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FORMS OF PROSE LITERATURE
HEN a student of English composition passes
from the study of words and sentences and paragraphs to the larger forms of writing, he generally finds these larger forms divided categorically under the titles Exposition, Argument, Narrative, Description, and, perhaps, Criticism; and for each of these kinds of writing he gets specific directions. If he then compares these divisions with a practical classification such as the catalogue of a library, or a publisher's list, he finds no notice of these divisions
of exposition, for example, or narrative, as such, but only such classes as Science, Economics, History, Fiction, Adventure. Moreover, under each of these heads he will find that in a given book, whether of History or of Science or of Adventure, there may be examples of two or three or even more of the kinds of writing which in the rhetoric are so sharply separated. At first sight, then, he might think that the divisions of rhetoric have little practical value. To some extent he would be right; for these divisions of rhetoric are artificial and largely arbitrary. Men who are writing books, whether to set forth the
truths of the world about them, or to entertain the public and win a name for themselves by a vivid representation of life, do not stop to think whether they are writing exposition or argument or narrative or description: they go ahead with their purpose or their inspiration, striving only to set it forth clearly and vividly. Now since it is to be supposed that you study English composition for the sake of this power of interesting other people in your own thoughts and feelings, these actual works of literature are the models and examples to keep in mind. The divisions of rhetoric have an important use, as I shall show later; but this use is not important enough to obscure the actual achievements of men of letters.
2. Now in looking for models if you take only those works which are the best of their kind, you will find that in spite of all their diversities you can apply to these models that vague but most convenient term literature. You will be taking the word, of course, in a broad sense, to include much more than poetry and the better class of novels: you would be including in it, to use examples from the fifth volume of Craik’s “Selections of English Prose," not only the works of Sir Walter Scott, and Jane Austen, and Charles Lamb, but those also of Sidney Smith, Henry Hallam, Lord Brougham, George Grote, John Stuart Mill, Edward Freeman, and John Richard Green. With such a range, there is no need to feel hampered by confining your choice of models to those which will come under this term literature. Indeed the term leaves you such a wide choice that you may stop to wonder just what you mean by it, and how it can be useful in any practical discussion of learning to write.
A little thought will show you, however, that when you use this term literature in this way you imply a certain quality of distinction, a certain elevation of purpose and a certain lasting importance, by virtue of which they rise above the commonplace and ephemeral writing of the work-a-day world. Further analysis will show, I think, that the essential elements in this literature are two in number; and, moreover, that they are the essential elements not only of literature but of all the fine arts. These elements are: first, an organic unity of conception; and second, the pervasive personality of the artist. There can be no work of art which has not both this unity of conception, which gives the balance and poise to the statue, the composition to the picture, the perfect proportion to the building, and this pervasive personality of the artist, which makes his statue, or his picture, or his building, an individual and living creation. In the same way no book or piece of writing deserves the approving stamp of this term literature unless it is thus moulded into a living and organic unity, and is thus colored by the character and feeling of the man who wrote it.
All this sounds pretty abstract and dogmatic, perhaps; when you apply it to an example, it will be clear enough. The first element, this power of unifying thought, for example, is what covers in Sir