Cranmer's Sentences

Ian Robinson, The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment, (Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-48088-4, 37.50) paperback.

This is a very learned book and - to one as ignorant as I am of the history of linguistics - a very difficult one, which I am glad to have been nudged into reading twice, finding myself the second time round a little less daunted by the range and depth of reference, a little more familiar with Priscian and Apollorius Dyscolus, slightly more at ease with parataxis and the cursus, with more freedom to enjoy the flashes of Robinsonian fun and the engaging Tyndale-like colloquialisms that spice its well-formed sentences, and in short with the opportunity to learn much more from it. The book's main job is, I think, to define the nature of a true English prose, to which the historical account implied by its title may seem in some measure to be ancillary: it is, that is, a work of critical analysis rather than a chronicle, though the idea of development is central to an ulterior purpose which confessedly caused it to be written.

We are to look forward, we learn, to a hook on the Tragic English Novel, to which the establishment of a prose in which such novels could be written turned out to be a necessary prolegomenon. For Ian Robinson the crucial figure in this 'establishment' is Cranmer, and as befits a book dedicated to the Prayer Book Society of England, Cranmer is at its centre. Before Cranmer, however, not only the indispensable Tyndale, but the long centuries of periodic prose before the very idea of a sentence could be identified, necessitating a lengthy study of pre-medieval linguistic theory and of medieval punctuation. And after Cranmer's commonwealth, 'Shakespeare versus the wanderers', a victory for good prose not finally confirmed until after the Restoration, whose new grammarians 'provided the equipment for defining linguistically the form of language which can make truthful statements' (at last!) and when that curiously mismatched pair, Dryden (whose prose 'is good sense ... but nothing else') and Bunyan, bring us to the onset of the 18th century. At which point Johnson is quoted as saying 'nobody now talks much of style: every body composes pretty well', by which, as Robinson astutely observes, 'he means at the same time that it is hard to get away from the newly standardized culture.'

By Johnson's time the well-formed sentence had won the field, and all of never mind the linguistic corruption of modem journalism even in the upper-crust broadsheets - live and compose within its standardization. The result. we all know, can be bloodless, and even in this admirably written nook (in reading which I confess to occasional moments of glee on spotting a not-quite-perfectly-formed sentence), one can sense the constraint which a formalized language imposes: though Robinson wittily shows there are times when the well-formed sentence is inappropriate, there remains an unarticulated assumption that it really is the only right and proper way to write: good sense and nothing else. Of course it need not be: Cranmer's 'grammatical achievement on which the success of his liturgical work depends was in making a genuinely complex sentence fully at home in English.' No reader of Faith and Worship needs telling that Cranmer's prose is the reverse of bloodless: Robinson is at his best in analysing how it works in, for example, the opening of the Gloria, exploring the wonderful sureness of the control of rhythm and its intimacy with the meaning of the words, which 'become through the poetry [the creative relationship, that is, between sound, movement and semantic content] very full of their own meaning.'

The genuinely complex sentence is a concept related to new ways of thinking that we call the Renascence: 'Cranmer's feat is the perfect unification of the new Renascence syntactic organization with the old tradition of the phrasal movement of the human voice.' It is a special distinction of Cranmer's prose to keep touch with that tradition, as later did Shakespeare and Bunyan, and, Robinson persuasively suggests, Marvell. Behind Cranmer stands the great Tyndale who 'single-handed achieved the backbone of the English Bible': anyone who has enjoyed the privilege of reading Tyndale aloud to a congregation will have become aware of an earthly toughness of speech which the Authorized Version doesn't always retain. Robinson gives a nice example from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6.34): 'Care not then for the morow, but let the morow care for it selfe; for the day present hath ever ynough of his awne trouble.' Interestingly it is Cranmer, doubtless following Wycliff ('for it sufficeth to the dai, his own malice'), who brings in 'Sufficient unto the day'; the Geneva Bible sticks to Tyndale, who, Robinson says, is better here, though less resonant. I agree: the AV at this point is a little too majestic and can sound almost like the fine phrasing of a speechmaker. Yet rhythmically it is closer to the Greek than Tyndale is, and Robinson is very importantly right that success with rhythm is a necessary condition for accuracy of translation - which of course does not mean imitating that of the original: 'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof doesn't, if one can momentarily detach oneself from its familiarity, actually sound like an English sentence.

The Establishment of Modern English Prose is eminently a book for thinking with, even if occasionally thinking rather off the point: I share Robinson's admiration for Grace Abounding, which, rather than Pilgrim's Progress, is his Bunyan 'text'. But it is a distraction to be told that he believes it to be 'the best autobiography in English': one begins to think, irrelevantly to the book's argument, of possible rivals - how about The Prelude? - and of how pointless are disputes about which is the best. Very much on the point Robinson gives an extraordinarily interesting close reading of Cranmer's Prayer of Consecration, taken over almost unchanged into the 1662 book: like a collect, a second-person-singular address to the Father, but exceptionally extended by means of a complex relative clause to remind us of the origin of the eucharist, and reaching a climax with another relative clause to incorporate the actual words of our Lord at the Last Supper. A climax and a full stop, but it is not the end: 'Likewise after supper ...'. Robinson suggests liturgical justification for the longish pause which the full point indicates, but adds, 'likewise is right, for it expresses continuity from ... what precedes the full point': he proposes the substitution of a semicolon to make the continuity more apparent. I dare go a little further and ask why Cranmer didn't make the whole prayer into one long sentence by using a semicolon and continuing 'and who likewise after supper took ...'. I don't suppose that a congregation preparing for Communion at this point would often be aware of it, and Cranmer is the last person to blame for the linguistic inanities of our times; but as the prayer stands in 1552 and 1662, by starting a new sentence, it just may bothersomely bring to mind that infuriating habit of the ASB of turning prayers to the Almighty into information sheets setting out apparently for His benefit what He has done.

As part of his demonstration of Cranmer's achievement, Robinson delivers a number of body-blows to contemporary 'wanderers' - purveyors of verbiage in endless 'sentences' of no identifiable syntactical form, which he describes as the worst English prose (is it really worse that the worst of William Faulkner or reporting in the Daily Sport?). I think Robinson is excessively hard on William Roper, a passage from whose life of his fatherin-law is offered as an example of hopeless wandering, 'written as if he is learning English as a foreign language'. The passage relates Margaret Roper's agonized clinging to More as he was led to the Tower after his condemnation (EETS edition, 1935, pp.98f): Robinson complains that 'the feeling, which I am ready to credit Roper with, gets tangled up in the expression.' To my car the cascade of participial and adverbial phrases conveys very powerfully both the intensity of Margaret's grief and her inability to control the expression of it; and between her two outbursts of passion, as More gives her his blessing, Roper manages very well to create a moment of stasis with what, apart from its beginning with a (surely acceptable) relative, is as well-formed a sentence as one could wish for. I say 'to my ear': Robinson, I think, takes Roper's book as an example of 'prose apparently intended for silent reading', but can one be sure of this at a time when so many were illiterate and printed copies so few in number? Ears of course differ in what they pick up: I don't myself hear a Churchillian ring in Cromwell's account of the battle of Naseby: and I'm quite sure that a passage quoted from Milton's Reason of Church Government against Prelacy - written, as Robinson drily observes, 'on purpose, as a subscriber to the belief that the reader's obligation to join the author in making sense should be brought home to him by the labour of unravelling the author's sentences' - is much worse than anything that I have read (and heard myself reading) of Roper. Robinson makes the point that 'by far the numerically largest surviving prose genre from Shakespeare's day is the sermon' and that of course the prayer-book was primarily intended to be spoken. I should suppose that silent reading was much less common in the 16th than in the 18th century and that one needs to do much more testing of the prose by ear.

Another small debate I should like to have with Robinson concerns his insistence that in English there can be no syntactic difference between the imperative and the 'precative', invented by grammarians for the petitions of prayer, 'presumably because imperative suggests commands and it is thought improper to give orders to God'. I cannot speak for the grammarians but it's not just improper to give orders to God, it doesn't make any sense to try, and it's not what prayers actually seek to do. 'Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give' ... 'Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, 0 Lord.' Ay, there's the rub: we are beseeching: is it not significant that imperative comes crom the Latin word for emperor -- he who can command us all? I think it is arguable that a verb such as give has no imperative: we can of course say aggressively 'Give me that', as who should say 'Hand it over!' But a gift by ,definition cannot be compelled. Insofar as syntax is the regulation of grammar, lie tint That we normally use one form of the verb for ordering and praying (and requesting and urging and any number of other activities) does indeed mean that syntactically all such verbal actions are identical. But suppose there were a precative in English as there is still a vestigial subjunctive (I could just now have written 'suppose there was' and should probably not have been hauled over the coals for it), and as there apparently is in some languages, would that even so make a syntactical distinction? Let us invent the form gove for the precative of give: 'Gove unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give.' Surely this is syntactically identical with the actual English sentence. What we need is a terminology to indicate the ways in which a given form of the verb is being used: I'm fairly sure that 'mood' isn't any longer adequate, if it ever was. [Was: why at that point is the indicative necessary, not the subjunctive?]

Robinson's closing chapter is called 'The prose world'. 'This whole historical aspect of literary studies', he writes, 'proceeds, of course [a favourite adverbial phrase of his, but can an aspect 'proceed'?], from the observation that world changes with language ... There is unlikely ever to be a watertight linguistics of world, but that does not imply any unreality in phrases like "the world of Homer".' 'World' is a word used nowadays in so slapdash a manner - the world of work, the wonderful world of Disney - that one almost instinctively shies away from any usage but the most formally literal: the world is everything that is the case ('Die Welt is alles, was der Fall ist'): but Wittgenstein also said that the world of the unhappy is altogether different from that of the happy. What emerges so powerfully from this fine book is the degree to which our language shapes our whole civilization: 'It is no exaggeration to say that we make the modem world as we make prose' - a typically gnomic utterance expanded in what follows: 'Without the common easy possession, without newspapers, television scripts, exam scripts, advertising and government circulars, it would not be our world run differently, it would be a different world.' On the day on which this is being written , I read in The Independent that a professor of linguistics has announced that 'there is no point in being other that fatalistic' about the Americanization of English: i.e. as English becomes more and more the global language, so the world - everything that is the case, at least on earth -is doomed to become Americanized. The Prayer Book Society exists because there are some who have thought that there is a point in being other than fatalistic about the language of our liturgy - the point being that we're in serious trouble if we are mindless or slipshod about the world of God.

Andor Gomme


We are grateful to Prof. A.H. Gomme and the Prayer Book Society for allowing us to reprint this review article which first appeared in Faith and Worship no.47, the Review of the Prayer Book Society, Advent 1999.

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