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Old Saturday, June 18, 2011
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Default Bacon as a prose stylist

BACON AS A PROSE STYLIST
It has been observed by a critic that,
“The quality of strength in bacon’s style is intellectual rather than emotional”

Indeed the secret of Bacon’s strength lies in his conciseness. Hardly any writer, ancient or modern, has succeeded in compressing so much meaning within so short a compass; several of essays- e.g. “those on studies and negotiating”- are marvels of condensation. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Bacon’s style is that no one can stay indifferent to it. In other words, as a prose writer, he has either ardent admirers or passionate detractors. And, it is interesting to note that both these extreme positions are occasioned by the very same properties of his style. Bacon ushered in the modern era of writing English prose. F.G Selby says that,
“The part of Bacon’s influence is of course due to the charm of his style”

To be sure, there is a marked difference in the style of his earlier essays and that of his later ones. But, the important fact is that the difference is one of approach and not one of technique. In the beginning, Bacon thought the essay to be nothing more than a diary of “dispersed meditations”. Therefore, the earlier essays are terse and pithy jottings of his observations on domestic, political, intellectual, moral, religious and social issue. As a result, the discerning reader can see that these essays are mere skeletons of thought grouped around a single theme. “Of Studies” belongs to this category. In this essay, we see how Bacon has a quick, chatty way of writing---almost as if he were talking to himself:
“Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them”

It must be noted that the same aphoristic character of the diction is to be found in his later essays. The difference is that, with the passage of time, Bacon toned the rapier-sharp rhythm of his sentences. This is because he perceived that his rapidly growing reading public was made up of people having varying reading tastes and skills. Let us compare the rhythm of above quoted lines with that of passage taken from ‘Of Adversity’, which is one of his later essays:
“We see in needle works and embroideries, it is more pleasing to have a lively work upon sad, solemn ground, than to have a dark and melancholy work upon a lightsome ground”

The brilliant rhetoric is the same in both the passages. So it is the pithiness and the terse virgour. Even Bacon’s predilection for juxtaposition of thesis and antithesis is seen in both instances. The main difference is that the first passage is so constructed that Dean Church was moved to say that the words”
“…come down like the stroke of hammer…”

On the contrary, the second passage flows harmoniously more like a melody than like a beat. In his earlier days, Bacon achieved terseness in his style by leaving out superfluous epithets, conjunctions and connectives. Later he aimed more towards crafting balanced sentences which consisted of two parts. The first part would be a statement and second would be an explanatory analogy. For example:
“He that hath wife and child hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises either of virtue or mischief”

Bacon’s sentences are more modern in their structure than those of other Elizabethans prose writers- being more pointed and less involved. Even his more intricate sentences are so carefully constructed and so free from inversions that meaning is not difficult to catch. The essays, in particular, are remarkable for balance and point as might naturally be expected from their aphoristic style. This is really strange when we consider the fact that he also wrote sentences like this:
“A lie faces God and shrinks from man”
Or this
“The ways to enrich are many, and most of them foul”

It is true that his cavalier attitude towards grammar is clearly visible in the second sentence. But, most people would agree that they have no problem in understanding what the writer has to say. It must be borne in mind that in Bacon’s age, little attention was given to the logical division of a subject into paragraphs. One of the most pleasurable aspects in Bacon’s style is his use of imagery and analogy. Consider his denunciation of pride in ‘Of Vainglory’:
“The fly sat upon the axle-tree of the chariot wheel said,
What a dust do I raise?”


The above discussion makes it clear that Bacon did not have two styles of writing. Rather, it can be said that it was the same style which he applied in different ways as and when the situation demanded. Certainly, this is only one of reasons why his admirers claim to be one of the greatest prose stylists in English Language.
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