Prose: the periodic style


‘For several miles beyond Gaza, the land, freshened by the rains of the last week, was covered with rich verdure, and thickly jewelled with meadow flowers so bright and fragrant that I began to grow almost uneasy—to fancy that the very Desert was receding before me, and that the long-desired adventure of passing its ‘burning sands’ was to end in a mere ride across a field. But as I advanced the true character of the country began to display itself with sufficient clearness to dispel my apprehensions, and before the close of my first day’s journey, I had the gratification of finding that I was surrounded on all sides by a tract of real sand, and had nothing at all to complain of, except that there peeped forth at intervals a few isolated blades of grass, and many of those stunted shrubs which are the accustomed food of the camel.
Before sunset I came up with an encampment of Arabs (the encampment from which my camels had been brought), and my tent was pitched amongst theirs. I was now amongst the true Bedouins.’
A W Kinglake (1844). Eothen, Chapter XVII.

Alexander Kinglake had studied classics at Eton, where he received a grounding in writing in the periodic style. A period is defined by the OED as ‘a grammatically complete sentence, esp. one made up of a number of clauses formed into a balanced or rhythmical whole’ —that is, long sentences with subordinate clauses crafted to keep the narrative flowing without loss of clarity.

Eothen (‘From the Orient’) is about his travels in Turkey, Cyprus, Palestine and Egypt – countries then within the Ottoman Empire. The enforced coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the characters he meets, are entertainingly described. It rewards being read aloud (see earlier post).

This application of a periodic style to English caught the imagination of Winston Churchill as a boy at Harrow, when he read Gibbon and Macaulay. Churchill used it for his own oratory and, according to Lord Birkenhead, he ‘devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches.’

Next post: The periodic style in Latin.

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