Why I Love the English Language…19th Century Prose Slinging Dept.

For reasons too uninterestingly tangled to explain, I recently found myself in the wee hours of the morning, reading Algernon Charles Swinburne’s biographical entry on Mary Queen of Scots in my copy of the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Swinburne was inordinately proud of this piece.  The 11th Edition’s compilers appended a note in which they quote from a letter Swinburne wrote in 1882.  In it, he wrote, “Mary Stuart has procured me…an application from the editor of the [9th edlition] Enclyclopedia Britannica…to me, a mere poet, proposing that I should contribute to that great repository of erudition the biography of Mary Queen f Scots.  I doubt if the like compliment was ever paid before to one of our ‘idle trade.'”

It is a marvelous example of both Victorian historiography/hagiography and of a certain kind of prose style.  Most of all, one thing that English/British writers in the nineteenth century really knew was the craft of the sentence.

I’m not sure that even I, with my blog-documented love of polyclausal sentences, could bring myself to attempt this kind of thing — and I don’t think what talent I have really runs that direction anyway.  But for anyone who loves the rhythm section in the music of English, check this out:

Elizabeth, so shamefully her inferior in personal loyalty, fidelity and gratitude, was so clearly her superior on the one all-important point of patriotism.  The saving salt of Elizabeth’s character, with all its wellnigh incredible mixture of heroism and egotism, meanness and magnificence, was simply this, that, overmuch as she  loved herself, she did yet love England better.  Her best though not her only fine qualities were national and political, the high public virtues of a good publc servant; in the private and personal qualities which attract and attach a friend to his friend and a follower to his leader, no man or woman was ever more constant and more eminent than Mary Queen of Scots.

Damn.  That’s some fine stuff.  And what’s wonderful, at least to me, is the match of content to sound and pace.  Not to mention the — I’m sure conscious — nod to the wellsprings of both Swinburne’s sentiment and at least some of his diction.  That “so shamefully her inferior in personal loyalty, fidelity and gratitude”….well think of my man Billy Shakespeare, and this, from Viola in Twelfth Night, act III scene 4:

“I hate ingratitude more in a man
than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness,
or any taint of vice whose strong corruption
inhabits our frail blood.”

We have a great instrument on which to play.  Writing, when it is not miserable labor, entrains such joy.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, “The Writing Master,” 1882.  I have a vague memory that I might have posted this one before — but I like it, so here it is.

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12 Comments on “Why I Love the English Language…19th Century Prose Slinging Dept.”

  1. jadesmith09 Says:

    Interesting blog–and post. I checked out your “100 Novels” list, and I’ve read several of those–glad you included Dracula and Frankenstein–unlike the movies, these books are deep!

    • Tom Says:

      Thanks for reading. I’m not sure it was my 100 novels list you saw, but certainly both Dracula and Frankenstein rate high in my eyes.

  2. lichanos Says:

    I have always been particularly fond of Thomas De Quincey for his loooong polyclausal sentences, though he is far less sober than Swineburne – another reason I like him. I wish I had a better grasp of the technical elements of sentence structure, etc., but I’m just an appreciative reader.

  3. Tom Says:

    The trouble with de Quincy for me is that I always feel that I need to be in a somewhat altered state to read him…and I don’t have the stamina for that kind of thing anymore.

  4. Ted K Says:

    Great post. Frankly I prefer the second one to the first, but your point is a good one.

  5. Kaleberg Says:

    Sometimes I miss that old fashioned poetry. It was well into the 20th century that wills would “nominate, appoint and elect” an executor. My father once explained the legal distinctions, but I just liked the flow of the words.


  6. Nice post. I think the prose style of the Victorians was amazingly appreciable. An analysis on the Victorian prose works definitely reveals this.

  7. chrome agnomen Says:

    not to denigrate the modern man, but the guys cited, and others of their ilk always give the impression of having thought deeply and analytically about their subjects before ever setting pen to paper. one imagines round table discussions of many viewpoints over cigars and brandy (and opium) and a tempering of positions in the heat of debate. even if the results weren’t always liberal, the process was. i suppose this still goes on, but the crowds clamor for the quick sound bite and the knee jerk reaction. maybe they always did. but it’s another good reason to look back to a time when sound thinking and intellect had a lot more cachet.

  8. lichanos Says:

    If you read only the “classics,” as I tend to do, you don’t have to do the work of filtering out the drek that was produced by the bucketful, even back in the Good Old Days…You can always dip into that stuff if you want to!


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