While reading Matthew Henry’s bible commentary, I read the following passage discussing Psalm 42: “Holy love to God as the chief good and our felicity is the power of godliness, the very life and soul of religion, without which all external professions and performances are but a shell and carcase: now here we have some of the expressions of that love.”
And I realized, as I pored over the phrase “felicity is the power godliness,” one reason why I love 19th Century American literature so much – the way the writers use the English language. Even though Henry’s commentary was written in the 18th Century, and even though Henry himself was Welsh, a similar penchant for using the language in decidedly unmodern and beautiful ways permeates his prose and that of my beloved 19th Century American literature.
Following are some examples from 19th Century American texts.
“Robert had a lofty soul, and he could not stoop to all of the follies and absurdities of the ephemeral current of fashionable life.” – Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley
“It was not the first time she had heard an artist at the piano. Perhaps it was the first time she was ready, perhaps the first time her being was tempered to take an impress of the abiding truth.” – The Awakening by Kate Chopin
“The first evening after leaving New Orleans, soon after twilight had let her curtain down, and pinned it with a star, and while I was seated the deck of the boat near the ladies’ cabin, looking upon the rippled waves, and the reflection of the moon upon the sea, all at once I saw the tall young man standing by my side.” – Clotel by William Wells Brown
“This suggests that the standard expenditure which commonly guides our efforts is not the average, ordinary expenditure already achieved; it is an ideal of consumption that lies just beyond our reach, or to reach which requires some strain. The motive is emulation – the stimulus of an invidious comparison which prompts us to outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves.” – Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
These passages exemplify not only beautiful turns of phrase that create clear images, but they also demonstrate how pertinent the authors’ words remain today – fads, beauty, love, and competition speak to the heart of humanity and will always resonate with readers.