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Bacon's Prose

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  • March 2011
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Any attempt at analysing Bacon’s style convinces us of the futility of trying to separate matter and manner, if by matter we understand more than the mere subject of discourse. The charm of Bacon’s writings lies in his “wit,” in the broad old sense of the word, in which it means intellect as well as expression. The sagacity of the underlying thought on which we rest when we apprehend the meaning of his words is as potent an element in our impression of delight as the aptness of the phrase and the ingenuity of the allusion, it is the style, as including both matter and manner, that is the man. To read him, is to put ourselves in invigorating contact with an intellect of the utmost keenness and force, steadily centred but wide in its scope and alive at every point with a buoyant and intense vitality. Taking style in the narrower sense of “expression,” but still as including both diction and method, we find that Bacon had more than one style. Essentially a man of calculation and contrivance, he adapted his style to his purposes. His Essays have always been, as he himself says they were in his own time, the “most current” of his works. In substance the very quintessence of the worldly wisdom of his age, they have been most influential in the history of English prose. They have fixed the form of one of our chief kinds of prose writing the essay. The Essays are sometimes spoken of as if they were models of good prose for all purposes; but this, as Bacon himself would have been the first to discern, is an indiscriminate praise that is virtually a detraction, inasmuch as it obscures the adaptation of the expression to the design. We miss in them the luminous sequence that we find in his exposition of more definite themes, the close coherence that made Ben Jonson say of his speeches that “his hearers could not cough or look aside without loss.” The Essays are, as he said himself, “dispersed meditations,” detached thoughts on such topics as Studies, Friendship, Ambition,...

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