Talking Points, Prose:
Prose-- Why Read It?
One of the drawbacks of most undergraduate "period" courses is that we never read any prose. "Literature" is too often taken to be "poetry." We do offer courses in the novel and short story, and from time to time professors are able to teach courses in the Romantic novel, or Victorian novel, or Victorian prose. But mostly we just ignore the prose literature of a given period.
That's not a good choice with 17th-century literature, for -- like the poets -- the prose writers are busy experimenting with classical forms (e.g., the character) and developing English versions of continental prose forms (e.g., the essay). Also, they are carrying into prose the same interest in style that marks the poetry of the period.
We will not read any of the prose narratives of the 17th-century, but you should know that two kinds exist:
- the pastoral romance (the seminal work for which is Sidney's Arcadia)
- the picaresque adventure (a seminal work for which is Nashe's Unfortunate Traveler)
What we will read represents a variety of popular genres:
- sermons and devotional books
- science treatises
- how-to books
- political tracts
- literary criticism
- social criticism
- personal prose: diaries, letters
Style: Our first job, however, is to understand the two most common prose styles of the period. For convenience, I will call these the plain style and the fancy style. Both will deal with the following elements, but differently:
monosyllabic words polysyllabic words common, familiar words obscure words English roots Latin roots relatively few adjectives and adverbs and dependent elements within the clause lots of adjectives and adverbs and lots of dependent elements
simple sentences compound/complex sentences, but fewer dependent elements compound/complex sentences with lots of dependent elements the periodic sentence (main clause introduced by a long series of parallel dependent clauses: "when it seems necessary to ..., when ...., when ..., and when ..., then x will occur.") lots of asides, appositives, parenthetical phrases
fewer, and less complicated instances dramatic punctuation (!) fewer, and less complicated instances comparative terms (similes, metaphors) fewer, and less complicated instances parallelism & repetition, balance & rhythm fewer, and less complicated instances imagery, allusions to folklore & myth fewer, and less complicated instances, often with English trans in accompaniment lots of learned authorities cited, often in Latin