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THE PAGEANT OF
BEING FIVE HUNDRED PASSAGES
BY THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE AUTHORS
EDITED BY R. M. LEONARD
'Mr. Savile was asked, by my lord of Essex, his opinion
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
LONDON, EDINBURGH, GLASGOW
NEW YORK, TORONTO, MELBOURNE, AND BOMBAY
THIS collection of specimens of English prose is a companion volume to The Pageant of English Poetry. It consists of 500 passages by 325 authors, ranging, from John de Trevisa (1326) to Fiona Macleod' (1905), over a period of upwards of five centuries. With all English prose as one's province, the difficulty of selection is obvious, but it must not be hastily supposed that short passages cannot do justice to an author. Sir Walter Ralegh is not the only one of whom it may be said, in Mr. Edmund Gosse's words,' he is essentially to be read in extracts and admired in purple patches.' Sir Sidney Colvin says of Landor, for instance His perfect instinct for the rhythms and harmonies of prose reveals itself as fully in three lines as in a hundred.' It is indeed surprising how often an author's characteristics may be as adequately shown in a paragraph as in half a dozen pages.
The authors have been placed in alphabetical order, as in The Pageant of English Poetry; experience having shown that this arrangement possesses a balance of advantages. No one reads an anthology such as this at one fell swoop, from cover to cover. It is a book to be dipped into as opportunity offers, or fancy dictates; and the alphabetical order, supplemented by a chronological list of authors and proper indexes, is by far the most convenient for casual consultation. A pageant is not necessarily a procession: it may be simply a display in which a great variety is shown. Here will be found authors clad in ermine and robes of state; in the divine's sober garments, decked occasionally with the riband of a jest; in drab of formal
cut; in the camel's hair of the prophet; in slashed doublet and other fantastic attire, furnished, perhaps, with the feathers and rapiers of the wits, or with cap and bells; in the workaday clothes of generation after generation; while the women may be seen in turban and ruff and farthingale or whatever may chance to be the kaleidoscopic fashion of the passing moment. The prose exemplified in these pages embraces history, philosophy, theology, natural and political science, fiction, essays, table talk, translations, dedications, diaries, letters, and parliamentary, pulpit, and forensic oratory.
Chronological order is open to objections, not least that if it were followed in this book the first part would consist largely of passages which might prove a little difficult to unlearned readers and of the rhetoric or earnest exhortations of divines, who to students of style are of considerable interest-Edward FitzGerald, indeed, declared that our old Divines will hereafter be considered our Classics -but are apt to be somewhat repellant to the sensual world. In this book he who runs may read South between Smollett and Southey, and, as an infant, in all innocence take the powder with the jam. To attempt to group the selections would be delightful, but it would be courting certain failure: in prose it is a wise child that knows its own father. However, the student of style and its development may amuse and instruct himself by attempting to form genealogical tables of prose writers, and to trace literary relationships, imaginary or real, and the chronological list of authors, at the beginning, and the duly indexed notes on style, at the end of the book, will afford him assistance. There are many obvious combinations, but some writers will be found to defy all efforts to place them in any orderly sequence or scheme.
Critics of prose as often as not quote Buffon and say
that the style is the man; and Carlyle translates Lessing as observing that every man has his own style, like his own nose'. It is well to remember the point of view of such an accomplished critic as Mr. Frederic Harrison :—
'Read Voltaire, Defoe, Swift, Goldsmith, and you will come to understand how the highest charm of words is reached without your being able to trace any special element of charm. The moment you begin to pick out this or that felicity of phrase, this or that sound of music in the words, and directly it strikes you as eloquent, lyrical, pictorial, then the charm is snapped. The style may be fascinating, brilliant, impressive, but it is not perfect.'
Voltaire himself, when complimented on his belles phrases, replied, Mes belles phrases! apprenez que je n'en ai pas fait une de ma vie.' It is not given to all to achieve the victory of the prose style, clear, plain and short' ; if some writers fail, their work may chance to escape being classed by readers of differing taste as 'faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null.'
Excellence of style has not been the sole consideration, although this volume contains a noble quantity of imperishable prose. Some writers, as Sterne, have no literary style at all, or at best it is bad; others, as Scott, are slovenly : none the less the creator of Tristram Shandy and the author of Waverley must have honoured places in any pageant. The aim has been to print passages which are not only typical, but also possess some intrinsic interest: for example, the prose style of the poets; while testimony to the variety of topics is borne in the subject index.
'The world's mine oyster.' It is impossible to acknowledge my obligations to innumerable histories of literature, biographies, critical studies, and works of reference, except incidentally; but no modern compiler could deny himself