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The Glory Of English Prose
On Good And Bad Style In Prose
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

The letters which I wrote "On the world about you" having shown you that throughout all the universe, from the blazing orbs in infinite space to the tiny muscles of an insect's wing, perfect design is everywhere manifest, I hope and trust that you will never believe that so magnificent a process and order can be without a Mind of which it is the visible expression.

The chief object of those letters was to endorse your natural feeling of reverence for the Great First Cause of all things, with the testimony of your reason; and to save you from ever allowing knowledge of how the sap rises in its stalk to lessen your wonder at and admiration of the loveliness of a flower.

I am now going to write to you about the literature of England and show you, if I can, the immense gulf that divides distinguished writing and speech from vulgar writing and speech.

There is nothing so vulgar as an ignorant use of your own language. Every Englishman should show that he respects and honours the glorious language of his country, and will not willingly degrade it with his own pen or tongue.

"We have long preserved our constitution," said Dr. Johnson; "let us make some struggles for our language."

There is no need to be priggish or fantastic in our choice of words or phrases.

Simple old words are just as good as any that can be selected, if you use them in their proper sense and place.

By reading good prose constantly your ear will come to know the harmony of language, and you will find that your taste will unerringly tell you what is good and what is bad in style, without your being able to explain even to yourself the precise quality that distinguishes the good from the bad.

Any Englishman with a love of his country and a reverence for its language can say things in a few words that will find their way straight into our hearts, Antony, and make us all better men. I will tell you a few of such simple sayings that are better than any more laboured writings.

On the 30th of June, 1921, in the Times In Memoriam column there was an entry:—

"To the undying memory of officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the 9th and 10th battalions of the K.O.Y.L.I. [1] who were killed in the attack on Fricourt in the first battle of the Somme"; and below it there were placed these splendid words:—
"Gentlemen, when the barrage lifts."
In February of 1913 news reached England of the death, after reaching the South Pole, of four explorers, Captain Scott, their leader, among them.

Shortly before the end, Captain Oates, a man of fortune who joined the expedition from pure love of adventure, knowing that his helplessness with frozen feet was retarding the desperate march of the others towards their ship, rose up and stumbled out of the tent into a raging blizzard, saying, "I dare say I shall be away some time."

This was greatly said. His body was never found; but the rescue party who afterwards discovered the tent with the others dead in it, put up a cairn in the desolate waste of snow with this inscription:—
"Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman, Captain L.E.G. Gates, Inniskilling Dragoons, who, on their return from the Pole in March, 1912, willingly walked to his death in a blizzard to try and save his comrades beset with hardship."
All this was done, said, and written, very nobly by all concerned.

In St. Paul's Cathedral there lies a recumbent effigy of General Gordon, who gave his life for the honour of England at Khartoum, and upon it are engraven these words:—
"He gave his strength to the weak, his substance to the poor, his sympathy to the suffering, his heart to God."
Even the concentrated terseness of Latin cannot surpass these examples of the power of the simplest and shortest English sentences to penetrate to the heart.

English can be used, by those who master it as an organ of expression, to convey deep emotion under perfect control, than which nothing is more moving, nothing better calculated to refine the mind, nothing more certain to elevate the character.

Whenever a man has something fine to communicate to his fellow-men he has but to use English without affectation, honestly and simply, and he is in possession of the most splendid vehicle of human thought in the world.

All the truly great writers of English speak with simplicity from their hearts, they all evince a spirit of unaffected reverence, they all teach us to look up and not down, and by the nobility of their works which have penetrated into every home where letters are cultivated, they have done an incalculable service in forming and sustaining the high character of our race.

Clever flippant writers may do a trifling service here and there by ridiculing the pompous and deflating the prigs, but there is no permanence in such work, unless—which is seldom the case—it is totally devoid of personal vanity.

Very little such service is rendered when it emanates from a writer who announces himself as equal if not superior to Shakespeare, and embellishes his lucubrations with parodies of the creeds.

"A Gentleman with a Duster," has in his "Glass of Fashion" shown us that the Society depicted in the books of Colonel Repington and Mrs. Asquith is not the true and great Society that sustains England in its noble station among civilised peoples, and we may be sure that neither do these books in the faintest degree represent the true and living literature of the times. They will pass away and be forgotten as utterly as are the fashion plates and missing-word competitions of ten years ago.

Therefore, Antony, be sure that the famous and living literature of England, that has survived all the shocks of time and changes of modern life, is the best and properest study for a man to fit him for life, to refine his taste, to aggravate his wisdom, and consolidate his character.

Your loving old
G.P.

[1]
King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

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