Good plain English

An actor playing the role of Dr Faustus in the play by Christopher Marlowe told me that he finds lines of Shakespeare easier to memorize than those of Marlowe. The latter, who belonged to a group known as the University Wits, wrote in a more academic way than his contemporary, who allegedly had ‘small Latin and less Greek’, and his words do not stick in the memory as easily. There certainly are some memorable lines in Marlowe’s play, some of them simple: ‘Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.’ But Faustus himself speaks in a weighty style:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Now thou hast but one bare hour to live, And then thou must be damned perpetually.

Doubtless the heavy nature of such lines fits well with their being uttered by a person of dangerously great learning. But the style is Marlowe’s, and it may be that learning is the enemy of vigorous expression. Against Marlowe can be set the opening sentences of two famous books:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and as I slept I dreamed a dream.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

I warm immensely to the first sentences of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Their tone is one of ordinary speech rather than declamation. In each case the syntax is simple with little in the way of subordinate clauses. The words used are overwhelmingly Germanic rather than Latin in origin, and tend to be short. Despite being in prose, unlike the lines of Marlowe, when they are said out loud the sentences turn out to be rhythmical, particularly in the second case, in which the surprising last word is integrated into a metre. The former is alliterative, placing itself in an English tradition going as far back as Beowulf. While some of these characteristics also occur in Marlowe, both Bunyan and Orwell give a sense of having used the language of daily speech rather than the study. And perhaps the simplicity of style is linked with each having been a radical in politics.

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