On the Art of Writing - Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914
by Arthur Quiller-Couch
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[Greek: Menin aeide, Thea—]

'Had I a thousand tongues, a thousand hands.'—For what purpose does the poet wish for a thousand tongues, but to sing? for what purpose a thousand hands, but to pluck the wires? not to dip a thousand pens in a thousand inkpots.

I doubt, in fine, if your most learned studies will discover much amiss with the frontier we drew between verse and prose, cursorily though we ran its line. Nor am I daunted on comparing it with Coleridge's more philosophical one, which you will find in the "Biographia Literaria" (c. XVIII)—

And first for the origin of metre. This I would trace to the balance in the mind effected by that spontaneous effort which strives to hold in check the workings of passion. It might be easily explained likewise in what manner this salutary antagonism is assisted by the very state which it counteracts, and how this balance of antagonism becomes organised into metre (in the usual acceptation of that term) by a supervening act of the will and judgment consciously and for the foreseen purpose of pleasure.

I will not swear to understand precisely what Coleridge means here, though I believe that I do. But at any rate, and on the principle that of two hypotheses, each in itself adequate, we should choose the simpler, I suggest in all modesty that we shall do better with our own than with Coleridge's, which has the further disadvantage of being scarcely amenable to positive evidence. We can say with historical warrant that Sappho struck the lyre, and argue therefrom, still within close range of correction, that her singing responded to the instrument: whereas to assert that Sappho's mind 'was balanced by a spontaneous effort which strove to hold in check the workings of passion' is to say something for which positive evidence will be less handily found, whether to contradict or to support.

Yet if you choose to prefer Coleridge's explanation, no great harm will be done: since Coleridge, who may be presumed to have understood it, promptly goes on to deduce that,

as the elements of metre owe their existence to a state of increased excitement, so the metre itself should be accompanied by the natural language of excitement.

which is precisely where we found ourselves, save that where Coleridge uses the word 'excitement' we used the word 'emotion.'

Shall we employ an illustration before proceeding?—some sentence easily handled, some commonplace of the moralist, some copybook maxim, I care not what. 'Contentment breeds Happiness'—That is a proposition with which you can hardly quarrel; sententious, sedate, obviously true; provoking delirious advocacy as little as controversial heat; in short a very fair touchstone. Now hear how the lyric treats it, in these lines of Dekker—

Art thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers? O sweet content! Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplex'd? O punishment! Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex'd To add to golden numbers golden numbers? O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content! Work apace, apace, apace, apace; Honest labour wears a lovely face; Then hey, nonny nonny—hey, nonny nonny!

Canst drink the waters of the crystal spring? O sweet content! Swim'st thou in wealth, yet sink'st in thine own tears? O punishment! Then he that patiently want's burden bears No burden bears, but is a king, a king! O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content! Work apace, apace, apace, apace; Honest labour wears a lovely face; Then hey, nonny nonny—hey, nonny nonny!

There, in lines obviously written for music, you have our sedate sentence, 'Contentment breeds Happiness,' converted to mere emotion. Note (to use Coleridge's word) the 'excitement' of it. There are but two plain indicative sentences in the two stanzas—(1) 'Honest labour wears a lovely face' (used as a refrain), and (2) 'Then he that patiently want's burden bears no burden bears, but is a king, a king!' (heightened emotionally by inversion and double repetition). Mark throughout how broken is the utterance; antithetical question answered by exclamations: both doubled and made more antithetical in the second stanza: with cunning reduplicated inversions to follow, and each stanza wound up by an outburst of emotional nonsense—'hey, nonny nonny—hey, nonny nonny!'—as a man might skip or whistle to himself for want of thought.

Now (still keeping to our same subject of Contentment) let us prosify the lyrical order of language down to the lowest pitch to which genius has been able to reduce it and still make noble verse. You have all read Wordsworth's famous Introduction to the "Lyrical Ballads," and you know that Wordsworth's was a genius working on a theory that the languages of verse and of prose are identical. You know, too, I dare say, into what banalities that theory over and over again betrayed him: banalities such as—

His widowed mother, for a second mate Espoused the teacher of the village school: Who on her offspring zealously bestowed Needful instruction.

—and the rest. Nevertheless Wordsworth was a genius; and genius working persistently on a narrow theory will now and again 'bring it off' (as they say). So he, amid the flat waste of his later compositions, did undoubtedly 'bring it off' in the following sonnet:—

These times strike monied worldlings with dismay: Ev'n rich men, brave by nature, taint the air With words of apprehension and despair; While tens of thousands, thinking on the affray, Men unto whom sufficient for the day And minds not stinted or untill'd are given, Sound healthy children of the God of Heaven, Are cheerful as the rising sun in May. What do we gather hence but firmer faith That every gift of noble origin Is breath'd upon by Hope's perpetual breath; That Virtue and the faculties within Are vital; and that riches are akin To fear, to change, to cowardice, and death?

Here, I grant, are no repetitions, no inversions. The sentences, though metrical, run straightforwardly, verb following subject, object verb, as in strict prose. In short here you have verse reduced to the order and structure of prose as nearly as a man of genius, working on a set theory, could reduce it while yet maintaining its proper emotional key. But first let me say that you will find very few like instances of success even in Wordsworth; and few indeed to set against innumerable passages wherein either his verse defies his theory and triumphs, or succumbs to it and, succumbing, either drops sheer to bathos or spreads itself over dead flats of commonplace. Let me tell you next that the instances you will find in other poets are so few and so far between as to be negligible; and lastly that even such verse as the above has only to be compared with a passage of prose and its emotional pitch is at once betrayed. Take this, for example, from Jeremy Taylor:—

Since all the evil in the world consists in the disagreeing between the object and the appetite, as when a man hath what he desires not, or desires what he hath not, or desires amiss, he that compares his spirit to the present accident hath variety of instance for his virtue, but none to trouble him, because his desires enlarge not beyond his present fortune: and a wise man is placed in a variety of chances, like the nave or centre of a wheel in the midst of all the circumvolutions and changes of posture, without violence or change, save that it turns gently in compliance with its changed parts, and is indifferent which part is up, and which is down; for there is some virtue or other to be exercised whatever happens—either patience or thanksgiving, love or fear, moderation or humility, charity or contentedness.

Or, take this from Samuel Johnson:—

The fountain of contentment must spring up in the mind; and he who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove.

Now, to be frank, I do not call that first passage very good prose. Like much of Jeremy Taylor's writing it is prose tricked out with the trappings and odds-and-ends of verse. It starts off, for example, with a brace of heroics—'Since all the evil in the world consists'...'between the object and the appetite.' You may say, further, that the simile of the wheel, though proper enough to prose, is poetical too: that Homer might have used it ('As in a wheel the rim turns violently, while the nave, though it turns also, yet seems to be at rest'—something of that sort). Nevertheless you will agree with me that, in exchanging Wordsworth for Taylor and Johnson, we have relaxed something with the metre, something that the metre kept taut; and this something we discover to be the emotional pitch.

But let me give you another illustration, supplied (I dare say quite unconsciously) by one who combined a genuine love of verse—in which, however, he was no adept—with a sure instinct for beautiful prose. Contentment was a favourite theme with Isaak Walton: "The Compleat Angler" is packed with praise of it: and in "The Compleat Angler" occurs this well-known passage:—

But, master, first let me tell you, that very hour which you were absent from me, I sat down under a willow tree by the waterside, and considered what you had told me of the owner of that pleasant meadow in which you then had left me; that he had a plentiful estate, and not a heart to think so; that he had at this time many law-suits depending, and that they both damped his mirth and took up so much of his time and thoughts that he had no leisure to take the sweet content that I, who pretended no title to them, took in his fields: for I could there sit quietly; and looking on the water, see some fishes sport themselves in the silver streams, others leaping at flies of several shapes and colours; looking on the hills, I could behold them spotted with woods and groves; looking down the meadows, could see, here a boy gathering lilies and lady-smocks, and there a girl cropping culverlocks and cowslips, all to make garlands suitable to this present month of May. These and many other field-flowers so perfumed the air that I thought that very meadow like that field in Sicily of which Diodorus speaks, where the perfumes arising from the place make all dogs that hunt in it to fall off and lose their hottest scent. I say, as I thus sat, joying in my own happy condition, and pitying this poor rich man that owned this and many other pleasant groves and meadows about me, I did thankfully remember what my Saviour said, that the meek possess the earth; or rather they enjoy what the others possess and enjoy not; for Anglers and meek quiet-spirited men are free from those high, those restless thoughts which corrode the sweets of life; and they, and they only can say as the poet has happily exprest it:

'Hail, blest estate of lowliness! Happy enjoyments of such minds As, rich in self-contentedness, Can, like the reeds in roughest winds, By yielding make that blow but small At which proud oaks and cedars fall.'

There you have a passage of felicitous prose culminating in a stanza of trite and fifth-rate verse. Yes, Walton's instinct is sound; for he is keying up the pitch; and verse, even when mediocre in quality, has its pitch naturally set above that of prose. So, if you will turn to your Walton and read the page following this passage, you will see that, still by a sure instinct, he proceeds from this scrap of reflective verse to a mere rollicking 'catch':

Man's life is but vain, for 'tis subject to pain And sorrow, and short as a bubble; 'Tis a hodge-podge of business and money and care, And care, and money and trouble...

—which is even worse rubbish, and yet a step upwards in emotion because Venator actually sings it to music. 'Ay marry, sir, this is music indeed,' approves Brother Peter; 'this cheers the heart.'

In this and the preceding lecture, Gentlemen, I have enforced at some length the opinion that to understand the many essential differences between verse and prose we must constantly bear in mind that verse, being metrical, keeps the character originally imposed on it by musical accompaniment and must always, however far the remove, be referred back to its origin and to the emotion which music excites.

Mr George Bernard Shaw having to commit his novel "Cashel Byron's Profession" to paper in a hurry, chose to cast it in blank verse as being more easily and readily written so: a performance which brilliantly illuminates a half-truth. Verse—or at any rate, unrhymed iambic verse—is easier to write than prose, if you care to leave out the emotion which makes verse characteristic and worth writing. I have little doubt that, had he chosen to attempt it, Mr Shaw would have found his story still more ductile in the metre of "Hiawatha." But the experiment proves nothing: or no more than that, all fine art costing labour, it may cost less if burlesqued in a category not its own.

Let me take an example from a work with which you are all familiar—"The Student's Handbook to the University and Colleges of Cambridge." On p. 405 we read:—

The Medieval and Modern Languages Tripos is divided into ten sections, A, A2, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and I. A student may take either one or two sections at the end of his second year of residence, and either one or two more sections at the end of his third or fourth year of residence; or he may take two sections at the end of his third year only. Thus this Tripos can be treated either as a divided or as an undivided Tripos at the option of the candidate.

Now I do not hold that up to you for a model of prose. Still, lucidity rather than emotion being its aim, I doubt not that the composer spent pains on it; more pains than it would have cost him to convey his information metrically, thus:—

There is a Tripos that aspires to blend The Medieval and the Modern tongues In one red burial (Sing Heavenly Muse!) Divided into sections A, A2, B, C, D, E, F, G and H and I. A student may take either one or two (With some restrictions mention'd in a footnote) At th' expiration of his second year: Or of his third, or of his fourth again Take one or two; or of his third alone Take two together. Thus this tripos is (Like nothing in the Athanasian Creed) Divisible or indivisible At the option of the candidate—Gadzooks!

This method has even some advantage over the method of prose in that it is more easily memorised; but it has, as you will admit, the one fatal flaw that it imports emotion into a theme which does not properly admit of emotion, and that so it offends against our first rule of writing—that it should be appropriate.

Now if you accept the argument so far as we have led it—that verse is by nature more emotional than prose—certain consequences would seem to follow: of which the first is that while the capital difficulty of verse consists in saying ordinary things the capital difficulty of prose consists in saying extraordinary things; that while with verse, keyed for high moments, the trouble is to manage the intervals, with prose the trouble is to manage the high moments.

Let us dwell awhile on this difference, for it is important. You remember my quoting to you in my last lecture these lines of Milton's:—

Up to a hill anon his steps he reared From whose high top to ken the prospect round, If cottage were in view, sheep-cote or herd; But cottage, herd, or sheep-cote, none he saw.

We agreed that these were good lines, with the accent of poetry: but we allowed it to be a highly exalted way of telling how So-and-so climbed a hill for a better view but found none. Now obviously this exaltation does not arise immediately out of the action described (which is as ordinary as it well could be), but is derivative. It borrows its wings, its impetus, from a previous high moment, from the emotion proper to that moment, from the speech proper to that emotion: and these sustain us across to the next height as with the glide of an aeroplane. Your own sense will tell you at once that the passage would be merely bombastic if the poet were starting to set forth how So-and-so climbed a hill for the view—just that, and nothing else: as your own sense tells you that the swoop is from one height to another. For if bathos lay ahead, if Milton had but to relate how the Duke of York, with twenty thousand men, 'marched up a hill and then marched down again,' he certainly would not use diction such as:—

Up to a hill anon his steps he reared.

Even as it is, I think we must all detect a certain artificiality in the passage, and confess to some relief when Satan is introduced to us, ten lines lower down, to revivify the story. For let us note that, in the nature of things, the more adorned and involved our style (and Milton's is both ornate and involved) the more difficulty we must find with these flat pedestrian intervals. Milton may 'bring it off,' largely through knowing how to dodge the interval and contrive that it shall at any rate be brief: but, as Bagehot noted, when we come to Tennyson and find Tennyson in "Enoch Arden" informing us of a fish-jowter, that:—

Enoch's white horse, and Enoch's ocean-spoil In ocean-smelling osier—

(i.e. in a fish-basket)

—and his face Rough-reddened with a thousand winter gales, Not only to the market town were known, But in the leafy lanes beyond the down Far as the portal-warding lion-whelp And peacock yewtree of the lonely Hall Whose Friday fare was Enoch's ministering,

why, then we feel that the vehicle is altogether too pompous for its load, and those who make speech too pompous for its content commit, albeit in varying degrees, the error of Defoe's religious lady who, seeing a bottle of over-ripe beer explode and cork and froth fly up to the ceiling, cried out, 'O, the wonders of Omnipotent Power!' The poet who commends fresh fish to us as 'ocean-spoil' can cast no stone at his brother who writes of them as 'the finny denizens of the deep,' or even at his cousin the journalist, who exalts the oyster into a 'succulent bivalve'—

The feathered tribes on pinions cleave the air; Not so the mackerel, and, still less, the bear!

I believe this difficulty, which verse, by nature and origin emotional, encounters in dealing with ordinary unemotional narrative, to lie as a technical reason at the bottom of Horace's advice to the writer of Epic to plunge in medias res, thus avoiding flat preparative and catching at once a high wind which shall carry him hereafter across dull levels and intervals. I believe that it lay—though whether consciously or not he scarcely tells us—at the bottom of Matthew Arnold's mind when, selecting certain qualities for which to praise Homer, he chose, for the very first, Homer's rapidity. 'First,' he says, 'Homer is eminently rapid; and,' he adds justly, 'to this rapidity the elaborate movement of Miltonic blank verse is alien.'

Now until one studies writing as an art, trying to discover what this or that form of it accomplishes with ease and what with difficulty, and why verse can do one thing and prose another, Arnold's choice of rapidity to put in the forefront of Homer's merits may seem merely capricious. 'Homer (we say) has other great qualities. Arnold himself indicates Homer's simplicity, directness, nobility. Surely either one of these should be mentioned before rapidity, in itself not comparable as a virtue with either?'

But when we see that the difficulty of verse-narrative lies just here; that the epic poet who is rapid has met, and has overcome, the capital difficulty of his form, then we begin to do justice not only to Arnold as a critic but (which is of far higher moment) to Homer as a craftsman.

The genius of Homer in this matter is in fact something daemonic. He seems to shirk nothing: and the effect of this upon critics is bewildering. The acutest of them are left wondering how on earth an ordinary tale—say of how some mariners beached ship, stowed sail, walked ashore and cooked their dinner—can be made so poetical. They are inclined to divide the credit between the poet and his fortunate age—'a time' suggests Pater 'in which one could hardly have spoken at all without ideal effect, or the sailors pulled down their boat without making a picture "in the great style" against a sky charged with marvels.'

Well, the object of these lectures is not to explain genius. Just here it is rather to state a difficulty; to admit that, once in history, genius overcame it; yet warn you how rare in the tale of poetical achievement is such a success. Homer, indeed, stands first, if not unmatched, among poets in this technical triumph over the capital disability of annihilating flat passages. I omit Shakespeare and the dramatists; because they have only to give a stage direction 'Enter Cassius, looking lean,' and Cassius comes in looking leaner than nature; whereas Homer has in his narrative to walk Hector or Thersites on to the scene, describe him, walk him off. I grant the rapidity of Dante. It is amazing; and we may yield him all the credit for choosing (it was his genius that chose it) a subject which allowed of the very highest rapidity; since Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, though they differ in other respects, have this in common, that they are populous and the inhabitants of each so compendiously shepherded together that the visitor can turn from one person to another without loss of time. But Homer does not escort us around a menagerie in which we can move expeditiously from one cage to another. He proposes at least, both in the "Iliad" and in the "Odyssey," to unfold a story; and he seems to unfold it so artlessly that we linger on the most pedestrian intervals while he tells us, for example, what the heroes ate and how they cooked it. A modern writer would serve us a far better dinner. Homer brings us to his with our appetite all the keener for having waited and watched the spitting and roasting.

I would point out to you what art this genius conceals; how cunning is this apparent simplicity: and for this purpose let me take Homer at the extreme of his difficulty—when he has to describe a long sea-voyage.

Some years ago, in his last Oxford lectures, Mr Froude lamented that no poet in this country had arisen to write a national epic of the great Elizabethan seamen, to culminate (I suppose) as his History culminated, in the defeat of the Armada: and one of our younger poets; Mr Alfred Noyes, acting on this hint has since given us an epic poem on "Drake," in twelve books. But Froude probably overlooked, as Mr Noyes has not overcome, this difficulty of the flat interval which, while ever the bugbear of Epic, is magnified tenfold when our action takes place on the sea. For whereas the verse should be rapid and the high moments frequent, the business of seafaring is undeniably monotonous, as the intervals between port and port, sea-fight and sea-fight, must be long and lazy. Matters move more briskly in an occasional gale; but even a gale lasts, and must be ridden out; and the process of riding to a gale of wind:—

For ever climbing up the climbing wave

—your ship taking one wave much as she takes another—is in its nature monotonous. Nay, you have only to read Falconer's "Shipwreck" to discover how much of dulness may lie enwrapped, to discharge itself, even in a first-class tempest. Courses, reckonings, trimmings of canvas—these occur in real life and amuse the simple mariner at the time. But to the reader, if he be a landsman, their repetition in narrative may easily become intolerable; and when we get down to the 'trades,' even the seaman sets his sail for a long spell of weather and goes to sleep. In short you cannot upon the wide Atlantic push action and reaction to and fro as upon the plains of windy Troy: nor could any but a superhuman genius make sustained poetry (say) out of Nelson's untiring pursuit of Villeneuve, which none the less was one of the most heroic feats in history.

This difficulty, inherent in navigation as a subject for the Epic Muse, has, I think, been very shrewdly detected and hit off in a parody of Mr Noyes' poem by a young friend of mine, Mr Wilfred Blair:—

Meanwhile the wind had changed, and Francis Drake Put down the helm and drove against the seas— Once more the wind changed, and the simple seaman, Full fraught with weather wisdom, once again Put down the helm and so drove on—et cetera.

Now Homer actually has performed this feat which we declare to be next to impossible. He actually does convey Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca, by a ten years' voyage too; he actually has narrated that voyage to us in plain straightforward words; and, what is more, he actually has made a superb epic of it. Yes, but when you come to dissect the Odyssey, what amazing artifice is found under that apparently straightforward tale!—eight years of the ten sliced out, to start with, and magnificently presented to Circe

Where that Aeaean isle forgets the main

—and (one may add), so forgetting, avoids the technical difficulties connected therewith.

Note the space given to Telemachus and his active search for the lost hero: note too how the mass of Odysseus' seafaring adventures is condensed into a reported speech—a traveller's tale at the court of Alcinoues. Virgil borrowed this trick, you remember; and I dare to swear that had it fallen to Homer to attempt the impossible saga of Nelson's pursuit after Villeneuve he would have achieved it triumphantly—by means of a tale told in the first person by a survivor to Lady Hamilton. Note, again, how boldly (being free to deal with an itinerary of which his audience knew nothing but surmised that it comprehended a vast deal of the marvellous, spaced at irregular distances) Homer works in a shipwreck or a miracle wherever the action threatens to flag. Lessing, as you know, devoted several pages of the "Laokoeon" to the shield of Achilles; to Homer's craft in depicting it as it grew under Hephaestus' hammer: so that we are intrigued by the process of manufacture instead of being wearied by a description of the ready-made article; so also (if one may presume to add anything to Lessing) that we are cunningly flattered in a sense that the shield is being made for us. Well, that is one artifice out of many: but if you would gauge at all Homer's resource and subtlety in technique I recommend you to analyse the first twelve books of the "Odyssey" and count for yourselves the device by which the poet—[Greek: polutropos] as was never his hero—evades or hurries over each flat interval as he happens upon it.

These things, Ulysses, The wise bards also Behold and sing. But O, what labour! O Prince, what pain!

You may be thinking, Gentlemen, that I take up a disproportionate amount of your time on such technical matters at these. But literature being an art (forgive the reiteration!) and therefore to be practised, I want us to be seeking all the time how it is done; to hunt out the principles on which the great artists wrought; to face, to rationalise, the difficulties by which they were confronted, and learn how they overcame the particular obstacle. Surely even for mere criticism, apart from practice, we shall equip ourselves better by seeking, so far as we may, how the thing is done than by standing at gaze before this or that masterpiece and murmuring 'Isn't that beautiful! How in the world, now...!'

I am told that these lectures are criticised as tending to make you conceited: to encourage in you a belief that you can do things, when it were better that you merely admired. Well I would not dishearten you by telling to what a shred of conceit, even of hope, a man can be reduced after twenty-odd years of the discipline. But I can, and do, affirm that the farther you penetrate in these discoveries the more sacred the ultimate mystery will become for you: that the better you understand the great authors as exemplars of practice, the more certainly you will realise what is the condescension of the gods.

Next time, then, we will attempt an enquiry into the capital difficulty of Prose.



Thursday, May 1

We parted, Gentlemen, upon a promise to discuss the capital difficulty of Prose, as we have discussed the capital difficulty of Verse. But, although we shall come to it, on second thoughts I ask leave to break the order of my argument and to interpose some words upon a kind of writing which, from a superficial likeness, commonly passes for prose in these days, and by lazy folk is commonly written for prose, yet actually is not prose at all; my excuse being the simple practical one that, by first clearing this sham prose out of the way, we shall the better deal with honest prose when we come to it. The proper difficulties of prose will remain: but we shall be agreed in understanding what it is, or at any rate what it is not, that we talk about. I remember to have heard somewhere of a religious body in the United States of America which had reason to suspect one of its churches of accepting Spiritual consolation from a coloured preacher—an offence against the laws of the Synod—and despatched a Disciplinary Committee with power to act; and of the Committee's returning to report itself unable to take any action under its terms of reference, for that while a person undoubtedly coloured had undoubtedly occupied the pulpit and had audibly spoken from it in the Committee's presence, the performance could be brought within no definition of preaching known or discoverable. So it is with that infirmity of speech—that flux, that determination of words to the mouth, or to the pen—which, though it be familiar to you in parliamentary debates, in newspapers, and as the staple language of Blue Books, Committees, Official Reports, I take leave to introduce to you as prose which is not prose and under its real name of Jargon.

You must not confuse this Jargon with what is called Journalese. The two overlap, indeed, and have a knack of assimilating each other's vices. But Jargon finds, maybe, the most of its votaries among good douce people who have never written to or for a newspaper in their life, who would never talk of 'adverse climatic conditions' when they mean 'bad weather'; who have never trifled with verbs such as 'obsess,' 'recrudesce,' 'envisage,' 'adumbrate,' or with phrases such as 'the psychological moment,' 'the true inwardness,' 'it gives furiously to think.' It dallies with Latinity—'sub silentio,' 'de die in diem,' 'cui bono?' (always in the sense, unsuspected by Cicero, of 'What is the profit?')—but not for the sake of style. Your journalist at the worst is an artist in his way: he daubs paint of this kind upon the lily with a professional zeal; the more flagrant (or, to use his own word, arresting) the pigment, the happier is his soul. Like the Babu he is trying all the while to embellish our poor language, to make it more floriferous, more poetical—like the Babu for example who, reporting his mother's death, wrote, 'Regret to inform you, the hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket.'

There is metaphor: there is ornament: there is a sense of poetry, though as yet groping in a world unrealised. No such gusto marks—no such zeal, artistic or professional, animates—the practitioners of Jargon, who are, most of them (I repeat), douce respectable persons. Caution is its father: the instinct to save everything and especially trouble: its mother, Indolence. It looks precise, but it is not. It is, in these times, safe: a thousand men have said it before and not one to your knowledge had been prosecuted for it. And so, like respectability in Chicago, Jargon stalks unchecked in our midst. It is becoming the language of Parliament: it has become the medium through which Boards of Government, County Councils, Syndicates, Committees, Commercial Firms, express the processes as well as the conclusions of their thought and so voice the reason of their being.

Has a Minister to say 'No' in the House of Commons? Some men are constitutionally incapable of saying no: but the Minister conveys it thus—'The answer to the question is in the negative.' That means 'no.' Can you discover it to mean anything less, or anything more except that the speaker is a pompous person?—which was no part of the information demanded.

That is Jargon, and it happens to be accurate. But as a rule Jargon is by no means accurate, its method being to walk circumspectly around its target; and its faith, that having done so it has either hit the bull's-eye or at least achieved something equivalent, and safer.

Thus the Clerk of a Board of Guardians will minute that—

In the case of John Jenkins deceased the coffin provided was of the usual character.

Now this is not accurate. 'In the case of John Jenkins deceased,' for whom a coffin was supplied, it is wholly superfluous to tell us that he is deceased. But actually John Jenkins never had more than one case, and that was the coffin. The Clerk says he had two,—a coffin in a case: but I suspect the Clerk to be mistaken, and I am sure he errs in telling us that the coffin was of the usual character: for coffins have no character, usual or unusual.

For another example (I shall not tell you whence derived)—

In the case of every candidate who is placed in the first class [So you see the lucky fellow gets a case as well as a first-class. He might be a stuffed animal: perhaps he is] In the case of every candidate who is placed in the first class the class-list will show by some convenient mark (1) the Section or Sections for proficiency in which he is placed in the first class and (2) the Section or Sections (if any) in which he has passed with special distinction.

'The Section or Sections (if any)'—But, how, if they are not any, could they be indicated by a mark however convenient?

The Examiners will have regard to the style and method of the candidate's answers, and will give credit for excellence in these respects.

Have you begun to detect the two main vices of Jargon? The first is that it uses circumlocution rather than short straight speech. It says 'In the case of John Jenkins deceased, the coffin' when it means 'John Jenkins's coffin': and its yea is not yea, neither is its nay nay: but its answer is in the affirmative or in the negative, as the foolish and superfluous 'case' may be. The second vice is that it habitually chooses vague woolly abstract nouns rather than concrete ones. I shall have something to say by-and-by about the concrete noun, and how you should ever be struggling for it whether in prose or in verse. For the moment I content myself with advising you, if you would write masculine English, never to forget the old tag of your Latin Grammar—

Masculine will only be Things that you can touch and see.

But since these lectures are meant to be a course in First Aid to writing, I will content myself with one or two extremely rough rules: yet I shall be disappointed if you do not find them serviceable.

The first is:—Whenever in your reading you come across one of these words, case, instance, character, nature, condition, persuasion, degree—whenever in writing your pen betrays you to one or another of them—pull yourself up and take thought. If it be 'case' (I choose it as Jargon's dearest child—'in Heaven yclept Metonomy') turn to the dictionary, if you will, and seek out what meaning can be derived from casus, its Latin ancestor: then try how, with a little trouble, you can extricate yourself from that case. The odds are, you will feel like a butterfly who has discarded his chrysalis.

Here are some specimens to try your hand on—

(1) All those tears which inundated Lord Hugh Cecil's head were dry in the case of Mr Harold Cox.

Poor Mr Cox! left gasping in his aquarium!

(2) [From a cigar-merchant] In any case, let us send you a case on approval.

(3) It is contended that Consols have fallen in consequence: but such is by no means the case.

'Such,' by the way, is another spoilt child of Jargon, especially in Committee's Rules—'Co-opted members may be eligible as such; such members to continue to serve for such time as'—and so on.

(4) Even in the purely Celtic areas, only in two or three cases do the Bishops bear Celtic names.

For 'cases' read 'dioceses.'

Instance. In most instances the players were below their form.

But what were they playing at? Instances?

Character—Nature. There can be no doubt that the accident was caused through the dangerous nature of the spot, the hidden character of the by-road, and the utter absence of any warning or danger signal.

Mark the foggy wording of it all! And yet the man hit something and broke his neck! Contrast that explanation with the verdict of a coroner's jury in the West of England on a drowned postman—'We find that deceased met his death by an act of God, caused by sudden overflowing of the river Walkhan and helped out by the scandalous neglect of the way-wardens.'

The Aintree course is notoriously of a trying nature.

On account of its light character, purity and age, Usher's whiskey is a whiskey that will agree with you.

Order. The mesalliance was of a pronounced order.

Condition. He was conveyed to his place of residence in an intoxicated condition.

'He was carried home drunk.'

Quality and Section. Mr ——, exhibiting no less than five works, all of a superior quality, figures prominently in the oil section.

This was written of an exhibition of pictures.

Degree. A singular degree of rarity prevails in the earlier editions of this romance.

That is Jargon. In prose it runs simply 'The earlier editions of this romance are rare'—or 'are very rare'—or even (if you believe what I take leave to doubt), 'are singularly rare'; which should mean that they are rarer than the editions of any other work in the world.

Now what I ask you to consider about these quotations is that in each the writer was using Jargon to shirk prose, palming off periphrases upon us when with a little trouble he could have gone straight to the point. 'A singular degree of rarity prevails,' 'the accident was caused through the dangerous nature of the spot,' 'but such is by no means the case.' We may not be capable of much; but we can all write better than that, if we take a little trouble. In place of, 'the Aintree course is of a trying nature' we can surely say 'Aintree is a trying course' or 'the Aintree course is a trying one'—just that and nothing more.

Next, having trained yourself to keep a look-out for these worst offenders (and you will be surprised to find how quickly you get into the way of it), proceed to push your suspicions out among the whole cloudy host of abstract terms. 'How excellent a thing is sleep,' sighed Sancho Panza; 'it wraps a man round like a cloak'—an excellent example, by the way, of how to say a thing concretely: a Jargoneer would have said that 'among the beneficent qualities of sleep its capacity for withdrawing the human consciousness from the contemplation of immediate circumstances may perhaps be accounted not the least remarkable.' How vile a thing—shall we say?—is the abstract noun! It wraps a man's thoughts round like cotton wool.

Here is a pretty little nest of specimens, found in "The Times" newspaper by Messrs. H. W. and F. G. Fowler, authors of that capital little book "The King's English":—

One of the most important reforms mentioned in the rescript is the unification of the organisation of judicial institutions and the guarantee for all the tribunals of the independence necessary for securing to all classes of the community equality before the law.

I do not dwell on the cacophony; but, to convey a straightforward piece of news, might not the Editor of "The Times" as well employ a man to write:—

One of the most important reforms is that of the Courts, which need a uniform system and to be made independent. In this way only can men be assured that all are equal before the law.

I think he might.

A day or two ago the musical critic of the "Standard" wrote this:—


Mr Frederick Lamond, the Scottish pianist, as an interpreter of Beethoven has few rivals. At his second recital of the composer's works at Bechstein Hall on Saturday afternoon he again displayed a complete sympathy and understanding of his material that extracted the very essence of aesthetic and musical value from each selection he undertook. The delightful intimacy of his playing and his unusual force of individual expression are invaluable assets, which, allied to his technical brilliancy, enable him to achieve an artistic triumph. The two lengthy Variations in E flat major (Op. 35) and in D major, the latter on the Turkish March from 'The Ruins of Athens,' when included in the same programme, require a master hand to provide continuity of interest. To say that Mr Lamond successfully avoided moments that might at times, in these works, have inclined to comparative disinterestedness, would be but a moderate way of expressing the remarkable fascination with which his versatile playing endowed them, but at the same time two of the sonatas given included a similar form of composition, and no matter how intellectually brilliant may be the interpretation, the extravagant use of a certain mode is bound in time to become somewhat ineffective. In the Three Sonatas, the E major (Op. 109), the A major (Op. 2), No. 2, and the C minor (Op. 111), Mr Lamond signalised his perfect insight into the composer's varying moods.

Will you not agree with me that here is no writing, here is no prose, here is not even English, but merely a flux of words to the pen?

Here again is a string, a concatenation—say, rather, a tiara—of gems of purest ray serene from the dark unfathomed caves of a Scottish newspaper:—

The Chinese viewpoint, as indicated in this letter, may not be without interest to your readers, because it evidently is suggestive of more than an academic attempt to explain an unpleasant aspect of things which, if allowed to materialise, might suddenly culminate in disaster resembling the Chang-Sha riots. It also ventures to illustrate incidents having their inception in recent premature endeavours to accelerate the development of Protestant missions in China; but we would hope for the sake of the interests involved that what my correspondent describes as 'the irresponsible ruffian element' may be known by their various religious designations only within very restricted areas.

Well, the Chinese have given it up, poor fellows! and are asking the Christians—as to-day's newspapers inform us—to pray for them. Do you wonder? But that is, or was, the Chinese 'viewpoint,'—and what a willow-pattern viewpoint! Observe its delicacy. It does not venture to interest or be interesting; merely 'to be not without interest.' But it does 'venture to illustrate incidents'—which, for a viewpoint, is brave enough: and this illustration 'is suggestive of something more than an academic attempt to explain an unpleasant aspect of things which, if allowed to materialise, might suddenly culminate.' What materialises? The unpleasant aspect? or the things? Grammar says the 'things,' 'things which if allowed to materialise.' But things are materialised already, and as a condition of their being things. It must be the aspect, then, that materialises. But, if so, it is also the aspect that culminates, and an aspect, however unpleasant, can hardly do that, or at worst cannot culminate in anything resembling the Chang-Sha riots.... I give it up.

Let us turn to another trick of Jargon: the trick of Elegant Variation, so rampant in the Sporting Press that there, without needing to attend these lectures, the Undergraduate detects it for laughter:—

Hayward and C. B. Fry now faced the bowling; which apparently had no terrors for the Surrey crack. The old Oxonian, however, took some time in settling to work....

Yes, you all recognise it and laugh at it. But why do you practise it in your Essays? An undergraduate brings me an essay on Byron. In an essay on Byron, Byron is (or ought to be) mentioned many times. I expect, nay exact, that Bryon shall be mentioned again and again. But my undergraduate has a blushing sense that to call Byron Byron twice on one page is indelicate. So Byron, after starting bravely as Byron, in the second sentence turns into 'that great but unequal poet' and thenceforward I have as much trouble with Byron as ever Telemachus with Proteus to hold and pin him back to his proper self. Half-way down the page he becomes 'the gloomy master of Newstead': overleaf he is reincarnated into 'the meteoric darling of society': and so proceeds through successive avatars—'this arch-rebel,' 'the author of Childe Harold,' 'the apostle of scorn,' 'the ex-Harrovian, proud, but abnormally sensitive of his club-foot,' 'the martyr of Missolonghi,' 'the pageant-monger of a bleeding heart.' Now this again is Jargon. It does not, as most Jargon does, come of laziness; but it comes of timidity, which is worse. In literature as in life he makes himself felt who not only calls a spade a spade but has the pluck to double spades and re-double.

For another rule—just as rough and ready, but just as useful: Train your suspicions to bristle up whenever you come upon 'as regards,' 'with regard to,' 'in respect of,' 'in connection with,' 'according as to whether,' and the like. They are all dodges of Jargon, circumlocutions for evading this or that simple statement: and I say that it is not enough to avoid them nine times out of ten, or nine-and-ninety times out of a hundred. You should never use them. That is positive enough, I hope? Though I cannot admire his style, I admire the man who wrote to me, 'Re Tennyson—your remarks anent his "In Memoriam" make me sick': for though re is not a preposition of the first water, and 'anent' has enjoyed its day, the finish crowned the work. But here are a few specimens far, very far, worse:—

The special difficulty in Professor Minocelsi's case [our old friend 'case' again] arose in connexion with the view he holds relative to the historical value of the opening pages of Genesis.

That is Jargon. In prose, even taking the miserable sentence as it stands constructed, we should write 'the difficulty arose over the views he holds about the historical value,' etc.

From a popular novelist:—

I was entirely indifferent as to the results of the game, caring nothing at all as to whether I had losses or gains

Cut out the first 'as' in 'as to,' and the second 'as to' altogether, and the sentence begins to be prose—'I was indifferent to the results of the game, caring nothing whether I had losses or gains.'

But why, like Dogberry, have 'had losses'? Why not simply 'lose.' Let us try again. 'I was entirely indifferent to the results of the game, caring nothing at all whether I won or lost.'

Still the sentence remains absurd: for the second clause but repeats the first without adding one jot. For if you care not at all whether you win or lose, you must be entirely indifferent to the results of the game. So why not say 'I was careless if I won or lost,' and have done with it?

A man of simple and charming character, he was fitly associated with the distinction of the Order of Merit.

I take this gem with some others from a collection made three years ago, by the "Oxford Magazine"; and I hope you admire it as one beyond price. 'He was associated with the distinction of the Order of Merit' means 'he was given the Order of Merit.' If the members of that Order make a society then he was associated with them; but you cannot associate a man with a distinction. The inventor of such fine writing would doubtless have answered Canning's Needy Knife-grinder with:—

I associate thee with sixpence! I will see thee in another association first!

But let us close our florilegium and attempt to illustrate Jargon by the converse method of taking a famous piece of English (say Hamlet's soliloquy) and remoulding a few lines of it in this fashion:—

To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion. The condition of sleep is similar to, if not indistinguishable from, that of death; and with the addition of finality the former might be considered identical with the latter: so that in this connection it might be argued with regard to sleep that, could the addition be effected, a termination would be put to the endurance of a multiplicity of inconveniences, not to mention a number of downright evils incidental to our fallen humanity, and thus a consummation achieved of a most gratifying nature.

That is Jargon: and to write Jargon is to be perpetually shuffling around in the fog and cotton-wool of abstract terms; to be for ever hearkening, like Ibsen's Peer Gynt, to the voice of the Boyg exhorting you to circumvent the difficulty, to beat the air because it is easier than to flesh your sword in the thing. The first virtue, the touchstone of a masculine style, is its use of the active verb and the concrete noun. When you write in the active voice, 'They gave him a silver teapot,' you write as a man. When you write 'He was made the recipient of a silver teapot,' you write jargon. But at the beginning set even higher store on the concrete noun. Somebody—I think it was FitzGerald—once posited the question 'What would have become of Christianity if Jeremy Bentham had had the writing of the Parables?' Without pursuing that dreadful enquiry I ask you to note how carefully the Parables—those exquisite short stories—speak only of 'things which you can touch and see'—'A sower went forth to sow,' 'The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took,'—and not the Parables only, but the Sermon on the Mount and almost every verse of the Gospel. The Gospel does not, like my young essayist, fear to repeat a word, if the word be good. The Gospel says 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's'—not 'Render unto Caesar the things that appertain to that potentate.' The Gospel does not say 'Consider the growth of the lilies,' or even 'Consider how the lilies grow.' It says, 'Consider the lilies, how they grow.'

Or take Shakespeare. I wager you that no writer of English so constantly chooses the concrete word, in phrase after phrase forcing you to touch and see. No writer so insistently teaches the general through the particular. He does it even in "Venus and Adonis" (as Professor Wendell, of Harvard, pointed out in a brilliant little monograph on Shakespeare, published some ten years ago). Read any page of "Venus and Adonis" side by side with any page of Marlowe's "Hero and Leander" and you cannot but mark the contrast: in Shakespeare the definite, particular, visualised image, in Marlowe the beautiful generalisation, the abstract term, the thing seen at a literary remove. Take the two openings, both of which start out with the sunrise. Marlowe begins:—

Now had the Morn espied her lover's steeds: Whereat she starts, puts on her purple weeds, And, red for anger that he stay'd so long, All headlong throws herself the clouds among.

Shakespeare wastes no words on Aurora and her feelings, but gets to his hero and to business without ado:—

Even as the sun with purple-colour'd face— (You have the sun visualised at once), Even as the sun with purple-colour'd face Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn, Rose-cheek'd Adonis hied him to the chase; Hunting he loved, but love he laugh'd to scorn.

When Shakespeare has to describe a horse, mark how definite he is:—

Round-hoof'd, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long, Broad breast, full eye, small head and nostril wide, High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong; Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide.

Or again, in a casual simile, how definite:—

Upon this promise did he raise his chin, Like a dive-dipper peering through a wave, Which, being look'd on, ducks as quickly in.

Or take, if you will, Marlowe's description of Hero's first meeting Leander:—

It lies not in our power to love or hate, For will in us is over-ruled by fate...,

and set against it Shakespeare's description of Venus' last meeting with Adonis, as she came on him lying in his blood:—

Or as a snail whose tender horns being hit Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain, And there, all smother'd up, in shade doth sit, Long after fearing to creep forth again; So, at his bloody view—

I do not deny Marlowe's lines (if you will study the whole passage) to be lovely. You may even judge Shakespeare's to be crude by comparison. But you cannot help noting that whereas Marlowe steadily deals in abstract, nebulous terms, Shakespeare constantly uses concrete ones, which later on he learned to pack into verse, such as:—

Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care.

Is it unfair to instance Marlowe, who died young? Then let us take Webster for the comparison; Webster, a man of genius or of something very like it, and commonly praised by the critics for his mastery over definite, detailed, and what I may call solidified sensation. Let us take this admired passage from his "Duchess of Malfy":—

Ferdinand. How doth our sister Duchess bear herself In her imprisonment?

Basola. Nobly: I'll describe her. She's sad as one long used to 't, and she seems Rather to welcome the end of misery Than shun it: a behaviour so noble As gives a majesty to adversity (Note the abstract terms.) You may discern the shape of loveliness More perfect in her tears than in her smiles; She will muse for hours together; and her silence (Here we first come on the concrete: and beautiful it is.) Methinks expresseth more than if she spake.

Now set against this the well-known passage from "Twelfth Night" where the Duke asks and Viola answers a question about someone unknown to him and invented by her—a mere phantasm, in short: yet note how much more definite is the language:—

Viola. My father had a daughter lov'd a man; As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship.

Duke. And what's her history?

Viola. A blank, my lord. She never told her love, But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud, Feed on her damask cheek; she pined in thought, And with a green and yellow melancholy She sat like Patience on a monument Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

Observe (apart from the dramatic skill of it) how, when Shakespeare has to use the abstract noun 'concealment,' on an instant it turns into a visible worm 'feeding' on the visible rose; how, having to use a second abstract word 'patience,' at once he solidifies it in tangible stone.

Turning to prose, you may easily assure yourselves that men who have written learnedly on the art agree in treating our maxim—to prefer the concrete term to the abstract, the particular to the general, the definite to the vague—as a canon of rhetoric. Whately has much to say on it. The late Mr E. J. Payne, in one of his admirable prefaces to Burke (prefaces too little known and valued, as too often happens to scholarship hidden away in a schoolbook), illustrated the maxim by setting a passage from Burke's speech "On Conciliation with America" alongside a passage of like purport from Lord Brougham's "Inquiry into the Policy of the European Powers." Here is the deadly parallel:—


In large bodies the circulation of power must be less vigorous at the extremities. Nature has said it. The Turk cannot govern AEgypt and Arabia and Curdistan as he governs Thrace; nor has he the same dominion in Crimea and Algiers which he has at Brusa and Smyrna. Despotism itself is obliged to truck and huckster. The Sultan gets such obedience as he can. He governs with a loose rein, that he may govern at all; and the whole of the force and vigour of his authority in his centre is derived from a prudent relaxation in all his borders.


In all the despotisms of the East, it has been observed that the further any part of the empire is removed from the capital, the more do its inhabitants enjoy some sort of rights and privileges: the more inefficacious is the power of the monarch; and the more feeble and easily decayed is the organisation of the government.

You perceive that Brougham has transferred Burke's thought to his own page: but will you not also perceive how pitiably, by dissolving Burke's vivid particulars into smooth generalities, he has enervated its hold on the mind?

'This particularising style,' comments Mr Payne, 'is the essence of Poetry; and in Prose it is impossible not to be struck with the energy it produces. Brougham's passage is excellent in its way: but it pales before the flashing lights of Burke's sentences. The best instances of this energy of style, he adds, are to be found in the classical writers of the seventeenth century. 'When South says, "An Aristotle was but the rubbish of an Adam, and Athens but the rudiments of Paradise," he communicates more effectually the notion of the difference between the intellect of fallen and of unfallen humanity than in all the philosophy of his sermons put together.'

You may agree with me, or you may not, that South in this passage is expounding trash; but you will agree with Mr Payne and me that he uttered it vividly.

Let me quote to you, as a final example of this vivid style of writing, a passage from Dr John Donne far beyond and above anything that ever lay within South's compass:—

The ashes of an Oak in the Chimney are no epitaph of that Oak, to tell me how high or how large that was; it tells me not what flocks it sheltered while it stood, nor what men it hurt when it fell. The dust of great persons' graves is speechless, too; it says nothing, it distinguishes nothing. As soon the dust of a wretch whom thou wouldest not, as of a prince whom thou couldest not look upon will trouble thine eyes if the wind blow it thither; and when a whirle-wind hath blown the dust of the Churchyard into the Church, and the man sweeps out the dust of the Church into the Churchyard, who will undertake to sift those dusts again and to pronounce, This is the Patrician, this is the noble flowre [flour], this the yeomanly, this the Plebeian bran? So is the death of Iesabel (Iesabel was a Queen) expressed. They shall not say This is Iesabel; not only not wonder that it is, nor pity that it should be; but they shall not say, they shall not know, This is Iesabel.

Carlyle noted of Goethe, 'his emblematic intellect, his never-failing tendency to transform into shape, into life, the feeling that may dwell in him. Everything has form, has visual excellence: the poet's imagination bodies forth the forms of things unseen, and his pen turns them into shape.'

Perpend this, Gentlemen, and maybe you will not hereafter set it down to my reproach that I wasted an hour of a May morning in a denunciation of Jargon, and in exhorting you upon a technical matter at first sight so trivial as the choice between abstract and definite words.

A lesson about writing your language may go deeper than language; for language (as in a former lecture I tried to preach to you) is your reason, your [Greek: logos]. So long as you prefer abstract words, which express other men's summarised concepts of things, to concrete ones which as near as can be reached to things themselves and are the first-hand material for your thoughts, you will remain, at the best, writers at second-hand. If your language be Jargon, your intellect, if not your whole character, will almost certainly correspond. Where your mind should go straight, it will dodge: the difficulties it should approach with a fair front and grip with a firm hand it will be seeking to evade or circumvent. For the Style is the Man, and where a man's treasure is there his heart, and his brain, and his writing, will be also.



Thursday, May 15

To-day, 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 knowledge—outside 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 Jargon—the 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 make 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 Donne—a post-Elizabethan if ever there was one—had 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 (improbus homo) with his wicked inventions is for ever making fools of our formulae. Be consoled—and, if you are wise, thank Heaven—that 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 difficulty—the inherent, the native disability of prose—is 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 Arthur's last words. Specially might I speak to you of the music of its monosyllables—'"What 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 Christ's 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 philosophise, to express thoughts as well as to relate simple sayings and doings—it is then that the trouble begins. When Malory has to philosophise death, to think 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 moment—a 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 is—a 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 mayde 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 yonge children myne, Your woful moder wende stedfastly That cruel houndes or some foul vermyne Hadde eten you; but God of his mercy And your benigne 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 mother's 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, Their's 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 thoughtful. 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 fail'th: 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 is.

Now let us take a leap as we did with prose, and 'taking off' from the Nut-Brown Maid's artless confession,

in my mind, of all mankind I love but you alone,

let us alight on a sonnet of Shakespeare's—

Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts Which I by lacking have supposed dead: And there reigns Love, and all Love's loving parts, And all those friends which I thought buried. 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 way—there is less of heart's-ease in these doubts, delicacies, subtleties—but 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 men's eyes—unsealed the eyes of Englishmen in particular—to 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 Why? 'What is man doing here, and why is he doing it?' 'What is his purpose? his destiny?' 'How stands he towards those unseen powers—call them the gods, or whatever you will—that 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 answer—some sort of answer to satisfy him. Englishmen, hitherto content with the Church's answers but now aware of this great literature which answered so differently—and having other reasons to suspect what the Church said and did—grew 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-way—to make their report worthy of this wonderful, alluring discovery—new literary forms had to be invented—new, 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 especially—to 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 prove—that Wyat is one of the heroes of our literature—I 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 I doing? Why are we mortal? Why do I love thee?'

This again Wyat did: and again he did more.

For (3) thirdly—and because of this I am surest of his genius—again 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 Wyat's 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!

or again—

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!

(Say 'nay,' say 'nay'; and don't say, 'the answer is in the negative.')

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 With doubleness? 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, Farewell, unjust!

Can ye say nay But that you said That I alway Should be obeyed? And—thus betrayed Or that I wist! Farewell, unkist!

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 Wilson's "Arte of Rhetorique" that

there is little or no originality in the volume, save, perhaps, the author's 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 period—Sir Thomas Wyatt the elder, and the Earl of Surrey—drew 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.'

(Thought for to take Is not my mind; But to forsake

This Principal of the Glasgow College of the United Free Church of Scotland—

Farewell unkiss'd!)

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 Shakespeare's 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 us—if, after reading a quantity of Elizabethan prose, we had the courage to tell plain truth, undaunted by the name of a great epoch—would 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 if's and and's, 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 Doudie, 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 make 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 do 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 Tyndale's 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 praeter necessitatem; and when Tyndale has been granted you have yet to face the miracle that forty-seven men—not one of them known, outside of this performance, for any superlative talent—sat in committee and almost consistently, over a vast extent of work—improved upon what Genius had done. I give you the word of an old committee-man that this is not the way of committees—that 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 Steven's tomb of the Duke of Wellington in St Paul's Cathedral; and you know what they did. Individual genius such as Tyndale's or even Shakespeare's, 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 king's 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 men—holy and humble men of heart like Isaak Walton or Bunyan—have their lips touched and speak to the homelier tune. Proud men, scholars,—Milton, Sir Thomas Browne—practice 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 Johnson's 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 Thackeray's. 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 yours—to direct your words through life as well as your hearts.



Thursday, May 29

Let me begin to-day, Gentlemen, with a footnote to my last lecture. It ended, as you may remember, upon an earnest appeal to you, if you would write good English, to study the Authorised Version of the Scriptures; to learn from it, moreover, how by mastering rhythm, our Prose overcame the capital difficulty of Prose and attuned itself to rival its twin instrument, Verse; compassing almost equally with Verse man's thought however sublime, his emotion however profound.

Now in the course of my remarks I happened—maybe a little incautiously—to call the Authorised Version a 'miracle'; using that word in a colloquial sense, in which no doubt you accepted it; meaning no more than that the thing passed my understanding. I have allowed that the famous forty-seven owed an immense deal to earlier translators—to the Bishops, to Tyndale, to the Wyclif Version, as themselves allowed it eagerly in their preface:—

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