Prose Style in Literature

A good prose-style is both a matter of choice of the words and their arrangement to form a complete meaningful sentence. The writer should have a large store of words ready for use. With this end in view he must constantly read the best stylists, both of ancient and modern time. Words, besides their dictionary meaning, also carry emotional over-tones.
They have an aroma all their own. Besides this, they also have associative value. None can hope to write a good prose-style unless he has acquired a sense not only of the meaning, but also of the emotional and associative value of words, and this sense can be acquired only by a constant study of the greatest masters in the field. The arrangement should not only be grammatically correct, but it should be such as also imparts force, eloquence and persuasive power to the style. A good stylist should not only be able to convey his meaning, exactly and precisely, he should also be able to move his readers. This is a difficult art and it can be acquired only through constant study and practice.
There are three principal characteristics of good prose, namely, clarity or lucidity, simplicity and euphony. Clarity is the first and the greatest mark of good prose. The author should be able to make his ideas very clear to his readers. If he is obscure, or adopts a manner of writing owing to which he is not easily intelligible to his readers, he is not a good prose-writer. The writer should know what he has to say, and he should say it in the most direct and straightforward manner. He should, as the expression goes, learn to call a spade a spade. Besides he should exercise economy of expression, and should not be verbose and prolix. The main difference, says ‘Lord Morley, between an educated man and an uneducated man is this, that while the former can express an idea in twenty words, the latter fails to do so even in two hundred words. Circumlocution or roundabout expression is another fault of prose style. A good prose writer is one who expresses his ideas in a direct manner and in the minimum possible words. Archaism, use of newly coined words, use of Foreign words and phrases, slang, colloquialism, etc., are to be avoided. They create difficulty in the way of the readers.
Simplicity is another mark of good prose. There is common tendency among students to use a less familiar word or expression instead of a more familiar one. This tendency should be discouraged, otherwise prose would become pompous, rhetorical and vulgar. There is no reason why ‘abode’ should be used instead of ‘house’ and ‘bard’ instead of ‘poet’. Let us take a sentence, “The abode in which you spent the delightful days of your boyhood is on conflagration”. Some students may regard it as a beautiful sentence, though in reality it is not. It is a pompous, rhythmic sentence and has certain poetic qualities. But a good sentence in a poem may not necessarily be a good sentence in prose. The idea of this very sentence can be expressed in a simpler, and, therefore, better manner like this: “The house in which you lived in your boyhood is burning.” Voltaire was the greatest prose-writer of France in the eighteenth century. According to him “Good prose, like the clothes of a well dressed man, should be simple but not showy.” The beauty of prose is spoiled by an effort to adorn and decorate it, its real beauty lies in simplicity and directness.
This does not mean that figures of speech—similes, metaphors, Personification etc.,—are not to be used. The use of figures of speech imparts force and brevity to the language. Aristotle regarded the gift of metaphor to be essential for a writer of English prose. But figures of speech must be used judiciously. Their use should be functional and not merely decorative. They should help the writer to convey his meaning more forcefully, clearly and lucidly. There should be no excess in the use of these literary devices. Indeed, excessive use of Personifications is one of the serious faults of 18th century poetic diction. Further, a prose-writer must distinguish between the figures of speech which are poetic i.e. fit only for use in poetry, and figures of speech which may properly be used in prose. Generally speaking, figures of speech proper for poetry are emotional while those fit for prose are intellected in tone.
Euphony is not an essential but a desirable characteristic of good prose. It needs practice and a trained ear to select words with pleasant sounds. But one has to be cautious in choosing words for the sake of sound, for the purpose of prose is to convey ideas. By virtue of its sweet sound its quality is definitely enhanced. But this quality alone cannot be made an end of prose-writing. There have been writers of prose who have been more concerned with sound than with sense. Obviously their prose, though pleasant, does not fulfil the real end of prose-writing which is simple and straightforward communication of ideas. Where sound and sense are harmoniously blended the result is very happy.
Though simplicity is an important characteristic of sound prose, English prose has not always been simple. In the Sixteenth century, there was cultivated a highly artificial, an affected prose style, known as “euphuistic”. It was a rhythmic and high-flown prose abounding in far-fetched conceits and imagery. The prose of Shakespeare again is not simple. In the century that followed, English prose, on the whole, is more ornate, rhythmic and rhetorical than simple. Strictly speaking the prose of The Authorised Version of the Bible, too, is not simple. For, the Bible is an oriental book, and contains numerous emotional passages of poetic beauty. But there were writers in the seventeenth century who did write simple prose, and the greatest of them, perhaps, was John Bunyan. His Pilgrim’s Progress is a model of lucid and simple prose. But it was in the eighteenth century that really good prose characterised by lucidity, simplicity, and directness was cultivated in England for the first time. Addison and Steele were among the greatest prose-writers of that age. Dr Johnson, who was the greatest critic of this period, was so great an admirer of Addison’s prose that he thought that one who wished to improve his English should devote his days and nights to the study of Addison.
Prose is an instrument of discussion, argumentation and reasoning. It is the proper vehicle for conveying facts and ideas. Hence prose often tends to be tiresome and boring. That is why the great masters of prose-style, enliven their prose with flashes of wit and humour. Wit and humour are essential elements in their prose style. For example, Bacon uses wit as grains of salt to enliven his essays which are pithy, aphoristic and over-weighted with his learning, and hence their study puts considerable strain on the readers. Humour is an integral part of the prose style of Lamb, the Prince of English essayists. In his case, humour arises from his constant repetition of particular words and phrases, from his use of grotesque and whimsical similes and metaphors, and from his stress on the old and eccentric in character and manner. Of his style it may truly be said that “style is the man.” In the case of Addison and Steele, it is verbal irony—i.e. the use of language opposite in meaning to the one intended—which acts as the proverbial grain of salt. Humour, in short, characterises the prose-style of the greatest stylists in the language.
In his essay ‘on Style’ Walter Pater, the well-known critic of the Victorian era, has examined in detail the essentials of a good prose-style. His views are both interesting and illuminating, and one may be excused for examining them at some length.
Pater first takes up the choice of words. The writer should select words carefully, and observe those distinctions between word and word, which are blurred in vulgar usage. He must take care to keep up the distinction of language, and, with this end in view, resort to careful and well-considered exclusions and rejections. For example, he should reject, “many a neology (newly coined words), many a licence, many a gipsy phrase.” It is his tact or sensibility, and painstaking labour, which would help him to make such a choice. He should be fastidious and punctilious in his choice, for the appeal of art is to the scholar, and not to the vulgar multitudes. Pater’s plea is for high standards in art.
A really beautiful prose style requires labour on the part of the writer, and close attention on the part of the reader. The literary artist must be learned in the various arts, sciences, and philosophies, so that by naturalizing their vocabulary in his composition, he may enrich the language and increase its expressive power. Variety in the use of words, and sweetness and melody to the language, may be imparted by mixing monosyllabic words with longer but sonorous words. The writer should use absolute economy of means and express himself in the fewest possible words. Ornaments, like figures of speech, should be used only when absolutely necessary, when they are really serviceable. “All art doth but consist in the removal of surplusage.”
Next, Pater takes up the construction of sentences which he refers to as the mind in style. Sentences should follow each other logically and naturally. The structure should have logical coherence. A sound structure requires an architectural design in which one sentence is joined to, or fits in, the other, like bricks in a building. Any surplusage would, therefore, be offensive as it spoils the beauty of structure. Variety to the style may be imparted by a judicious combination of simple, short, crisp sentences, with long and intricate sentences.
This logical coherence is the mind in style. But besides this, the style has a tone, a colour, an atmosphere, certain subtle graces which Pater refers to as, “the soul in style”: The soul is the element of personality in style. It is the peculiar spirit of which the artist is made of. It is from this quality that we can know a writer from his works. It is in this sense that style is the man. It is because of this soul in style that religious writers and preachers are able to persuade and convert.
Words are the body, structure is the mind, and certain subtler graces are the soul of style. In all literature one indispensable beauty is its truth; truth of fact in the lower kind of literature, and truth of the writer’s sense of fact or his ‘vision’ in the highest or imaginative literature. There should be absolute accordance of expression to idea. This is the highest beauty, and it justifies all kinds and manners of style. It would be said that in this way the style would depend upon the whim of the individual, but it would be capricious and would soon degenerate into mannerism. But Pater replies, it will never be so. To quote his own words: “Not so, since there is, under the conditions supposed, for those elements of the man, for every lineament of the vision within, the one word, the one acceptable word, recognizable by the sensitive, by others “who have intelligence” in the matter, as absolutely as ever anything can be in the evanescent and delicate region of human language. The style, the manner, would be the man, in absolutely sincere apprehension of what is most real to him.” This is the sense in which style is really the man. Style expresses the real man, i.e. not in his capricious aspects, but in his, “absolutely sincere apprehension of what is most real to him.”
“Good art’ results when there is absolute correspondence of expression to the artist’s vision. But good art may not necessarily be great art, for great art depends not on manner but on expression. Thus great art results only when it, “has the soul of humanity”, when the vision of the artist has nobility, universal truth and universal validity, when it has sound subject matter, when it is devoted to the service of humanity. Mere truth to personal vision is not enough; the quality of that vision, its nobility is also essential. All art is great in proportion as it is devoted to the service of man and the glory of God.
English prose continues to be both simple and ornate, perhaps more ornate than simple. In the 19th century Hazlitt, Lamb, Stevenson, Ruskin, Carlyle and Newman were among the greatest prose writers of the age. Newman’s prose is both simple and sonorous and, therefore, remarkably beautiful. De Quincy is among the greatest writers of poetic prose. His prose is rhythmical and musical, and so also is that of Ruskin.
Among the greatest prose-writer of the 20th century are A.G. Gardiner, E.V. Lucas, Robert Lynd, G.K. Chesterton, J.B. Priestly, Stephen Leacock, E.V. Knox, Max Beerbhom, and many others. They are all conscious stylists, who revise and re-revise, polish and re-polish what they write till perfection is achieved. Their essays are models of clarity, lucidity, and simplicity. Often their style is conversational and chatty, without being vulgar and slipshod. Theirs is an art which conceals art.
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