1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Prose
PROSE, a word supposed to be derived from the Lat. prorsus, direct or straight, and signifying the plain speech of mankind, when written, or rhetorically composed, without reference to the rules of verse. It has been usual to distinguish prose very definitely from poetry (q.v.), and this was an early opinion. Ronsard said that his training as a poet had proved to him that prose and poetry were " mortal enemies." But " poetry " is a more or less metaphysical term, which cannot be used without danger as a distinctive one in this sense. For instance, an ill-inspired work in rhyme, or even a well-written metrical composition of a satirical or didactic kind, cannot be said to be poetry, and yet most certainly is not prose; it is a specimen of verse. On the other hand, a work of highly wrought and elaborately sustained non-metrical writing is often called a prose-poem. The fact that this phrase can be employed shows that the antithesis between prose and poetry is not complete, for no one, even in jest or hyperbole, speaks of a prose-verse.
Prose, therefore, is most safely defined as comprising all forms of careful literary expression which are not metrically versified, and hence the definition from prorsus, the notion being that all verse is in its nature so far artificial that it is subjected to definite and recognized rules, by which it is diverted out of the perfectly direct modes of speech. Prose, on the other hand, is straight and plain, not an artistic product, but used for stating precisely that which is true in reason or fact. The Latins called prose sermo pedestris, and later oratio soluta, thus showing their consciousness that it was not poetry, which soars on wings, and not verse, which is bound by the rules of prosodical confinement.
Prose, however, is not everything that is loosely said. It has its rules and requirements. In the earliest ages, no doubt, conversation did not exist. The rudest fragments of speech were sufficient to indicate the needs of the savage, and these blunt babbling were not prose. Later on some orator, dowered with a native persuasiveness, and desirous of making an effect upon his comrades, would link together some broken sentences, and in his heat produce with them something, more coherent than a chain of ejaculations. So far as this was lucid and dignified, this would be the beginning of prose. It cannot be too often said that prose is the result of conversation, but it must at the same time be insisted upon that conversation itself is not necessarily, nor often, prose. Prose is not the negation of all laws of speech; it rejects merely those laws which depend upon metre. What the laws are upon which it does depend are not easy to enumerate or define. But this much is plain; as prose depends on the linking of successive sentences, the first requirement of it is that these sentences should be so arranged as to ensure lucidity and directness. In prose, that the meaning should be given is the primal necessity. But as it is found that a dull and clumsy, and especially a monotonous arrangement, of sentences is fatal to the attention of the listener or reader, it is needful that to plainness should be added various attractions and ornaments. The sentences must be built up in a manner which displays variety and flexibility. It is highly desirable that there should be a harmony, and even a rhythm, in the progress of style, care being always taken that this rhythm and this harmony are not those of verse, or recognizably metrical. Again, the colour and form of adjectives, and their sufficient yet not excessive recurrence, is an important factor in the construction of prose. The omission of certain faults, too, is essential. In every language grammatical correctness is obligatory. Here we see a distinction between mere conversation, which is loose, fragmentary and often, even in the lips of highly educated persons, slightly ungrammatical; and prose, which is bound to weed away whatever is slovenly and incorrect, and to watch very closely lest merely colloquial expressions, which cannot be defended, should slip into careful speech. What is required in good prose is a moderate and reasonable elevation without bombast or bathos. Not everything that is loosely said or vaguely thought is prose, and the celebrated phrase of M. Jourdain in Molière's Bourgeois gentilhomme: “ Par ma foi, il y a plus de quarante ans que je dis de la prose, sans que j'en susse rien,” is not exactly true, although it is an amusing illustration of the truth, for all the little loose phrases which M. Jourdain had used in his life, though they were certainly not verse, were not prose either, whatever the schoolmaster might say. On the other hand, it seems that Earle goes too enthusiastically in the contrary direction when he says, “ Poetry, which is the organ of Imagination, is futile without the support of Reason; Prose, which is the organ of Reason, has no vivacity or beauty or artistic value but with the favour and sympathy of the Imagination.” It is better to hold to the simpler view that prose is literary expression not subjected to any species of metrical law.
Greece.—The beginnings of ancient Greek prose are very obscure. It is highly probable that they took the form of inscriptions in temples and upon monuments, and gradually developed into historical and topographical records, preserving local memories, and giving form to local legends. It seems that it was in Ionia that the art of prose was first cultivated, and a history of Miletus, composed by the half-mythical Cadmus, is appealed to as the earliest monument of Greek prose. This, however, is lost, and so are all the other horoi of earliest times. We come down to something definite when we reach Hecataeus, the first geographer, and Herodorus, the first natural philosopher, of the Greeks; and, although the writings of these men have disappeared, we know enough about them to see that by the 4th century B.C. the use of prose in its set modern sense had been established on a permanent basis. We even know what the character of the style of Hecataeus was, and that it was admired for its clearness, its grammatical purity, its agreeable individuality—qualities which have been valued in prose ever since. These writers were promptly succeeded by Hellanicus of Lesbos, who wrote many historical books which are lost, and by Herodotus of Halicarnassus, whose noble storehouse of chronicle and legend is the earliest monument of European prose which has come down to us. When once non-metrical language could be used with the mastery and freedom of Herodotus, it was plain that all departments of human knowledge were open to its exercise. But it is still in Ionia and the Asiatic islands that we find it cultivated by philosophers, critics and men of science. The earliest of these great masters of prose survive, not in their works, but in much later records of their opinions; in philosophy the actual writings of Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and Empedocles are lost, and it is more than possible that their cosmological rhapsodies were partly metrical, a mingling of ode with prose apophthegm. We come into clearer air when we cross the Aegean and reach the Athenian historians: Thucydides, whose priceless story of the Peloponnesian War has most fortunately come down to us; and Xenophon, who continued that chronicle in the spirit and under the influence of Thucydides, and who carried Greek prose to a great height of easy distinction. But it is with the practice of philosophy that prose in ancient Greece rises to its acme of ingenuity, flexibility and variety, proving itself a vehicle for the finest human thought such as no later ingenuity of language has contrived to excel. The death of Socrates (399 B.C.) has been taken by scholars as the date when the philosophical writings of the Athenians reached their highest pitch of perfection in the art of Plato, who is the greatest prose writer of Greece, and, in the view of many who are well qualified to judge, of the world. In his celebrated dialogues—Crito, Gorgias, Phaedo, Phaedrus, the Symposium, most of all perhaps in the Republic—we see what splendour, what elasticity, what exactitude, this means of expression had in so short a time developed; how little there was for future prose-writers in any age to learn about their business. The rhetoricians were even more highly admired by the critics of antiquity than the philosophers, and it is probable that ancient opinion would have set Demosthenes higher than Plato as a composer of prose. But modern readers are no longer so much interested in the technique of rhetoric, and, although no less an authority than Professor Gilbert Murray has declared the essay-writing of the school of Isocrates to form “ the final perfection of ancient prose,” the works of the orators cease to move us with great enthusiasm. In Aristotle we see the conscious art of prose-writing already subordinated to the preservation and explanation of facts, and after Aristotle's day there is little to record in a hasty outline, of the progress of Greek prose.
Latin.—In spite of having the experience of the Greeks to guide them, the Romans obeyed the universal law of literary history by cultivating verse long before they essayed the writing of prose. But that the example of later Greece was closely followed in Rome is proved by the fact that the earliest prose historians of whom we have definite knowledge, Q. F. Pictor and L. C. Alimentus, actually wrote in Greek. The earliest annalist who wrote in Latin was L. C. Hemina; the works of all these early historians are lost. A great deal of primitive Roman prose was occupied with jurisprudence and political oratory. By universal consent the first master of Latin prose was Cato, the loss of whose speeches and “ Origines ” is extremely to be deplored; we possess from his pen one practical treatise on agriculture. In the next generation we are told that the literary perfection of oratory was carried to the highest point by Marcus Antonius and Lucius Licinius Crassus—“ by a happy chance their styles were exactly complementary to one another, and to hear both in one day was the highest intellectual entertainment which Rome afforded.” Unfortunately none but inconsiderable fragments survive to display to us the qualities of Roman prose in its golden age. Happily, however, those qualities were concentrated in a man of the highest genius, whose best writings have come down to us; this is Cicero, whose prose exhibits the Latin language to no less advantage than Plato's does the Greek. From 70 to 60 B.C. Cicero's literary work lay mainly in the field of rhetoric; after his exile the splendour of his oratory declined, but he was occupied upon two treatises of extreme importance, the De oratore and the De republica, composed in 55 and 54–57 B.C. respectively; of the latter certain magnificent passages have been preserved. The beautiful essays of Cicero's old age are more completely known to us, and they comprise two of the masterpieces of the prose of the world, the De amicitia and De senectute (45 B.C.). It is to the collection of the wonderful private letters of Cicero, published some years after his death by Atticus and Tiro, that we owe our intimate knowledge of the age in which he lived, and these have ever since and in every language been held the models of epistolary prose. Of Cicero's greatest contemporary, Julius Caesar, much less has been preserved, and this is unfortunate because Roman critical opinion placed Caesar at the head of those who wrote Latin prose with purity and perfection: His letters, his grammars, his works of science, his speeches are lost, but we retain his famous Commentaries on the War in Gaul. Sallust followed Caesar as an historian, and Thucydides as a master of style. His use of prose, as we trace it in the Jugurtha and the Catilina, is hard, clear and polished. The chroniclers who succeeded Sallust neglected these qualities, and Latin prose, as the Augustan age began, became more diffuse and more rhetorical.
But it was wielded in that age by one writer of the highest genius, the historian Titus Livius. He greatly enriched the tissue of Latin prose with ornament which hitherto had been confined to poetry; this enables him, in the course of his vast annals, “ to advance without flagging through the long and intricate narrative where a simpler diction must necessarily have grown monotonous ” (Mackail). The periodic structure of Latin prose, which had been developed by Cicero, was carried by Livy “to an even greater complexity.” The style of Pollio, who wrote a History of the Civil Laws, was much admired, and the loss of this work must be deplored. A different species of prose, the plebius sermo, or colloquial speech of the poor, is partly preserved in the invaluable fragments of a Neronian writer, Petronius Arbiter. Of the Latin prose-writers of the silver age, the elder Pliny, Quintilian and Tacitus, who adorned the last years before the decay of classical Latin, nothing need here be said.
English.—It was long supposed that the conscious use of prose in the English language was a comparatively recent thing, dating back at farthest to the middle of the 16th century, and due directly to French influences. Earle was the first to show that this was not the case, and to assert that we “ possess a longer pedigree of prose literature than any other country in Europe.” Though this may be held to be a somewhat violent statement, the independence of English prose is a fact which rests on a firm basis. “ The Code of Laws of King's Inn” dates from the 7th century, and there are various other legal documents which may be hardly literature in themselves, but which are worded in a way that seems to denote the existence of a literary tradition. After the Danish invasion, Latin ceased to be the universal language of the educated, and translations into the vernacular began to be required. In 887, Alfred, who had collected the principal scholars of England around him, wrote with their help, in English, his Hand-Book; this, probably the earliest specimen of finished English prose, is unhappily lost. Alfred's preface to the English version of the Cura pastoralis was in Latin; this translation was probably completed in 890. Later still Alfred produced various translations from Bede, Orosius, Boethius and other classics of the latest Latin, and, in 900, closing a translation from St Augustine, we read “ Here end the sayings of King Alfred.” The prose of Alfred is simple, straightforward and clear, without any pretension to elegance. He had no direct followers until the time of the monastic revival, when the first name of eminence which we encounter is that of Ælfric, who, about 997, began to translate, or rather to paraphrase, certain portions of the Bible. The prose of Ælfric, however, though extremely interesting historically, has the fault that it presents too close a resemblance, in structure and movement, to the alliterative verse of the age. This is particularly true of his Homilies. A little later vigorous prose was put forth by Wulfstan, archbishop of York, who died in 1023. At the Norman Conquest, the progress of English prose was violently checked, and, as has been acutely said, it “ was just kept alive, but only like a man in catalepsy.” The Annals of Winchester, Worcester and Peterborough were carried on in English until 1154, when they were resumed in Latin; the chronicle which thus came to an end was the most important document in English prose 'written before the Norman Conquest. Except in a few remote monasteries, English now ceased to be used, even for religious purposes, and the literature became exclusively Latin or French. There was nothing in prose that was analogous to the revival of verse in the Ormulum or the metrical chronicles. All the pre-Norman practice in prose belongs to what used to be distinguished as Anglo-Saxon literature. The distinction has fallen into desuetude, as it has become more clearly perceived that there is no real break between the earlier and the, later language. The Norman check, however, makes it fair to say that modern English prose begins with the Testament of Love of Thomas Usk, an imitation of the De consolatione of Boethius, which a certain London Lollard wrote in prison about 1584. About the same time were written a number of translations, The Tale of Melibee and The Parson's Sermon by Chaucer; the treatises of John of Trevisa, whose style in the Polychronicon has a good deal of vigour; and the three versions of the Travels of Jean à Barbe, formerly attributed to a fabulous “ Sir John Mandeville.” The composite text of these last-mentioned versions really forms the earliest specimen of purely secular prose which can be said to possess genuine literary value, but again the fact, which has only lately been ascertained, that “ Sir John Mandeville ” was not an original English writer robs it of much of its value. The anonymous compiler-translator can no longer be styled “ the father of English prose.” That name seems more properly to belong to John Wyclif, who, in the course of his fierce career as a controversialist, more and more completely abandoned Latin for English as the vehicle of his tracts. The earliest English Bible was begun by Nicholas Hereford, who had carried it up to Baruch, when he abruptly dropped it in June 1382. The completion of this great work is usually attributed, but on insufficient grounds, to Wyclif himself. A new version was almost immediately started by John Purvey, another Wyclifite, who completed it in 1388. We are still among translators, but towards the middle of the 14th century Englishmen began, somewhat timidly, to use prose as the vehicle for original work. Capgrave, an Augustinian friar, wrote a chronicle of English history down to 1417; Sir John Fortescue, the eminent constitutional jurist, produced about 1475 a book on The Governance of England; and Reginald Pecock, bishop of Chichester, attacked the Lollards in his Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy (1455), which was so caustic and scandalous that it cost him his diocese. The prose of Pecock is sometimes strangely modern, and to judge what the ordinary English prose familiarly in use in the 15th century was it is more useful to turn to The Paston Letters. The introduction of printing into England is coeval with a sudden development of English prose, a marvellous example of which is to be seen in Caxton's 1485 edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a compilation from French sources, in which the capacities of the English language for melody and noble sweetness were for the first time displayed, although much was yet lacking in strength and conciseness. Caxton himself, Lord Berners and Lord Rivers, added an element of literary merit to their useful translations. The earliest modern historian was Robert Fabyan, whose posthumous Chronicles were printed in 1515. Edward Hall was a better writer, whose Noble Families of Lancaster and York had the honour of being studied by Shakespeare. With the advent of the Renaissance to England, prose was heightened and made more colloquial. Sir Thomas More's Richard III. was a work of considerable importance; his finer Utopia (1516) was unfortunately composed in Latin, which still held its own as a dangerous rival to the vernacular in prose. In his Governor (1531) Sir Thomas Elyot added moral philosophy to the gradually widening range of subjects which were thought proper for English prose. In the same year Tyndale began his famous version of the Bible, the story of which forms one of the most romantic episodes in the chronicles of literature; at Tyndale's death in 1536 the work was taken up by Miles Coverdale. The Sermons of Latimer (1549) introduced elements of humour, dash and vigour which had before been foreign to the stately but sluggish prose of England. The earliest biography, a book in many ways marvellously modern, was the Life of Cardinal Wolsey, by George Cavendish, written about 1557, but not printed (even in part) until 1641. In the closing scenes of this memorable book, which describe what Cavendish had personally experienced, we may say that the perfection of easy English style is reached for the first time. The prose of the middle of the 16th century—as we see it exemplified in the earliest English critic, Sir Thomas Wilson; the earliest English pedagogue, Roger Ascham; the distinguished humanist, Sir John Cheke—is clear, unadorned and firm, these Englishmen holding themselves bound to resist the influences coming to them from Italy and Spain, influences which were in favour of elaborate verbiage and tortured construction. Equal simplicity marked such writers as Foxe, Stow and Holinshed, who had definite information to purvey, and wished a straightforward prose in which to present it. But Hoby and North, who translated Guevara, Castiglione and Amyot, brought with them not a few of the ingenious exotic graces of those originals, and prepared the way for the startling innovations of Lyly in his famous didactic romance of Euphues (1579). The extravagances and eccentricities of Lyly outdid those of his continental prototypes, and euphuism became a disturbing influence which, it may be, English prose has not, even to the present hour, entirely succeeded in throwing off. In spite of its overwhelming popularity, it was opposed in its own day, not merely by the stately sobriety of Hooker, in whom we see Latin models predominant, but by the sweetness of Sir Philip Sidney in his Arcadia. Raleigh wrote English prose that was perhaps more majestic than any which preceded it, but he revelled in length of sentence and in ponderosity of phrase, so that it is probable that the vast prestige of The History of the World on the whole delayed the emancipation of English prose more than it furthered it. The direct influence of the euphuistic eccentricity was seen for some time in the work of poets like Lodge and Greene, and divines like Lancelot Andrewes; its indirect influence in the floweriness and violence of most careful prose down to the Restoration. Bacon, whose contempt of the vernacular is with difficulty to be excused, despaired too early of our national writing. Donne cultivated a rolling and sonorous majesty of style; and Burton could use English with humour and vivacity when he gave himself the chance, but his text is a prototype of the vicious abuse of quotation which was a crowning fault of prose in the early 17th century. In spite of the skill with which, during the civil wars and the Commonwealth, certain authors (such as Jeremy Taylor, Howell, Fuller, Milton, Izaak Walton) manipulated prose, and in spite of the extraordinary magnificence of the Ciceronian periods of Sir Thomas Browne, it was not until shortly before the Restoration that English prose reached its perfection. According to Dr Johnson, Sir William Temple (1628–1699) “was the first writer who gave cadence to English prose; before his time they were careless of arrangement, and did not mind whether a sentence ended with an important word or an insignificant word, or with what part of speech it concluded.” The tendency was all in favour of brevity and crispness, and in particular of shorter sentences and easier constructions. Not a little of the majesty of the earlier age was lost; but for practical purposes, and in the hands of ordinary men, prose became a far more useful and businesslike implement than it had hitherto been. The short treatises of Halifax, if we compare them with similar writings of a generation earlier, display the complete change of style; or we may contrast the clear and sarcastic sentences of South with the undulating quaintness of Joseph Hall. The range of English speech was first comprehended perhaps by Dryden, who combined dignity and even pomp of movement with an ease and laxity at occasion which gave variety to prose, removed from it its stilted and too prelatical elevation at inappropriate moments, and approximated it to the ordinary speech of cultivated persons. This then may be called the foundation of modern English prose, which has extended into no departments not recognized, at least in essence, by Bunyan, Dryden and Temple. The ensuing varieties of prose have been mainly matters of style. In the 18th century, for instance, there was a constant alternation between a quiet, rather cold elegance and precision of prose-writing, which was called the Addisonian manner, and a swelling, latinized style, full of large words and weighty periods, in which Johnson was the most famous but Gibbon perhaps the most characteristic proficient. But as far as grammatical arrangement and the rules of syntax are concerned, it cannot be said that English prose has altered essentially since about 1680. It is, however, to be noted that in the course of the 19th century the use of short sentences, and the habit of neglecting to group them into paragraphs, introduced a heresy not known before; and that, on the other hand, there has been a successful attempt made to restore the beauty and variety of early 17th-century diction, which had suliered a long decline from the Restoration onwards.
Icelandic.—The independent invention of prose by the exiled aristocrats in the Heroic Age of Iceland is one of the most singular facts in literary history. It resulted from the fact that story-telling grew to be a recognized form of amusement in the isolated and refined life of an Icelandic household from the 9th to the 11th century. Something of the same kind had existed in the courts of Norway before the exodus, but it was in Iceland that it was reduced to an art and reached perfection. It is remarkable how suddenly the saga, as a composition, became a finished work; it was written in a prose which immediately presented, in the best examples, “a considerable choice of words, a richness of alliteration and a delicate use of syntax” (Vigfusson). The deliberate composition of sagas began about the year 1030, and it is supposed that they began to be written down soon after 1100. It is distinctly recorded that Ari Fródi (1067–1148) was the first man in Iceland who wrote down stories in the Norse tongue. Many of Ari’s books are lost, but enough survive to show what Icelandic prose was in the hands of its earliest artificer, and the impress of his rich and simple style is felt on all the succeeding masterpieces of the great age of Icelandic history and biography. But the Greater Sagas, as they are called, the anonymous stories which followed the work of Ari and were completed in the 13th century, exhibit prose style in its most enchanting fullness, whether in the majesty of Njala, in the romantic art of Laxdaela, or in the hurrying garrulity of Eyrbyggia. There followed a vast abundance of sagas and saga writers. The great historian, Sturla (1214–1284), is the latest of these classic writers of Iceland, and after his death there was a very rapid decline in the purity and dignity of the national prose. By the opening of the 14th century the art of writing in the old noble language had become entirely lost, and it was not until the 17th century that it began to revive as an archaeological curiosity and a plaything for scholars. “For an Icelander of the present day to write modern history in saga style is a ludicrous absurdity,” and the splendid living prose of the 12th century remains unrelated, a strange and unparalleled portent in the history of European literature. Of its beneficial effect on later Scandinavian, English and even Teutonic style there can be no question.
Spain.—In Castilian Spanish, as in the other languages of Europe, verse is already far advanced before we meet with any distinct traces of prose. A didactic treatise for use in the confessional is attributed to a monk of Navarre, writing in the 13th century. Between 1220 and 1250 a chronicle of Toledo was indited. But the earliest prose-writer of whom Spain can really boast is King Alphonso the Learned (1226–1284), in whose encyclopaedic treatises “Castilian makes its first great stride in the direction of exactitude and clearness” (Fitzmaurice-Kelly). Almost all the creditable prose of the end of the 13th century is attributed to Alphonso, who was helped by a sort of committee of subsidiary authors. The king’s nephew, Juan Manuel (1282–1347), author of the admirable Conde Lucanor, carried prose to a further point in delicacy and precision. The poet Ayala (1332–1407) was another gifted artificer of Spanish prose, which suffered a setback in the hands of his successors, Santillana and Mena. It rose once more in The Sea of Histories of Pérez de Guzmán (1378–1460), who has been compared to Plutarch and St Simon, and in whom the lucid and energetic purity of Castilian prose is for the first time seen in its perfection. In the 15th century the shapeless novel of chivalry was predominant, while in the age of Charles V. poetry altogether overshadowed prose. The next great writer of prose whom we meet with is Guevara, who died in 1545, and whose Dial of Princes exercised an influence which was not confined to Spanish, and even extended to English prose (in North’s well-known version). The historians of this period, prolix and discursive, were of less value. The earliest picaroon novel, Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), the authorship of which is unknown, introduced a new form and exhibited Castilian prose style in a much lighter aspect than it had hitherto worn. Still greater elegance is met with in the mystical and critical writings of Juan de Valdés and in those of Luis de León; of the latter Mr Fitzmaurice-Kelly says that “his concise eloquence and his classical purity of expression rank
him among the best masters of Castilian prose.” The instrument, accordingly, was polished and sharpened for the finest uses, and was ready to the hand of the supreme magician Cervantes, whose Don Quixote was begun a few years (about 1591) after Los Nombres de Cristo of Luis de Leon had been published (1583); these dates are significant in the history of Spanish prose. The prose of Lope de Vega is stately and clear, but of course has little importance in comparison with the verse of his huge theatre. Quevedo's style had the faults which were now invading all European writing, of violent antithesis and obscure ingenuity; but his Visions (1627) occupy a prominent place in the history of Castilian prose. The latest struggles of a decadent critical conscience, battling against tortuousness and affectation, are seen in Gracián (1601–1658) and in Molinos (1627–1697), who vainly endeavoured to save classic prose out of the intellectual shipwreck of the 18th century. When Spanish prose revived in the 19th century, in the person of Larra (1809–1837), the influence of French models was found to have deprived it of distinctly national character, while giving it a fresh fluidity and grace.
French.—There had long been a flourishing versified literature in the vernacular of France, before anyone thought of writing French prose. It was the desire to be exact in giving information, together with a reduced sense of the value of rhyme and rhythm, which led to a partial divergence from metre. The translator of the fabulous Chronicle of Turpin mentions that he writes in prose “ because rhyme entails the addition of words which are not in the Latin.” Thus about the year 1200 verse began to he abandoned by chroniclers who had some definite statements to impart, and who had no natural gifts as poets. They ceased to sing; they wrote, more or less easily, as those around them spoke. The earliest French prose was translated from the Latin, but Baldwin VI., who died in 1205, is said to have commissioned several scribes to compile in the vulgar tongue a history of the world. If this was ever written it is lost, but we possess a Book of Stories written about 1225 by a clerk at Lille, which may fairly be said to be the start-word of French prose history. When once, however, a taste for prose was admitted, the superiority of that medium over verse as material for exact history could not but be perceived, and prose soon became frequent. The earliest French prose-writer of genius was Geoffroy (or Jofroi) de Villehardouin, who put down memoirs of his life between 1198 and 1207; he left his book, which is known as The Conquest of Constantinople, incomplete when he died in 1213. In the history of prose, Villehardouin takes an eminent place. In his admirable style are seen many of the most precious elements of French prose, its lucidity, its force, its sobriety and its charm of address. He had been trained as an orator, and it was his merit that, as M. Langlois has said, he was content to Write as he had learned to speak. Villehardouin was closely followed by other admirable writers of memoirs, by Robert of Clari, by Henri of Valenciennes, by the anonymous chronicler of Béthune, to whom we owe the famous description of the battle of Bouvines, and by the Minstrel of Reims. The last-named finished his Récits in 1260. These works in the new easy manner of writing were found to be as elegant and as vivacious as any preserved by the old rhetorical art of verse. They led the way directly to the eminent writer who was the earliest historian of modern Europe, to Jean de Joinville, who finished his Histoire de St Louis in 1309. A century later Froissart left his famous Chroniques unfinished in 1404, and again a hundred years passed before Philippe de Commines dropped the thread of his Mémoires in 1511. These are the three most illustrious names in the chronicle of French medieval prose, in whom the various characteristics of the nation are separately developed. It must be noted that these three are simply the most eminent figures in a great cloud of prose-writers, who preserved with more or less vivacity the features of French life in the later middle ages, and helped to facilitate the use of the central national language. In the 15th century, moreover, Antoine de la Salle deserves mention as practically the earliest of French novelists, and one whose skill in the manipulation of language was long in waiting for a rival among his successors. But with the Renaissance came the infusion into France of the spirit of antiquity, and in Rabelais there was revealed an author of the very highest genius who at once defended the integrity of French syntax and enriched its vocabulary with an infinite multitude of forms. The year 1532, in which the first brief sketch of Gargantua appeared, was critical in French literature; for more than twenty years afterwards the structure of the great Pantagruelist romance was still being builded. Meanwhile in 1549 had appeared the Défense et illustration de la langue française of Joachim du Bellay, in which the foundations of the learned and brilliant literary criticism of France were firmly laid. The liberation of the language proceeded simultaneously in all directions. In 1539 it was officially decreed that all judicial acts were thenceforward to be written in vernacular prose, “ en langage maternal français et non autrement.” Calvin led the theologians, and his precise, transparent and sober prose, curiously deficient in colour, gave the model to a long line of sober rhetoricians. It is in the pages of Calvin that we meet for the first time with a simple French prose style, which is easily intelligible by the reader of to-day. There is some affectation of an ornamented pedantry in St François de Sales, some return to the form and spirit of medieval French in Montaigne; so that the prose of these great writers may easily seem to us more antiquated than that of Calvin. Yet the Institution belongs at latest to 1560, and the immortal Essais at earliest to 1580. We are approaching the moment when there should be nothing left for French prose to learn, and when development should merely take forms of personal brilliancy and initiative of enterprise on lines already clearly laid down. But we pause at Brantôme, in whom the broad practice of French as Froissart and the medieval chroniclers had used it was combined with the modern passion for minute detail and the close observation of the picturesque. Here the habit of memoir-writing in French prose first becomes a passion. With the beginning of the 17th century there sprang up almost an infatuation for making prose uniformly dignified and noble, for draping it in solemn robes, for avoiding all turns of speech which could remind the reader of the “ barbarous ” origins of the language; the earliest examples of this subjection of eloquence to purely aristocratic forms have been traced back to the Servitude volontaire of Montaigne's friend, La Boétie (1530–1563). In the pursuit of this dignity of speech the prose writers of the 16th century ventured to borrow not words merely but grammatical terms and peculiarities of syntax from the ancient literature's of Greece and Rome. The genius of France, however, and the necessity of remaining intelligible checked excess in this tendency, and after a few wild experiments the general result was discovered to be the widening of the capacities of the language, but at the temporary expense of some of the idiomatic richness of the old French form. In the 17th century a great stimulus was given to easy prose by the writers of romances, led by d'Urfé, and by the writers of letters, led by Balzac. In the hands of these authors French prose lost its heaviness and its solemnity; it became an instrument it to record the sentiments of social life in an elegant balance of phrases; here was first discovered what Voltaire calls the hombre et harmonie de la prose. French style became capable of more than this, it achieved the noblest and the subtlest expressions of human and divine philosophy, when it was used by Descartes and by Pascal to interpret their majestic thoughts to the world. At this moment of national development, in 1637, the French Academy was founded, for the distinct purpose of purifying, embellishing and enlarging the French language; and in process of time, out of the midst of the academy, and as a primary result of its labours, arose the extremely important Remarques (1647) of Vaugelas, a work of grave authority, which was the earliest elaborate treatise on the science of prose in any language. Antiquated as the method of Vaugelas now seems, and little regarded in detail by modern writers, it may be said that his famous book is still the basis of all authority on the subject of French prose. In common with his colleagues of the hour, Vaugelas strove to lay down laws by which harmony of structure, a graceful sobriety, lucidity and exactitude of expression, could be secured to every practised French writer. He was not accepted as an infallible lawgiver, even in his own age; he was immediately exposed to the searching criticism of La Mothe le Vayer, who, however, was radically at one with him regarding the basis of his definition. The great demerit of the early academicians was that they knew little and cared less about the forms of medieval French. They thrust everything aside which they regarded as barbarous, and the work of the 19th century was to recover from a past behind Rabelais elements of great value which the 17th had arbitrarily rejected as “ incorrect.” In the succeeding centuries there has been a vast extension of the practice of French prose into every conceivable department of experience and observation, but in spite of all neologisms, and in spite of the waves of preciosity which have periodically swept over the French language in the three hundred years which divide the age of Somaize from that of Mallarmé, the treatise of Vaugelas remains the final code in which the laws that govern French prose are preserved.
Italy.—The case of prose in the Italian language has this unique feature that, instead of gathering form obscurely and slowly, it came into sudden existence at the will of one of the greatest of writers. Latin had almost universally been used in Italy until the close of the 13th century, when Dante created a vernacular prose in the non-metrical part of his famous Vita Nuova, written about 1293. For a long time the prose of Dante stood practically alone, and Petrarch actually affected to despise the works which his great predecessor had written in the vulgar tongue. But about 1348 Boccaccio started the composition of his Decameron, which gave classic form to the prose romance of Italy. There had been stories in the vernacular before, and Boccaccio himself had written the Filocopo and the Amato, but the Decameron marked the lines upon which easy and graceful Italian prose was to move for the future. It should have been greatly to the advantage of Italy over the other countries of Europe, that in the hands of Dante and Boccaccio prose was born full-grown, and had not to pass through the tedious periods of uncertain development which awaited it in England, France and Spain. After this brilliant beginning, however, there was a. decline in the 15th century, the writers of the next age lacking the courage to be independent of antiquity. There was a return to Latin phraseology which made many works almost macaroni in character; the famous Hypnerotornachia of Colonna is an instance of this. Something of the purity of Italian prose as Boccaccio had left it was recovered by Sannazaro in his Arcadia (1489) a pseudo-classical pastoral romance, the form of which was widely imitated throughout Europe; even Sannazaro, however, did not see how needful it was to cast off Latin constructions. At length a pair of historians, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, succeeded in releasing prose from the yoke of Rome, and in writing undiluted Tuscan. In the 16th century the prose writers of Italy became extremely prolific, with Pietro Bembo at their head. The novelists were now prominent, but, although they take a foremost place in the history of Italian literature, there was little art in their employment of language. Many of them were born out of Tuscany, and, like Bandello, never learned the exact rules of pure Italian prose. Since the 16th century Italian would seem to have undergone no radical changes as a language, and its prose has been stationary in form. At the close of the 19th century a new school of writers, with Gabriele d'Annunzio at its head, created a demand for a new prose, but it is significant that the remedy suggested by these innovators was neither more nor less than a return to the procedure of Boccaccio and Machiavelli, who remain the types of ease and dignity in Italian prose.
German.—The earliest coherent attempts at the creation of German prose belong to the age of Charlemagne, and the first example usually quoted is the Strassburger Eidschwüre of 842. For all literary purposes, however, metrical language was used exclusively during the mittelhochdeutsch period, which lasted until the end of the 13th century. What little prose there was, was limited to jurisprudence and theology. David of Augsburg, who died in 1272, is named as the earliest preacher in the vernacular, but only one of his sermons has come down to us. More important was Berthold “ the Sweet ” (1220–1272), whose sermons were discovered by Neander and published in 1824. Historical prose began with the Saxon Chronicle of 1248. There was little to record in the next two centuries, until prose was revived by Geiler von Kaisersburg (1445–1510) in his sermons. About the same time translations were made of the Decameron and of other Italian collections of novels. The development of prose in Germany is, however, negligible until we reach the Reformation, and it is Luther's Bible (New Testament, 1522), on which all classic German prose is based. This movement is due to Luther alone, since the other protagonists of reform wrote mainly in Latin. Johann Fischart composed important secular books in the vernacular, in particular the Bienenkorb (1579) and an imitation of Gargantua (1575), which is the earliest German novel. But nearly a century passes before we reach another prose work of real importance in the German vernacular, this being the curious picaresque romance of Simplicissimus (1669) of Grimmelshausen. But the neglect of prose by the German nation was still general, and is exemplified in the way by which men of the stamp of Leibnitz wrote in Latin and even in French, rather than in their own “ barbarous ” tongue. What Luther had done at the beginning of the 16th century was, however, completed and confirmed in the middle of the 18th by Lessing, who must be considered as the creator of modern German prose. The critical period in this revival was 1764 to 1768, which saw the production of Laocoon and the Hamburgische Drarnaturgie. We pass, on presently to Jean Paul Richter, and so to Goethe, in whose majestic hands German prose became the organ of thought and eloquence which it has been ever since.
Authorities.—John Earle, English Prose (London, 1890); C. Favre de Vaugelas, Remarques sur la langue française (Paris, 1647), Nouvelles remarques (Paris, 1690); T. Mundt, Kunst der deutschen Prosa (Berlin, 1837); J. W. Mackail, Latin Literature (London, 1895); James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, History of Spanish Literature (London, 1898); G. Vigfusson, various Prolegomena. (E. G.)