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T will hardly allure a ‘hesitating purchaser.'
a of this book that I open it with a query if it
be possible to make a Prose Anthology at all. This doubt I confess has more than once assailed me in the years spent on the attempt. But to be brave is the only way to succeed, and I have hope that this volume will at least establish the possibility.
Yet I must premise that any anthology of English Prose is—for several reasons and of its very nature-difficult.
To begin with, if a man seek to the sources, it demands long and laborious reading, the bulk of our prose being already well-nigh immeasurable. * I have read pretty widely among the originals for this book, and during five years for its special purpose. The result leaves me convinced that no honest scholar can pretend an acquaintance with the whole of English prose, or even with the whole that may yield good selections. All one can do is to spread a wide and patient net and report that he brings the best of his haul.
of this labour upon mere bulk, however, he should despise to complain. It is his
business, once undertaken; and it is not the inherent difficulty of his undertaking, which the reader will perhaps most readily understand if he turn to No. 581 of this volume and consider what Mr. Clutton-Brock says of the essential qualities by virtue of which Prose differs from Verse. He hazards that while the cardinal virtue of Verse is Love, the cardinal virtue of Prose is Justice. I should put it a little differ
a ently, using other terms. Bearing in mind such lines as Milton's famous invocation :
Hail holy Light! offspring of Heav'n first-born, or Macbeth's:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, or Marvell's Ode upon Cromwell's return from Ireland, or Gray's Elegy, or many a sonnet of Wordsworth's, 'I should prefer 'a high compelling emotion'to Mr.Clutton-Brock's Love', however widely interpreted, as the virtue of Poetry ; and Persuasion rather than Justice as the first virtue of Prose, whether in narrative or in argument. Defoe's art in telling of Crusoe's visits to the wreck is all bent on persuading you that it really happened and just so; as Burke, in pleading for conciliation with the American colonists, is bent on marshalling argument upon argument why conciliation is expedient besides being just. In
argument, to be sure, the appeal lies always
But persuasion, whether in narrative or in
quite honest : for some things are here which all men have applauded, and (frankly) because they have been so applauded as well
as because my own judgement applauds. Ralegh on Death, for example, some pages of Sir Thomas Browne, Lincoln's Gettysburg Oration. As I wrote in my preface to the Oxford Book of English Verse, I have tried to choose the best, and the best is the best though a hundred judges have declared it so.
But I have a bolder word to say for the purple patch. One might, in servility to a catchword of criticism, plead that from a sermon of Donne's, a tract of Milton's, an oration by Chatham or Burke, one must of necessity take the culmen, only referring the reader to the winding ways up the heights from which like eagles the impassioned phrases launch themselves. I think that, upon examination, literature—which, after all, is memorable speech—will be found in practice very much more on the side of the purple patch than the generality supposes nowadays. For certain Thucydides sewed on these patches deliberately : so (I think) did Plato, albeit more delicately as a philosopher electing to be a man of the world : so certainly did Cicero : so as certainly in the line of our own prose and in their turn did Malory, Donne, Milton, Browne, Berkeley, De Quincey, Hazlitt
-to pursue no farther. Nay, if we go right back, it is arguable that Prose was born in the purple ': that nine-tenths of the speechmaking in the Iliad itself, for example, is not poetry at all but rhetoric strung into hexameters; a metre which the tragedians discarded for iambics, the most conversational form of verse'. Aristotle himself never troubled to define prose, the medium in which he wrote as it happened to him. In the Poetics he just indicates that there is such a thing ; that hitherto it has lacked a name; and so (without supplying it) he passes on. He nowhere separates prose from poetry, though we may infer a separation. But in the Rhetoric (Book iii) the philosopher, while (man of science as he was) suggesting that bald words, such as he habitually used, are the medium for some definite and ascertained knowledge, does admit the existence of a medium persuading men's opinion; and, while belittling it , somewhat, allows its right to cultivate oeuvórns or—shall we call it?—the grand style. The man, after all, could not escape thewitchery,thenoblecharm of Plato, his beloved master. Now we may reasonably argue, I think, that men's opinions about things—their speculations, memories, aspirations, glimpses of the unseen and infinite-are actually of more importance, of more meaning to mankind than any amount of ascertained fact, that all ascertained fact exit in mysterium; that when one generation of it has been swallowed,