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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose|
1. 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.  who
were killed in the attack on Fricourt in the first battle of the
Somme"; and below it there were placed these splendid
"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
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
"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
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
"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
King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.