This energetic mood prescribes the inventiveness and fertility of the prose-writers of the period and explains the vitality of so many of their works. Carlyle’s The French Revolution, Ruskin’s Modern Painters and Arnold’s Essays in Criticism are not modest and light-hearted compositions, but they represent the aesthetic equivalent of self-assertion and an urgent ‘will to survive’ which was characteristic of the early Victorians. Their prose is not, as a rule, flawless in diction and rhythm, or easily related to a central standard of correctness or polished to a uniform high finish, but it is a prose which is vigorous, intricate and ample, and is more conscious of vocabulary and imagery than of balance and rhythm. The dominant impression of zestful and workmanlike prose.
The early Victorian prose is in keeping with the energetic temperament of the time. An expansive energy seems to be characteristic of the whole period, displaying itself as freely in literature as in the development of science, geographical exploration and the rapidity of economic change.
As the number of prose-writers during the period is quite large, there is a greater variety of style among them than to be found in any other period. In the absence any well-defined tradition of prose-writing, each writer cherishes his oddities and idiosyncrasies and is not prepared to sacrifice his peculiarities in deference to a received tradition. Victorian individualism, the ‘Doing As One Likes’, censured by Matthew Arnold, reverberates in prose style.
Taking the Victorian prose as a whole, we can say that it is Romantic prose. Though Romanticism gave a new direction to English poetry between 1780 and 1830, its full effects on prose were delayed until the eighteen-thirties when all the major Romantic poets were either dead or moribund. That is why, early Victorian prose is, properly speaking, Romantic prose, and Carlyle is the best example of a Romantic prose-artist. In fact it were the romantic elements—unevenness, seriousness of tone, concreteness and particularity—which constitute the underlying unity of the prose of the early Victorian period. All the great prose writers of period—Carlyle, Ruskin, Macaulay and Matthew Arnold have these qualities in common.
(a) Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
Carlyle was the dominant figure of the Victorian period. He made his influence felt in every department of Victorian life. In the general prose literature of his age he was incomparably the greatest figure, and one of the greatest moral forces. In his youth he suffered from doubts which assailed him during the many dark years in which he wandered in the ‘howling wilderness of infidelity,’ striving vainly to recover his lost belief in God. Then suddenly there came a moment of mystical illumination, or ‘spiritual new birth’, which brought him back to the mood of courage and faith. The history of these years of struggle and conflict and the ultimate triumph of his spirit is written with great power in the second book of Sartor Restartus which is his most characteristic literary production, and one of the most remarkable and vital books in the English language. His other works are: French Revolution (1837); his lectures on Heroes and Hero-Worship; Past and Present (1843); the Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (1845); Latter-day Pamphlets (1850); the Life of John Sterling (1851); the History of Frederick the Great (1858-65).
Basically Carlyle was a Puritan, and in him the strenuous and uncompromising spirit of the seventeenth century Puritanism found its last great exponent. Always passionately in earnest and unyielding in temper, he could not tolerate any moral weakness or social evil. He wanted people to be sincere and he hated conventions and unrealities. In the spheres of religion, society and politics he sought reality and criticised all sham and falsehood. To him history was the revelation of God’s righteous dealings with men and he applied the lessons derived from the past to the present. He had no faith in democracy. He believed in the ‘hero’ under whose guidance and leadership the masses can march to glory. This is the theme of his lectures on Heroes and Hero-Worship. He proclaimed a spiritual standard of life to a generation which had started worshipping the ‘mud-gods of modern civilisation’. He denounced scientific materialism and utilitarianism in Past and Present. He preached to his contemporaries in a most forceful manner that spiritual freedom was the only life-giving truth. Carlyle could not turn back the currents of his age, but he exerted a tremendous influence.
Carlyle’s style is the reflection of his personality. In fact in hardly any English writer are personal and literary characters more closely and strongly blended. He twists the language to suit his needs. In order to achieve this he makes use of strange ‘tricks’—the use of capital initials, the dropping of conjunctions, pronouns, verbs, the quaint conversion of any noun into a verb, free use of foreign words or literal English translations of foreign words. Thus his language is like a mercenary army formed of all sorts of incongruous and exotic elements. His personifications and abstractions sometimes become irritating and even tiresome. At times he deliberately avoids simplicity, directness, proportion and form. He is in fact the most irregular and erratic of English writers. But in spite of all these faults, it is impossible to read him at his best without the sentiment of enthusiasm. In his mastery of vivid and telling phraseology he is unrivalled and his powers of description and characterisation are remarkable. His style with its enormous wealth of vocabulary, its strangely constructed sentences, its breaks, abrupt turns, apostrophes and exclamations, is unique in English prose literature, and there is no doubt that he is one of the greatest literary artists in the English language.
(b) John Ruskin (1819-1900)
In the general prose literature of the early Victorian period Ruskin is ranked next to Carlyle. Of all the Victorian writers who were conscious of the defeats in contemporary life, he expressed himself most voluminously. Being one of the greatest masters of English he became interested in art and wrote Modern Painters (1843-1860) in five volumes in order to vindicate the position of Turner as a great artist. Being a man of deeply religious and pious nature he could not separate Beauty from Religion, and he endeavoured to prove that ‘all great art is praise’. Examination of the principles of art gradually led Ruskin to the study of social ethics. He found that architecture, even more than painting, indicated the state of a nation’s health. In his The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-53) he tried to prove that the best type of architecture can be produced only in those ages which are morally superior.
The year 1860 when Ruskin published Unto this Last marks a great change in him. From this time onward he wrote little on art and devoted himself to the discussing of the ills of society. In this book he attacked the prevalent system of political economy, and protested against unrestricted competition, the law of ‘Devil-take-the-hindmost’, as Ruskin called it. In his later books—Sesame and Lilies (1865) and The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), Ruskin showed himself as a popular educator, clear in argument and skilful in illustration. His last work, an autobiography called Praterita, is full of interesting reminiscences.
Ruskin was a great and good man who himself is more inspiring than any of his books. In the face of drudgery and poverty of the competitive system he wrote: “I will endure it no longer quietly; but henceforward, with any few or many who will help, do my best to abate this misery.” It was with this object that leaving the field of art criticism, where he was the acknowledged leader, he began to write of labour and justice. Though as a stylist he is one of the masters of English prose, he is generally studied not as a literary man but as an ethical teacher, and every line that he wrote, bears the stamp of his sincerity. He is both a great artist as well as a great ethical teacher. We admire him for his richly ornate style, and for his message to humanity.
The prose of Ruskin has a rhythmic, melodious quality which makes it almost equal to poetry. Being highly sensitive to beauty in every form, he helps the reader to see and appreciate the beauty of the world around us. In his economic essays he tried to mitigate the evils of the competitive system; to bring the employer and the employed together in mutual trust and helpfulness; to seek beauty, truth, goodness as the chief ends of life. There is no doubt that he was the prophet in an age of rank materialism, utilitarianism and competition, and pointed out the solution to the grave problems which were confronting his age.
(c) Thomas Babington Lord Macaulay (1800-59)
Though Carlyle and Ruskin are now considered to be the great prose-writers of the Victorian period, contemporary opinion gave the first place to Macaulay, who in popularity far exceeded both of them. He was a voracious reader, and he remembered everything he read. He could repeat from memory all the twelve books of Paradise Lost. At the age of twenty-five he wrote his essay on poetry in general and on Milton as poet, man and politician in particular, which brought him immediate popularity as Byron’s Childe Harold had done. Besides biographical and critical essays which won for him great fame and popularity, Macaulay, like Carlyle; wrote historical essays as well as History of England. As early as 1828, he wrote, ‘a perfect historian must possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his narrative affecting and picturesque.” That power of imagination he possessed and exercised so delightfully that his History was at once purchased more eagerly than a poem of romance.
Macaulay was the representative of the popular sentiments and prejudices of the common English man of the first half of the nineteenth century. But his popularity was based mainly on the energy and capacity of his mind, and the eloquence with which he enlivened whatever he wrote. By the resources and the quickness of his memory, by his wide learning which was always at his command, he rose to the high rank as the exponent of the matter of history, and as a critic of opinions.
The chief quality which makes Macaulay distinct from the other prose writers of the period is the variety and brilliance of details in his writings. There is a fondness for particulars in his descriptions which distinguished the poems and novels of the new age from the more generalised and abstract compositions of the old school. Though he may be more extravagant and profuse in his variety of details than is consistent with the ‘dignity’ of history, this variety is always supported by a structure of great plainness. The only fault of his style is that at times it becomes too rhetorical and so the continuity of the narrative is sacrificed. His short sentences, and his description of particular interference with the flow of the narrative, and so the cumulative effect of the story is not always secured. Besides this weakness of style, Macaulay is now given a rank lower than that of Carlyle, Ruskin and Arnold on account of his lack of originality and depth as a thinker. But on the whole he still remains as one of the most enjoyable of all Victorian prose-writers.
(d) Matthew Arnold (1822-88)
Besides being a poet, Matthew Arnold was a prose-writer of a high order. He was also a great literary as well as social critic. Like Carlyle and Ruskin, he was vehement critic of his age. According to him, the Englishmen needed classical qualities in order to attain harmonious perfection in morals and in literature. It was not to the Hebrews or the Germans (as suggested by Carlyle), or to the men of the Middle Age (as suggested by Ruskin) that England could with advantage look for teaching, but to the Greeks or to that people which among the moderns had imbibed most of Hellenic culture, the French.
In literature Arnold strove to rehabilitate and to propagate the classical spirit in his country. England had reason to be proud of the literary splendour of the Elizabethan period, or of the glories of her Romantic movement, but according to Arnold, she had to long condemned or disdained the “indispensable eighteenth century.” From 1855 onwards Arnold wrote incessantly in order to raise the intellectual and cultural level of his countrymen. All his prose works are directed to this end: On Translating Homer (1861), The Study of Celtic Literature (1867), Essays in Criticism (1865 and 1888) and Culture and Anarchy (1869) in which he declared that “culture is the minister of the sweetness and light essential to the perfect character”. Being a poet himself, he looked upon poetry as “a criticism of life”, and laid great emphasis on the part it played in the formation of character and the guidance of conduct. He always attacked “the Philistines”, by whom he meant the middle class indifferent to the disinterested joys of pure intelligence. Arnold also attempted to eliminate the dogmatic element from Christianity in order to preserve its true spirit and bring it into the line with the discoveries of science and the progress of liberal thought.
Unlike the teachings of Carlyle and Ruskin, which appealed to the masses, Arnold’s teaching appealed mainly to the educated classes. As a writer of prose he is simply superb. His style is brilliant and polished to a nicety, possessing’ the virtues of quietness and proportion which we associate with no other English writer except Dryden. As his object was to bring home to his countrymen certain fundamental principles of cultured and intellectual life, he has the habit of repeating the same word and phrase with a sort of refrain effect. It was no wonder that critics first and the public afterwards, were attracted, irritated, amused or charmed by his writings. His loud praise of ‘sweetness’ and ‘culture’, his denunciation of the ‘Philistine’, the ‘Barbarian’, and so forth, were ridiculed by some unkind critics. But rightly considered we find that there is something of justice in all that he wrote, and on every line there is the stamp of his sincerity.
When Arnold returned from religion and politics to his natural sphere of literature, then the substance of his criticism is admirably sound and its expression always delightful and distinguished. In spite of its extreme mannerism and the apparently obvious tricks by which that mannerism is reached, the style of Arnold is not easy to imitate. It is almost perfectly clear with a clearness rather French than English. It sparkles with wit which seldom diverts or distracts the attention. Such a style was eminently fitted for the purposes of criticism. As a writer of essays he had no superior among the writers of his time, and he can probably never be surpassed by any one in a certain mild ironic handling of a subject which he disapproves. He may not be considered as one of the strongest writers of English prose, but he must always hold a high rank in it for grace, for elegance, and for an elaborate and calculated charm.