S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
I must in the next place observe that, when our thoughts are great and just, they are often obscured by the sounding phrases, hard metaphors, and forced expressions in which they are clothed. Shakspeare is often very faulty in this particular.
I know nothing which more shows the essential and inherent perfection of simplicity of thought, above that which I call the Gothic manner of writing, than this, that the first pleases all kinds of palates, and the latter only such as have formed to themselves a wrong artificial taste upon little fanciful authors and writers of epigram. Homer, Virgil, or Milton, so far as the language of their poems is understood, will please a reader of plain common sense, who would neither relish nor comprehend an epigram of Martial or a poem of Cowley; so, on the contrary, an ordinary song or ballad that is the delight of the common people cannot fail to please all such readers as are not unqualified for the entertainment by their affectation or ignorance; and the reason is plain, because the same paintings of nature which recommend it to the most ordinary reader will appear beautiful to the most refined.
Among the mutilated poets of antiquity there is none whose fragments are so beautiful as those of Sappho. They give us a taste of her way of writing which is perfectly conformable with that extraordinary character we find of her in the remarks of those great critics who were conversant with her works when they were entire. One may see by what is left of them that she followed nature in all her thoughts, without descending to those little points, conceits, and turns of wit with which many of our modern lyrics are so miserably infected.
To have a true relish and form a right judgment of a description, a man should be born with a good imagination, and must have well weighed the force and energy that lie in the several words of a language, so as to be able to distinguish which are most significant and expressive of their proper ideas, and what additional strength and beauty they are capable of receiving from conjunction with others. The fancy must be warm, to retain the print of those images it hath received from outward objects, and the judgment discerning, to know what expressions are most proper to clothe and adorn them to the best advantage.
Style is the dress of thoughts; and let them be ever so just, if your style is homely, coarse, and vulgar, they will appear to as much disadvantage, and be as ill received, as your person, though ever so well proportioned, would if dressed in rags, dirt, and tatters.
We must not only express clearly, but think deeply; nor can we concede to Buffon that style alone is that quality that will immortalize an author. The Essays of Montaigne and the Analogy of Butler will live forever, in spite of their style. Style is indeed the valet of genius, and an able one too; but as the true gentleman will appear, even in rags, so true genius will shine, even through the coarsest style.
When I meet with any that write obscurely or converse confusedly, I am apt to suspect two things: first, that such persons do not understand themselves; and secondly, that they are not worthy of being understood by others.
Nothing is so difficult as the apparent ease of a clear and flowing style: those graces which, from their presumed facility, encourage all to attempt an imitation of them are usually the most inimitable.
I have ventured to give the whole class the appellation of the magic-lanthorn school for their writings have the startling effect of that toy, children delight in it, and grown people soon get tired of it.
Chaucer has refined on Boccace, and has mended the stories he has borrowed: though prose allows more liberty of thought, and the expression is more easy when unconfined by numbers. Our countryman carries weight, and yet wins the race at disadvantage.
He is everywhere above conceits of epigrammatic wit and gross hyperboles: he maintains majesty in the midst of plainness; he shines, but glares not; and is stately without ambition, which is the vice of Lucan.
A taste for plain, strong speechwhat is called a Biblical stylemarks the English. It is in Alfred, and the Saxon Chronicle, and in the Sagas of the Northmen. Latimer was homely. Hobbes was perfect in the noble vulgar speech. Donne, Bunyan, Milton, Taylor, Evelyn, Pepys, Hooker, Cotton, and the translators, wrote it. How realistic or materialistic in treatment of his subject is Swift! He describes his fictitious persons as if for the police. Defoe has no insecurity or choice. Hudibras has the same hard mentality, keeping the truth at once to the senses and to the intellect. It is not less seen in poetry. Chaucers hard painting of his Canterbury pilgrims satisfies the senses. Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton, in their loftiest ascents, have this national grip and exactitude of mind. This mental materialism makes the value of English transcendental genius; in these writers, and in Herbert, Henry Moore, Donne, and Sir Thomas Browne. The Saxon materialism and narrowness, exalted into the sphere of intellect, makes the very genius of Shakspeare and Milton. When it reaches the pure element it treads the clouds as securely as the adamant. Even in its elevations materialistic, its poetry is common sense inspired, or iron raised to white heat.
Rules and critical observations improve a good genius, where nature leadeth the way, provided he is not too scrupulous: for that will introduce a stiffness and affectation which are utterly abhorrent from all good writing.
Burkes sentences are pointed at the end,instinct with pungent sense to the last syllable. They are like a charioteers whip, which not only has a long and effective lash, but cracks, and inflicts a still smarter sensation at the end. They are like some serpents of which I have heard it vulgarly said, their life is the fiercest in the tail.
We all know that an Englishman, if he will, is able to speak easily and clearly; also he can, if he please, write in such a manner as to send the common people to their dictionaries at least once in every page. Let him write Saxon, and the Saxons understand him; let him use Latin forms that have been long in use, and they will also understand him; but let him think proper to adopt Latin or Greek expressions which are new, or at all events new to the many, and they will be puzzled. We can all read with comfort the works of Thomas Fuller, Swift, Bunyan, Defoe, Franklin, and Cobbett; there sense is clear, feeling is homely, and the writers take care that there shall be no misunderstanding. But in Robertson, Johnson, and Gibbon, one word in every three is an alien; and so an Englishman who happens to have, like Shakespeare, small Latin and less Greek is by no means quite at home in their society.
We may also observe that those compositions which we read the oftenest, and which every man of taste has got by heart, have the recommendation of simplicity, and have nothing surprising in the thought when divested of that elegance of expression and harmony of numbers with which it is clothed. If the merit of the composition lie in a point of wit, it may strike at first; but the mind anticipates the thought in the second perusal, and is no longer affected by it. When I read an epigram of Martial, the first line recalls the whole; and I have no pleasure in repeating to myself what I know already. But each line, each word, in Catullus has its merit; and I am never tired with the perusal of him. It is sufficient to run over Cowley once; but Parnell after the fiftieth reading is as fresh as at first. Besides, it is with books as with women, where a certain plainness of manner and of dress is more engaging than that glare of paint, and airs, and apparel, which may dazzle the eye but reaches not the affections. Terence is a modest and bashful beauty to whom we grant everything because he assumes nothing, and whose purity and nature make a durable though not a violent impression on us.
Redundancy of language is never found with deep reflection. Verbiage may indicate observation, but not thinking. He who thinks much says but little in proportion to his thoughts. He selects that language which will convey his ideas in the most explicit and direct manner. He tries to compress as much thought as possible into a few words. On the contrary, the man who talks everlastingly and promiscuously, who seems to have an exhaustless magazine of sound, crowds so many words into his thoughts that he always obscures, and very frequently conceals them.
Language is the dress of thought; and as the noblest mien, or most graceful action, would be degraded and obscured by a garb appropriated to the gross employments of rustics and mechanics, so the most heroic sentiments will lose their efficacy, and the most splendid ideas drop their magnificence, if they are conveyed by words used commonly upon low and trivial occasions, debased by vulgar mouths, and contaminated by inelegant applications.
Truth indeed is always truth, and reason is always reason; they have an intrinsic and unalterable value, and constitute that intellectual gold which defies destruction; but gold may be so concealed in baser matter that only a chemist can recover it; sense may be so hidden in unrefined and plebeian words that none but philosophers can distinguish it; and both may be so buried in impurities as not to pay the cost of their extraction.
The diction, being the vehicle of the thoughts, first presents itself to the intellectual eye; and if the first appearance offends, a further knowledge is not often sought. Whatever professes to benefit by pleasing must please at once. The pleasures of the mind imply something sudden and unexpected; that which elevates must always surprise. What is perceived by slow degrees may gratify us with consciousness of improvement, but will never strike with the sense of pleasure.
Every language of a learned nation necessarily divides itself into diction scholastic and popular, grave and familiar, elegant and gross; and from a nice distinction of these different parts arises a great part of the beauty of style. But, if we except a few minds, the favourites of nature, to whom their own original rectitude was in the place of rules, this delicacy of selection was little known to our authors; our speech lay before them in a heap of confusion; and every man took for every purpose what chance might offer him.
There was, therefore, before the time of Dryden no poetical diction, no system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestic use and free from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts. Words too familiar, or too remote, defeat the purpose of a poet. From those sounds which we hear on small or on coarse occasions we do not easily receive strong impressions, or delightful images; and words to which we are nearly strangers, whenever they occur, draw that attention on themselves which they should transmit to things.
Those happy combinations of words which distinguish poetry from prose had been rarely attempted: we had few elegancies or flowers of speech; the roses had not yet been plucked from the bramble, or different colours had not been joined to enliven one another.
Whenever you have a mind to elevate your mind, to raise it to its highest pitch, and even to exceed yourself upon any subject, think how Homer would have described it, how Plato would have imagined it, and how Demosthenes would have expressed it; and when you have so done, you will then, no doubt, have a standard which will raise you up to the dignity of anything that human genius can aspire to.
Propriety of thought and propriety of diction are commonly found together. Obscurity and affectation are the two greatest faults of style. Obscurity of expression generally springs from confusion of ideas; and the same wish to dazzle at any cost which produces affectation in the manner of a writer is likely to produce sophistry in his reasonings. The judicious and candid mind of Machiavelli shows itself in his luminous, manly, and polished language. The style of Montesquieu, on the other hand, indicates in every page a lively and ingenious but an unsound mind. Every trick of expression, from the mysterious conciseness of an oracle to the flippancy of a Parisian coxcomb, is employed to disguise the fallacy of some positions and the triteness of others. Absurdities are brightened into epigrams; truisms are darkened into enigmas. It is with difficulty that the strongest eye can sustain the glare with which some parts are illuminated, or penetrate the shade in which others are concealed.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Machiavelli, March, 1827.
The style which the Utilitarians admire suits only those subjects on which it is possible to reason a priori. It grew up with the verbal sophistry which flourished during the dark ages. With that sophistry it fell before the Baconian philosophy in the day of the great deliverance of the human mind. The inductive method not only endured but required greater freedom of diction. It was impossible to reason from phenomena up to principles, to mark slight shades of difference in quality, or to estimate the comparative effect of two opposite considerations between which there was no common measure, by means of the naked and meagre jargon of the schoolmen.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Mills Essay on Government, March, 1829.
Mannerism is pardonable, and is sometimes even agreeable, when the manner, though vicious, is natural. Few readers, for example, would be willing to part with the mannerism of Milton or of Burke. But a mannerism which does not sit easy on the mannerist, which has been adopted on principle, and which can be sustained only by constant effort, is always offensive. And such is the mannerism of Johnson.
The characteristic faults of his style are so familiar to all our readers and have been so often burlesqued that it is almost superfluous to point them out. It is well known that he made less use than any other eminent writer of those strong plain words, Anglo-Saxon or Norman-French, of which the roots lie in the inmost depths of our language; and that he felt a vicious partiality for terms which, long after our own speech had been fixed, were borrowed from the Greek and Latin, and which, therefore, even when lawfully naturalized, must be considered as born aliens, not entitled to rank with the Queens English. His constant practice of padding out a sentence with useless epithets, till it became as stiff as the bust of an exquisite; his antithetical forms of expression, constantly employed even when there is no opposition in the ideas expressed; his big words wasted on little things; his harsh inversions, so widely different from those graceful and easy inversions which give variety, spirit, and sweetness to the expression of our great old writers; all these peculiarities have been imitated by his admirers and parodied by his assailants till the public has become sick of the subject.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Crokers Boswells Johnson, Sept. 1831.
As far as mere diction was concerned, indeed, Mr. Fox [in his History of the Early Part of the Reign of James II.] did his best to avoid those faults which the habit of public speaking is likely to generate. He was so nervously apprehensive of sliding into some colloquial incorrectness, of debasing his style by a mixture of Parliamentary slang, that he ran into the opposite error, and purified his vocabulary with a scrupulosity unknown to any purist. Ciceronem Allobroga dixit. He would not allow Addison, Bolingbroke, or Middleton to be a sufficient authority for an expression. He declared that he would use no word which was not to be found in Dryden. In any other person we should have called this solicitude mere foppery; and, in spite of all our admiration for Mr. Fox, we cannot but think that his extreme attention to the petty niceties of language was hardly worthy of so manly and so capacious an understanding. There were purists of this kind at Rome; and their fastidiousness was censured by Horace, with that perfect good sense and good taste which characterize all his writings. There were purists of this kind at the time of the revival of letters; and the two greatest scholars of that time raised their voices, the one [Politian] from within, the other [Erasmus] from without, the Alps against a scrupulosity so unreasonable.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Sir James Mackintoshs History of the Revolution, July, 1835.
Another of Addisons favourite companions was Ambrose Phillips, a good whig and a middling poet, who had the honour of bringing into fashion a species of composition which has been called after his name, Namby-Pamby.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Life and Writings of Addison, July, 1843.
As the mind of Johnson was robust, but neither nimble nor graceful, so his style was void of all grace and ease, and, being the most unlike of all styles to the natural effusion of a cultivated mind, had the least pretensions to the praise of eloquence.
A writer [Lord Macaulay] of consummate ability . The admirable writer whose language has occasioned this illustrationwho at an early age has mastered every species of compositionwill doubtless hold fast to simplicity, which survives all the fashions of deviation from it, and which a man of a genius so fertile has few temptations to forsake.
Sir James Mackintosh: Progress of Ethical Philos., in Encyc. Brit., and in his Miscell. Works.
I hold him to deserve the highest praise who fixes the principles and forms the manners of a state, and makes the wisdom of his administration conspicuous both at home and abroad. But I assign the second place to him who endeavours by precepts and by rules to perpetuate that style and idiom of speech and composition which have flourished in the purest periods of the language, and who, as it were, throws up such a trench around it that people may be prevented from going beyond the boundary almost by the terrors of a Romulean prohibition.
John Milton: To Benedetto Buonmattai, Florence, Sept. 10, 1638: Miltons Familiar Letters.
Tis to our prejudice that men of understanding should so immoderately affect brevity: no doubt but their reputation is the better for it: but in the mean time we are the worse. Plutarch had rather we should applaud his judgment than commend his knowledge, and had rather leave us with an appetite to read more, than glutted with that we have already read. He knew very well that a man may say too much even upon the best subjects, and that Alexandrides did justly reproach him who made very eloquent, but too long, speeches to the Ephori, when he said, O stranger! thou speakest the things thou oughtest to speak, but not after the manner that thou shouldst speak them. Such as have lean and spare bodies stuff themselves out with cloaths; so they who are defective in matter endeavour to make amends with words.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. xxv.
When easy writings fall into the hands of an ordinary reader, they appear to him so natural and unlaboured, that he immediately resolves to write, and fancies that all he hath to do is to take no pains. Thus he thinks, indeed, simply, but the thoughts, not being chosen with judgment, are not beautiful: he, it is true, expresses himself plainly, but flatly withal. Again, if a man of vivacity takes it into his head to write this way, what self-denial must he undergo when bright points of wit occur to his fancy! How difficult will he find it to reject florid phrases and pretty embellishments of style! So true it is, that simplicity of all things is the hardest to be copied, and ease to be acquired with the greatest labour.
For the attainment of correctness and purity in the use of words, the rules of grammarians and critics may be a sufficient guide; but it is not in the works of this class of authors that the higher beauties of style are to be studied. As the air and manner of a gentleman can be acquired only by living habitually in the best society, so grace in composition must be attained by an habitual acquaintance with classical writers. It is, indeed, necessary for our information that we should peruse occasionally many books which have no merit in point of expression; but I believe it to be extremely useful to all literary men to counteract the effect of this miscellaneous reading by maintaining a constant and familiar acquaintance with a few of the most faultless models which the language affords. For want of some standard of this sort we frequently see an authors taste in writing alter much to the worse, in the course of his life; and his later productions fall below the level of his early essays. DAlembert tells us that Voltaire had always lying on his table the Petit Caréme of Massillon and the tragedies of Racine; the former to fix his taste in prose composition, and the latter in poetry.
I would engage to furnish you with a catalogue of English books, published within the compass of seven years past, which at the first hand would cost you a hundred pounds, wherein you shall not be able to find ten lines together of common grammar or common sense.
These two evils, ignorance and want of taste, have produced a third; I mean the continual corruption of our English tongue, which, without some timely remedy, will suffer more by the false refinements of twenty years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing hundred.
I should be glad to see you the instrument of introducing into our style that simplicity which is the best and truest ornament of most things in life, which the politer ages always aimed at in their building and dress, simplex munditiis, as well as their productions of wit. It is manifest that all new affected modes of speech, whether borrowed from the court, the town, or the theatre, are the first perishing parts in any language; and, as I could prove by many hundred instances, have been so in ours. The writings of Hooker, who was a country clergyman, and of Parsons the Jesuit, both in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, are in a style that, with very few allowances, would not offend any present reader, and are much more clear and intelligible than those of Sir Harry Wotton, Sir Robert Naunton, Osborn, Daniel the historian, and several others who writ later; but being men of the court, and affecting the phrases then in fashion, they are often either not to be understood, or appear perfectly ridiculous.
Poets, although not insensible how much our language was already over-stocked with monosyllables, yet, to save time and pains, introduced that barbarous custom of abbreviating words to fit them to the measure of their verses.
The use of language and custom of speech in all authors I have met with has gone upon this rule or maxim: that exclusive terms are always to be understood in opposition only to what they are opposed to, and not in opposition to what they are not opposed to.
It is well known what a reproach to our climate is the prevalence of fogs, and how much more of risk and of inconvenience results from that mixture of light and obscurity than from the darkness of night. But let any one imagine to himself, if he can, a mist so resplendent with gay prismatic colours that men should forget its inconveniences in their admiration of its beauty, and that a kind of nebular taste should prevail, for preferring that gorgeous dimness to vulgar daylight: nothing short of this could afford a parallel to the mischief done to the public mind by some late writers both in England and America,a sort of Children of the Mist, who bring forward their speculationsoften very silly, and not seldom very mischievousunder cover of the twilight. They have accustomed their disciples to admire as a style sublimely philosophical what may best be described as a certain haze of words imperfectly understood, through which some seemingly original ideas, scarcely distinguishable in their outlines, loom, as it were, on the view, in a kind of dusky magnificence, that greatly exaggerates their real dimensions.
Some natural dispositions which have better grace in youth than in age, such as is a fluent and luxuriant speech. [Bacons Essay, Of Youth and Age.] It is remarkable that, in point of style of writing, Bacon himself, at different periods of life, showed differences just opposite to what most would have expected. His earlier writings are the most unornamented; and he grew more ornate as he advanced. So also Burke. His earliest work, On the Sublime [A Vindication of Natural Society appeared first], is in a brief, dry, philosophical style; and he became florid to an excess as he grew older.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Youth and Age.