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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944). On the Art of Writing. 1916.

XII. On Style

Wednesday, January 28, 1914

SHOULD Providence, Gentlemen, destine any one of you to write books for his living, he will find experimentally true what I here promise him, that few pleasures sooner cloy than reading what the reviewers say. This promise I hand on with the better confidence since it was endorsed for me once in conversation by that eminently good man the late Henry Sidgwick; who added, however, ‘Perhaps I ought to make a single exception. There was a critic who called one of my books “epoch-making.” Being anonymous, he would have been hard to find and thank, perhaps; but I ought to have made the effort.’

May I follow up this experience of his with one of my own, as a preface or brief apology for this lecture? Short-lived as is the author’s joy in his critics, far-spent as may be his hope of fame, mournful his consent with Sir Thomas Browne that ‘there is nothing immortal but immortality,’ he cannot hide from certain sanguine men of business, who in England call themselves ‘Press-Cutting Agencies,’ in America ‘Press-Clipping Bureaux,’ and, as each successive child of his invention comes to birth, unbecomingly presume in him an almost virginal trepidation. ‘Your book,’ they write falsely, ‘is exciting much comment. May we collect and send you notices of it appearing in the World’s Press? We submit a specimen cutting with our terms; and are, dear Sir,’ etc.

Now, although steadily unresponsive to this wile, I am sometimes guilty of taking the enclosed specimen review and thrusting it for preservation among the scarcely less deciduous leaves of the book it was written to appraise. So it happened that having this vacation, to dust—not to read—a line of obsolete or obsolescent works on a shelf, I happened on a review signed by no smaller a man than Mr Gilbert Chesterton and informing the world that the author of my obsolete book was full of good stories as a kindly uncle, but had a careless or impatient way of stopping short and leaving his readers to guess what they most wanted to know: that, reaching the last chapter, or what he chose to make the last chapter, instead of winding up and telling ‘how everybody lived ever after,’ he (so to speak) slid you off his avuncular knee with a blessing and the remark that nine o’clock was striking and all good children should be in their beds.

That criticism has haunted me during the vacation. Looking back on a course of lectures which I deemed to be accomplished; correcting them in print; revising them with all the nervousness of a beginner; I have seemed to hear you complain—‘He has exhorted us to write accurately, appropriately; to eschew Jargon; to be bold and essay Verse. He has insisted that Literature is a living art, to be practised. But just what we most needed he has not told. At the final doorway to the secret he turned his back and left us. Accuracy, propriety, perspicuity—these we may achieve. But where has he helped us to write with beauty, with charm, with distinction? Where has he given us rules for what is called Style in short?—having attained which an author may count himself set up in business.’

Thus, Gentlemen, with my mind’s ear I heard you reproaching me. I beg you to accept what follows for my apology.

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

But let me plead further that you have not been left altogether without clue to the secret of what Style is. That you must master the secret for yourselves lay implicit in our bargain, and you were never promised that a writer’s training would be easy. Yet a clue was certainly put in your hands when, having insisted that Literature is a living art, I added that therefore it must be personal and of its essence personal.

This goes very deep: it conditions all our criticism of art. Yet it conceals no mystery. You may see its meaning most easily and clearly, perhaps, by contrasting Science and Art at their two extremes—say Pure Mathematics with Acting. Science as a rule deals with things, Art with man’s thought and emotion about things. In Pure Mathematics things are rarefied into ideas, numbers, concepts, but still farther and farther away from the individual man. Two and two make four, and fourpence is not ninepence (or at any rate four is not nine) whether Alcibiades or Cleon keep the tally. In Acting on the other hand almost everything depends on personal interpretation—on the gesture, the walk, the gaze, the tone of a Siddons, the rusé smile of a Coquelin, the exquisite, vibrant intonation of a Bernhardt. ‘English Art?’ exclaimed Whistler, ‘there is no such thing! Art is art and mathematics is mathematics.’ Whistler erred. Precisely because Art is Art, and Mathematics is Mathematics and a Science, Art being Art can be English or French; and, more than this, must be the personal expression of an Englishman or a Frenchman, as a ‘Constable’ differs from a ‘Corot’ and a ‘Whistler’ from both. Surely I need not labour this. But what is true of the extremes of Art and Science is true also, though sometimes less recognisably true, of the mean: and where they meet and seem to conflict (as in History) the impact is that of the personal or individual mind upon universal truth, and the question becomes whether what happened in the Sicilian Expedition, or at the trial of Charles I, can be set forth naked as an alegebraical sum, serene in its certainty, indifferent to opinion, uncoloured in the telling as in the hearing by sympathy or dislike, by passion or by character. I doubt, while we should strive in history as in all things to be fair, if history can be written in that colourless way, to interest men in human doings. I am sure that nothing which lies further towards imaginative, creative, Art can be written in that way.

It follows then that Literature, being by its nature personal, must be by its nature almost infinitely various. ‘Two persons cannot be the authors of the sounds which strike our ear; and as they cannot be speaking one and the same speech, neither can they be writing one and the same lecture or discourse.’ Quot homines tot sententiae. You may translate that, if you will, ‘Every man of us constructs his sentence differently’; and if there be indeed any quarrel between Literature and Science (as I never can see why there should be), I for one will readily grant Science all her cold superiority, her ease in Sion with universal facts, so it be mine to serve among the multifarious race who have to adjust, as best they may, Science’s cold conclusions (and much else) to the brotherly give-and-take of human life.

Quicquid agunt homines, votum, timor, ira, voluptas… Is it possible, Gentlemen, that you can have read one, two, three or more of the acknowledged masterpieces of literature without having it borne in on you that they are great because they are alive, and traffic not with cold celestial certainties, but with men’s hopes, aspirations, doubts, loves, hates, breakings of the heart; the glory and vanity of human endeavour, the transience of beauty, the capricious uncertain lease on which you and I hold life, the dark coast to which we inevitably steer; all that amuses or vexes, all that gladdens, saddens, maddens us men and women on this brief and mutable traject which yet must be home for a while, the anchorage of our hearts? For an instance:—

  • Here lies a most beautiful lady,
  • Light of step and heart was she:
  • I think she was the most beautiful lady
  • That ever was in the West Country.
  • But beauty vanishes, beauty passes,
  • However rare, rare it be;
  • And when I crumble who shall remember
  • That lady of the West Country?
  • Or take a critic—a literary critic—such as Samuel Johnson, of whom we are used to think as of a man artificial in phrase and pedantic in judgment. He lives, and why? Because, if you test his criticism, he never saw literature but as a part of life, nor would allow in literature what was false to life, as he saw it. He could be wrong-headed, perverse; could damn Milton because he hated Milton’s politics; on any question of passion or prejudice could make injustice his daily food. But he could not, even in a friend’s epitaph, let pass a phrase (however well turned) which struck him as empty of life or false to it. All Boswell testifies to this: and this is why Samuel Johnson survives.

    Now let me carry this contention—that all Literature is personal and therefore various—into a field much exploited by the pedant, and fenced about with many notice-boards and public warnings. ‘Neologisms not allowed here,’ ‘All persons using slang, or trespassing in pursuit of originality.…’

    Well, I answer these notice-boards by saying that, literature being personal, and men various—and even the Oxford English Dictionary being no Canonical book—man’s use or defiance of the dictionary depends for its justification on nothing but his success: adding that, since it takes all kinds to make a world, or a literature, his success will probably depend on the occasion. A few months ago I found myself seated at a bump-supper next to a cheerful youth who, towards the close, suggested thoughtfully, as I arose to make a speech, that, the bonfire (which of course he called the ‘bonner’) being due at nine-thirty o’clock, there was little more than bare time left for ‘langers and godders.’ It cost me, who think slowly, some seconds to interpret that by ‘langers’ he meant ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and by ‘godders’ ‘God Save the King.’ I thought at the time, and still think, and will maintain against any schoolmaster, that the neologisms of my young neighbour, though not to be recommended for essays or sermons, did admirably suit the time, place, and occasion.

    Seeing that in human discourse, infinitely varied as it is, so much must ever depend on who speaks, and to whom, in what mood and upon what occasion; and seeing that Literature must needs take account of all manner of writers, audiences, moods, occasions; I hold it a sin against the light to put up a warning against any word that comes to us in the fair way of use and wont (as ‘wire,’ for instance, for a telegram), even as surely as we should warn off hybrids or deliberately pedantic impostors, such as ‘antibody’ and ‘picture-drome’; and that, generally, it is better to err on the side of liberty than on the side of the censor: since by the manumitting of new words we infuse new blood into a tongue of which (or we have learnt nothing from Shakespeare’s audacity) our first pride should be that it is flexible, alive, capable of responding to new demands of man’s untiring quest after knowledge and experience. Not because it was an ugly thing did I denounce Jargon to you, the other day: but because it was a dead thing, leading no-whither, meaning naught. There is wickedness in human speech, sometimes. You will detect it all the better for having ruled out what is naughty.

    Let us err, then, if we err, on the side of liberty. I came, the other day, upon this passage in Mr Frank Harris’s study of ‘The Man Shakespeare’:—

  • In the last hundred years the language of Molière has grown fourfold; the slang of the studios and the gutter and the laboratory, of the engineering school and the dissecting table, has been ransacked for special terms to enrich and strengthen the language in order that it may deal easily with the new thoughts. French is now a superb instrument, while English is positively poorer than it was in the time of Shakespeare, thanks to the prudery of our illiterate middle class.
  • Well, let us not lose our heads over this, any more than over other prophecies of our national decadence. The Oxford English Dictionary has not yet unfolded the last of its coils, which yet are ample enough to enfold us in seven words for every three an active man can grapple with. Yet the warning has point, and a particular point, for those who aspire to write poetry: as Francis Thompson has noted in his Essay on Shelley:—

  • Theoretically, of course, one ought always to try for the best word. But practically, the habit of excessive care in word-selection frequently results in loss of spontaneity; and, still worse, the habit of always taking the best word too easily becomes the habit of always taking the most ornate word, the word most removed from ordinary speech. In consequence of this, poetic diction has become latterly a kaleidoscope, and one’s chief curiosity is as to the precise combinations into which the pieces will be shifted. There is, in fact, a certain band of words, the Praetorian cohorts of Poetry, whose prescriptive aid is invoked by every aspirant to the poetic purple … Against these it is time some banner should be raised.… It is at any rate curious to note that the literary revolution against the despotic diction of Pope seems issuing, like political revolutions, in a despotism of his own making;
  • and he adds a note that this is the more surprising to him because so many Victorian poets were prose-writers as well.
  • Now, according to our theory, the practice of prose should maintain fresh and comprehensive a poet’s diction, should save him from falling into the hands of an exclusive coterie of poetic words. It should react upon his metrical vocabulary to its beneficial expansion, by taking him outside his aristocratic circle of language, and keeping him in touch with the great commonalty, the proletariat of speech. For it is with words as with men: constant intermarriage within the limits of a patrician clan begets effete refinement; and to reinvigorate the stock, its veins must be replenished from hardy plebeian blood.
  • In diction, then, let us acquire all the store we can, rejecting no coin for its minting but only if its metal be base. So shall we bring out of our treasuries new things and old.

    Diction, however, is but a part of Style, and perhaps not the most important part. So I revert to the larger question, ‘What is Style? What its [Greek15], its essence, the law of its being?’

    Now, as I sat down to write this lecture, memory evoked a scene and with the scene a chance word of boyish slang, both of which may seem to you irrelevant until, or unless, I can make you feel how they hold for me the heart of the matter.

    I once happened to be standing in a corner of a ball-room when there entered the most beautiful girl these eyes have ever seen or now—since they grow dull—ever will see. It was, I believe, her first ball, and by some freak or in some premonition she wore black: and not pearls—which, I am told, maidens are wont to wear on these occasions—but one crescent of diamonds in her black hair. Et vera incessu patuit dea. Here, I say, was absolute beauty. It startled.

  • I think she was the most beautiful lady
  • That ever was in the West Country.
  • But beauty vanishes, beauty passes.…
  • She died a year or two later. She may have been too beautiful to live long. I have a thought that she may also have been too good.

    For I saw her with the crowd about her: I saw led up and presented among others the man who was to be, for a few months, her husband: and then, as the men bowed, pencilling on their programmes, over their shoulders I saw her eyes travel to an awkward young naval cadet (Do you remember Crossjay in Meredith’s The Egoist? It was just such a boy) who sat abashed and glowering sulkily beside me on the far bench. Promptly with a laugh, she advanced, claimed him, and swept him off into the first waltz.

    When it was over he came back, a trifle flushed, and I felicitated him; my remark (which I forget) being no doubt ‘just the sort of banality, you know, one does come out with’—as maybe that the British Navy kept its old knack of cutting out. But he looked at me almost in tears and blurted, ‘It isn’t her beauty, sir. You saw? It’s—it’s—my God, it’s the style!’

    Now you may think that a somewhat cheap, or at any rate inadequate, cry of the heart in my young seaman; as you may think it inadequate in me, and moreover a trifle capricious, to assure you (as I do) that the first and last secret of a good Style consists in thinking with the heart as well as with the head.

    But let us philosophise a little. You have been told, I daresay often enough, that the business of writing demands two—the author and the reader. Add to this what is equally obvious, that the obligation of courtesy rests first with the author, who invites the séance, and commonly charges for it. What follows, but that in speaking or writing we have an obligation to put ourselves into the hearer’s or reader’s place? It is his comfort, his convenience, we have to consult. To express ourselves is a very small part of the business: very small and almost unimportant as compared with impressing ourselves: the aim of the whole process being to persuade.

    All reading demands an effort. The energy, the good-will which a reader brings to the book is, and must be, partly expended in the labour of reading, marking, learning, inwardly digesting what the author means. The more difficulties, then, we authors obtrude on him by obscure or careless writing, the more we blunt the edge of his attention: so that if only in our own interest—though I had rather kept it on the ground of courtesy—we should study to anticipate his comfort.

    But let me go a little deeper. You all know that a great part of Lessing’s argument in his Laoköon, on the essentials of Literature as opposed to Pictorial Art or Sculpture, depends on this—that in Pictorial Art or in Sculpture the eye sees, the mind apprehends, the whole in a moment of time, with the correspondent disadvantage that this moment of time is fixed and stationary; whereas in writing, whether in prose or in verse, we can only produce our effect by a series of successive small impressions, dripping our meaning (so to speak) into the reader’s mind—with the correspondent advantage, in point of vivacity, that our picture keeps moving all the while. Now obviously this throws a greater strain on his patience whom we address. Man at the best is a narrow-mouthed bottle. Through the conduit of speech he can utter—as you, my hearers, can receive—only one word at a time. In writing (as my old friend Professor Minto used to say) you are as a commander filing out his battalion through a narrow gate that allows only one man at a time to pass; and your reader, as he receives the troops, has to re-form and reconstruct them. No matter how large or how involved the subject, it can be communicated only in that way. You see, then, what an obligation we owe to him of order and arrangement; and why, apart from felicities and curiosities of diction, the old rhetoricians laid such stress upon order and arrangement as duties we owe to those who honour us with their attention. ‘La clarté,’ says a French writer, ‘est la politesse.’ [Greek16], recommends Lucian. Pay your sacrifice to the Graces, and to [Greek17]—Clarity—first among the Graces.

    What am I urging? ‘That Style in writing is much the same thing as good manners in other human intercourse?’ Well, and why not? At all events we have reached a point where Buffon’s often-quoted saying that ‘Style is the man himself’ touches and coincides with William of Wykeham’s old motto that ‘Manners makyth Man’: and before you condemn my doctrine as inadequate listen to this from Coventry Patmore, still bearing in mind that a writer’s main object is to impress his thought or vision upon his hearer.

    ‘There is nothing comparable for moral force to the charm of truly noble manners.…’

    I grant you, to be sure, that the claim to possess a Style must be conceded to many writers—Carlyle is one—who take no care to put listeners at their ease, but rely rather on native force of genius to shock and astound. Nor will I grudge them your admiration. But I do say that, as more and more you grow to value truth and the modest grace of truth, it is less and less to such writers that you will turn: and I say even more confidently that the qualities of Style we allow them are not the qualities we should seek as a norm, for they one and all offend against Art’s true maxim of avoiding excess.

    And this brings me to the two great paradoxes of Style. For the first (1),—although Style is so curiously personal and individual, and although men are so variously built that no two in the world carry away the same impressions from a show, there is always a norm somewhere; in literature and art, as in morality. Yes, even in man’s most terrific, most potent inventions—when, for example, in Hamlet or in Lear Shakespeare seems to be breaking up the solid earth under our feet—there is always some point and standard of sanity—a Kent or an Horatio—to which all enormities and passionate errors may be referred; to which the agitated mind of the spectator settles back as upon its centre of gravity, its pivot of repose.

    (2) The second paradox, though it is equally true, you may find a little subtler. Yet it but applies to Art the simple truth of the Gospel, that he who would save his soul must first lose it. Though personality pervades Style and cannot be escaped, the first sin against Style as against good Manners is to obtrude or exploit personality. The very greatest work in Literature—the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Purgatorio, The Tempest, Paradise Lost, the Republic, Don Quixote—is all

  • Seraphically free
  • From taint of personality.
  • And Flaubert, that gladiator among artists, held that, at its highest, literary art could be carried into pure science. ‘I believe,’ said he, ‘that great art is scientific and impersonal. You should by an intellectual effort transport yourself into characters, not draw them into yourself. That at least is the method.’ On the other hand, says Goethe, ‘We should endeavour to use words that correspond as closely as possible with what we feel, see, think, imagine, experience, and reason. It is an endeavour we cannot evade and must daily renew.’ I call Flaubert’s the better counsel, even though I have spent a part of this lecture in attempting to prove it impossible. It at least is noble, encouraging us to what is difficult. The shrewder Goethe encourages us to exploit ourselves to the top of our bent. I think Flaubert would have hit the mark if for ‘impersonal’ he had substituted ‘disinterested.’

    For—believe me, Gentlemen—so far as Handel stands above Chopin, as Velasquez above Greuze, even so far stand the great masculine objective writers above all who appeal to you by parade of personality or private sentiment.

    Mention of these great masculine ‘objective’ writers brings me to my last word: which is, ‘Steep yourselves in them: habitually bring all to the test of them: for while you cannot escape the fate of all style, which is to be personal, the more of catholic manhood you inherit from those great loins the more you will assuredly beget.’

    This then is Style. As technically manifested in Literature it is the power to touch with ease, grace, precision, any note in the gamut of human thought or emotion.

    But essentially it resembles good manners. It comes of endeavouring to understand others, of thinking for them rather than for yourself—of thinking, that is, with the heart as well as the head. It gives rather than receives; it is nobly careless of thanks or applause, not being fed by these but rather sustained and continually refreshed by an inward loyalty to the best. Yet, like ‘character’ it has its altar within; to that retires for counsel, from that fetches its illumination, to ray outwards. Cultivate, Gentlemen, that habit of withdrawing to be advised by the best. So, says Fénelon, ‘you will find yourself infinitely quieter, your words will be fewer and more effectual; and while you make less ado, what you do will be more profitable.’