Sunday, 20 November 2011

Francis Bacon's Prose Style

Sir Francis Bacon’s fame in England and even abroad rests very largely on his Essays. According to W.J. Long, Bacon’s famous essays are the one work, which interests all students of English literature. In these Essays, Bacon presents himself as a novelist, a statement and a man of the word. They are specimens of that wisdom which arise our of a universal insight into the affairs of the world. They are the fruits of the observation of life. In fact, the Essays are the fullest and finest expression of the practical wisdom he had acquired from study experience and meditation.

It was the greatness of Bacon as a stylist that he sets up a model of writing prose particularly in Essays, which avoided the prevailing defects of the English prose. His prose style was suitable for all kinds of subjects ranging from heaven to earth. Bacon’s style was completely different from the prolix method that was used by his contemporaries like Hookers, Ascham, Lily and Ralgh. Till the closing years of the 16th century, except in translation, no one had shown a mastery of the principles of prose.

Bacon’s prose style includes a number of features common to the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans:

1) The of Bacon remains for the main part aphoristic. These are a terseness of expression and epigrammatic brevity in the essays of Bacon. In fact, the essays of Bacon have to be read slowly because of the compact and condensed thought. There are a number of lines, which are read like proverbs. As for example we can quote the essay Of Truth. In this essay Bacon says“ A lie faces God and shrinks pleasure. These sentences show that Bacon is a man of practical wisdom.

2) This aphoristic style always depends on the device of balance and antithesis. In the essay Of Studies. Bacon says, Studies serve for ornament and for ability In the essay Of Studies he says “ Read not to contradict, nor to believe, but to weigh and consider. He scrupulously presents the advantages and the disadvantages of a particular issue. In the essay Of Mavriage and Single life. Bacon says that an unmarried man is a good friend, good master and good servant, but he is unreliable as a good citizen. In Of Parents and Children Bacon says that children sweeten labour lent they make misfortune bitterer; they increase the care of life but they mitigate the remembrance of death. This sort of weighing and balancing makes his style antithetical.

3) In Bacon’s style there is an over luxuriance of figures of speech. Bacon is a past master of simile and metaphor. The fact is that Bacon’s mind was wonderfully quick in perceiving analogies of ass types. His similes and metaphors are telling. They strike, they charm and sometimes they thrill. As for example in the essay Of Truth Bacon writes: A mixture of falsehood is like alloy in coin of gold and silver which may make the metal work better, but it debaseth it. In Of Study he says: Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested.

4) Bacon is a master of rhetoric and pithy sentences in his essays. Indeed, the secu of Bacon’s strength lies in his conciseness. We ignored the unnecessary conceits and over crowded imagery of the Enthusiast; but he knew, how to high up his thought with well-placed figures and give to it an imaginative glow and charm when required.

Bacon’s style was suited for all occasions. His prose style was eminently fitted for such dignified subjects as Truth, Atheism and Love and also such ordinary subjects as ‘Marriage and single life’ and gardening.’The adaptability to the subject matter was a characteristic quality of his writings.

To conclude we may say that Bacon’s style is compact yet polished and indeed some of its conciseness is due to the skillful adaptation of Latin idiom and phrase. But its wealth of metaphor is characteristically Elizabethan and reflects the exuberance of the Renaissance. No man in English literature is so fertile in pregnant and pithy comparisons. Bacon set up a new method of prose writing, which was at once easy, simple, graceful, rhetorical, musical and condensed.

Furthur Study:

Any attempt at analysing Bacon’s style convinces us of the futility of trying to separate matter and manner, if by matter we understand more than the mere subject of discourse. The charm of Bacon’s writings lies in his “wit,” in the broad old sense of the word, in which it means intellect as well as expression.

The sagacity of the underlying thought on which we rest when we apprehend the meaning of his words is as potent an element in our impression of delight as the aptness of the phrase and the ingenuity of the allusion, it is the style, as including both matter and manner, that is the man.
To read him, is to put ourselves in invigorating contact with an intellect of the utmost keenness and force, steadily centered but wide in its scope and alive at every point with a buoyant and intense vitality.

Taking style in the narrower sense of “expression,” but still as including both diction and method, we find that Bacon had more than one style. Essentially a man of calculation and contrivance, he adapted his style to his purposes.

His Essays have always been, as he himself says they were in his own time, the “most current” of his works. In substance the very quintessence of the worldly wisdom of his age, they have been most influential in the history of English prose. They have fixed the form of one of our chief kinds of prose writing the essay.

The Essays are sometimes spoken of as if they were models of good prose for all purposes; but this, as Bacon himself would have been the first to discern, is an indiscriminate praise that is virtually a detraction, inasmuch as it obscures the adaptation of the expression to the design. We miss in them the luminous sequence that we find in his exposition of more definite themes, the close coherence that made Ben Jonson say of his speeches that “his hearers could not cough or look aside without loss.”

The Essays are, as he said himself, “dispersed meditations,” detached thoughts on such topics as Studies, Friendship, Ambition, Cunning, Praise, written down as they occurred, without any other connection than their general relevance to the topic.

In the original edition of ten, this was indicated by prefixing to each separate meditation the now obsolete mark if. Mr. Arber’s careful Harmony of the various editions printed in parallel columns shows how he added to these reflections and illustrated them here and there by happy anecdotes and quotations at each revision.

It was a natural incident of this dispersed way of writing that the expression of each thought should have a felicity of its own, independent of its relation to the others; and the author did not mar this by trying to force them into a sequence such as they might have had if one had risen out of another in a continuous stretch of thought. If we forget this, we are apt to do another injustice to Bacon, and to suspect him of a wilful and artful contravention of one of his own precepts.

In a passage which we quote from the Advancement of Learning, he deprecates “hunting more after words than matter,” and after “the choiceness of the phrase” and “the illustration of the work with tropes and figures,” rather than “weight of matter, width of subject, and depth of judgment.”

The words and the matter are certainly well matched in Bacon’s Essays, but, as we can well suppose that it was the casual occurrence of a happy phrase or an apposite figure that moved him to take out his tablets and set his thoughts down, so it is really the choiceness of phrase and figure that has kept his wisdom from perishing.

In weight of matter, and depth of judgment, Burghley’s Precepts to his Son are at least equal to Bacon’s Counsels, Civil and Moral; without the saving grace of wit in expression, Bacon’s wisdom might have sunk like his kinsman’s. And yet he could easily have defended himself from a charge of not “recking his own rede” against “hunting more after words than matter.”

These Essays are really not so much set compositions as collections of thoughts that have happily shaped themselves in epigrammatic and ornate phrase, that have flowered, as it were, spontaneously. Their diction has much in common with Lyly’s Euphuism, which was the literary fashion of his youth, only there is more body in Bacon’s epigrams, and his similitudes, while often equally far-fetched, are not so unscrupulously fantastic and flimsy.

Bacon is distinguished on the one hand from Lyly by his incomparably greater weight of matter and depth of judgment, just as he is distinguished on the other from Burghley by his being an artist in choiceness of phrase. How dearly Bacon loved a brilliant phrase or an ingenious conceit, in spite of his protest against hunting after words, is seen by the care with which he gathered and stored in his Essays any flower of speech that incidentally came to him. In reading his State papers and private letters we often encounter felicities which have been thus carefully garnered. But it would be a mistake to suppose that the style of the Essays is Bacon’s only style. For the reasons we have indicated, this is much more thickly ornamented, much more alive with epigram and ingenious fancy, and much more inconsecutive than when he wrote with a definite end in view.

In his Advancement of Learning, where he maps out and describes the provinces of knowledge, in his State papers, where he has a policy to recommend, and in his pleadings, where he has a complicated base to present for judgment, what principally strikes us is the compact grouping of details and the luminous order of the whole. It is when we read these works of his that we understand the full force of Ben Jonson’s famous eulogium: “He was full of gravity in his speaking. His language, when he could spare or pass by a jest, was nobly censorious. No man ever spoke more neatly, more prosily, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of his own graces. His hearers could not cough or look aside from him without loss. He commanded when he spoke, and had his judges angry and pleased at his devotion. No man had their affections more in his power. The fear of every man that heard him was lest he should make an end.”

A good way of appreciating the different styles that this wonderful wit had at command for different purposes is to compare his essay, Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates, with the paper, Of the True Greatness of the Kingdom of Britain, which he presented to King James at his accession.
“If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences,” Bacon says in the essay Of Studies, “let him study the Schoolmen.”In his own set expositions he defines, divides, and subdivides with all the ferial precision of a Schoolman, but his strong, ever present sense of the necessity of keeping to a point saves him from becoming tedious.
Thus his influence on expository prose told in the direction of what Jonson calls neatness and “prestness,” and against superfluous finicking and irrelevant disquisition. And always anxious as he was to drive a clear impression home, his prose is much less involved in structure than that of many of his contemporaries.
He does not, like Hooker, pile clause on clause; he shows a much sounder judgment of what a reader can take in without confusion. He does not seem to have had Hooker’s ear for the music of long periods, which often betrayed the great churchman into intricacy of syntax. Thus, on the whole, Bacon’s prose helped the tendency to avoid cumbrous and involved structure, the tendency that was finally confirmed by Dryden.

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