Sunday, May 20, 2018

'A Constant Master of Prose Rhythm'

A reader tells me he finds Edward Gibbon’s prose unreadable. He elaborates: “I know you like him but his sentences are too long. He just goes on and on. I don’t know what he’s talking about.” From experience I understand there’s no arguing with such a reaction. The contemporary mind, raised on sound bites, factoids and tweets, has little patience with symphonic prose composition.  “It has always been my practice,” Gibbon writes in the posthumously published Memoirs of My Life and Writings (1796), “to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory; but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work.” Some of us have tried Gibbon’s prose by ear and found it late Mozart.

The most compelling defense I know of Gibbon’s style is found in George Saintsbury’s A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912), a perfect bedside book. In his chapter on Augustan prose, Saintsbury writes:

“As a constant master of prose rhythm he seems to me the superior both of Johnson and of Burke; and he is certainly less open to the charge of visible skeleton-clock mechanism than the one, or to the reproach of calculated purple patches than the other. The only valid objection that I know against his harmony is that it is monotonous; and I am by no means sure that this is not very much a matter of taste. Once more, one would not like all literature to be Gibbon; but one may be very well satisfied with that part of literature which is.”

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