Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Foundation of Literary Style
By William Greenough Thayer Shedd (18201894)
[Born in Acton, Mass., 1820. Died in New York, N. Y., 1894. Literary Essays. 1878.]
HAVING a distinctly clear apprehension of truth, the mind utters its conceptions with all that simplicity and pertinence of language which characterizes the narrative of an honest eye-witness. Nothing intervenes between thought and expression. The clear, direct view instantaneously becomes the clear, direct statement. And when the clear conception is thus united with the profound intuition, thought assumes its most perfect form. The form in which it appears is full and round with solid truth, and yet distinct and transparent. The immaterial principle is embodied in just the right amount of matter: the former does not overflow, nor does the latter overlay. The discourse exhibits the same opposite and counterbalancing excellences which we see in the forms of naturethe simplicity and the richness, the negligence and the niceness, the solid opacity and the aërial transparence.
It is rare to find such a union of the two main elements of culture, and consequently rare to find them in style. A profoundly contemplative mind is often mystic and vague in its discourse, because it has not come to a clear, as well as profound, consciousnessbecause distinctness has not gone along with depth of apprehension. The discourse of such a mind is thoughtful and suggestive, it may be, but is lacking in that scientific, logical power which penetrates and illumines. It has warmth and glow, it may be, but it is the warmth of the stove (to use the comparison of another)warmth without light.
On the other hand, it often happens that the culture of the mind is clear but shallow. In this case nothing but the merest and most obvious commonplace is uttered, in a manner intelligible and plain enough, to be sure, but without force or weight, or even genuine fire, of style. Shallow waters show a very clear bottom, and but little intensity of light is needed in order to display the pebbles and clean sand. That must be a purest ray serenea pencil of strongest lightwhich discloses the black, rich, wreck-strewn depths. For the clearness of depth is very different from the clearness of shallowness. The former is a positive quality. It is the positive and powerful irradiation of that which is solid and dark by that which is ethereal and light. The latter is a negative quality. It is the mere absence of darkness, because there is no substance to be darkno body in which (if we may be allowed the expression) darkness can inhere. Nothing is more luminous than solid fire; nothing is more flashy than an ignited void.
These two fundamental characteristics of mental culture lie at the foundation of style. Even if the secondary qualities of style could exist without the weightiness and clearness of manner which spring from the union of profound with distinct apprehension, they would exist in vain. The ornament is worthless, if there is nothing to sustain it. The bas-relief is valueless, without the slab to support it. But these secondary qualities of stylethe beauty, and the elegance, and the harmonyderive all their charm and power from springing out of the primary qualities, and in this way, ultimately, out of the deep and clear culture of the mind itselffrom being the white flower of the black root.
Style, when having this mental and natural origin, is to be put into the first class of fine forms. It is the form of thought; and, as a piece of art, is as worthy of study and admiration as those glorious material forms which embody the ideas of Phidias, Michael Angelo, and Raphael. It is the form in which the human mind manifests its freest, purest, and most mysterious activityits thinking. There is nothing mechanical in its origin, or stale in its nature. It is plastic and fresh as the immortal energy of which it is the air and bearing.