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BIOGRAPHICAL, CRITICAL, AND HISTORICAL.
ON THE PROGRESS AND MERITS OF ENGLISH STYLE, AND ON THE STYLE OF ADDISON IN PARTICULAR.
In a work, the chief purpose of which is to illustrate the periodical writings of the BRITISH CLASSICAL ESSAYISTS, the consideration of STYLE must necessarily hold an important rank; and it is my wish that these volumes should include a satisfactory account of its progress, and its different stages. Without such a detail, and a series of quotations to define the actual state of style in successive periods, it will be impossible to appreciate the gradual improvements of the language, or to ascertain the peculiar merits, in this respect,
of those classics which more immediately fall within our province.
To carry this plan into effectual execution, it will be proper to commence at that era when composition assumed some degree of polish and grammatical precision; to trace it thence in all its ameliorations to the pages of Addison, and, after dwelling at some length upon this elegant author, to continue the research, in a succeeding volume, through that long chasm which occurs between the close of the Guardian and the appearance of the Rambler, a production which forms a new epoch in our style, and whence the series of our Essayists, and the chain of composition, remain uninterrupted and entire.
By the almost unanimous suffrage of criticism, the age of Queen Elizabeth has been fixed upon as the period when our language, shaking off with gigantic strength the incumbrances of rude antiquity, first developed its powers, and asserted its pretensions to classical estimation. "From
the authors which rose in the time of Elizabeth," observes Johnson, "a speech might be formed, adequate to all the purposes of use and elegance. If the language of theology were extracted from Hooker and the translation of the Bible; the terms of natural knowledge from Bacon; the phrases of policy, war, and navigation, from Ra
leigh; the dialect of poetry and fiction from Spenser and Sidney; and the diction of common life from Shakspeare, few ideas would be lost to mankind, for want of English words, in which they might be expressed *."
This eulogium, however, is excessive; for, though the writers of the Elizabethan age merit much praise for the improvements which they effected in the diction of their fathers, they are still, in their prose compositions, abundantly quaint, uncouth, and tedious. They pared away, it is true, a considerable portion of the heavy matter which clogged the periods of their predecessors; but they preserved a quantity frequently sufficient to obscure their meaning, and to render their productions, to readers of the present day, almost insufferably prolix.
To this superabundance of materials, to the adoption of twenty words where ten would better answer the purpose, was added another defect more radically injurious to the genius and idiom of our language. Enraptured with the writings of pagan antiquity, which were then studied with uncommon ardour, and with all the intoxication of a first attachment, the literati of that day were not content with a profuse introduction of classical allusion, quotation, and myPreface to his Dictionary.