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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose
29. James Anthony Froude
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

Born in Devon at the same time—within a year—as Ruskin, James Anthony Froude wrote prose that displays the same sanguine and poetical characteristics. His historical writings have, I believe, been somewhat discredited of late years owing to the permission he is alleged to have given himself to warp his account of events in order to buttress some prejudice or contention of his own.

But if we set him aside as an accurate authority, we can at once restore him to our regard as a lord of visionary language:—
"Beautiful is old age, beautiful as the slow-dropping, mellow autumn of a rich, glorious summer. In the old man Nature has fulfilled her work; she leads him with her blessings; she fills him with the fruits of a well-spent life; and, surrounded by his children and his children's children, she rocks him softly away to the grave, to which he is followed with blessings. God forbid we should not call it beautiful. It is beautiful, but not the most beautiful.

"There is another life, hard, rough, and thorny, trodden with bleeding feet and aching brow; the life of which the cross is the symbol; a battle which no peace follows, this side of the grave; which the grave gapes to finish before the victory is won; and—strange that it should be so—this is the highest life of man.

"Look back along the great names of history; there is none whose life has been other than this. They to whom it has been given to do the really highest work in this earth, whoever they are, Jew or Gentile, Pagan or Christian, warriors, legislators, philosophers, priests, poets, kings, slaves—one and all, their fate has been the same—the same bitter cup has been given them to drink."
Another passage of deep and melancholy beauty cannot be omitted from this volume. It records in language of haunting loveliness the passing away of feudalism and chivalry and of a thousand years of the pageantry of faith:—
"The great trading companies were not instituted for selfish purposes, but to ensure the consumer of manufactured articles that what he purchased was properly made and of a reasonable price. They determined prices, fixed wages, and arranged the rules of apprenticeship. But in time the companies lost their healthy vitality, and, with other relics of feudalism, were in the reign of Elizabeth hastening away. There were no longer tradesmen to be found in sufficient number who were possessed of the necessary probity; and it is impossible not to connect such a phenomenon with the deep melancholy which, in those days, settled down on Elizabeth herself.

"For indeed a change was coming upon the world, the meaning and direction of which even is still hidden from us—a change from era to era. The paths trodden by the footsteps of ages were broken up; old things were passing away, and the faith and life of ten centuries were dissolving like a dream. Chivalry was dying; the abbey and the castle were soon together to crumble into ruins; and all the forms, desires, beliefs, convictions of the old world were passing away, never to return. A new continent had risen up beyond the western sea. The floor of heaven, inlaid with stars, had sunk back into an infinite abyss of immeasurable space; and the firm earth itself, unfixed from its foundations, was seen to be but a small atom in the awful vastness of the Universe.

"In the fabric of habit which they had so laboriously built for themselves, mankind was to remain no longer. And now it is all gone—like an unsubstantial pageant, faded; and between us and the old English there lies a gulf of mystery which the prose of the historian will never adequately bridge. They cannot come to us, and our imagination can but feebly penetrate to them. Only among the aisles of the cathedrals, only as we gaze upon their silent figures sleeping on their tombs, some faint conceptions float before us of what these men were when they were alive; and perhaps in the sound of church bells, that peculiar creation of mediæval age, which falls upon the ear like the echo of a vanished world."
The sound of church bells, being entirely the creation of man, forms perhaps a more touching link with the past for us than the eternal sounds of nature. Yet the everlasting wash of the waves of the sea forms a bond between us and the unplumbed depths of time, as they
"Begin and cease, and then again begin
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring,
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery."
So wrote Matthew Arnold. Then there is the sound of wind in the trees, and the voice of falling waters and rippling streams which must have fallen upon the ears of our remotest fore-runners as they do upon our own. These eternal sounds about us take no note of our brief coming and going, and will be the same when you and I, Antony, and all the millions that come after us in the world have returned to dust.

Your loving old
G.P.

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