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The Glory of English Prose / Letters to My Grandson By Stephen Coleridge Characters: 10875

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

My Dear Antony,

The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of an entirely new style of English prose. The ancient and universal restraints were swept away, the decorous stateliness of all the buried centuries was abandoned, and there arose a band of writers, to whom De Quincey and Ruskin were the leaders, who withdrew all veils from their emotions, threw away all the shackles of reserve, and poured their sobs and ecstasies upon us, in soaring periods of impassioned prose, glittering with decorative alliterations, and adorned with euphonious harmonies of vowel sounds.

This flamboyant style seems to have synchronised with the general decline of reserve and ceremony in English life, and with the rise of the modern familiar intimacy that leaves no privacy even to our thoughts. Our grandfathers would have hesitated to have discussed at the dinner-table, even after the ladies had withdrawn, what is now set down for free debate at ladies' clubs, and canvassed in the correct columns of the Guardian.

This new habit of mind and speech has affected our literature deeply and diversely. In the hands of the really great masters such as Carlyle, Froude, and Ruskin, the intimate revelations of the throbbings of their hearts, and the direct and untrammelled appeal of their inmost souls crying in the market-place, take forcible possession of our affections, and bring them into closer touch with each one of us than was ever possible with the older restrained writers.

But with lesser men the modern decay of restraint and the licence of intimacy and of the emotions have led to widespread vulgarity, and a contemptible deluge of hyperbole, and superlative, and redundancy; and although the disappearance of reserve in modern writing may tend to reduce all but the production of the great to a depressing state of vulgarity, it nevertheless, in the master's hand, has unlocked for us the doors of an Aladdin's palace! But even if the restraint of the ancient writers has disappeared from the prose of our own times, all great writing of necessity must now and always possess the quality of simplicity; and even Ruskin, who saw the world of nature about him with the eyes of a visionary, and wrote of what he saw as one so inspired as to be already half in Paradise, yet clothed his glorious outpourings in a raiment of perfect simplicity.

"This, I believe," he wrote, "is the ordinance of the firmament; and it seems to me that in the midst of the material nearness of these heavens, God means us to acknowledge His own immediate Presence as visiting, judging, and blessing us. 'The earth shook, the heavens also dropped, at the presence of God,' 'He doth set His bow in the clouds,' and thus renews, in the sound of every drooping swathe of rain, His promise of everlasting love. 'In them hath He set a tabernacle for the sun,' whose burning ball, which, without the firmament, would be seen but as an intolerable and scorching circle in the blackness of vacuity, is by that firmament surrounded with gorgeous service, and tempered by mediatorial ministries; by the firmament of clouds the golden pavement is spread for his chariot wheels at morning; by the firmament of clouds the temple is built for his presence to fill with light at noon; by the firmament of clouds the purple veil is closed at evening round the sanctuary of his rest; by the mists of the firmament his implacable light is divided and its separated fierceness appeased into the soft blue that fills the depth of distance with its bloom, and the flush with which the mountains burn as they drink the overflowing of the dayspring. And in this tabernacling of the unendurable sun with men, through the shadows of the firmament, God would seem to set forth the stooping of His own majesty to men, upon the throne of the firmament.

"As the Creator of all the worlds, and the Inhabiter of eternity, we cannot behold Him; but as the Judge of the earth and the Preserver of men those heavens are indeed His dwelling-place. 'Swear not, neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by earth, for it is His footstool.'

"And all those passings to and fro of fruitful showers and grateful shade, and all those visions of silver palaces built about the horizon, and voices of moaning winds and threatening thunders, and glories of coloured robe and cloven ray, are but to deepen in our hearts the acceptance and distinctness and dearness of the simple words, 'Our Father, Which art in heaven!'"

The description of the first approach to Venice before the days of railways will always be cherished by those who admire Ruskin's work as one of his most characteristic and memorable utterances:-

"In the olden days of travelling, now to return no more, in which distance could not be vanquished without toil, but in which that toil was rewarded partly by the power of that deliberate survey of the countries through which the journey lay, and partly by the happiness of the evening hours, when, from the top of the last hill he had surmounted, the traveller beheld the quiet village, where he was to rest, scattered among the meadows beside its valley stream; or, from the long-hoped-for turn in the dusty perspective of the causeway, see, for the first time, the towers of some famed city, faint in the rays of sunset-hours of peaceful and thoughtful pleasure, for which the rush of the arrival in the railway station is perhaps not always, or to all m

en, an equivalent-in those days, I say, when there was something more to be anticipated and remembered in the first aspect of each successive halting place than a new arrangement of glass roofing and iron girder-there were few moments of which the recollection was more fondly cherished by the traveller than that which, as I endeavoured to describe in the close of the last chapter, brought him within sight of Venice, as his gondola shot into the open lagoon from the canal of Mestre.

"Not but that the aspect of the city itself was generally the source of some slight disappointment, for, seen in this direction, its buildings are far less characteristic than those of the other great towns of Italy; but this inferiority was partly disguised by distance, and more than atoned for by the strange rising of its walls and towers out of the midst, as it seemed, of the deep sea; for it was impossible that the mind or the eye could at once comprehend the shallowness of the vast sheet of water which stretched away in leagues of rippling lustre to the north and south, or trace the narrow line of islets bounding it to the east. The salt breeze, the white moaning sea-birds, the masses of black weed separating and disappearing gradually in knots of heaving shoal under the advance of the steady tide, all proclaimed it to be indeed the ocean on whose bosom the great city rested so calmly; not such blue, soft, lake-like ocean as bathes the Neapolitan promontories, or sleeps beneath the marble rocks of Genoa, but a sea with the bleak power of northern waves, yet subdued into a strange spacious rest, and changed from its angry pallor into a field of burnished gold as the sun declined behind the belfry tower of the lonely island church, fitly named 'St George of the Sea-weed.'

"As the boat drew nearer to the city, the coast which the traveller had just left sank behind him into one long, low, sad-coloured line, tufted irregularly with brushwood and willows; but, at what seemed its northern extremity, the hills of Argua rose in a dark cluster of purple pyramids, balanced on the bright mirage of the lagoon; two or three smooth surges of inferior hill extended themselves about their roots, and beyond these, beginning with the craggy peaks above Vicenza, the chain of the Alps girded the whole horizon to the north-a wall of jagged blue, here and there showing through its clefts a wilderness of misty precipices, fading far back into the recesses of Cadore, and itself rising and breaking away eastward, where the sun struck opposite upon its snow into mighty fragments of peaked light, standing up behind the barred clouds of evening one after another, countless, the crown of the Adrian Sea, until the eye turned back from pursuing them, to rest upon the nearer burning of the campaniles of Murano, and on the great city, where it magnified itself along the waves, as the quick, silent pacing of the gondola drew nearer and nearer.

"And at last when its walls were reached, and the outmost of its untrodden streets was entered, not through towered gate or guarded rampart, but as a deep inlet between two rocks of coral in the Indian Sea; when first upon the traveller's sight opened the long ranges of columned palaces-each with its black boat moored at the portal, each with its image cast down beneath its feet upon that green pavement which every breeze broke into new fantasies of rich tessellation when first, at the extremity of the bright vista, the shadowy Rialto threw its colossal curve slowly forth from behind the palace of the Camerlemghi, that strange curve, so delicate, so adamantine, strong as a mountain cavern, graceful as a bow just bent; when first, before its moonlike circumference was all risen, the gondolier's cry, 'Ah! Stali!" struck sharp upon the ear, and the prow turned aside under the mighty cornices that half met over the narrow canal, where the plash of the water followed close and loud, ringing along the marble by the boat's side; and when at last the boat darted forth upon the breadth of silver sea, across which the front of the Ducal palace, flushed with its sanguine veins, looks to the snowy dome of Our Lady of Salvation, it was no marvel that the mind should be so deeply entranced by the visionary charm of a scene so beautiful and so strange as to forget the darker truths of its history and its being, "Well might it seem that such a city had owed her existence rather to the rod of the enchanter, than the fear of the fugitive; that the waters which encircled her had been chosen for the mirror of her state, rather than the shelter of her nakedness; and that all which in Nature was wild or merciless-Time and Decay, as well as the waves and tempests-had been won to adorn her instead of to destroy, and might still spare, for ages to come, that beauty which seemed to have fixed for its throne the sands of the hour-glass as well as of the sea."

It is now many years since I first saw Venice rising from the sea on a September morning as I sailed towards it across the Adriatic from Trieste; and as we glided closer and closer its loveliness was slowly and exquisitely unveiled under the slanting beams of the early sun.

In all my wanderings over two hemispheres I remember no vision so enchanting and unsurpassable! May you live to see it, Antony, before the vulgarities of modern life have totally defaced its beauty.

Your loving old


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