Essay on the Emergence of English Prose During the Renaissance (1500-1650)

The tradition of prose writing that started during the Old English period and attained a certain degree of maturity during the Middle English period had little effect on prose writings in English later. That early tradition of prose can be described as a stream that gets lost in a desert by the time it acquires a noticeable width and speed. As David Daiches (1960:460) has pointed out, Malory’s prose was “rather the final achievement of medieval prose narrative than the first beginnings of a modern style”.

The varieties of prose that made their presence felt in a big way during the Renaissance period are the following:

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(i) Descriptive Prose:

The Renaissance period was an age of innovations and experiments, not only in the field of physical sciences but also in the field of language and literature. By way of experiment, some renaissance authors extended the use of English for purposes not clearly identified before and achieved great heights of excellence. One such experiment in the use of English was its descriptive use for a new genre of writing known as “characters”.

When describing characters, their authors presented the sketch in such way that the readers found them to be an inexhaustable source of joy and education. This genre had been widely used in Greece by an author called Theophrastus, whose characters started with a description of a vice like flattery, greed, and superstition, and then presented an amusing picture of the possessor of that vice.

The first known author who practised this genre effectively was Joseph Hall (1574-1656). His book of characters called Characters of Virtues and Vices appeared in 1608 and with the publication of that book “character” firmly established itself as an independent variety of language activity within the accepted framework of literature. An extract from his book is given below as a representative sample.

He knows not why, but his custom is to go a little about and to leave the cross still on the right hand. One event is enough to make a rule: out of these rules he concludes fashions, proper to himself; and nothing can turn him out of his course. If he have done his task, he is safe; it matters not with what affection.

Another author, who wrote characters, was Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613). His book called Character or Witty Descriptions of the Properties of Sundry Persons published in 1614, gave further respectability to this descriptive use of English. His characters described types more than individuals. The following are two examples of his use of English for describing a character type.

A Puritan is a diseased piece of Apocrypha: bind him to the Bible, and he corrupts the whole text: ignorance and fat feed are his founders; his nurses railing, rabies, and round breeches: his life is but a borrowed blast of wind; for between two religions as between two doors, he is ever whistling.

A good woman is a comfort, like a man. She lacks nothing but heat. Thence is her sweetness of disposition, which meets his stoutness more pleasingly; so wool meets iron easier than iron, and turns resisting into embracing.

The publication of this book of characters written by Overbury added further reputation to this genre and the descriptive use of English for this purpose was now widely recognized as another distinct use.

Overbury’s book of characters was followed by John Earle’s book called Microcosmography, devoted to the sketch of a large range of characters. The titles of the character sketches in his book include “A Young Raw Preacher”, “A Mere Dull Physician”, “A Mere Formal Man”, “A Young Gentleman of the University”, “The Common Singing-Men in Cathedral Churches”, and “A She Precise Hypocrete”.

Thus the tradition started by Hall and enriched by Overbury and then strengthened further by Earle during the Renaissance period extended the functional domain of English and the descriptive use of English for producing an entertaining sketch of a character established itself now as an important form of literary craftsmanship.

(ii) Oratorical and Declamatory Prose:

The Renaissance period in England was a period of great theological controversy arising out of two different interpretations of Christianity, one by the Roman Catholics and the other by reformers like John Wycliffe and his followers. So much so that when William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament, printed in Cologne in 1525, was introduced in England, he was arrested for heresy and all the copies of his translation were destroyed by the bishops.

After years of imprisonment, Tyndale was strangled and burnt at the stake. In 1588-1589, a number of anonymous pamphlets written under the pseudonym of Martin Marprelate were printed by a secret press attacking the bishops and defending the Anglican approach to Christianity.

The suspected authors of these pamphlets, a Welshman named Penry and a clergyman named Udall, were arrested. The former was hanged and the latter died in prison. This kind of intolerance led to strongly worded sermons and pamphlets defending one side and attacking the other.

Gabriel Harvey (brother of William Harvey, the famous scientist who discovered the circulation of blood), Lyly, and Nash took an active part in this polemical war of pamphleteering and the result was a great deal of spirited prose written in a satirical style, the like of which was never seen before.

All the oratorical prose written during this period was not polemical, however. Some sermons which were written in praise of Christianity were of a positive and laudatory nature. The sermons written by Lancelot Andrews (1525-1626) and, similarly, the sermons written by John Donne (1572-1631) are among the most powerful examples of sermons written in English so far.

Thomas Nash (1567-1601) wrote several pamphlets under the pseudonym of “Pasquil”. John Donne, who is the best known of all the metaphysical poets during that period, was a Roman Catholic earlier but he took Anglican orders in 1615 and preached the Anglican version of Christianity with no less a person like King Charles I being part of his audience on the occasion of many of his sertnons.

Likewise, some funeral orations written during this period, e.g., the one written by John Lyly on the death of Princess Elizabeth, can also be classed under the heading of oratorical prose. Sir Thomas Browne’s famous book Religio Medici (1642) can also be classified under this heading, though it has some features in common with expository writings of that period.

Some of the views expressed by Browne in this book seem strange these days. His view that salvation is granted by God only to Christians and that the sect of Christianity represented by the Church of England is the best and most inclusive of all faiths seem very odd but even today his prose is considered to be a powerful sample of oratorical prose written during that period. The following are two extracts from his Religio Medici:

…there is no Church whose every part so squares unto my Conscience, whose Articles seem so consonant unto reason, and as it were framed to my particular Devotion, as this whereof I hold my Belief, the Church of England.

We have reformed from them, not against them; for (omitting those Improperations and terms of Scurrility betwixt us, which only difference our Affection, and not our Cause) there is between us one common Name and Apalletion, one faith and necessary body of Principles common to us both and therefore I am not scrupulous to converse and live with them, to enter their Churches in defect of ours, and either pray with them, or for them.12

(iii) Expository Prose:

While people like Harvey, Nash, Penry and Udall were busy hurling invectives on each other like misssiles, intellectuals like Bacon (1561-1626) tried to exploit the creative potential of the English language for expository purposes. Bacon’s book, The Advancement of Learning, is a superb example of expository prose written during that period. The Advancement of Learning is in two books. The first one states and answers the arguments against learning and the second one attempts a detailed classification of knowledge.

These two books are perhaps the first books of their type devoted to a cpol and rational analysis of the subject matter and leading to mature argumentative prose full of apt definitions. Bacon’s essays were another attempt at expository writing of a different type.

These essays were highly successful experiments in expressing the maximum of ideas in the minimum of words, experiments in writing short expository pieces in such a manner that almost every sentence acquires the force of a proverb. Bacon was by no means the first Renaissance author to write in an aphoristic style with so much of vigour. Shakespeare’s plays were full of aphorisms. Bacon was, however, the first author to meet successfully the challenge of writing essays in an aphoristic manner.

The following are some of the examples of aphoristic sentences in Bacon’s essays:

(i) Revenge is a kind of wild justice.

(ii) Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark.

(iii) A man that hath no virtue in himself ever envieth virtue in others.

(iv) Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man and writing an exact man.

(iv) Euphuistic Prose:

A remarkable event in the history of the English language was the emergence of a form of prose known as euphuism. Euphuism is the name given to the ornamental use of English characteristic of Lyly’s prose romance of which the first part was published in 1579 as Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit and the second part published in 1580 as Euphues and his England.

The characteristic feature of this use of English was an excessive but sustained use of balance, parallelism, antithesis, rhetorical questions, alliteration, metaphors, similes, and allusions to historical as well as mythological personages and to natural history. These figures of speech have been used by all talented authors all over the world.

The uniqueness of Lyly’s euphuistic writing lies in the fact that he aimed at an elegant symmetry of form rather than a logical coherence of ideas. Lyly’s figures of speech attract so much of attention in themselves that one gets the impression that the medium itself has taken the place of the message.

Lyly’s euphuism was imitated by many of his contemporaries like Robert Greene and it was parodied by many others but as Bond (1902:145) has pointed out, nothing can “affect his claim to have taken the first momentous step in the development of English prose, by obeying a rule of design and aiming at elegance and precision of form”.

The following are some extracts from Lyly’s euphuistic writings:

The filthy Sow when she is sicke, eateth the Sea Crabbe and is immediately recured: the torteyese having tasted the Viper, sucketh Origanum and is quickly revived: the Beare ready to pine lycketth upp the Ants and is recovered: the dog having surfetted, to procure his vomitte eateth grasse, and findeth remedy: the Hbeing pierced with the darte, runneth out of hand to the herbe Dictanum, and is healed. And can men by no hearb, by no art, by no way procure a remedy for the impatient disease of love?

Thou knowest that the tallest Ashe is cut down for fuell, bycause it beareth no good fruit, that the Cowe that gives no mylk is brought to the slaughter, that the Drone that gathereth no honey is contemned, that the woman that maketh hyr selfe barren by not marryinge is accompted among the Grecian Ladyes worse than a carryon, as Homere reporteth.