“On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” — Robert Louis Stevenson

by Biblioklept

There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art.  All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.  In a similar way, psychology itself, when pushed to any nicety, discovers an abhorrent baldness, but rather from the fault of our analysis than from any poverty native to the mind.  And perhaps in æsthetics the reason is the same: those disclosures which seem fatal to the dignity of art seem so perhaps only in the proportion of our ignorance; and those conscious and unconscious artifices which it seems unworthy of the serious artist to employ were yet, if we had the power to trace them to their springs, indications of a delicacy of the sense finer than we conceive, and hints of ancient harmonies in nature.  This ignorance at least is largely irremediable.  We shall never learn the affinities of beauty, for they lie too deep in nature and too far back in the mysterious history of man.  The amateur, in consequence, will always grudgingly receive details of method, which can be stated but never can wholly be explained; nay, on the principle laid down in Hudibras, that

‘Still the less they understand,
The more they admire the sleight-of-hand,’

many are conscious at each new disclosure of a diminution in the ardour of their pleasure.  I must therefore warn that well-known character, the general reader, that I am here embarked upon a most distasteful business: taking down the picture from the wall and looking on the back; and, like the inquiring child, pulling the musical cart to pieces.

1.  Choice of Words.—The art of literature stands apart from among its sisters, because the material in which the literary artist works is the dialect of life; hence, on the one hand, a strange freshness and immediacy of address to the public mind, which is ready prepared to understand it; but hence, on the other, a singular limitation.  The sister arts enjoy the use of a plastic and ductile material, like the modeller’s clay; literature alone is condemned to work in mosaic with finite and quite rigid words.  You have seen these blocks, dear to the nursery: this one a pillar, that a pediment, a third a window or a vase.  It is with blocks of just such arbitrary size and figure that the literary architect is condemned to design the palace of his art.  Nor is this all; for since these blocks, or words, are the acknowledged currency of our daily affairs, there are here possible none of those suppressions by which other arts obtain relief, continuity, and vigour: no hieroglyphic touch, no smoothed impasto, no inscrutable shadow, as in painting; no blank wall, as in architecture; but every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph must move in a logical progression, and convey a definite conventional import.

Now the first merit which attracts in the pages of a good writer, or the talk of a brilliant conversationalist, is the apt choice and contrast of the words employed.  It is, indeed, a strange art to take these blocks, rudely conceived for the purpose of the market or the bar, and by tact of application touch them to the finest meanings and distinctions, restore to them their primal energy, wittily shift them to another issue, or make of them a drum to rouse the passions.  But though this form of merit is without doubt the most sensible and seizing, it is far from being equally present in all writers.  The effect of words in Shakespeare, their singular justice, significance, and poetic charm, is different, indeed, from the effect of words in Addison or Fielding.  Or, to take an example nearer home, the words in Carlyle seem electrified into an energy of lineament, like the faces of men furiously moved; whilst the words in Macaulay, apt enough to convey his meaning, harmonious enough in sound, yet glide from the memory like undistinguished elements in a general effect.  But the first class of writers have no monopoly of literary merit.  There is a sense in which Addison is superior to Carlyle; a sense in which Cicero is better than Tacitus, in which Voltaire excels Montaigne: it certainly lies not in the choice of words; it lies not in the interest or value of the matter; it lies not in force of intellect, of poetry, or of humour.  The three first are but infants to the three second; and yet each, in a particular point of literary art, excels his superior in the whole.  What is that point?

2.  The Web.—Literature, although it stands apart by reason of the great destiny and general use of its medium in the affairs of men, is yet an art like other arts.  Of these we may distinguish two great classes: those arts, like sculpture, painting, acting, which are representative, or, as used to be said very clumsily, imitative; and those, like architecture, music, and the dance, which are self-sufficient, and merely presentative.  Each class, in right of this distinction, obeys principles apart; yet both may claim a common ground of existence, and it may be said with sufficient justice that the motive and end of any art whatever is to make a pattern; a pattern, it may be, of colours, of sounds, of changing attitudes, geometrical figures, or imitative lines; but still a pattern.  That is the plane on which these sisters meet; it is by this that they are arts; and if it be well they should at times forget their childish origin, addressing their intelligence to virile tasks, and performing unconsciously that necessary function of their life, to make a pattern, it is still imperative that the pattern shall be made.

Music and literature, the two temporal arts, contrive their pattern of sounds in time; or, in other words, of sounds and pauses.  Communication may be made in broken words, the business of life be carried on with substantives alone; but that is not what we call literature; and the true business of the literary artist is to plait or weave his meaning, involving it around itself; so that each sentence, by successive phrases, shall first come into a kind of knot, and then, after a moment of suspended meaning, solve and clear itself.  In every properly constructed sentence there should be observed this knot or hitch; so that (however delicately) we are led to foresee, to expect, and then to welcome the successive phrases.  The pleasure may be heightened by an element of surprise, as, very grossly, in the common figure of the antithesis, or, with much greater subtlety, where an antithesis is first suggested and then deftly evaded.  Each phrase, besides, is to be comely in itself; and between the implication and the evolution of the sentence there should be a satisfying equipoise of sound; for nothing more often disappoints the ear than a sentence solemnly and sonorously prepared, and hastily and weakly finished.  Nor should the balance be too striking and exact, for the one rule is to be infinitely various; to interest, to disappoint, to surprise, and yet still to gratify; to be ever changing, as it were, the stitch, and yet still to give the effect of an ingenious neatness.

The conjurer juggles with two oranges, and our pleasure in beholding him springs from this, that neither is for an instant overlooked or sacrificed.  So with the writer.  His pattern, which is to please the supersensual ear, is yet addressed, throughout and first of all, to the demands of logic.  Whatever be the obscurities, whatever the intricacies of the argument, the neatness of the fabric must not suffer, or the artist has been proved unequal to his design.  And, on the other hand, no form of words must be selected, no knot must be tied among the phrases, unless knot and word be precisely what is wanted to forward and illuminate the argument; for to fail in this is to swindle in the game.  The genius of prose rejects the cheville no less emphatically than the laws of verse; and the cheville, I should perhaps explain to some of my readers, is any meaningless or very watered phrase employed to strike a balance in the sound.  Pattern and argument live in each other; and it is by the brevity, clearness, charm, or emphasis of the second, that we judge the strength and fitness of the first.

Style is synthetic; and the artist, seeking, so to speak, a peg to plait about, takes up at once two or more elements or two or more views of the subject in hand; combines, implicates, and contrasts them; and while, in one sense, he was merely seeking an occasion for the necessary knot, he will be found, in the other, to have greatly enriched the meaning, or to have transacted the work of two sentences in the space of one.  In the change from the successive shallow statements of the old chronicler to the dense and luminous flow of highly synthetic narrative, there is implied a vast amount of both philosophy and wit.  The philosophy we clearly see, recognising in the synthetic writer a far more deep and stimulating view of life, and a far keener sense of the generation and affinity of events.  The wit we might imagine to be lost; but it is not so, for it is just that wit, these perpetual nice contrivances, these difficulties overcome, this double purpose attained, these two oranges kept simultaneously dancing in the air, that, consciously or not, afford the reader his delight.  Nay, and this wit, so little recognised, is the necessary organ of that philosophy which we so much admire.  That style is therefore the most perfect, not, as fools say, which is the most natural, for the most natural is the disjointed babble of the chronicler; but which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication unobtrusively; or if obtrusively, then with the greatest gain to sense and vigour.  Even the derangement of the phrases from their (so-called) natural order is luminous for the mind; and it is by the means of such designed reversal that the elements of a judgment may be most pertinently marshalled, or the stages of a complicated action most perspicuously bound into one.

The web, then, or the pattern: a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style, that is the foundation of the art of literature.  Books indeed continue to be read, for the interest of the fact or fable, in which this quality is poorly represented, but still it will be there.  And, on the other hand, how many do we continue to peruse and reperuse with pleasure whose only merit is the elegance of texture?  I am tempted to mention Cicero; and since Mr. Anthony Trollope is dead, I will.  It is a poor diet for the mind, a very colourless and toothless ‘criticism of life’; but we enjoy the pleasure of a most intricate and dexterous pattern, every stitch a model at once of elegance and of good sense; and the two oranges, even if one of them be rotten, kept dancing with inimitable grace.

Up to this moment I have had my eye mainly upon prose; for though in verse also the implication of the logical texture is a crowning beauty, yet in verse it may be dispensed with.  You would think that here was a death-blow to all I have been saying; and far from that, it is but a new illustration of the principle involved.  For if the versifier is not bound to weave a pattern of his own, it is because another pattern has been formally imposed upon him by the laws of verse.  For that is the essence of a prosody.  Verse may be rhythmical; it may be merely alliterative; it may, like the French, depend wholly on the (quasi) regular recurrence of the rhyme; or, like the Hebrew, it may consist in the strangely fanciful device of repeating the same idea.  It does not matter on what principle the law is based, so it be a law.  It may be pure convention; it may have no inherent beauty; all that we have a right to ask of any prosody is, that it shall lay down a pattern for the writer, and that what it lays down shall be neither too easy nor too hard.  Hence it comes that it is much easier for men of equal facility to write fairly pleasing verse than reasonably interesting prose; for in prose the pattern itself has to be invented, and the difficulties first created before they can be solved.  Hence, again, there follows the peculiar greatness of the true versifier: such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Victor Hugo, whom I place beside them as versifier merely, not as poet.  These not only knit and knot the logical texture of the style with all the dexterity and strength of prose; they not only fill up the pattern of the verse with infinite variety and sober wit; but they give us, besides, a rare and special pleasure, by the art, comparable to that of counterpoint, with which they follow at the same time, and now contrast, and now combine, the double pattern of the texture and the verse.  Here the sounding line concludes; a little further on, the well-knit sentence; and yet a little further, and both will reach their solution on the same ringing syllable.  The best that can be offered by the best writer of prose is to show us the development of the idea and the stylistic pattern proceed hand in hand, sometimes by an obvious and triumphant effort, sometimes with a great air of ease and nature.  The writer of verse, by virtue of conquering another difficulty, delights us with a new series of triumphs.  He follows three purposes where his rival followed only two; and the change is of precisely the same nature as that from melody to harmony.  Or if you prefer to return to the juggler, behold him now, to the vastly increased enthusiasm of the spectators, juggling with three oranges instead of two.  Thus it is: added difficulty, added beauty; and the pattern, with every fresh element, becoming more interesting in itself.

Yet it must not be thought that verse is simply an addition; something is lost as well as something gained; and there remains plainly traceable, in comparing the best prose with the best verse, a certain broad distinction of method in the web.  Tight as the versifier may draw the knot of logic, yet for the ear he still leaves the tissue of the sentence floating somewhat loose.  In prose, the sentence turns upon a pivot, nicely balanced, and fits into itself with an obtrusive neatness like a puzzle.  The ear remarks and is singly gratified by this return and balance; while in verse it is all diverted to the measure.  To find comparable passages is hard; for either the versifier is hugely the superior of the rival, or, if he be not, and still persist in his more delicate enterprise, he fails to be as widely his inferior.  But let us select them from the pages of the same writer, one who was ambidexter; let us take, for instance, Rumour’s Prologue to the Second Part of Henry IV., a fine flourish of eloquence in Shakespeare’s second manner, and set it side by side with Falstaff’s praise of sherris, act iv. scene iii.; or let us compare the beautiful prose spoken throughout by Rosalind and Orlando; compare, for example, the first speech of all, Orlando’s speech to Adam, with what passage it shall please you to select—the Seven Ages from the same play, or even such a stave of nobility as Othello’s farewell to war; and still you will be able to perceive, if you have an ear for that class of music, a certain superior degree of organisation in the prose; a compacter fitting of the parts; a balance in the swing and the return as of a throbbing pendulum.  We must not, in things temporal, take from those who have little, the little that they have; the merits of prose are inferior, but they are not the same; it is a little kingdom, but an independent.

3.  Rhythm of the Phrase.—Some way back, I used a word which still awaits an application.  Each phrase, I said, was to be comely; but what is a comely phrase?  In all ideal and material points, literature, being a representative art, must look for analogies to painting and the like; but in what is technical and executive, being a temporal art, it must seek for them in music.  Each phrase of each sentence, like an air or a recitative in music, should be so artfully compounded out of long and short, out of accented and unaccented, as to gratify the sensual ear.  And of this the ear is the sole judge.  It is impossible to lay down laws.  Even in our accentual and rhythmic language no analysis can find the secret of the beauty of a verse; how much less, then, of those phrases, such as prose is built of, which obey no law but to be lawless and yet to please?  The little that we know of verse (and for my part I owe it all to my friend Professor Fleeming Jenkin) is, however, particularly interesting in the present connection.  We have been accustomed to describe the heroic line as five iambic feet, and to be filled with pain and confusion whenever, as by the conscientious schoolboy, we have heard our own description put in practice.

‘All night | the dreàd | less àn | gel ùn | pursùed,’

goes the schoolboy; but though we close our ears, we cling to our definition, in spite of its proved and naked insufficiency.  Mr. Jenkin was not so easily pleased, and readily discovered that the heroic line consists of four groups, or, if you prefer the phrase, contains four pauses:

‘All night | the dreadless | angel | unpursued.’

Four groups, each practically uttered as one word: the first, in this case, an iamb; the second, an amphibrachys; the third, a trochee; and the fourth, an amphimacer; and yet our schoolboy, with no other liberty but that of inflicting pain, had triumphantly scanned it as five iambs.  Perceive, now, this fresh richness of intricacy in the web; this fourth orange, hitherto unremarked, but still kept flying with the others.  What had seemed to be one thing it now appears is two; and, like some puzzle in arithmetic, the verse is made at the same time to read in fives and to read in fours.

But again, four is not necessary.  We do not, indeed, find verses in six groups, because there is not room for six in the ten syllables; and we do not find verses of two, because one of the main distinctions of verse from prose resides in the comparative shortness of the group; but it is even common to find verses of three.  Five is the one forbidden number; because five is the number of the feet; and if five were chosen, the two patterns would coincide, and that opposition which is the life of verse would instantly be lost.  We have here a clue to the effect of polysyllables, above all in Latin, where they are so common and make so brave an architecture in the verse; for the polysyllable is a group of Nature’s making.  If but some Roman would return from Hades (Martial, for choice), and tell me by what conduct of the voice these thundering verses should be uttered—‘Aut Lacedæmonium Tarentum,’ for a case in point—I feel as if I should enter at last into the full enjoyment of the best of human verses.

But, again, the five feet are all iambic, or supposed to be; by the mere count of syllables the four groups cannot be all iambic; as a question of elegance, I doubt if any one of them requires to be so; and I am certain that for choice no two of them should scan the same.  The singular beauty of the verse analysed above is due, so far as analysis can carry us, part, indeed, to the clever repetition of L, D, and N, but part to this variety of scansion in the groups.  The groups which, like the bar in music, break up the verse for utterance, fall uniambically; and in declaiming a so-called iambic verse, it may so happen that we never utter one iambic foot.  And yet to this neglect of the original beat there is a limit.

‘Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts,’

is, with all its eccentricities, a good heroic line; for though it scarcely can be said to indicate the beat of the iamb, it certainly suggests no other measure to the ear.  But begin

‘Mother Athens, eye of Greece,’

or merely ‘Mother Athens,’ and the game is up, for the trochaic beat has been suggested.  The eccentric scansion of the groups is an adornment; but as soon as the original beat has been forgotten, they cease implicitly to be eccentric.  Variety is what is sought; but if we destroy the original mould, one of the terms of this variety is lost, and we fall back on sameness.  Thus, both as to the arithmetical measure of the verse, and the degree of regularity in scansion, we see the laws of prosody to have one common purpose: to keep alive the opposition of two schemes simultaneously followed; to keep them notably apart, though still coincident; and to balance them with such judicial nicety before the reader, that neither shall be unperceived and neither signally prevail.

The rule of rhythm in prose is not so intricate.  Here, too, we write in groups, or phrases, as I prefer to call them, for the prose phrase is greatly longer and is much more nonchalantly uttered than the group in verse; so that not only is there a greater interval of continuous sound between the pauses, but, for that very reason, word is linked more readily to word by a more summary enunciation.  Still, the phrase is the strict analogue of the group, and successive phrases, like successive groups, must differ openly in length and rhythm.  The rule of scansion in verse is to suggest no measure but the one in hand; in prose, to suggest no measure at all.  Prose must be rhythmical, and it may be as much so as you will; but it must not be metrical.  It may be anything, but it must not be verse.  A single heroic line may very well pass and not disturb the somewhat larger stride of the prose style; but one following another will produce an instant impression of poverty, flatness, and disenchantment.  The same lines delivered with the measured utterance of verse would perhaps seem rich in variety.  By the more summary enunciation proper to prose, as to a more distant vision, these niceties of difference are lost.  A whole verse is uttered as one phrase; and the ear is soon wearied by a succession of groups identical in length.  The prose writer, in fact, since he is allowed to be so much less harmonious, is condemned to a perpetually fresh variety of movement on a larger scale, and must never disappoint the ear by the trot of an accepted metre.  And this obligation is the third orange with which he has to juggle, the third quality which the prose writer must work into his pattern of words.  It may be thought perhaps that this is a quality of ease rather than a fresh difficulty; but such is the inherently rhythmical strain of the English language, that the bad writer—and must I take for example that admired friend of my boyhood, Captain Reid?—the inexperienced writer, as Dickens in his earlier attempts to be impressive, and the jaded writer, as any one may see for himself, all tend to fall at once into the production of bad blank verse.  And here it may be pertinently asked, Why bad?  And I suppose it might be enough to answer that no man ever made good verse by accident, and that no verse can ever sound otherwise than trivial when uttered with the delivery of prose.  But we can go beyond such answers.  The weak side of verse is the regularity of the beat, which in itself is decidedly less impressive than the movement of the nobler prose; and it is just into this weak side, and this alone, that our careless writer falls.  A peculiar density and mass, consequent on the nearness of the pauses, is one of the chief good qualities of verse; but this our accidental versifier, still following after the swift gait and large gestures of prose, does not so much as aspire to imitate.  Lastly, since he remains unconscious that he is making verse at all, it can never occur to him to extract those effects of counterpoint and opposition which I have referred to as the final grace and justification of verse, and, I may add, of blank verse in particular.

4.  Contents of the Phrase.—Here is a great deal of talk about rhythm—and naturally; for in our canorous language rhythm is always at the door.  But it must not be forgotten that in some languages this element is almost, if not quite, extinct, and that in our own it is probably decaying.  The even speech of many educated Americans sounds the note of danger.  I should see it go with something as bitter as despair, but I should not be desperate.  As in verse no element, not even rhythm, is necessary, so, in prose also, other sorts of beauty will arise and take the place and play the part of those that we outlive.  The beauty of the expected beat in verse, the beauty in prose of its larger and more lawless melody, patent as they are to English hearing, are already silent in the ears of our next neighbours; for in France the oratorical accent and the pattern of the web have almost or altogether succeeded to their places; and the French prose writer would be astounded at the labours of his brother across the Channel, and how a good quarter of his toil, above all invita Minerva, is to avoid writing verse.  So wonderfully far apart have races wandered in spirit, and so hard it is to understand the literature next door!

Yet French prose is distinctly better than English; and French verse, above all while Hugo lives, it will not do to place upon one side.  What is more to our purpose, a phrase or a verse in French is easily distinguishable as comely or uncomely.  There is then another element of comeliness hitherto overlooked in this analysis: the contents of the phrase.  Each phrase in literature is built of sounds, as each phrase in music consists of notes.  One sound suggests, echoes, demands, and harmonises with another; and the art of rightly using these concordances is the final art in literature.  It used to be a piece of good advice to all young writers to avoid alliteration; and the advice was sound, in so far as it prevented daubing.  None the less for that, was it abominable nonsense, and the mere raving of those blindest of the blind who will not see.  The beauty of the contents of a phrase, or of a sentence, depends implicitly upon alliteration and upon assonance.  The vowel demands to be repeated; the consonant demands to be repeated; and both cry aloud to be perpetually varied.  You may follow the adventures of a letter through any passage that has particularly pleased you; find it, perhaps, denied a while, to tantalise the ear; find it fired again at you in a whole broadside; or find it pass into congenerous sounds, one liquid or labial melting away into another.  And you will find another and much stranger circumstance.  Literature is written by and for two senses: a sort of internal ear, quick to perceive ‘unheard melodies’; and the eye, which directs the pen and deciphers the printed phrase.  Well, even as there are rhymes for the eye, so you will find that there are assonances and alliterations; that where an author is running the open A, deceived by the eye and our strange English spelling, he will often show a tenderness for the flat A; and that where he is running a particular consonant, he will not improbably rejoice to write it down even when it is mute or bears a different value.

Here, then, we have a fresh pattern—a pattern, to speak grossly, of letters—which makes the fourth preoccupation of the prose writer, and the fifth of the versifier.  At times it is very delicate and hard to perceive, and then perhaps most excellent and winning (I say perhaps); but at times again the elements of this literal melody stand more boldly forward and usurp the ear.  It becomes, therefore, somewhat a matter of conscience to select examples; and as I cannot very well ask the reader to help me, I shall do the next best by giving him the reason or the history of each selection.  The two first, one in prose, one in verse, I chose without previous analysis, simply as engaging passages that had long re-echoed in my ear.

‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.’ Down to ‘virtue,’ the current S and R are both announced and repeated unobtrusively, and by way of a grace-note that almost inseparable group PVF is given entire. The next phrase is a period of repose, almost ugly in itself, both S and R still audible, and B given as the last fulfilment of PVF.  In the next four phrases, from ‘that never’ down to ‘run for,’ the mask is thrown off, and, but for a slight repetition of the F and V, the whole matter turns, almost too obtrusively, on S and R; first S coming to the front, and then R.  In the concluding phrase all these favourite letters, and even the flat A, a timid preference for which is just perceptible, are discarded at a blow and in a bundle; and to make the break more obvious, every word ends with a dental, and all but one with T, for which we have been cautiously prepared since the beginning.  The singular dignity of the first clause, and this hammer-stroke of the last, go far to make the charm of this exquisite sentence.  But it is fair to own that S and R are used a little coarsely.

‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan (KĂNDL)
   A stately pleasure dome decree, (KDLSR)
Where Alph the sacred river ran, (KĂNDLSR)
Through caverns measureless to man, (KĂNLSR)
   Down to a sunless sea.’ (NDLS)

Here I have put the analysis of the main group alongside the lines; and the more it is looked at, the more interesting it will seem.  But there are further niceties.  In lines two and four, the current S is most delicately varied with Z.  In line three, the current flat A is twice varied with the open A, already suggested in line two, and both times (‘where’ and ‘sacred’) in conjunction with the current R.  In the same line F and V (a harmony in themselves, even when shorn of their comrade P) are admirably contrasted.  And in line four there is a marked subsidiary M, which again was announced in line two.  I stop from weariness, for more might yet be said.

My next example was recently quoted from Shakespeare as an example of the poet’s colour sense.  Now, I do not think literature has anything to do with colour, or poets anyway the better of such a sense; and I instantly attacked this passage, since ‘purple’ was the word that had so pleased the writer of the article, to see if there might not be some literary reason for its use.  It will be seen that I succeeded amply; and I am bound to say I think the passage exceptional in Shakespeare—exceptional, indeed, in literature; but it was not I who chose it.

‘The BaRge she sat iN, like a BURNished throNe
BURNT oN the water: the POOP was BeateN gold,
PURPle the sails and so PUR* Fumèd that     * per
The wiNds were love-sick with them.’

It may be asked why I have put the F of ‘perfumèd’ in capitals; and I reply, because this change from P to F is the completion of that from B to P, already so adroitly carried out.  Indeed, the whole passage is a monument of curious ingenuity; and it seems scarce worth while to indicate the subsidiary S, L, and W.  In the same article, a second passage from Shakespeare was quoted, once again as an example of his colour sense:

‘A mole cinque-spotted like the crimson drops
I’ the bottom of a cowslip.’

It is very curious, very artificial, and not worth while to analyse at length: I leave it to the reader.  But before I turn my back on Shakespeare, I should like to quote a passage, for my own pleasure, and for a very model of every technical art:

But in the wind and tempest of her frown,
W. P. V. F. (st) (ow)
Distinction with a loud and powerful fan,
W. P. F. (st) (ow) L.

Puffing at all, winnows the light away;
W. P. F. L.
And what hath mass and matter by itself
W. F. L. M. A.
Lies rich in virtue and unmingled.’
V. L. M.

From these delicate and choice writers I turned with some curiosity to a player of the big drum—Macaulay.  I had in hand the two-volume edition, and I opened at the beginning of the second volume.  Here was what I read:

‘The violence of revolutions is generally proportioned to the degree of the maladministration which has produced them.  It is therefore not strange that the government of Scotland, having been during many years greatly more corrupt than the government of England, should have fallen with a far heavier ruin.  The movement against the last king of the house of Stuart was in England conservative, in Scotland destructive.  The English complained not of the law, but of the violation of the law.’

This was plain-sailing enough; it was our old friend PVF, floated by the liquids in a body; but as I read on, and turned the page, and still found PVF with his attendant liquids, I confess my mind misgave me utterly.  This could be no trick of Macaulay’s; it must be the nature of the English tongue.  In a kind of despair, I turned half-way through the volume; and coming upon his lordship dealing with General Cannon, and fresh from Claverhouse and Killiecrankie, here, with elucidative spelling, was my reward:

‘Meanwhile the disorders of Kannon’s Kamp went on inKreasing.  He Kalled a Kouncil of war to Konsider what Kourse it would be advisable to taKe.  But as soon as the Kouncil had met, a preliminary Kuestion was raised.  The army was almost eKsKlusively a Highland army.  The recent vKktory had been won eKsKlusively by Highland warriors.  Great chiefs who had brought siKs or Seven hundredfighting men into the field did not think it fair that they should be outvoted by gentlemen from Ireland, and from the Low Kountries, who bore indeed King James’s Kommission, and were Kalled Kolonels and Kaptains, but who were Kolonels without regiments and Kaptains without Kompanies.’

A moment of FV in all this world of K’s!  It was not the English language, then, that was an instrument of one string, but Macaulay that was an incomparable dauber.

It was probably from this barbaric love of repeating the same sound, rather than from any design of clearness, that he acquired his irritating habit of repeating words; I say the one rather than the other, because such a trick of the ear is deeper-seated and more original in man than any logical consideration.  Few writers, indeed, are probably conscious of the length to which they push this melody of letters.  One, writing very diligently, and only concerned about the meaning of his words and the rhythm of his phrases, was struck into amazement by the eager triumph with which he cancelled one expression to substitute another.  Neither changed the sense; both being mono-syllables, neither could affect the scansion; and it was only by looking back on what he had already written that the mystery was solved: the second word contained an open A, and for nearly half a page he had been riding that vowel to the death.

In practice, I should add, the ear is not always so exacting; and ordinary writers, in ordinary moments, content themselves with avoiding what is harsh, and here and there, upon a rare occasion, buttressing a phrase, or linking two together, with a patch of assonance or a momentary jingle of alliteration.  To understand how constant is this preoccupation of good writers, even where its results are least obtrusive, it is only necessary to turn to the bad.  There, indeed, you will find cacophony supreme, the rattle of incongruous consonants only relieved by the jaw-breaking hiatus, and whole phrases not to be articulated by the powers of man.

Conclusion.—We may now briefly enumerate the elements of style.  We have, peculiar to the prose writer, the task of keeping his phrases large, rhythmical, and pleasing to the ear, without ever allowing them to fall into the strictly metrical: peculiar to the versifier, the task of combining and contrasting his double, treble, and quadruple pattern, feet and groups, logic and metre—harmonious in diversity: common to both, the task of artfully combining the prime elements of language into phrases that shall be musical in the mouth; the task of weaving their argument into a texture of committed phrases and of rounded periods—but this particularly binding in the case of prose: and, again common to both, the task of choosing apt, explicit, and communicative words.  We begin to see now what an intricate affair is any perfect passage; how many faculties, whether of taste or pure reason, must be held upon the stretch to make it; and why, when it is made, it should afford us so complete a pleasure.  From the arrangement of according letters, which is altogether arabesque and sensual, up to the architecture of the elegant and pregnant sentence, which is a vigorous act of the pure intellect, there is scarce a faculty in man but has been exercised.  We need not wonder, then, if perfect sentences are rare, and perfect pages rarer.

 

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