The Contemporary Review," April, 1885.

again: "Each phrase of each sentence, like an air or a recitative in music, should be so artfully compounded out of long and short, out of accented and unaccented, as to gratify the sensual ear. And of this the ear is the sole judge. It is impossible to lay down laws. Even in our accentual and rhythmic language no analysis can find the secret of the beauty of a verse; how much less, then, of these phrases, such as prose is built of, which obey no law but to be lawless and yet to please.' Precisely the quality of style cannot be analyzed or defined; it must be spiritually discerned.


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It is assuredly no part of our purpose to attempt to succeed where Mr. Stevenson has failed. And, indeed, though it is indisputable that a good style in writing, as in all other artistic work, can only be learned by the study of good models (though nature will, of course, make the time of apprenticeship pass easier and quicker to some than others), yet to endeavor to teach the art of writing as David Ramsay might have taught his lads to take a watch to pieces and put it together again, strikes us as about as hopeless a task as Izaak Walton owned it was to make a man that was none to be an angler by a book." But a little time might be passed, not unpleasantly to those who may be in the mood, in considering how far our present practice is in accord with what would have been once called the universal laws of prose composition, where, if at all, it runs counter to them, and from what


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There is a passage in Coleridge's Table Talk, as reported by his nephew, which contains perhaps as concise and sound a definition of good prose as it would be possible to construct; and as he proceeded, according to his custom, to amplify and illustrate the definition, we cannot do better than give the passage in the great talker's own words:

"The definition of good prose is--proper words in their proper places; of good versethe most proper words in their proper places. The propriety is in either case relative. The words in prose ought to express the intended meaning, and no more; if they attract attention to themselves, it is, in general, a fault. In the very best styles, as Southey's, you read page after page, understanding the author per

fectly, without once taking notice of the medium of communication; it is as if he had been speaking to you all the while. But in verse you must do more; there the words, the media, must be beautiful, and ought to attract your notice-yet not so much and so perpetually as to destroy the unity which ought to result from the whole poem. This is the general rule; but, of course, subject to some modifications, according to the different kinds of prose or verse. Some prose may approach toward verse, as oratory, and therefore a more studied exhibition of the media may be proper; and some verse may border more on mere narrative, and there the style should be simpler."

As marking a distinction the definitions are not perhaps worth much, and the desire to be antithetical and epigrammatic has, as will sometimes happen even with the cleverest, been gratified, in the case of the definition of verse, rather at the expense of better things. But it would be hard to frame a simpler and more conclusive definition of good prose than this, proper words in their proper places. At that no one surely will cavil, especially when he takes the qualifying clause, the propriety is in either case relative; that is so obviously rich in possibilities, and capable of being expanded to suit almost every whim. But when we get a little further, when we find that the quality of good prose is that it should not attract notice to itself, that the reader's attention should not be diverted from the author's meaning to his mode of expression-then we come at once on debatable ground. For surely this is the very point at issue between the "young light-hearted masters" of the modern prose and the homely veterans of the old school. Has it not been roundly declared that the vital fact for an author to consider now is not what he has to say, but how he is to say it? Small wonder surely that a writer who starts with this theory should be very precise indeed in his words.

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De Quincey thought that our native disregard for the graces of style had its origin in the native manliness of our character, in the sincerity and directness of the British taste, in the principle of esse quam videri, which might be taken as the key to much in our manner, much in the philosophy of our lives.' Far be it from us to assert the converse of this theory, but it is certain that manliness is not just at this moment the capital distinction of our liter

ature either in prose or verse. With the latter we will not now concern ourselves. There is plenty of it, to be sure, of a kind; but even at its best the poetry of the Victorian era has always had, among its manifold gifts and graces, a tendency to disregard two at least out of the three canon laws of Milton, simplicity and passion. And now, what is there to say but that

"the best are silent now,"

or at the most strike here and there a solitary note in which gratitude tries hard to catch some echo of the earlier strain? But it is with our prose work that we have just now to do, and that no one can well maintain to be, whatever else it be, pre-eminently robust, sincere, and direct-in a word, preeminently manly. In the general bulk of our original work this quality of manliness is certainly not conspicuous; in our criticism it is, one might say, entirely wanting; and in our more serious work, historical, philosophical, and the like, the general tendency is to a minute, dissecting, curious mood, more given to pulling down than to building up. And this tendency is inevitably reflected in the style. The modern style is, indeed, the modern man.

Lord Tennyson, as we have seen, complains that the new generations have no imagination but much memory. For the imagination, well; but for the memory, one is tempted to ask what is it they remember? Surely they cannot remember the work of the great masters of our English Prose? If we take all the great writers of our country, from the time when prose had really won a kingdom of its own, from the time, that is to say, of Dryden, to the present, we shall find that the quality common to all of them is straightforwardness. Each one of them knew well what he wanted to say, and said it in the clearest and directest manner possible to him. They had, many of them, faults of their own, but no one of them is ever wilfully obscure; in no one of them is there a single passage it is necessary to read twice to take the meaning; in no one of them is a word tortured for the sake of effect into a usage for which it was never made. And with the writers whose place is truly among the poets, or

with those whose fame supports a divided duty, writers like Gray, Cowper, Byron, Scott, Wordsworth-how sound and pure is their prose, how clear, unaffected, and straightforward. Even with men such as Keats and Shelley, from whom one might have looked for something ethereal, fantastic, something not quite of this world, when they came down to earth to write plain prose, their language is as simple and to the purpose as though they had never written a line of poetry in their lives. Shelley told his friend Gisborne that it were as wise to go to a gin-shop for a leg of mutton as to expect anything human or earthly from him; but in his prose this certainly was not so. And except those last ones, written when he was weak and unstrung in the grasp of a mortal disease, and so cruelly made public a few years ago, the excellent common sense, manliness, and clear perception of things conspicuous in Keats's letters are perhaps, considering his age and circumstances, even more astonishing than his marvellous poetical gifts. Yet none can say our great prose-writers wanted a style. No man ever wrote prose more surely in the grand manner than Bolingbroke; for purity, sweetness, and simplicity what writer has ever matched Goldsmith? Take again the men of a later day, take Southey, Hallam, Arnold, Thirlwall, Macaulay; whatever their faults may be, no one can charge them with obscurity or affectation.

The old order has changed indeed. The essence of a good prose style now seems to be to coin new words, or, if the genius of the writer be not equal to that, to drag out of the lumber-rooms of the past words long thrown away and forgotten; to twist familiar words to unfamiliar uses, or out of some seeming harmless combination of homely syllables to weave some fantastic phrase that shall put them all to shame-as who should trick out some good honest son of the Victorian soil in the tawdry tarnished splendors of the Carolan court. The latest and certainly one of the most amazing instances of this sleight of pen that we have met with may be found in a little book professing to be a biography of Ben Jonson, wherein the writer, wishing to say that the jolly tavern life of those times provoked men to drink

more than was good for them, concealed the vulgar truth by observing that the tavern had the defect of its quality. It is but fair, however, to say that this is a particular case; it is not every one, it is perhaps not any one but the master, who can conjure with that wand.

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'They cannot get beyond the daubings of fancy, the varnish of sentiment. Objects are not linked to feelings, words to things, but images revolve in splendid mockery, words represent themselves in their strange rhapsodies. The categories of such a mind are pride and ignorance- pride in outside show, to which they sacrifice everything, and ignorance of the true worth and hidden structure both of words and things. With a sovereign contempt for what is familiar and natural, they are the slaves of vulgar affectation--of a routine of highflown phrases. Scorning to imitate realities out one original idea. They are not copyists they are unable to invent anything, to strike of nature, it is true; but they are the poorest of all plagiarists, the plagiarists of words. All is far-fetched, dear-bought, artificial, oriental in subject and allusion; all is mechanical, conventional, vapid, formal, pedantic in style and execution. They startle and confound the understanding of the reader by the remoteness and obscurity of their illustrations; they soothe

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This form of writing is, of course, in itself no new thing. No age has lacked its Euphuists. But in the old time it was but a modish affectation practised for sheer idleness, as a man might spend a summer day in excogitating a new pattern for his sword-knot or cravat. That was then the humor of it, and as such it was recognized and laughed at. But to-day it seems to be the very end and aim of our young ambitions, the very form and pressure of the time; not laughed at, though perchance grieved the ear by the monotony of the same everlastfor by the judicious few, but rathering round of circuitous metaphors. They are the mock-school in poetry and prose. They courted and toiled after, as men might flounder about between fustian in expression toil after virtue. The diagnosis of the The diagnosis of the and bathos in sentiment. They tantalize the disease is somewhat complicated In fancy, but never reach the head nor touch the heart."* part, no doubt, it comes from that overweening desire for notoriety which disfigures so much of our modern art, and is perhaps at once the most pitiful and the most ridiculous quality of the time. The uncouth buffooneries which seem to pass with some simple souls for the consunimation of fine acting have, it may here be remarked, their origin in the same insane craving; and so also have those impudent experiments on the folly of the age in which certain young p inters are encouraged to indulge. For this desire flatters itself with the pretence of originality, and with Pharisaic complaisancy takes pride that it is not as others are. Both De Quincey and Hazlitt marked this disease as not uncommon in their day. Says the former, in that essay already quoted :

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If this were all, if the craving for notoriety were the only cause at work, then it were small matter. The disease would carry its remedy with it, for it would inevitably come to pass that distinction would have at last to be found in a return to the old idiomatic English of our fathers. But there is a deeper evil at work. It is painfully clear that with many writers, who have no need to go about so insanely to achieve distinction, the disease comes simply from a failure of ideas. The late Lord Houghton (who, among his other titles to our regard, was a merry man) is reported to have excused himself when rebuked by Carlyle for writing poetry by the plea that he found it so useful for concealing the commonplace. fantastic jargon is mighty useful for the same work. One notes this especially in a certain sort of novels, wherein page after page of the most curious language is spent in describing the mcde of a lady's dress or the grace with which she sips her tea. Not in this way did the great story-tellers write. great story-tellers write. Turn to the greatest of them all, turn to Sir Walter Scott there, in those incomparable romances, one truly finds what Cole


* 4 Essays on Men and Manners :"-On Familiar Style.

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