The Restoration marks the beginning of modern prose. The spread of the spirit of common sense and of the critical temper of mind; the love of definiteness and clarity; and of the hatred of the pedantic and obscure have contributed to the development of English prose. The growing interest in rationalism and the advancement of science, various political parties and groups, the Coffee houses and drawing rooms and many other factors contributed to the evolution of modern prose during the Restoration period.
John Dryden (1631-1700) was one of the greatest prose writers of this period. No single item of Dryden’s prose work is of very great length; but in his Essay of Dramatic Poesie (1668), in his numerous dedicatory epistles and prefaces, and in scanty stock of his surviving letters we have a prose corpus of some magnitude. The general subject of his prose work is literary criticism, and that of a sane and vigorous quality. Dryden has been given the credit of inaugurating the new era of English prose. He has also been considered as the father of English prose. He has written it in a clear, reasonable and balanced way. His popularity as a critic is also very great.
JOHN BUNYAN (1628-88) alone contests the supremacy of Dryden in the domain of Restoration prose. His first book Grace Abounding (1666) is a spiritual autobiography dealing with the spiritual history of his birth, childhood and youth. There is sincerity in expression and a remarkable simplicity. The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is his masterpiece. It is an allegory which takes the form of a dream fragment. The whole book is remarkable for a powerful narrative style enriched by beauty, simplicity and vividness of language. Bunyan was the first writer who used a very simple and appealing prose. His other famous works are The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) and The Holy War (1682). Except for Grace Abounding, all Bunyan’s major works are allegorical and in each case the allegory is worked out with ease, force, and clearness.
The diaries of the period are important in terms of style and new form. The Diary of Sir John Pepys (1633-1703) is remarkable for the unaffected naturalness of style and narrative skill and provides an interesting view of the life of Restoration London. John Evelyn‘s Diary was written with an eye on the public. It is a more finished production in the manner of style.
LORD HELIFAX (1633-95) ranks high as orator; as an author his fame rests on a small volume called Miscellanies containing a number of political tracts. In his writings Helifax adopts the manner and attitude of the typical man of the world: a moderation of statement, a cool and agreeably acid humour, and a style devoid of flourishes.
SIR WILLIAM TEMPLE (1628-99) was an example of the moneyed, leisured semi amateur in literature who wrote little but elegantly. His chief works were his LETTERS (1700), MEMOIRS (1691) and MISCELLANA, a series of essays (1680, 1690 & 1701). His style resembles that of Halifax in its mundane, cultured reticence; but sometimes he has higher flights, in which he shows some skill in the handling of melodious and rhythmic prose.
John Locke’s prose was also clear, earnest and without ornament, though it lacks the balance in its sentences which gives Bunyan’s style its charm. But Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding is one of the most important works of English philosophy. It gave a new direction to thought, not only in England but in other countries of Europe.
In some writers of the period we find this desire for unornamented style degenerating into coarseness and ugliness. Such a one is JEREMY COLLIER (1650-1726), who’s Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) caused a great commotion. THOMAS SPRAT (1635-1713) wrote on the newly formed Royal Society in a close, naked, natural way of speaking.
There was a proliferation of scientific writings. The numerous volumes which appeared under the title of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society did much-to pave the way for scientific, matter-of-fact prose.
Though the prose writings of Restoration are not great in bulk, it shows a profound change in style. It acquires a general utility and permanence; it is smoothened and straightened, simplified and harmonised. This is the age of average prose and it prepares the way for the works of Swift and Addison.