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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
On the Art of Writing
> VI. On the Capital Difficulty of Prose
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
On the Art of Writing.
On the Capital Difficulty of Prose
Thursday, May 15
Gentlemen, leaving the Vanity Fair of Jargon behind us, we have to essay a difficult country; of which, though fairly confident of his compass-bearings, your guide confesses, that wide tracts lie outside his knowledgeoutside of anything that can properly be called his knowledge. I feel indeed somewhat as Gideon must have felt when he divided his host on the slopes of Mount Gilead, warning back all who were afraid. In asking the remnant to follow as attentively as they can, I promise only that, if Heaven carry us safely across, we shall have broken the back of the desert.
In my last lecture but one, then,and before our small interlude with Jargonthe argument had carried us, more or less neatly, up to this point: that the capital difficulty of verse consisted in saying ordinary unemotional things, of bridging the flat intervals between high moments. This point, I believe, we made effectively enough.
Now, for logical neatness, we should be able to oppose a corresponding point, that the capital difficulty of prose consists in saying extraordinary things, in running it up from its proper level to these high emotional, musical, moments. And mightily convenient that would be, Gentlemen, if I were here to help you to answer scientific questions about prose and verse instead of helping you, in what small degree I can, to write. But in Literature (which, let me remind you yet once again, is an art) you cannot classify as in a science.
Pray attend while I impress on you this most necessary warning. In studying literature, and still more in studying to write it, distrust all classification! All classifying of literature intrudes science upon an art, and is artificially scientific; a trick of pedants, that they may make it the easier to examine you on things with which no man should have any earthly concern, as I am sure he will never have a heavenly one. Beetles, minerals, gases, may be classified; and to have them classified is not only convenient but a genuine advance of knowledge. But if you had to
a beetle, as men are making poetry, how much would classification help? To classify in a science is necessary for the purpose of that science: to classify when you come to art is at the best an expedient, useful to some critics and to a multitude of examiners. It serves the art-critic to talk about Tuscan, Flemish, Pre-Raphaelite, schools of painting. The expressions are handy, and we know more or less what they intend. Just so handily it may serve us to talk about Renaissance poets, the Elizabethans, the Augustan age. But such terms at best cannot be scientific, precise, determinate, as for examples the terms inorganic, mammal, univalve, Old Red Sandstone are scientific, precise, determinate. An animal is either a mammal or it is not: you cannot say as assuredly that a man is or is not an Elizabethan. We call Shakespeare an Elizabethan and the greatest of Elizabethans, though as a fact he wrote his most famous plays when Elizabeth was dead. Shirley was but seven years old when Elizabeth died; yet (if Elizabethan have any meaning but a chronological one) Shirley belongs to the Elizabethan firmament, albeit but as a pale star low on the horizon: whereas Donnea post-Elizabethan if ever there was onehad by 1603 reached his thirtieth year and written almost every line of those wonderful lyrics which for a good sixty years gave the dominant note to Jacobean and Caroline poetry.
In treating of an art we classify for handiness, not for purposes of exact knowledge; and man (
) with his wicked inventions is for ever making fools of our formulae. Be consoledand, if you are wise, thank Heaventhat genius uses our best-laid logic to explode it.
Be consoled, at any rate, on finding that after deciding the capital difficulty of prose to lie in saying extraordinary things, in running up to the high emotional moments, the prose-writers explode and blow our admirable conclusions to ruins.
You see, we gave them the chance to astonish us when we defined prose as a record of human thought, dispensing with metre and using rhythm laxly. When you give genius leave to use something laxly, at its will, genius will pretty surely get the better of you.
Observe, now, following the story of English prose, what has happened. Its difficultythe inherent, the native disability of proseis to handle the high emotional moments which more properly belong to verse. Well, we strike into the line of our prose-writers, say as early as Malory. We come on this; of the Passing of Arthur:
My time hieth fast, said the king. Therefore said Arthur unto Sir Bedivere, Take thou Excalibur my good sword, and go with it to yonder water side; and when thou comest there I charge thee throw my sword in that water and come again and tell me what there thou seest. My lord, said Bedivere, Your commandment shall be done; and lightly bring you word again. So Sir Bedivere departed, and by the way he beheld that noble sword, that the pommel and the haft was all of precious stones, and then he said to himself, If I throw this rich sword in the water, thereof shall never come good, but harm and loss. And then Sir Bedivere hid Excaliber under a tree. And so, as soon as he might, he came again unto the king, and said he had been at the water and had thrown the sword into the water, What saw thou there? said the king, Sir, he said, I saw nothing but waves and winds.
Now I might say a dozen things of this and of the whole passage that follows, down to Arthurs last words. Specially might I speak to you of the music of its monosyllablesWhat sawest you there? said the king Do as well as thou mayest; for in me is no trust for to trust in. For I will into the Vale of Avilion, to heal me of my grievous wound. And if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul. But, before making comment at all, I shall quote you another passage; this from Lord Berners translation of Froissart, of the death of Robert Bruce:
It fortuned that King Robert of Scotland was right sore aged and feeble: for he was greatly charged with the great sickness, so that there was no way for him but death. And when he felt that his end drew near, he sent for such barons and lords of his realm as he trusted best, and shewed them how there was no remedy with him, but he must needs leave this transitory life. Then he called to him the gentle knight, Sir William Douglas, and said before all the lords, Sir William, my dear friend, ye know well that I have had much ado in my days to uphold and sustain the right of this realm; and when I had most ado I made a solemn vow, the which as yet I have not accomplished, whereof I am right sorry; the which was, if I might achieve and make an end of all my wars, so that I might once have brought this realm in rest and peace, then I promised in my mind to have gone and warred on Christs enemies, adversaries to our holy Christian faith. To this purpose mine heart hath ever intended, but our Lord would not consent thereto And sith it is so that my body can not go, nor achieve that my heart desireth, I will send the heart instead of the body, to accomplish mine avow I will, that as soon as I am trespassed out of this world, that ye take my heart out of my body, and embalm it, and take of my treasure as ye shall think sufficient for that enterprise, both for yourself and such company as ye will take with you, and present my heart to the Holy Sepulchre, whereas our Lord lay, seeing my body can not come there. And take with you such company and purveyance as shall be appertaining to your estate. And, wheresoever ye come, let it be known how ye carry with you the heart of King Robert of Scotland, at his instance and desire to be presented to the Holy Sepulchre. Then all the lords, that heard these words, wept for pity.
There, in the fifteenth century and early in the sixteenth, you have Malory and Berners writing beautiful English prose; prose the emotion of which (I dare to say) you must recognise if you have ears to hear. So you see that already our English prose not only achieves the high moment, but seems to obey it rather and be lifted by it, until we ask ourselves, Who could help writing nobly, having to tell how King Arthur died or how the Bruce? Yes, but I bid you observe that Malory and Berners are both relating what, however noble, is quite simple, quite straightforward. It is when prose attempts to
as well as to relate simple sayings and doingsit is then
the trouble begins. When Malory has to philosophise death, to
about it, this is as far as he attains:
Ah, Sir Lancelot, said he, thou wert head of all Christian Knights! And now I dare say, said Sir Ector, that, Sir Lancelot, there thou liest, thou were never matched of none earthly hands; and thou were the curtiest knight that ever bare shield: and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever strood horse, and thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman; and thou were the kindest man that ever strooke with sword; and thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights; and thou were the meekest man and gentlest that ever sat in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest Knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.
Beautiful again, I grant! But note you that, eloquent as he can be on the virtues of his dead friend, when Sir Ector comes to the thought of death itself all he can accomplish is, And now I dare say that, Sir Lancelot, there thou liest.
Let us make a leap in time and contrast this with Tyndale and the translators of our Bible, how they are able to make St Paul speak of death:
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
There you have something clean beyond what Malory or Berners could compass: there you have a different kind of high momenta high moment of philosophising: there you have emotion impregnated with thought. It was necessary that our English verse even after Chaucer, our English prose after Malory and Berners, should overcome this most difficult gap (which stands for a real intellectual difference) if it aspired to be what to-day it isa language of the first class, comparable with Greek and certainly no whit inferior to Latin or French.
* * * * *
Let us leave prose for a moment, and see how Verse threw its bridge over the gap. If you would hear the note of Chaucer at its deepest, you will find it in the famous exquisite lines of the Prioress Prologue:
O moder mayde! O maydë moder fre!
O bush unbrent, brenning in Moyses sight!
in the complaint of Troilus, in the rapture of Griselda restored to her children:
O tendre, O dere, O yongë children myne,
Your woful moder wendë stedfastly
That cruel houndës or some foul vermyne
Hadde eten you; but God of his mercy
And your benignë fader tendrely
Hath doon you kept
You will find a note quite as sincere in many a carol, many a ballad, of that time:
He came al so still
There his mother was,
As dew in April
That falleth on the grass.
He came al so still
To his mothers bour,
As dew in April
That falleth on the flour.
He came al so still
There his mother lay,
As dew in April
That falleth on the spray.
Mother and maiden
Was never none but she;
Well may such a lady
Goddes mother be.
You get the most emotional note of the Ballad in such a stanza as this, from
The Nut-Brown Maid:
Though it be sung of old and young
That I should be to blame,
Theirs be the charge that speak so large
In hurting of my name;
For I will prove that faithful love
It is devoid of shame;
In your distress and heaviness
To part with you the same:
And sure all tho that do not so
True lovers are they none:
For, in my mind, of all mankind
I love but you alone.
All these notes, again, you will admit to be exquisite: but they gush straight from the unsophisticated heart: they are nowise deep save in innocent emotion: they are not
So when Barbour breaks out in praise of Freedom, he cries
A! Fredome is a noble thing!
And that is really as far as he gets. He goes on
Fredome mayse man to hafe liking.
(Freedom makes man to choose what he likes; that is, makes him free)
Fredome all solace to man giffis,
He livis at ese that frely livis!
A noble hart may haif nane ese,
Na ellys nocht that may him plese,
Gif fredome failth: for fre liking
Is yharnit ouer all othir thing
and so on for many lines; all saying the same thing, that man yearns for Freedom and is glad when he gets it, because then he is free; all hammering out the same observed fact, but all knocking vainly on the door of thought, which never opens to explain what Freedom
Now let us take a leap as we did with prose, and taking off from the Nut-Brown Maids artless confession,
in my mind, of all mankind
I love but you alone,
let us alight on a sonnet of Shakespeares
Thy bosom is endearéd with all hearts
Which I by lacking have supposéd dead:
And there reigns Love, and all Loves loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought buriéd.
How many a holy and obsequious tear
Hath dear religious love stolen from mine eye
As interest of the dead!which now appear
But things removed, that hidden in thee lie.
Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give;
That due of many now is mine alone:
Their images I loved I view in thee,
And thou, all they, hast all the all of me.
What a new way of talking about love! Not a happier waythere is less of hearts-ease in these doubts, delicacies, subtletiesbut how much more thoughtful! How has our Nut-Brown Maid eaten of the tree of knowledge!
Well, there happened a Shakespeare, to do this for English Verse: and Shakespeare was a miracle which I cheerfully leave others to rationalise for you, having, for my own part and so far as I have fared in life, found more profit in a capacity for simple wonder.
But I can tell you how the path was made straight to that miracle. The shock of the New Learning upon Europe awoke men and unsealed mens eyesunsealed the eyes of Englishmen in particularto discover a literature, and the finest in the world, which
habitually philosophised life:
a literature which, whether in a chorus of Sophocles or a talk reported by Plato, or in a ribald page of Aristophanes or in a knotty chapter of Thucydides, was in one guise or another for ever asking
What is man doing here, and
is he doing it? What is his purpose? his destiny? How stands he towards those unseen powerscall them the gods, or whatever you willthat guide and thwart, provoke, madden, control him so mysteriously? What are these things we call good and evil, life, love, death?
These are questions which, once raised, haunt Man until he finds an answersome sort of answer to satisfy him. Englishmen, hitherto content with the Churchs answers but now aware of this great literature which answered so differentlyand having other reasons to suspect what the Church said and didgrew aware that their literature had been as a child at play. It had never philosophised good and evil, life, love or death: it had no literary forms for doing this; it had not even the vocabulary. So our ancestors saw that to catch up their lee-wayto make their report worthy of this wonderful, alluring discoverynew literary forms had to be inventednew, that is, in English: the sonnet, the drama, the verse in which the actors were to declaim, the essay, the invented tale. Then, for the vocabulary, obviously our fathers had either to go to Greek, which had invented the A.B.C. of philosophising; or to seek in the other languages which were already ahead of English in adapting that alphabet; or to give our English Words new contents, new connotations, new meanings; or lastly, to do all three together.
Well, it was done; and in verse very fortunately done; thanks of course to many men, but thanks to two especiallyto Sir Thomas Wyat, who led our poets to Italy, to study and adopt the forms in which Italy had cast its classical heritage; and to Marlowe, who impressed blank verse upon the drama. Of Marlowe I shall say nothing; for with what he achieved you are familiar enough. Of Wyat I may speak at length to you, one of these days; but here, to prepare you for what I hope to provethat Wyat is one of the heroes of our literatureI will give you three brief reasons why we should honour his memory:
(1) He led the way. On the value of that service I shall content myself with quoting a passage from Newman:
When a language has been cultivated in any particular department of thought, and so far as it has been generally perfected, an existing want has been supplied, and there is no need for further workmen. In its earliest times, while it is yet unformed, to write in it at all is almost a work of genius. It is like crossing a country before roads are made communicating between place and place. The authors of that age deserve to be Classics both because of what they do and because they can do it. It requires the courage and force of great talent to compose in the language at all; and the composition, when effected, makes a permanent impression on it.
This Wyat did. He was a pioneer and opened up a new country to Englishmen. But he did more.
(2) Secondly, he had the instinct to perceive that the lyric, if it would philosophise life, love, and the rest, must boldly introduce the personal note: since in fact when man asks questions about his fortune or destiny he asks them most effectively in the first person. What am
doing? Why are
mortal? Why do
This again Wyat did: and again he did more.
For (3) thirdlyand because of this I am surest of his geniusagain and again, using new thoughts in unfamiliar forms, he wrought out the result in language so direct, economical, natural, easy, that I know to this day no one who can better Wyats best in combining straight speech with melodious cadence. Take the lines
Is it possible?
Is it possible?
For to turn so oft;
To bring that lowest that was most aloft:
And to fall highest, yet to light soft?
Is it possible?
All is possible!
Whoso list believe;
Trust therefore first, and after preve;
As men wed ladies by licence and leave,
All is possible!
Forget not! O forget not this!
How long ago hath been, and is,
The mind that never meant amiss:
Forget not yet!
or again (can personal note go straighter?)
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay, for shame!
To save thee from the blame
Of all my grief and grame.
And wilt thou leave me thus?
Say nay! say nay!
No: I have yet to mention the straightest, most natural of them all, and will read it to you in full
What should I say?
Since Faith is dead
And Truth away
From you is fled?
Should I be led
Nay! nay! mistress.
I promised you
And you promised me
To be as true
As I would be:
But since I see
Your double heart,
Farewell my part!
Thought for to take
Is not my mind;
But to forsake
One so unkind;
And as I find,
So will I trust,
Can ye say nay
But that you said
That I alway
Should be obeyed?
Or that I wist!
I observe it noted on p. 169 of Volume iii of
The Cambridge History of English Literature
that Wyat was a pioneer and perfection was not to be expected of him. He has been described as a man stumbling over obstacles, continually falling but always pressing forward. I know not to what wiseacre we owe that pronouncement: but what do you think of it, after the lyric I have just quoted? I observe, further, on p. 23 of the same volume of the same work, that the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., Principal of the Glasgow College of the United Free Church of Scotland, informs us of Wilsons
Arte of Rhetorique
there is little or no originality in the volume, save, perhaps, the authors condemnation of the use of French and Italian phrases and idioms, which he complains are counterfeiting the kinges Englishe. The warnings of Wilson will not seem untimely if to be remembered that the earlier English poets of the periodSir Thomas Wyatt the elder, and the Earl of Surreydrew their inspiration from Petrarch and Ariosto, that their earlier attempts at poetry were translations from Italian sonnets, and that their maturer efforts were imitations of the sweet and stately measures and style of Italian poesie. The polish which men like Wyatt and Surrey were praised for giving to our rude and homely manner of vulgar poesie might have led to some degeneration.
Might it, indeed? As another Dominie would have said, Pro-digious.
But I have lingered too long with this favourite poet of mine and left myself room only to hand you the thread by following which you will come to the melodious philosophising of Shakespeares Sonnets
Let me not to the marriage of true Minds
Admit impediment. Love is not love
Which alters where it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Note the Latin words impediment, alteration, remove. We are using the language of philosophy here or, rather, the universal language, which had taken over the legacy of Greek. You may trace the use of it growing as, for example, you trace it through the Elizabethan song-books: and then (as I said) comes Shakespeare, and with Shakespeare the miracle.
The education of Prose was more difficult, and went through more violent convulsions. I suppose that the most of usif, after reading a quantity of Elizabethan prose, we had the courage to tell plain truth, undaunted by the name of a great epochwould confess to finding the mass of it clotted in sense as well as unmusical in sound, a disappointment almost intolerable after the simple melodious clarity of Malory and Berners. I, at any rate, must own that the most of Elizabethan prose pleases me little; and I speak not of Elizabethan prose at its worst, of such stuff as disgraced the already disgraceful Martin Marprelate Controversy, but of such as a really ingenious and ingenuous man like Thomas Nashe could write at his average. For a sample:
English Seneca read by candle-light yields many good sentences such as Blood is a beggar and so forth; and if you entreat him fair on a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches Sufficeth them [that is, modern followers of Seneca] to bodge up a blank verse with ifs and ands, and others, while for recreation after their candle-stuff, having starched their beards most curiously, to make a peripatetical path into the inner parts of the city, and spend two or three hours in turning over the French
where they attract more infection in one minute than they can do eloquence all the days of their life by conversing with any authors of like argument.
This may be worth studying historically, to understand the difficulties our prose had to encounter and overcome. But no one would seriously propose it as a model for those who would write well, which is our present business. I have called it clotted. It is, to use a word of the time, farced with conceits; it needs straining.
Its one merit consists in this, that it is struggling, fumbling, to say something: that is, to
something. It is not, like modern Jargon, trying to dodge something. English prose, in short, just here is passing through a period of puberty, of green sickness: and, looking at it historically, we may own that its throes are commensurate with the stature of the grown man to be.
These throes tear it every way. On the one hand we have Ascham, pendantically enough, apologising that he writes in the English tongue (yet with a sure instinct he does it):
If any man would blame me, either for taking such a matter in hand, or else for writing it in the English tongue, this answer I may make him, that what the best of the realm think it honest for them to use, I, one of the meanest sort, ought not to suppose it vile for me to write And as for the Latin or Greek tongue, everything is so excellently done in them that none can do better. In the English tongue, contrary, everything in a manner so meanly, both for the matter and the handling, that no man can do worse.
On the other hand you have Euphuism with its antithetical tricks and poises, taking all prose by storm for a time: Euphuism, to be revived two hundred years later, and find a new avatar in the Johnsonian balance; Euphuism, dead now, yet alive enough in its day.
For all these writers were alive: and I tell you it is an inspiriting thing to be alive and trying to write English. All these authors were alive and trying to
something. Unconsciously for the most part they were striving to philosophise the vocabulary of English prose and find a rhythm for its periods.
And then, as already had happened to our Verse, to our Prose too there befel a miracle.
You will not ask me What miracle? I mean, of course, the Authorised Version of the Bible.
I grant you, to be sure, that the path to the Authorised Version was made straight by previous translators, notably by William Tyndale. I grant you that Tyndale was a man of genius, and Wyclif before him a man of genius. I grant you that the forty-seven men who produced the Authorised Version worked in the main upon Tyndales version, taking that for their basis. Nay, if you choose to say that Tyndale was a miracle in himself, I cheerfully grant you that as well. But, in a lecture one must not multiply miracles
and when Tyndale has been granted you have yet to face the miracle that forty-seven mennot one of them known, outside of this performance, for any superlative talentsat in committee and almost consistently, over a vast extent of workimproved upon what Genius had done. I give you the word of an old committee-man that this is not the way of committeesthat only by miracle is it the way of any committee. Doubtless the forty-seven were all good men and godly: but doubtless also good and godly were the Dean and Chapter who dealt with Alfred Stevens tomb of the Duke of Wellington in St Pauls Cathedral; and you know what
did. Individual genius such as Tyndales or even Shakespeares, though we cannot explain it, we may admit as occurring somehow, and not incredibly, in the course of nature. But that a large committee of forty-seven should have gone steadily through the great mass of Holy Writ, seldom interfering with genius, yet, when interfering, seldom missing to improve: that a committee of forty-seven should have captured (or even, let us say, should have retained and improved) a rhythm so personal, so constant, that our Bible has the voice of one author speaking through its many mouths: that, Gentlemen, is a wonder before which I can only stand humble and aghast.
Does it or does it not strike you as queer that the people who set you courses of study in English Literature never include the Authorised Version, which not only intrinsically but historically is out and away the greatest book of English Prose. Perhaps they can pay you the silent compliment of supposing that you are perfectly acquainted with it? I wonder. It seems as if they thought the Martin Marprelate Controversy, for example, more important somehow.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.
The kings daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold.
Thine eyes shall see the King in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off.
And a man shall be as an hiding-place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.
When a nation has achieved this manner of diction, those rhythms for its dearest beliefs, a literature is surely established. Just there I find the effective miracle, making the blind to see, the lame to leap. Wyclif, Tyndale, Coverdale and others before the forty-seven had wrought. The Authorised Version, setting a seal on all, set a seal on our national style, thinking and speaking. It has cadences homely and sublime, yet so harmonises them that the voice is always one. Simple menholy and humble men of heart like Isaak Walton or Bunyanhave their lips touched and speak to the homelier tune. Proud men, scholars,Milton, Sir Thomas Brownepractice the rolling Latin sentence; but upon the rhythms of our Bible they, too, fall back. The great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designs. Acquaint thyself with the Choragium of the stars. There is nothing immortal but immortality. The precise man Addison cannot excel one parable in brevity or in heavenly clarity: the two parts of Johnsons antithesis come to no more than this Our Lord has gone up to the sound of a trump: with the sound of a trump our Lord has gone up. The Bible controls its enemy Gibbon as surely as it haunts the curious music of a light sentence of Thackerays. It is in everything we see, hear, feel, because it is in us, in our blood.
What madman, then, will say Thus or thus far shalt thou go to a prose thus invented and thus with its free rhythms, after three hundred years, working on the imagination of Englishmen? Or who shall determine its range, whether of thought or of music? You have received it by inheritance, Gentlemen: it is yours, freely yoursto direct your words through life as well as your hearts.
Say nay, say nay; and
say, the answer is in the negative. [
Thought for to take
Is not my mind;
But to forsake
This Principal of the Glasgow College of the United Free Church of Scotland