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Without wishing to offend any current author, is it alright if I contend that there isn’t a writer today who can outshine Shakespeare, Raleigh, Spenser, Sidney or Jonson in their command of the English language? If that’s true, I find it very strange.

I’m perplexed because those Elizabethan greats laboured under a considerable disadvantage. Whatever school they went to, whether grammar school, song school or writing (scriveners) school, English literature wouldn’t have been big on their curriculum. In turning a phrase, they couldn’t borrow from an English classic. They had Malory and Holinshed, of course, but, even to them, Chaucer only just about counted as writing in English. Those apart, the great English writing cupboard was pretty bare. Where did all the vigour and mellifluence of the Elizabethan writers come from then?

When I write, I’m aware of linguistic constructions and gambits that have lodged with me as a result of a fairly catholic but exclusively English literary upbringing. I imagine that is the case for everybody writing in my vernacular. Yet in spite of all the inspirational examples to draw on, English prose has hardly developed in leaps and bounds since the seventeenth century, has it? Were Shakespeare’s lot simply more talented or was there something in the air?

It’s difficult to know how much English was spoken in Elizabethan schools. Teaching in the vernacular,  which had been encouraged by Alfred seven centuries previously, was finally recovering from the throttling it had suffered at the hands of the Normans and their Francophile successors. At the grammar and independent schools, the junior forms were introduced to the rudiments of their own language. That was necessary to teach what came next.

16th Century school

‘The Method of Teaching’, outlined in the Canterbury statutes, is representative of what was on offer from most schools of the period. The Form II books were Cato, Æsop and Familiar Colloquies. In Form III, it was Terence and Mantuanus’ Eclogues. in the Fourth Form, the pupils practised writing Latin letters. By the Fifth Form, they were beginning to write Latin verses and translate poets and historians. In the Sixth Form, they read Erasmus’s Copia Verborum and turned Latin sentences from the oratio obliqua to the oratio directa, and from one tense and mood to another. They were also required to read Horace, Cicero and other authors of that class. Outside of school. some might have had the linguistic skill to dip guiltily into Ariosto, Boccaccio or Rabelais. I haven’t read a single author on that list. If I had, I doubt that my ability to write fluently and imaginatively in English would be greatly enhanced.

The implication, or at least my inference, is that exposure to great English literature does not improve your ability to cook a delicious sentence any more than an enforced diet of Latin and Greek classics. I’m tempted to go further – it might even be that it constrains it. The vibrancy of Elizabethan language could simply reflect that it was completely unfettered by the educational system.

Back then, English words were sounds not shapes. What every tutor wanted to invest in his pupils was the ability to argue persuasively out loud. Declamatory not literary prowess was the desired result at the grammar and independent schools. The rigours of spelling and pronunciation were restricted to Latin and Greek. Rectitude in those was beaten into you. By way of enjoyable contrast, writing in the mother tongue was a freeform flight of invention.  The tyranny of Bill Gates’ spellchecker never impeded a Tudor quill. You wrote down what you heard in your head and you were as consistent with your words as you were with signing your name (was it Shakespeare, Shakespere or Shagspere; Raleigh, Ralegh or Rawley?). Publishers like Richard Field would bring some uniformity to their catalogues by making thousands of ‘corrections’ to the manuscripts submitted to them, more as a justification of the importance of their role than a mission to standardise the language.

Siir Walter Raleigh

The phonetic freedom of English during the first golden age of English literature was brought home to me by comparing the writings of Mr and Mrs Walter Raleigh. I’m no admirer of Walt the man. He was a preening, piratical, atheistical, bisexual fantasist. As a wordsmith, I am in awe of him. His forgiving wife (Bess Throckmorton, famed for her apocryphal  ‘Sweet Sir Walter! Sweet Sir Walter, Ooh!’ response to their first carnal embrace against a tree) was much nearer the literate norm for her time.

For different reasons, they both wrote to Cecil, principal minister of England. Sir Walter commiserated over the death of Cecil’s wife with this peerless prose:

“There is no man sorry for death itself but only for the time of death; everyone knowing that it is a bond ever forfeited to God. If then we know the same to be certain and inevitable, we ought withal to take the time of his arrival in as good a part as the knowledge; and not to lament at the advent of every seeming adversity, which we are assured, have been on their way towards us from the beginning. It appertaineth to every man of a wise and worthy spirit to draw together into suffrance the unknown future to the known present; looking no less with the eyes of the mind than those of the body (the one beholding afar off, the other at hand) that those things of the world in which we live be not strange unto us when they approach, as to the feebleness which is moved with novelties. But that like true me participating immortality and knowing our destinies to be of God, we do then make our estates and our wishes, our fortunes and our desires, all one.”

Elizabeth Raleigh

Some years earlier, Bess had importuned Cecil for her husband’s release from prison with these uniquely framed words:

“…Now, Sur, for the rest I hope for my sake you will rather draw sur watar towardes the est then heulp him forward toward the soonsett, if ani respecke to me or love to him be not forgotten. But everi month hath his flower and everi season his contentment, and you great counselares ar so full of new councels, as you ar steddi in nothing; but wee poor soules that hath bought sorrow at a high price desiar and can be plesed with, the same misfortun wee hold, fering alltarracions wil but multiply misseri, of wich we have allredi felte sufficiant. I knoo unly your parswadcions ar of efecke with him, and hild as orrekeles tied to them by Love; therfore I humbelle besiech you rathar stay him than furdar him. By the wich you shall bind me for ever.”

Cecil didn’t help Bess but it wasn’t because he thought her illiterate. The deformed dwarf was always loath to help anyone taller or more famous than himself.

The conclusion to which I am drawn is faintly ridiculous. Reading a lot of brilliant English language books and taking care with your spellings are no help, and may be a hindrance, if you want to release the full potential of your written English. Either that or Shakespeare and his cronies are highly over rated.