Prose arose as a literary form in the seventeenth and eighteenth century just as poetry was becoming saturated with clumsy amateurs. For some, the decision to write in prose was a conscious reaction to such saturation, as was the case with Francois Fénelon (1651-1715). He suggested verse should be abolished. For him, prose suited the baroque mood as the language of controlled intellect. Alongside Fénelon stand Madeleine Scudéry (1607-1701), Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773), and Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). These authors wrote with ornate sincerity using Latin as the principal model.

The Two Schools

The Baroque Age produced two prose styles, both emerging from classical models. One followed Cicero (106-43 BC) – the idea of emotional swelling disciplined by intellectual control. Cicero himself had built on the works of Athenian orator Isocrates and the intermediaries from Greek rhetorical schools of Asia Minor. This is the Asiatic style – grand, eloquent, flowing.

The second school models itself on Seneca (c.4 BC – 65 AD) and others who, after the death of Cicero and Virgil, sought to minimise the grandiose nature of poetry and prose. This style was simplicity and brevity. It was clinical. We see it in Lucan and, in its most extreme, in Tacitus (55-120 AD). By also looking further back to Plato and Demosthenes, it associated itself with the ideals of Atticism. The split was also seen in early Christian writers – Lactantius was the Christian Cicero, his counterpart being Tertullian.

In the Renaissance the love was for the Asiatics. As the Baroque Age drew on the Atticists began to reaffirm themselves. There chief masters of the Asiatic and Attic style in this time were:

Asiatic/Ciceronian Style Attic/Senecan Style
Joseph Addison (1672-1719) Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (1597-1654) Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82)
Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) Robert Burton (1577-1640, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy)
Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704) Jean de La Bruyere (1645-96)
Edmund Burke (1729-97) John Milton (1608-74)
Fracnois de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon (1651-1715) Michel de Montaigne (1533-92)
Edward Gibbon (1737-94) Blaise Pascal (1623-62)
Samuel Johnson (1709-84)
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

The Atticists can be further subdivided into either the loose manner or the curt manner. The loose manner builds from short clauses to larger sentences and paragraphs whereas the curt manner does not build at all – it is a block of prose filled with drop after drop from the reader minds. For the modern descendant of the loose manner, read Proust. For the curt manner, best go back to the sermons of Donne. The Atticist in the Renaissance was the Protestant – reacting against the grandiose manner of the established church and the universities. His was an independent writer who answered to God’s will alone. In this mould we find Blaise Pascal, whose letters against the Jesuits were modelled on the Stoic discourses of Epictetus. Such characters were the Brutus of their age, going up against Caesar (the Church) and Cicero (the Universities).


The most prominent of forms through which classical influence found use in the baroque age was oratory – namely the political parliamentary speeches of late eighteenth century England. Politicians often searched for direct historical parallels, such as in 1792 when the House of Commons was discussing British policy towards Russia. Thetown of Ochakov, situated at the mouth of the Dnieper, was key to Russian encroachment of Constantinople and dominance in the Black Sea region. To clarify the situation to parliament, the speaker reached for Demosthenes’ fourth Philippic, where the Greek tells his countrymen it was through hitherto unheard-of towns in the north that Philip would make his route to Athens. Parliament now understood the scenario.

During the 1790s and subsequent decade, allusions to Philip of Macedon grew substantially in no small part thanks to comparisons between himself and the grand conqueror Napoleon, who was rampaging across the continent at this time. As a reaction to this, the British Prime Minister of the time, Pitt the Younger, issued speeches of unmistakeable Demosthenic kind. Pitt had been trained by his father in a typical demanding methods of the time, forced to translate aloud, at sight, passages from the Greek and Latin classics. It was from this that Pitt obtained his immense command of language and fertile imagery.

Nor was Pitt alone in looking to the ancients – when Edmund Burke impeached Warren Hastings for misgovernment in India he modelled his attack on Cicero’s successful prosecution of Verres, the corrupt Roman governor of Sicily. Burke had previously reached back for classical inspiration during America’s secession from Britain in 1775. He quoted Juvenal’s warning to a tyrannous Roman governor:

“Beggared, they still have weapons”

Even away from political affairs, allusions were rife – Sir Thomas Browne, the most skilful, least monotonous, and subtlest, of the baroque musicians in words, described the smell during sleep as,

“though in the bed of Cleopatra, [we] can hardly with any delight raise up the ghost of a rose”

Even when they did no quote the classics directly, they grew greater by their consciousness of eternity. Bossuet would read classical poetry before his sermons, memorably locking himself alone with Homer for many hours before the funeral sermon of Queen Marie-Therese. Such was the tone and temperament of the classically trained orators of the age.


The aim of the prose was to produce the impression of controlled power. The problem was to achieve sonority required a rich vocabulary, but one that does not become mired in an overabundance of words. To combat this, phraseology used synonyms in twos and threes to achieve a better flow and act as a barrier to superfluity. Examples are listed below:

Phrase Author Work
‘supporting, assisting, and defending’ Samuel Johnson Life of Savage
‘deliberate and creeping progress unto the grave’ Sir Thomas Browne Letter to a Friend
‘la vertu du monde; vertu trompeuse et falsifée ; qui n’a que la mine et l’apparence’ Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet Sur l’honneur du monde
‘the bonds and ligaments of the commonwealth, the pillars and the sustainers of every written statute’ John Milton Areopagitica
‘de donner (aux maux) un grand cours, et de leaur faire une ouverture large et spacieuse’ Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet Sur la justice
‘read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider’ Francis Bacon Of Studies

Along with synonyms, symmetry was of great importance. Cicero again was the master from which to learn. At the heart of it was division and sub-division of subjects into smaller aspects and topics that could be handled separately. The Jesuit orators excelled at it, as seen in Louis Bourdaloue’s sermon On the Kingdom of God or later in James Joyce’s second retreat sermon in his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

A third technique is antithesis. The most famous of these is John Donne’s maxim that ‘no man is an island’ in his Devotions. For another example we can look to Swift’s A Voyage to Laputa:

“curb the petulancy of the young, and correct the positiveness of the old, rouse the stupid, and damp the pert”

The final technique to be mentioned here is the climax, which means ‘ladder’. It was used notably by Pitt against Indian savagery and by John Donne in his attack against atheism. The chief tool of achieving an adequate climax in speech is the Ciceronian Tricolon, as previously discussed in Translators and Transmission. Such is the ubiquity of the tricolon in modern parlance that it is sufficing to give but one example here, immortalised by Winston Churchill, to portray its power:

“Blood, sweat, and tears”

Having surveyed the techniques, let us look at the great prose works of Baroque, first in fiction, then history.

Baroque Fiction

When studying the classical tradition in the baroque age, three works of fiction distinguish themselves above all others. These are:

  1. Telemachus (Télémaque), by Francois Fénelon (published 1699-1717)
  2. Pamela, by Samuel Richardson (published 1740)
  3. Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding (published 1749)
  1. Telemachus

Francois Fenelon was an aristocratic bishop and tutor to the duke of Burgundy, the second heir to the French throne. Fenelon excelled in knowledge of all things Greek. Neutral during the Battle of the Books, he saw such arguments both beneath him and distracting from more genuine work. Because of his strict dedications, his work as a tutor to the duke proved more successful than Bossuet’s tutorship of the dauphin.

Francois Fénelon: Author of the Baroque Odyssey Telemachus

Though a bishop, Fenelon leaned heavily on Hellenic learning, producing a Dialogues of the Dead, wherein pupils could read conversation between famous and interesting people containing the likes of Achilles, Charon, Homer, and Romulus. Finishing his tutorship of the duke in 1697, the latter part of his life was dedicated to his Telemachus, the story of the son of Odysseus. It is a romance, a chivalric tale laid on a classical background.  Other books of the time that took similar shape include Scudéry’s Clelia and Honoré d’Urfé’s Astraea.

Fenelon details in full Telemachus’ travels in search for his father. His intention was to match it to the Odyssey as Dante’s Comedy is matched to Virgil’s Aeneid (see Dante and Virgilian Destiny). Whilst it suffers from an intolerable monotony and nobility, it is to be commended for its scope and its dialogue. Like much of Fenelon’s works, it was written to educate, and perhaps one of its faults is that it does so too obviously. The Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid all achieve their educational tone in a subtler manner.

Produced as it was during the Baroque Age, it cannot escape the pull of satire (discussed as a form in the previous chapter). Fenelon had previously written scathing letters to Louis XIV criticising the régime’s love of war and its economic mismanagement. But to what extant are Fenelon’s Bronze Age courts mirroring those of Louis? It is difficult to discern. Elements of Boileau are present in Telemachus, as are Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. The satiric element could be as much down to the tone of the time from which Fenelon was unable to extract himself, rather than an intentional rebuke of the monarchy.

Fenelon would be far more appreciative if we placed his work as forebearer to the guides to Greece and Greek history emerging later in the eighteenth century. Examples include Jean-Jacques Berthélemy produced Travels of Young Anacharsis in Greece (1787) and culminate with Becker’s Gallus and Charicles on ancient Roman and Athenian manners. In fiction, Telemachus’ legacy includes the likes of The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Ben-Hur (1880) by Lewis Wallace, I, Claudius (1934) by Robert Graves, and The Ides of March (1948) by Thornton Wilder. Most fiction placing itself in ancient Rome or Athens owes a sizeable debt to the Telemachus.

  1. Pamela

In England, Baroque Prose emerged a generation later through Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. The work was a monumental success across the continent. Hailed by Diderot as a “singular genius”, Richardson was capturing the mood of the century in vindicating bourgeois morality against a proud and vicious aristocracy. In it, Pamela rebukes advances of a rich unscrupulous man until he is forced to pursue the course of marriage with her. Her virtue is in taming the wild nature of the man from sexual abuse to respectable husbandry.

IX: Pamela is Married 1743-4 by Joseph Highmore 1692-1780
Marriage Scene from Pamela

The baroque morals of the novel have numerous links to the classics. For one, Richardson was well read in the classics, with Cicero, Virgil, Homer, and Juvenal amongst others part of his repertoire. It also has strong influence of Greek romance, reaching him both through Fenelon’s Telemachus and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, from which Richardson obtained the name for Pamela. While both Telemachus and Arcadia are both set in the mould of classical myth, it was Richardson who now projected these romances onto the baroque landscape. And to mass acclaim.

  1. Tom Jones

The final work of fiction that requires consideration is Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, published some nine years after Pamela. Fielding was educated at Eton and Leyden, and fluent in Latin, French, and Italian, and competent in Greek. He was both amused and disgusted by Pamela. In 1742 he parodied it in The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, where he has roles reversed – the male resists the seduction of the female.

Fielding next set to work on Tom Jones, the History of a Foundling, in which he had the express intent to make an epic in prose form. Where poetry epic introduced the supernatural and were intensely heroic, Fielding wanted prose epic to be void of gods and littered with humour. To what level Fielding is parodying epic is up for debate. It is also important to keep in mind when reading Tom Jones the points at which the plot ceases to be mock-heroic and becomes the non-classical love-story or travel-adventure. Nevertheless, the main plot of both Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones turns on a favourite device of Greek romance – the kidnapped child brought up in a low social rank or in ignorance of its parentage, who eventually proves to be well born. Daphnis and Chloe is one such classical example, while the Renaissance had Astraea and Clelia.

What is important to take from these three novels is that, both literarily and culturally, the poetic epic was dying. Cervantes’s had taken in Don Quixote the fantastic heroic aspirations of epics like Orlando Furioso and brought them into contact with real life and prose speech. The writers felt that with prose they were working in an intellectual and imaginative environment not beneath but alongside the ancient epic. Fielding refers to Telemachus as comparable the Odyssey. He felt confident to proceed to fuse that sense of epic with the Greek Romance. In so doing, Fielding was opening up an incredible exploratory avenue in fiction. The large sense of scale, the political and historical forces, the grand spiritual meanings, the sense and search of human destiny. In the nineteenth century prose writers would seize on these themes to produce epics of the kind the non-classical mind goes to when first hearing the word. To works such as David Copperfield, Crime and Punishment, Salammbo, and War and Peace.

Tom Jones
Tom Jones: Fielding births a new kind of epic


One of the greatest achievements of the baroque age was the works resulting from the study of the Roman Empire, specifically around the forces that destroyed it. That strange obsession, insecurity even, the upper class had with the destruction of civilised Roman life helped sculpt our sense of the contemporary history. It taught us how to structure the history as literature for mass consumption and riveting reading. It was an obsession which culminated in one of the greatest intellectual and artistic works of the century – Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Gibbon had been largely self-educated, a brief stay at Magdelen College Oxford was cut short by his father upon his son’s flirtation with Roman Catholicism. Sent to protestant French-Switzerland, it was on the continent in 1764 that he conceived of the sprawling thousand year

history detailing the fall of Rome – right up until the last days of Byzantium in the fifteenth century.

As a result of Gibbon’s unique life, the work is partly English Whig gentry and partly that of the French an English Enlightenment.

Gibbon was building upon earlier baroque works such as Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History (1681), which fused Jewish and near eastern tales and history with the Graeco-Roman, and Secondat de Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of Their Decadence (1734), which Montesquieu, a formidable man of reason of the time, wrote between his equally exalted Persian Letters and On the Spirit of the Laws. Fusing the scope of the former with the art of the latter, Gibbon created a work which can be considered the culmination of Renaissance scholarship, placed in time right at the end of the Baroque Age, before the onslaught of revolution. In that same sense Gibbon’s Decline and Fall was the final say on a classical worldview that had Rome vaunted as the apex of the ancient world. Throughout the revolutionary period Greece began more and more to captivate the mood of the time.

18th Century Rome
Rome as Gibbon would have seen it

The nineteenth century, beating forward as it did with industrial might and political upheavals would still find itself forever living in the shadow of Gibbon’s work. None of the great civilizations could extricate themselves from that fall of greatness so breathtakingly told in the Decline. Walter Bagehot compared the march of Gibbon’s tale to the march of ‘a roman legion through a troubled country…up hill and down hill through marsh and thicket, through Goth or Parthian…an emblem of civilization’.

The Decline and Fall is not entirely consistent in the march, though. Some periods during its 1300-year passage are given greater scrutiny and time than others. Its first half runs from 180AD-641AD, from Trajan to Constantine to Heraclius. The second half takes us up to 1453 and the fall of Constantinople. Its style, that of Gibbon’s highly developed sense of intellectual and aesthetic structure, has almost become its own standard. With almost intentionally monotonous sentences, two patters with minor variations emerge. Gibbon will say X; and Y. His next sentence will say X; and Y; and Z. Sometimes this is told as X; but Y. The objective is to create a wave like pattern to the reader. It is the antithesis and tricolon worked into rigidity. How does this baroque history-telling compare to Rome’s two greatest historians – Livy and Tacitus? Neither were as rhythmically constrained as was Gibbon. Livy writes sonorously and with dignity, he is highly individualistic in style. Tacitus hidden and obscure. If Gibbon lies closest to any of the Roman styles it is Ciceronian peroration.

Where Gibbon falls down is his lack of recognition to the Greek cultural confidence which underpinned Roman prowess. What made Rome great was that it formed a culture out of its own virtues of energy, discipline, freedom bound by self-made law, with the fertilizing influence of Greek thought, art, science, and literature, and that it communicated that culture far and wide over the world to what had been only barbarian tribes. At its greatest Rome was both Roman and Greek. In dealing with the Byzantines, Gibbon is unduly uncharitable. He fails to recognise their penetration of Christianity into the Slavic Kingdoms, as well as their centuries of acting as a bulwark against the Turks. Accompanying this oversight is Gibbon’s failure to give clear and consistent causes for the decline and fall of Rome. Coleridge, writing in 1833 as part of his Table Talk, excoriated Gibbon for this:

I protest I do not remember a single philosophical attempt made throughout the work to fathom the causes of the decline and fall of that empire”

Let us be less dismissive than Coleridge and examine some of Gibbon’s points, for there is are some, scattered and contradictory as they are:

  1. In Chapter 6 he asserts the thought that “the untutored Caledonians, glowing with the warm virtues of nature and the degenerate Romans, polluted with the mean vices of wealth and slavery”. This is the argument of civilizational decay that points to good times making weak men. The luxuries created by prosperity breed men of such weak character they are unable to uphold that prosperity against more primitive and naturally immersed outsiders.
  2. This point of view is contradictory with another of Gibbon’s insights – that the empire was torn apart from excessive ambitions of the army and the praetorian guard in particular.
  3. It fell by its own weight – it is Rome’s longevity that is remarkable, not its fall. This is detailed in chapter 38, taken from an earlier essay General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West. He was not the first to talk of the natural growth and decline cycles of civilizations – Walter Moyle had advanced the opinion in his Essay on the Constitution of the Roman Government. It later appeared in Oswald Spengler’s The Decline and Fall of the West.
  4. Easily the most controversial of Gibbon’s assessments. Detailed in Chapters 15 and 16, he talks of half-savage fanatics who refused their allegiance to the Empire, divided it, sapped its energies by teaching ‘patience and pusillanimity’, and destroyed it. The chapters provoked many counter-attacks. Gibbon’s assault is clearly influenced by his own life and experience of the Catholic and Protestant divide. This bias led him to falsify history – Christianity, far from being the cause of the decline, was cause for its survival. The same ‘patience and pusillanimity’ that Gibbon claims pacified the Romans beyond defending themselves, also civilised the barbaric invader. Latin lasts through the church. Manuscripts through Monasteries. As Highet concludes, “Christanity is very clearly a greater thing than Gibbon could understand, one of the greatest constructive social forces in human history”.

The Decline and Fall is a fitting work to conclude the Baroque Age. The historical survey was published just as Europe was hurtling toward a new age – that of Revoltuion. As the eighteenth century wore on, the stale and stultified atmosphere that restrained the classical tradition was in force as part of a wider social setting. The Enlightenment was first brewing, then boiling. Soon it would be bursting, out onto a landscape in forms as tyrannical as they were liberating. This revolt fascinated and fixated all poets and thinkers of who lived through the turmoil of America’s Independence, France’s Revolt, and Napoleon’s War. In its themes and characters, its various ambitions and struggles, the Age of Revolution had many allusions to the Classical world. The Classical Tradition proved to not only have the strength and depth to survive this revolution, but to be re-energized by it.