Savory, textured prose has been out of fashion for a hundred years. We are trained to write clear, transparent prose that can be read swiftly and understood at once, shunning complex subordination that doesn’t serve efficient ingestion; and what we read is expected to have ease and lucidity, and not be something that we struggle through or ever have to slow down in. Yet whenever we read prose from before 1800, we are always surprised by the sheer individuality of prose styles — so chewy, idiosyncratic, surprising, perverse, and, yes, not always a quick read. Robert Burton, Jeremy Taylor, Milton, Donne, Bacon, Chesterfield, Johnson, Fielding, Coleridge — dozens of essayists and artists in prose, all the way to Robert Louis Stevenson, one of the greatest essayists. Pre-20th century English prose is a vast field of buried treasures, but it is a field that fewer and fewer people wander in any more, intimidated by the demands of the language.
The great scholar of the history of prose, Morris Croll, spent decades exploring the almost tectonic shift underlying the slow change from the older, more difficult, more individual prose to the modern ideals of ease and clarity. He described it as a change from “period” to “sentence” as the unit of prose — the “period” being a rhetorical unit, and the “sentence” a logical one. Logical units are linked together in a progression of thought and argument, where connections need to be conceptually unambiguous, and where the movement is straightforward and in one direction. Prose built upon the principle of the sentence is designed to serve an end — for example, to tell a story, to present a thesis — without drawing attention to itself. Utility is its soul, and it is the tongue of a utilitarian civilization. Rhetorical units, on the other hand, can express more layered thoughts, with flights of imagination, heapings of clauses for emotional effect, disruptions of grammar and syntax to convey strains and upheavals in the act of thinking. This kind of writing deliberately draws attention to itself, not because its writers are self-absorbed, but because it refuses to pretend that prose can be independent of the consciousness and personality through which it is being written. Croll describes the greatest achievemens of this style — Montaigne, Bacon, Pascal, and others — as “Baroque” for its dynamism, volatility, agitation, and large, ambitious syntactical movements. The slow ferment from period to sentence took about 200 years to be accomplished, and its spores were in Descartes.
The intellect… became the arbiter of form, the dictator of artistic practice as of philosophical inquiry. The sources of error, in the view of Cartesians, are imagination and dependence upon sense impressions. Its correctives are found in what they call “reason” ( which here means “intellect”), and an exact distinction of categories. [Morris Croll, “The Baroque Style in Prose,” (1929) in Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm (Princeton, 1966)]
To this mode of thought we are to trace almost all the features of modern literary education and criticism, or at least what we should have called modern a generation ago: the study of the precise meaning of words; the reference to dictionaries as literary authorities; the study of the sentence as a logical unit alone; the careful circumscription of its limits and the gradual reduction of its length; the disappearance of semicolons and colons; the attempt to reduce grammar to an exact science; the idea that forms of speech are always either correct or incorrect; the complete subjection of the laws of motion and expression in style to the laws of logic and standardization — in short, the triumph, during two centuries, of grammatical over rhetorical ideas. (p.232)
Perhaps the most exciting exemplar of the power of Baroque prose is Sir Thomas Browne, 17th century Norfolk doctor and antiquarian, who studied medicine in Leiden and lived most of his life in Norwich. His most famous works are the Religio Medici (1642) and the Hydriotaphia or Urn-Burial (1658), which may be the closest things in English to Montaigne. Although not much read today, he exerted a huge influence on American writers, including the Transcendentalists and Melville, whose prose occasionally sounds like Browne. Borges considered him “the best prose writer in the English language,” and Virginia Woolf, in one of several essays on Browne, wrote: “Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth.” Unknown to most speakers of English, some of the most valuable words in everyday usage were Browne’s inventions — inventions that could only have been possible in an age that is linguistically broad-minded enough for authors to stir up and perturb the language crucible in such a way that new articulations not only appeared but also stayed: ‘ambidextrous’,’antediluvian’, ‘analogous’, ‘approximate, ‘ascetic’, ‘anomalous’, ‘carnivorous’, ‘coexistence’ ‘coma’, ‘compensate’, ‘computer’, ‘cryptography’, ‘cylindrical’, ‘disruption’,’ergotisms’, ‘electricity’, ‘exhaustion’, ‘ferocious’, ‘follicle’, ‘generator’, ‘gymnastic’, ‘hallucination’,’herbaceous’, ‘holocaust’, ‘insecurity’, ‘indigenous’, ‘jocularity’, ‘literary’, ‘locomotion’, ‘medical’, ‘migrant’, ‘mucous’, ‘prairie’, ‘prostate’, ‘polarity’, ‘precocious’, ‘pubescent’, ‘therapeutic’, ‘suicide’, ‘ulterior’, ‘ultimate’ and ‘veterinarian.’ A list like this is testimony to a word-creativity that is deeply attuned to the heart of the language, because without this attunement a writer would not have the sense of “rightness” that could consistently come up with new words that can “stick.”
Browne’s Hydriotaphia begins as an investigation into a number of urns that were excavated in Norfolk in his lifetime, and then quickly turns into a meditation on mortuary customs and aspiration. In his anthropological interest and his delighted perplexity as to the variety of ways people have undertaken to elude the clutch of death, Browne resembles Montaigne — but where he differs from Montaigne is the extravagant soaring of his language. He is just as skeptical as the Frenchman, but far less moderate in his expressive range, as he draws his water from many cultural wells, and revels in startling but witty juxtapositions to create the impression of speaking from a viewpoint that hovers across grand expanses of time. Listen to the opening of chapter 5 of the Hydriotaphia, which to me has the feel of one of Bach’s great fugues:
What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions, are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide resolution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism. Not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the Provinciall Guardians, or tutellary Observators. Had they made as good provision for their names, as they have done for their Reliques, they had not so grossly erred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but Pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration. Vain ashes, which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves, a fruitlesse continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as Emblemes of mortall vanities; Antidotes against pride, vain-glory, and madding vices. Pagan vain-glories which thought the world might last for ever, had encouragement for ambition, and finding no Atropos unto the immortality of their Names, were never dampt with the necessity of oblivion. Even old ambitions had the advantage of ours, in the attempts of their vain-glories, who acting early, and before the probable Meridian of time, have by this time found great accomplishment of their designes, whereby the ancient Heroes have already out-lasted their Monuments, and Mechanicall preservations. But in this latter Scene of time we cannot expect such Mummies unto our memories, when ambition may fear the Prophecy of Elias, and Charles the fifth can never hope to live within two Methuselas of Hector.
A modern reader unused to prose written earlier than 1800 must first become acclimated to punctuation for speaking and breathing, where commas and fulłstops suggest different degrees of pause and even different speeds. The periodic sentence (in which the main clause is delayed to the end of the sentence) occurs frequently, and there is tolerance of what we would call “sentence fragments”– because here what we have are in fact periods, not sentences in our sense. Pyramidally extant, fallacy in duration, no Atropos unto the immortality of their names, never dampt with the necessity of oblivion, Mummies unto our memories, two Methuselas of Hector: the inventiveness of phrasing, the allusive reach, stretches the reader’s mind and makes us very aware that anything is possible in the logic of history and that individual ambitions are insignificant. It is never possible to predict what Browne is going to say next; his prose succeeds in staying open to possibilities. The Brownian voice has a lightly shaded irony in its contemplation of futility, but also amazement and understanding: this is a writer who knows the human desperation to escape extinction, and who will tease but not mock.
Darknesse and light divide the course of time, and oblivion shares with memory, a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables. Afflictions induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions. A great part of Antiquity contented their hopes of subsistency with a transmigration of their souls. A good way to continue their memories, while having the advantage of plurall successions, they could not but act something remarkable in such variety of beings, and enjoying the fame of their passed selves, make accumulations of glory unto their last durations. Others rather then be lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing, were content to recede into the common being, and make one particle of the publick soul of all things, which was no more than to return unto their unknown and divine Originall again. Ægyptian ingenuity was more unsatisfied, contriving their bodies in sweet consistences, to attend the return of their souls. But all was vanity, feeding the winde, and folly. The Ægyptian Mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummie is become Merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsoms.
The last sentence is genius, but its impact comes from all that has preceded it. So even the loftiest earthly powers end up being recycled, like everything else — and this is the immortality we can rationally expect, on the one hand a travesty of the immortality we crave, and on the other hand a genuine transformation into perpetual and useful involvement with the living. It is as if the striving to live forever and the utter futility of doing so collide in a short clause: Mummie is become merchandise. The alliteration here unifies these two items that superficially considered should not be conjoined, just as in the last clause the assonance of the “o” sounds yokes together Pharoah, sold, and balsoms — three very different ideas — into a single fate.
Anyone who tries to read this aloud will notice that not only can it not be read quickly, but that it is designed to come to a halt at every period: the breath pauses, there is no immediate tripping into the next clause. A new sentence rises, takes wing, and then descends again into silence. We never get away for long from this silence, which is as eloquent as the words: it is the silence of the soul’s communion with its deeper self, but also the silence of universal mourning. This prose becomes much more powerful when we recollect how hard it is to speak from grief, and how each brave attempt to rise out of grief is soon sucked back down again. The silence between Browne’s mighty periods thus envelopes the life of the words, making no claims, and are of a magnitude to match the words exactly, like an Urn:
Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little after death, while men vainly affected precious pyres, and to burn like Sardanapalus, but the wisedom of funerall Laws found the folly of prodigall blazes, and reduced undoing fires, unto the rule of sober obsequies, wherein few could be so mean as not to provide wood, pitch, a mourner, and an Urne.
Morris Croll describes it thus:
It is Browne’s particular mastery of this construction [linked or trailing order] that gives his writing constantly the effect of being, not the result of a meditation, but an actual meditation in process. He writes like a philosophical scientist making notes of his observation as it occurs. We see his pen move and stop as he thinks. To write thus, and at the same time to create beauty of cadence in the phrases and rhythm in the design — and so Browne constantly does — is to achieve a triumph in what Montaigne called “the art of being natural”; it is the eloquence, described by Pascal, that mocks at formal eloquence. (p.226)
…there is a progress of imaginative apprehension, a revolving and upward motion of the mind as it rises in energy, and views the same point from new levels; and this spiral movement is characteristic of baroque prose. (p.219)
There is an honesty to this way of writing: it has no pretensions to objectivity, to being able to own a point of view beyond personality and beyond struggle — and a thought is one with the moving consciousness that voices it. To read a great writer is to enter into an individual soul and to allow that soul to permeate the way we think and speak. Herman Melville called Browne “a cracked archangel” — by which I think he meant a heavenly being that has fallen to earth, a wise spirit that has no illusions about the dents and scars that are borne uniquely by beings that aspire to eternity but know they must die.