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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XIV. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century. II

§ 8. The Golden Book of Marcus Aurelius

To a modern reader, it appears, at first sight, wonderful that the most popular work of the translator of Froissart should have been his rendering of a verbose, didactic book by the Spanish secretary of Charles V, Antonio de Guevara, an author whose involutions of language rapidly captivated fashionable taste in Spain, France and England. Berners has the credit of first introducing him and his style to English readers in The Golden Book of Marcus Aurelius, which so much delighted the polite world that it went through fourteen editions in half a century. The substance of this volume of tedious letters and trite reflections Guevara pretended he had discovered in an old MS., claiming for himself only the merit of bestowing “style” upon the emperor’s writing.

The desire to treat composition as itself an art was beginning to be felt in England, as in other countries, and Berners must have already paid attention to that peculiar manner of writing which, vigorously introduced by translations of which his own was the earliest specimen, was to receive its distinctive epithet from its most perfect example, Euphues.

The prefaces of Berners to his Froissart are his first experiments in the ornate, and not much more successful, though more lavish, than the earlier groping of Caxton. “As said is”; “I pray them that shall default find,” result from his preference of inversion to direct speech, and relative pronouns are a puzzle to him.

Yet perhaps these elaborate prologues are but a fresh outburst of the native love of double terms which hampered every prose writer between Chaucer and Malory. The national bent to cumulative expression must have been a good preparation to the reception of the new style when it came, by the means of translated Guevara, in a flood. What was wanting was the art to weave the customary repetitions of thought, the synonyms, antitheses and alliterative combinations into a balance and harmony of sentences. To this, neither Berners nor his nephew and literary disciple Sir F. Bryan had attained. A comparison of his Golden Book with North’s rendering of it, The Dial of Princes, exhibits the crudity of the efforts of Berners in this style. He can faithfully reproduce the repetitions and run the slight idea to death, but the “sauce of the said sweet style,” as his nephew terms it, lacks savour.