Ronald Knox, Prose Stylist

In a review of the recent collection of articles Ronald Knox, A Man for All Seasons (see earlier post), Washington journalist Matthew Walther declares Knox to be the greatest English prose stylist of his time (P G Wodehouse excepted). Several others are considered by Walther but rejected: Lytton Strachey, Logan Pearsall Smith, E. M. Forster and Hugh Trevor-Roper, as well as Waugh himself. The review, entitled “The Last Great Homilist”, appears in the current issue of the Roman Catholic journal, First Things, and opens with Walther quoting Evelyn Waugh in support of his conclusion:

…“Every word you have written and spoken has been pure light to me,” Waugh once told his friend, and it was Waugh who came closer than anyone to explaining the difficulty of assessing a fellow writer who did not “employ a single recognizable idiosyncratic style” or stick to a single genre. “No major writer in our history,” he said, “has ever shown such an extent of accomplishment” as this author of essays, parodies, apologetics, criticism, light verse, and memoirs; scholar and author of detective fiction; ecclesiastical historian; translator; and homilist of genius. He was not entirely right about Knox’s style, though one begins to see what he means. Knox had an unrivaled ear; he could imitate any writer in Greek, Latin, or English. But he was not one of those authors like Trevor-Roper—or Waugh himself during the writing of his memoirs—who gives one the impression of having composed with Gibbon or another exemplar open on his lap. Like Newman’s, his style is at once high—solemn, Augustan, elegant, periodic, musical—and low—breezy, chatty, colloquial—without the slightest hint of discord. It is identifiable and wholly singular.

Walther goes on to regret the neglect of Knox’s prose mastery, noting that very few of his books are in print today and that Waugh complained even in his own day Knox’s books were available only in stores selling religious goods:

One can say without exaggeration that the present volume, a bundle of appreciative essays, correspondence, and unpublished and uncollected writings, will be loved by everyone who opens it. But one also hopes that its appearance, at the centenary of Knox’s reception into the Church, will inspire a wider interest in his life and works.

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