Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sister Mary Faith Schuster, Philosophy of Life and Prose Style in Thomas More's Richard III and Francis Bacon's Henry VII

Sister Mary Faith Schuster, O.S.B., Philosophy of Life and Prose Style in Thomas More’s Richard III and Francis Bacon’s Henry VII, PMLA, June 1955, Volume LXX, Number 3, pp. 474-487.

With similar beliefs regarding the function of history—both considered it a teaching instrument—More and Bacon wrote histories of English monarchs against a frame of reference which reveals their philosophies of life and for purposes of instruction in those philosophies of life. (477)

The sentence structure in which More tells the story of Richard is prevailingly the logically subordinated, rhythmically balanced, and functionally figured humanistic period. More was not a narrow Ciceronian, even in his Latin style. In the English Richard III his sentences include occasional subtleties of expression which retard the flow of the whole; they are intermingled, too, with the medieval “aggregative” or cumulative sentence, a natural, non-oratorical sentence differing from the anti-Ciceronain in that its characteristic is accumulation rather than calculated asymmetry. But the prevailing sentence pattern of the History is the traditional period which Cicero had identified as the sentence best fitted to convince an audience of something worth the telling. In this sentence, according to Cicero who most clearly defined it, the thought was to dictate the logically subordinated parts of the whole, while the rhythmical arrangement and functional figures were to assist in making the truth eloquent. (De Oratore, III, 39, 139-153, 161). (478)

Bacon uses an anti-Ciceronian sentence, distinguished by unbalanced elements, by shifts in tense and voice and number, by loose relationship between clauses, by a general impression of experiment and asymmetry, and by the absence of emotionally connotative words and of sound figures. Morris Croll has ably analyzed this sentence, noting these characteristics, but Cicero had himself suggested it when he said that clarity would prohibit “breaking the structure of the sentences…using the wrong tenses…perverting the order” (De Oratore, III, 39). The skeptical attitude which Henry maintains towards his own actions, as he measures their possibility of material success, is thus matched by a skeptical proceeding in the sentences which move from clause to clause without logical sequence. The nondramatic quality of his actions is matched by the unemotional language void of figures of sound. (483)

In a passage, for example, in which Bacon narrates Henry’s careful measuring of expedient measures, he uses a long sentence loosely linked, proceeding disjointedly from one clause to another, unbalanced in its sentence elements, and devoid of pleasing sound patterns—all qualities showing sharp departure from Ciceronian style. (483)

‘But the King, out of the greatness of his own mind, presently cast the die; and the inconveniences appearing unto his on all parts, and knowing there could not be any interreign or suspension of title, and preferring his affection to his own line and blood and liking that title best which made him independent, and his being in his nature and constitution of mind not very apprehensive by the day, resolved to rest upon the title of Lancaster as the main, and to use the other two, that of marriage and that of battle, but as supporters, the one to appease secret discontents, and the other to beat down open murmur and dispute; not forgetting that the same title of Lancaster had formerly maintained a possession of three descents in the crown; and might have proved a perpetuity had it not ended in the weakness and inability of the last prince.’ (Works, XI, 50-51). /
The modifying elements here—separating the compound verbs “cast” and “resolved”—include a nominative absolute, three participles with objects of unlike construction and length, and one participle separated form its predicate noun by a long and involved modifier. Bacon divides and subdivides the parts of the sentence, matching the ramifications which the thought is undergoing in Henry’s mind and concluding with an element far removed in thought and construction from the opening of the sentence. There is a suggestion of symmetry in the series of participles, but it is shattered by constructions following each and by the general loose progress of the rest of the sentence. [ The making and breaking of symmetry is characteristic of the anti-Ciceronian sentence, as Croll observes. (p. 435)] (484)

Bacon, rejecting both traditional thought and traditional style as out of harmony with his own thought and unsuited for its promulgation, chose a loosely linked sentence, characterized by unbalanced parts, loose connectives such as “whereas” and “wherein,” nominative absolutes… (486)

Thomas More was to be followed in the history of English prose by such writers as Johnson and Newman; Bacon, by Donne and Browne, skeptics of a type different from his own. (486)


Blogger Deborah Khora said...

It is very interesting to find an explanation for More's style. I am a writer of children's fairy tales, and occasionally I use long winded absurdities to explain the actions of King's in my stories. I'd just like to ad to your observations that although Erasmus (contemporary of More as I am certain you already know) obviously has little respect for Plato and Socrates, Erasmus' imitation of Plato's style is glaringly obvious to anyone who has studied Plato long, and it is kind of suprising that Erasmus thought he could slip this fact by us. As for More, I am only just beginning to re-open my investigation into his life and work, but many years ago when I first read Utopia, his writing seemed like the rantings of an insane individual, due to this medieval aggregative style with paragraph long sentences. I may see his work differently now from a different perspective. However, several years ago his work appeared to me to be the same insane folly his friend Erasmus is well known for writing about.

3:51 PM  

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