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Earth Under Its Nails; Blood on Its Tooth

THE NEW OXFORD BOOK OF ENGLISH PROSE;\o7 Edited by John Gross; (Oxford University Press: 1,012 pp., $39.95)\f7

May 09, 1999|CRISTINA NEHRING | Cristina Nehring teaches English literature at UCLA

"I wish," says Moliere's bourgeois gentilhomme, brandishing a letter he is laboring to write, "for neither verse nor prose."

"It must be one or the other," insists his tutor. "Whatever is not verse is prose."

"What! When I say 'Nicole, give me my nightcap,' is that prose? . . . Upon my word, I have been speaking prose these 40 years without being aware of it."

The history of prose is dogged by broad definitions and low repute. Moliere's aspiring gentleman may think the better of himself or his ability to declaim in prose, but others more often disdain the art than admire the practitioner. "The work of my left hand," John Milton dismissed his own essays in 1644. "A sad fact," W.H. Auden more recently called the phenomenon by which a literary personage of his caliber can earn more through articles than poems--evidence of depraved public taste.

And yet great prose is as difficult, as rousing and as rare in English literary history as great verse. Many a superior poet can't muster a passable line of prose, as John Gross' "New Oxford Book of English Prose" sometimes unwittingly betrays. Milton, whose essays are liberally represented, indeed sounds gauche when he quits pentameter for pamphleteering. Walt Whitman, it is safe to say, would not have made the editor's cut either had he not shaped his name in verse, and William Wordsworth makes both these men--and a number of freshman composition students--look like prose angels.

The fact that poets like these regularly make the pages of prose compendiums dramatizes a major misapprehension that still preys on consumers of literature, who are inclined to assume that if someone is good enough to master poetry, they're more than good enough--perhaps overqualified--to write memorable prose. The reverse assumption is unheard of; hardly any prose stylist is enjoined to offer occasional poems for anthologizing--even Ralph Waldo Emerson, who spent long years trying to write verse that could compete with his famed essays, is judiciously absent from poetry anthologies.

Gross' book is a still-needed tribute to the genius and variety of prose in English from the late 15th to the late 20th century. In roughly a thousand pages, it excerpts more than 500 writers from Sir Thomas Malory and the translators of the King James Bible to Joyce Carol Oates and Salman Rushdie. The first third of the volume captures English prose in its floral youth; the decorative writing of the 16th and early 17th centuries was generated for and by one of the most educated groups of people in history. Enrollment in Oxford and Cambridge soared in this period, reaching its climax in the 1630s. Writers like Thomas Browne and Robert Burton could count on readers able and eager to catch their abundant allusions, from classical philosophy to contemporary medicine, savor erudite metaphors and follow the meandering syntax.

By the 1640s, the love affair with learning was on the decline, Oxford and Cambridge were losing students (it took more than two centuries for enrollment to return to the 1630 peak) and a simpler, sparser prose style was growing in popularity. The early 18th century saw the triumph of the coffeehouse over the college and the accessible essay over the obscure meditation. Periodical journalists such as Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and, most important, Samuel Johnson, provided debating coffee-sippers with rations of wisdom to rival their biscuits and raised clarity and aphoristic economy into the cardinal virtues of the age.

A new breed of "familiar" essayists in the early 19th century rebelled against the generality, maximal symmetry and transparency of this approach and began to cultivate personal and syntactic eccentricity. Thus Charles Lamb composed quirky reflections about his love of roast pig and allergy to Scotsmen, and William Hazlitt rambled tirelessly in defense of rambling. The novelists of the 19th century enhanced this emphasis on individuality by drawing more and more sharply individualized heroes in language as distinctive and variable as Jane Austen's and Henry James'.

The 20th century has witnessed the globalization of English and the flourishing of ethnic American, Indian and Caribbean literatures. With this has come a still more kaleidoscopic explosion of voices, subjects and genres and a further retreat from the generalizing wisdom loved by the 18th century (and by 19th century stragglers like Emerson). Into its place has moved a personal revelation at once more modest and more arrogant.

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