English prose owes a good deal to Bacon’s way of writing. A critic rightly points out that Hooker and Bacon did really great thing for the development of English prose. When alliteration, antithesis, similes from “unnatural natural history” were rampant, these two men showed that English was as capable as the classics of serving the highest purposes of language. They showed that it was possible in English also to express the subtleties of thought in clear, straightforward, and uninvolved sentences and, when necessary, to condense the greatest amount of meaning into the fewest possible words.
Bacon shows himself in his essays to be a consummate rhetorician. He made for himself a style which, though not quite flexible and modern, was unmatchable for pith and pregnancy in the conveyance of his special kind of thought. When the bulk of English prose was written in loose sentences of enormous length, he supplied at once a short, crisp and firmly knit sentence of a type unfamiliar in English. He rejected the conceits and overcrowded imagery of the euphuists, but he knew how to light up his thought with well-placed figures, and give to it an imaginative glow and charm upon occasion, contrasting strongly with the unfigurative style of Ben Jonson who represents in his prose the extreme revulsion from euphuism. For the students of expression, Bacon’s essays are of endless interest and profit: the more one reads them, the more remarkable seeo$ their compactness and their nervous vitality. They shock sluggish attention into wakefulness as if by an electric contact, and though they may sometimes fail to nourish, they can never fail to stimulate.
Emerson is the one modern writer with whom Bacon may be fairly compared, for their method is much the same. In each case, we have a series of trenchant and apparently disconnected sayings, where the writer tries to reach the reader’s mind by a series of aphoristic attacks.
Comparing Bacon with his predecessors (Sidney, Lyly, Ascham), it will be seen how widely he departs from the prolix methods of the day. In rhetorical power, musical cadence, quaint1-turns of speech, he is equalled by many of his contemporaries, excelled by a few: but for a clear, terse, easy writing, he has no peer save Ben Jonson, and even today his essays are models of succinct, lucid prose.
This is how an eminent English critic speaks about Bacon’s contribution to the development of English prose: “Bacon took, one of the longest steps ever taken in the evolution of English prose style. English prose was already rich and sonorous. Hooker still ranks as one of our greatest stylists. So does
. But while these writers have majesty and strength, it cannot be said that they were masters of a style suited to all the purposes which prose must subserve. It was admirable for great themes and for moments of elevation, but ill-adapted to the pedestrian passages which must link such themes and moments one to another. The sentences were inconveniently long, and even in the hands of the most skilful writers were frequently involved and obscure. Parentheses were extremely common. The same is true of Bacon himself in his larger and more sustained works. But in the essays he did set the example, he did furnish the model. By the very plan and conception, almost of necessity, the sentences had to be short. With shortness came lucidity. The essays of Bacon have to be read slowly and thoughtfully, not because the style is obscure, but because they are extremely condensed. The grammatical structure is sometimes loose, but it is rarely ambiguous. With shortness came also flexibility. The new style of Bacon fitted itself as easily to buildings and gardens, or to suitors and ceremonies, as to truth and death. It could be sunk to the familiarity of likening money to muck, not good unless it be spread, or rise to a comparison between movements of the human mind and the movements of the heavenly bodies. To Bacon, in short, we are largely indebted for making good that which had hitherto been the chief defect of English literature. Till the closing years of the sixteenth century except in translations, no one had shown a mastery of the principles of prose. Then Bacon showed such mastery, and Shakespeare in even higher degree than Bacon.” Raleigh
Terseness of expression and epigrammatic brevity are the most striking qualities of Bacon’s style in the essays. Bacon possessed a marvellous power of compressing into a few words an idea with ordinary writers would express in several sentences. Many of his sentences have an aphoristic quality. They are like proverbs which can readily be quoted when the occasion demands. Only Bacon could have written the following sentences which are remarkable for their condensation and brevity:
“He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” (Of Marriage and Single Life)
“For in evil, the best condition is not to will, the second not to can”. (Of
“Those that want friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their hearts.” (Of Friendship)
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” (Of Studies)
“A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.” (Of Truth)
His aphoristic style makes Bacon an essayist of high distinction. Aphorisms give to his essays singular force and weight. Bacon achieves this terseness of style often by avoiding superfluous words and by omitting the ordinary joints and sinews of speech. Occasionally, it must be admitted, Bacon even becomes obscure because of extreme condensation but, as a rule, his brevity is matched only by his lucidity and clearness. Another important quality of Bacon’s style is his recurrent use of figurative language. In the essay, Of Truth, for-instance, he gives us very vivid and apt similes and metaphors in order to illustrate his ideas. He compares truth to a naked open daylight which does not show the masques and mummeries and triumphs of the world as half so grand and attractive as candle-lights show them. He compares falsehood to an alloy in a coin of gold or silver. The alloy makes the metal work the better, but it lowers the value of the metal. Here is another excellent example of Bacon’s figurative style: “Certainly it is heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in
, and turn upon the poles of truth.” In the essay, Of Marriage and Single Life, he tells us that some men so exaggerate the value of freedom that they “will go near to think their girdles and garters to be bonds and shackles.” He also aptly states the case against a clergyman’s marrying: “For charity will hardly water the ground where it must first” fill a pool.” Here is the use of figurative language in the essay, Of Friendship: “For a crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a^ tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.” “Those that want friends to open themselves.unto are cannibals of their own hearts.” In fact these two sentences illustrate at once his aphoristic style and his use of figurative language. There are some more similes and metaphors in this essay. For instance: the world is a wilderness without true friends; advice from a person who is not fully acquainted with our minds and circumstances is like the prescription of a physician who is not well-acquainted with our bodies; the last fruit of friendship is like the pomegranate, full of many kernels; a friend is like the philosophers’ stone that worketh all contrary effects, but still to the good and benefit of nature. In the essay, Of Studies, he gives us a very appropriate simile when he compares “distilled books” to “common distilled waters”. Providence
The essays of Bacon are full of illustrations, allusions, and quotations, some of these quotations being from Latin sources. These allusions and quotations show Bacon’s love of learning. In the essay, Of Truth, we have allusions to Pilate, Lucian. Lucretius, and Montaigne with quotations from the last two. He also gives us a quotation from the Bible in this essay. These allusions and quotations enrich this essay and make it more interesting. In the essay, Of Marriage and Single Life, we have a reference to Ulysses and a quotation from Thales, an ancient Greek philosopher. In the essay, Of Great Place, there are allusions to Tacitus, Galba and Vespasian. The essay, Of Friendship, contains a large number of allusions which illustrate Bacon’s argument that even great men, who haye strong and firm minds, need friends to whom they can open their hearts. There are a number of allusions to philosophers also in the same essay. His love of quotations too is also seen here. He quotes Aristotle, Cominius, Themistocles, Heraclitus. Indeed, allusions and quotations seem to be at his finger’s tips. These allusions and quotations lend to his ideas greater weight and serve to make his style more scholarly.