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Character of the early Prose.

The leading characteristic of the earlier prose is dignity. The newly created art has the continual consciousness of being an art. It is always on its guard against sliding into the levity of a conversational style. The composer feels above all things that his written language must be so chosen as to produce a greater effect than would be produced by an equivalent amount of extemporary speaking. Every word is to be pointed and pregnant; every phrase is to be the condensed expression of his thought in its ultimate shape, however difficult this may be to the reader or hearer who meets it in that shape for the first time; the movement of the whole is to be slow and majestic, impressing by its weight and grandeur, not charming by its life and flow. The prose-writer of this epoch instinctively compares himself with the poet. The poet is a craftsman, the possessor of a mystery revealed to the many only in the spell which it exerts over their fancies; just so, in the beginnings of a literary prose, its shaper likes to think that he belongs to a guild. He does not care to be simply right and clear: rather he desires to have the whole advantage which his skill gives him over ordinary men; he is eager to bring his thoughts down upon them with a splendid and irresistible force. In Greece this character, natural to immature prose, was intensified by a special cause —the influence of the Sophists. In so far as these teachers dealt with the form of language, they tended to confirm that view of the prose-writer in which he is a professional expert dazzling and overawing laymen. The Sophists of Hellas Proper dwelt especially on the minute proprieties of language, as Protagoras on correct grammatical forms1 and Prodikos on the accurate use of synonyms2; the Sophists of Sicily taught its technical graces3. In this last respect the teaching of Gorgias was thoroughly reactionary, and was calculated to hinder the growth of a good prose just at the critical point. At the moment when prose was striving to disengage itself from the diction of poetry, Gorgias gave currency to the notion that poetical ornament of the most florid type was its true charm. When, indeed, he went further, and sought to imitate the rhythm as well as the phrase of poetry, this very extravagance had a useful result. Prose has a rhythm, though not of the kind at which Gorgias aimed; and the mere fact of the Greek ear becoming accustomed to look for a certain proportion between the parts of a sentence hastened the transition from the old running style to the periodic.

1ὀρθοέπεια,Plat. Phaedr. p. 267 C.

2ὀρθότης ὀνομάτων,Plat. Euthyd. p. 277 E. On the work of Protagoras and Prodikos in these departments, see Mr Cope in the Journal of Classical and Sacred Philology, vol. III. pp. 48—57.

3 Spengel, Συναγ. τεχνῶν, p. 63: ‘“Omnino Graeci sophistae, et quos diximus, et alii minus noti, recte et dilucide eloqui studebant; et si uno vocabulo omnia comprehendamus, Graeci ὀρθοέπειαν, Siculi εὐέπειαν elaborabant.”’

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  • Commentary references to this page (2):
    • Sir Richard C. Jebb, Selections from the Attic Orators, 4
    • Sir Richard C. Jebb, Selections from the Attic Orators, 1.4
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