“It is one of the books which every cultivated gentleman should read.”
There’s something to offend almost every delicate sensibility in that harmless-looking sentence. Its prescriptiveness, to begin with – the casual should. And then there’s “cultivated,” and worst of all, “gentleman.” The author is Stephen Coleridge (1854-1936), grandson of the poet’s nephew, an antivivisectionist and co-founder of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In short, a high-minded Victorian gentleman who lived, somewhat uncomfortably, into the Modernist era. The book is The Glory of English Prose, published in 1922, annus mirabilis, the year of Ulysses and The Waste Land. Its form is a series of letters, each dedicated to one of the great English writers and addressed to his grandson, Antony. Coleridge can be a little starchy but he takes seriously the education of the young and the preservation of literary tradition, so we are in no position to criticize him. In the preface, he spells out his touchingly old-fashioned mission:
“My desire has been to lead [Antony] into the most glorious company in the world, in the hope that, having early made friends with the noblest of human aristocracy, he will never afterwards admit to his affection and intimacy anything mean or vulgar.”
The sentence quoted at the top comes from Coleridge’s letter devoted to Edward Gibbon, whose prose he describes as “stately and sonorous.” He closes the missive by recounting his pilgrimage to Lausanne, where Gibbon completed his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on June 27, 1787:
“In June, 1888, just one hundred and one years after that pen had been finally laid aside, I searched in Lausanne for the summer-house [where Gibbon wrote] and covered walk, and could find no very authentic record of its site. I brought home a flower from the garden where it seemed probable the summer-house had once existed, behind the modern hotel built there in the intervening time, and laid it between the leaves of my Gibbon.
“The pressed flower was still there when I last took the book down from my shelves.
“I hope my successors will preserve the little token of my reverence.”
One hopes Coleridge left his Gibbon to Antony, who went on to read it and pass it on to his heirs. In his first letter, Coleridge writes: “There is nothing so vulgar as an ignorant use of your own language.”
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