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Title: Style
Author: Raleigh, Walter Alexander, Sir, 1861-1922
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Style" ***

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Transcribed from the 1904 Edward Arnold edition by David Price, email


                                * * * * *


                              WALTER RALEIGH

                      AUTHOR OF ‘THE ENGLISH NOVEL,’

                                * * * * *

                            _FIFTH IMPRESSION_

                                * * * * *

                              EDWARD ARNOLD
                      Publisher to the India Office

                                * * * * *

                              JOANNI SAMPSON

                          BIBLIOTHECARIO OPTIMO



                        LABORUM ET ITINERUM SUORUM


                              HUNC LIBELLUM

                                D · D · D



The Triumph of Letters                                               1
The Problem of Style                                                 3
The Instrument and the Audience, with a Digression on the            4
The Sense-Elements                                                   8
The Functions of Sense                                              10
Picture                                                             11
Melody                                                              14
Meaning, Exampled in Negation                                       17
The Weapons of Thought                                              21
The Analogy from Architecture                                       23
The Analogy Rectified.  The Law of Change                           24
The Good Slang                                                      27
The Bad Slang                                                       29
Archaism                                                            32
Romantic and Classic                                                36
The Palsy of Definition                                             39
Distinction                                                         43
Assimilation                                                        45
Synonyms                                                            46
Variety of Expression                                               49
Variety Justified                                                   50
Metaphor and Abstraction: Poetry and Science                        55
The Doctrine of the _Mot Propre_                                    61
The Instrument                                                      65
The Audience                                                        65
The Relation of the Author to his Audience                          71
The Poet and his Audience                                           71
Public Caterers                                                     77
The Cautelous Man                                                   78
Sentimentalism and Jocularity                                       81
The Tripe-Seller                                                    83
The Wag                                                             85
Social and Rhetorical Corruptions                                   87
Sincerity                                                           88
Insincerity                                                         93
Austerity                                                           94
The Figurative Style                                                98
Decoration                                                         100
Allusiveness                                                       102
Simplicity and Strength                                            104
The Paradox of Letters                                             107
Drama                                                              108
Implicit Drama                                                     111
Words Again                                                        115
Quotation                                                          116
Appropriation                                                      119
The World of Words                                                 123
The Teaching of Style                                              124
The Conclusion                                                     127


STYLE, the Latin name for an iron pen, has come to designate the art that
handles, with ever fresh vitality and wary alacrity, the fluid elements
of speech.  By a figure, obvious enough, which yet might serve for an
epitome of literary method, the most rigid and simplest of instruments
has lent its name to the subtlest and most flexible of arts.  Thence the
application of the word has been extended to arts other than literature,
to the whole range of the activities of man.  The fact that we use the
word “style” in speaking of architecture and sculpture, painting and
music, dancing, play-acting, and cricket, that we can apply it to the
careful achievements of the housebreaker and the poisoner, and to the
spontaneous animal movements of the limbs of man or beast, is the noblest
of unconscious tributes to the faculty of letters.  The pen, scratching
on wax or paper, has become the symbol of all that is expressive, all
that is intimate, in human nature; not only arms and arts, but man
himself, has yielded to it.  His living voice, with its undulations and
inflexions, assisted by the mobile play of feature and an infinite
variety of bodily gesture, is driven to borrow dignity from the same
metaphor; the orator and the actor are fain to be judged by style.  “It
is most true,” says the author of _The Anatomy of Melancholy_, “_stylus
virum arguit_, our style bewrays us.”  Other gestures shift and change
and flit, this is the ultimate and enduring revelation of personality.
The actor and the orator are condemned to work evanescent effects on
transitory material; the dust that they write on is blown about their
graves.  The sculptor and the architect deal in less perishable ware, but
the stuff is recalcitrant and stubborn, and will not take the impress of
all states of the soul.  Morals, philosophy, and æsthetic, mood and
conviction, creed and whim, habit, passion, and demonstration—what art
but the art of literature admits the entrance of all these, and guards
them from the suddenness of mortality?  What other art gives scope to
natures and dispositions so diverse, and to tastes so contrarious?
Euclid and Shelley, Edmund Spenser and Herbert Spencer, King David and
David Hume, are all followers of the art of letters.

In the effort to explain the principles of an art so bewildering in its
variety, writers on style have gladly availed themselves of analogy from
the other arts, and have spoken, for the most part, not without a
parable.  It is a pleasant trick they put upon their pupils, whom they
gladden with the delusion of a golden age, and perfection to be sought
backwards, in arts less complex.  The teacher of writing, past master in
the juggling craft of language, explains that he is only carrying into
letters the principles of counterpoint, or that it is all a matter of
colour and perspective, or that structure and ornament are the beginning
and end of his intent.  Professor of eloquence and of thieving, his
winged shoes remark him as he skips from metaphor to metaphor, not daring
to trust himself to the partial and frail support of any single figure.
He lures the astonished novice through as many trades as were ever housed
in the central hall of the world’s fair.  From his distracting account of
the business it would appear that he is now building a monument, anon he
is painting a picture (with brushes dipped in a gallipot made of an
earthquake); again he strikes a keynote, weaves a pattern, draws a wire,
drives a nail, treads a measure, sounds a trumpet, or hits a target; or
skirmishes around his subject; or lays it bare with a dissecting knife;
or embalms a thought; or crucifies an enemy.  What is he really doing all
the time?

                                * * * * *

Besides the artist two things are to be considered in every art,—the
instrument and the audience; or, to deal in less figured phrase, the
medium and the public.  From both of these the artist, if he would find
freedom for the exercise of all his powers, must sit decently aloof.  It
is the misfortune of the actor, the singer, and the dancer, that their
bodies are their sole instruments.  On to the stage of their activities
they carry the heart that nourishes them and the lungs wherewith they
breathe, so that the soul, to escape degradation, must seek a more remote
and difficult privacy.  That immemorial right of the soul to make the
body its home, a welcome escape from publicity and a refuge for
sincerity, must be largely foregone by the actor, who has scant liberty
to decorate and administer for his private behoof an apartment that is
also a place of business.  His ownership is limited by the necessities of
his trade; when the customers are gone, he eats and sleeps in the
bar-parlour.  Nor is the instrument of his performances a thing of his
choice; the poorest skill of the violinist may exercise itself upon a
Stradivarius, but the actor is reduced to fiddle for the term of his
natural life upon the face and fingers that he got from his mother.  The
serene detachment that may be achieved by disciples of greater arts can
hardly be his, applause touches his personal pride too nearly, the
mocking echoes of derision infest the solitude of his retired
imagination.  In none of the world’s great polities has the practice of
this art been found consistent with noble rank or honourable estate.
Christianity might be expected to spare some sympathy for a calling that
offers prizes to abandonment and self-immolation, but her eye is fixed on
a more distant mark than the pleasure of the populace, and, as in
gladiatorial Rome of old, her best efforts have been used to stop the
games.  Society, on the other hand, preoccupied with the art of life, has
no warmer gift than patronage for those whose skill and energy exhaust
themselves on the mimicry of life.  The reward of social consideration is
refused, it is true, to all artists, or accepted by them at their
immediate peril.  By a natural adjustment, in countries where the artist
has sought and attained a certain modest social elevation, the issue has
been changed, and the architect or painter, when his health is proposed,
finds himself, sorely against the grain, returning thanks for the
employer of labour, the genial host, the faithful husband, the tender
father, and other pillars of society.  The risk of too great familiarity
with an audience which insists on honouring the artist irrelevantly, at
the expense of the art, must be run by all; a more clinging evil besets
the actor, in that he can at no time wholly escape from his phantasmal
second self.  On this creature of his art he has lavished the last doit
of human capacity for expression; with what bearing shall he face the
exacting realities of life?  Devotion to his profession has beggared him
of his personality; ague, old age and poverty, love and death, find in
him an entertainer who plies them with a feeble repetition of the
triumphs formerly prepared for a larger and less imperious audience.  The
very journalist—though he, too, when his profession takes him by the
throat, may expound himself to his wife in phrases stolen from his own
leaders—is a miracle of detachment in comparison; he has not put his
laughter to sale.  It is well for the soul’s health of the artist that a
definite boundary should separate his garden from his farm, so that when
he escapes from the conventions that rule his work he may be free to
recreate himself.  But where shall the weary player keep holiday?  Is not
all the world a stage?

Whatever the chosen instrument of an art may be, its appeal to those
whose attention it bespeaks must be made through the senses.  Music,
which works with the vibrations of a material substance, makes this
appeal through the ear; painting through the eye; it is of a piece with
the complexity of the literary art that it employs both channels,—as it
might seem to a careless apprehension, indifferently.

For the writer’s pianoforte is the dictionary, words are the material in
which he works, and words may either strike the ear or be gathered by the
eye from the printed page.  The alternative will be called delusive, for,
in European literature at least, there is no word-symbol that does not
imply a spoken sound, and no excellence without euphony.  But the other
way is possible, the gulf between mind and mind may be bridged by
something which has a right to the name of literature although it exacts
no aid from the ear.  The picture-writing of the Indians, the hieroglyphs
of Egypt, may be cited as examples of literary meaning conveyed with no
implicit help from the spoken word.  Such an art, were it capable of high
development, would forsake the kinship of melody, and depend for its
sensual elements of delight on the laws of decorative pattern.  In a land
of deaf-mutes it might come to a measure of perfection.  But where human
intercourse is chiefly by speech, its connexion with the interests and
passions of daily life would perforce be of the feeblest, it would tend
more and more to cast off the fetters of meaning that it might do freer
service to the jealous god of visible beauty.  The overpowering rivalry
of speech would rob it of all its symbolic intent and leave its bare
picture.  Literature has favoured rather the way of the ear and has given
itself zealously to the tuneful ordering of sounds.  Let it be repeated,
therefore, that for the traffic of letters the senses are but the
door-keepers of the mind; none of them commands an only way of
access,—the deaf can read by sight, the blind by touch.  It is not amid
the bustle of the live senses, but in an under-world of dead impressions
that Poetry works her will, raising that in power which was sown in
weakness, quickening a spiritual body from the ashes of the natural body.
The mind of man is peopled, like some silent city, with a sleeping
company of reminiscences, associations, impressions, attitudes, emotions,
to be awakened into fierce activity at the touch of words.  By one way or
another, with a fanfaronnade of the marching trumpets, or stealthily, by
noiseless passages and dark posterns, the troop of suggesters enters the
citadel, to do its work within.  The procession of beautiful sounds that
is a poem passes in through the main gate, and forthwith the by-ways
resound to the hurry of ghostly feet, until the small company of
adventurers is well-nigh lost and overwhelmed in that throng of insurgent

To attempt to reduce the art of literature to its component
sense-elements is therefore vain.  Memory, “the warder of the brain,” is
a fickle trustee, whimsically lavish to strangers, giving up to the
appeal of a spoken word or unspoken symbol, an odour or a touch, all that
has been garnered by the sensitive capacities of man.  It is the part of
the writer to play upon memory, confusing what belongs to one sense with
what belongs to another, extorting images of colour at a word, raising
ideas of harmony without breaking the stillness of the air.  He can lead
on the dance of words till their sinuous movements call forth, as if by
mesmerism, the likeness of some adamantine rigidity, time is converted
into space, and music begets sculpture.  To see for the sake of seeing,
to hear for the sake of hearing, are subsidiary exercises of his complex
metaphysical art, to be counted among its rudiments.  Picture and music
can furnish but the faint beginnings of a philosophy of letters.
Necessary though they be to a writer, they are transmuted in his service
to new forms, and made to further purposes not their own.

The power of vision—hardly can a writer, least of all if he be a poet,
forego that part of his equipment.  In dealing with the impalpable, dim
subjects that lie beyond the border-land of exact knowledge, the poetic
instinct seeks always to bring them into clear definition and bright
concrete imagery, so that it might seem for the moment as if painting
also could deal with them.  Every abstract conception, as it passes into
the light of the creative imagination, acquires structure and firmness
and colour, as flowers do in the light of the sun.  Life and Death, Love
and Youth, Hope and Time, become persons in poetry, not that they may
wear the tawdry habiliments of the studio, but because persons are the
objects of the most familiar sympathy and the most intimate knowledge.

    How long, O Death?  And shall thy feet depart
       Still a young child’s with mine, or wilt thou stand
    Full grown the helpful daughter of my heart,
       What time with thee indeed I reach the strand
    Of the pale wave which knows thee what thou art,
       And drink it in the hollow of thy hand?

And as a keen eye for the imagery attendant on a word is essential to all
writing, whether prose or poetry, that attempts the heart, so languor of
the visual faculty can work disaster even in the calm periods of
philosophic expatiation.  “It cannot be doubted,” says one whose daily
meditations enrich _The People’s Post-Bag_, “that Fear is, to a great
extent, the mother of Cruelty.”  Alas, by the introduction of that brief
proviso, conceived in a spirit of admirably cautious self-defence, the
writer has unwittingly given himself to the horns of a dilemma whose
ferocity nothing can mitigate.  These tempered and conditional truths are
not in nature, which decrees, with uncompromising dogmatism, that either
a woman is one’s mother, or she is not.  The writer probably meant merely
that “fear is one of the causes of cruelty,” and had he used a colourless
abstract word the platitude might pass unchallenged.  But a vague desire
for the emphasis and glamour of literature having brought in the word
“mother,” has yet failed to set the sluggish imagination to work, and a
word so glowing with picture and vivid with sentiment is damped and
dulled by the thumb-mark of besotted usage to mean no more than “cause”
or “occasion.”  Only for the poet, perhaps, are words live winged things,
flashing with colour and laden with scent; yet one poor spark of
imagination might save them from this sad descent to sterility and

Of no less import is the power of melody which chooses, rejects, and
orders words for the satisfaction that a cunningly varied return of sound
can give to the ear.  Some critics have amused themselves with the hope
that here, in the laws and practices regulating the audible cadence of
words, may be found the first principles of style, the form which
fashions the matter, the apprenticeship to beauty which alone can make an
art of truth.  And it may be admitted that verse, owning, as it does, a
professed and canonical allegiance to music, sometimes carries its
devotion so far that thought swoons into melody, and the thing said seems
a discovery made by the way in the search for tuneful expression.

          What thing unto mine ear
       Wouldst thou convey,—what secret thing,
    O wandering water ever whispering?
       Surely thy speech shall be of her,
    Thou water, O thou whispering wanderer,
             What message dost thou bring?

In this stanza an exquisitely modulated tune is played upon the syllables
that make up the word “wandering,” even as, in the poem from which it is
taken, there is every echo of the noise of waters laughing in sunny
brooks, or moaning in dumb hidden caverns.  Yet even here it would be
vain to seek for reason why each particular sound of every line should be
itself and no other.  For melody holds no absolute dominion over either
verse or prose; its laws, never to be disregarded, prohibit rather than
prescribe.  Beyond the simple ordinances that determine the place of the
rhyme in verse, and the average number of syllables, or rhythmical beats,
that occur in the line, where shall laws be found to regulate the
sequence of consonants and vowels from syllable to syllable?  Those few
artificial restrictions, which verse invents for itself, once agreed on,
a necessary and perilous license makes up the rest of the code.
Literature can never conform to the dictates of pure euphony, while
grammar, which has been shaped not in the interests of prosody, but for
the service of thought, bars the way with its clumsy inalterable
polysyllables and the monotonous sing-song of its inflexions.  On the
other hand, among a hundred ways of saying a thing, there are more than
ninety that a care for euphony may reasonably forbid.  All who have
consciously practised the art of writing know what endless and painful
vigilance is needed for the avoidance of the unfit or untuneful phrase,
how the meaning must be tossed from expression to expression, mutilated
and deceived, ere it can find rest in words.  The stupid accidental
recurrence of a single broad vowel; the cumbrous repetition of a
particle; the emphatic phrase for which no emphatic place can be found
without disorganising the structure of the period; the pert intrusion on
a solemn thought of a flight of short syllables, twittering like a flock
of sparrows; or that vicious trick of sentences whereby each, unmindful
of its position and duties, tends to imitate the deformities of its
predecessor;—these are a select few of the difficulties that the nature
of language and of man conspire to put upon the writer.  He is well
served by his mind and ear if he can win past all such traps and
ambuscades, robbed of only a little of his treasure, indemnified by the
careless generosity of his spoilers, and still singing.

Besides their chime in the ear, and the images that they put before the
mind’s eye, words have, for their last and greatest possession, a
meaning.  They carry messages and suggestions that, in the effect
wrought, elude all the senses equally.  For the sake of this, their prime
office, the rest is many times forgotten or scorned, the tune is
disordered and havoc played with the lineaments of the picture, because
without these the word can still do its business.  The refutation of
those critics who, in their analysis of the power of literature, make
much of music and picture, is contained in the most moving passages that
have found utterance from man.  Consider the intensity of a saying like
that of St. Paul:—“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor
angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to
come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to
separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Do these verses draw their power from a skilful arrangement of vowel and
consonant?  But they are quoted from a translation, and can be translated
otherwise, well or ill or indifferently, without losing more than a
little of their virtue.  Do they impress the eye by opening before it a
prospect of vast extent, peopled by vague shapes?  On the contrary, the
visual embodiment of the ideas suggested kills the sense of the passage,
by lowering the cope of the starry heavens to the measure of a
poplar-tree.  Death and life, height and depth, are conceived by the
apostle, and creation thrown in like a trinket, only that they may lend
emphasis to the denial that is the soul of his purpose.  Other arts can
affirm, or seem to affirm, with all due wealth of circumstance and
detail; they can heighten their affirmation by the modesty of reserve,
the surprises of a studied brevity, and the erasure of all impertinence;
literature alone can deny, and honour the denial with the last resources
of a power that has the universe for its treasury.  It is this negative
capability of words, their privative force, whereby they can impress the
minds with a sense of “vacuity, darkness, solitude, and silence,” that
Burke celebrates in the fine treatise of his younger days.  In such a
phrase as “the angel of the Lord” language mocks the positive rivalry of
the pictorial art, which can offer only the poor pretence of an
equivalent in a young man painted with wings.  But the difference between
the two arts is even better marked in the matter of negative suggestion;
it is instanced by Burke from the noble passage where Virgil describes
the descent of Æneas and the Sibyl to the shades of the nether world.
Here are amassed all “the images of a tremendous dignity” that the poet
could forge from the sublime of denial.  The two most famous lines are a
procession of negatives:—

    _Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram_,
    _Perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna_.

    Through hollow kingdoms, emptied of the day,
    And dim, deserted courts where Dis bears sway,
       Night-foundered, and uncertain of the path,
    Darkling they took their solitary way.

Here is the secret of some of the cardinal effects of literature; strong
epithets like “lonely,” “supreme,” “invisible,” “eternal,” “inexorable,”
with the substantives that belong to them, borrow their force from the
vastness of what they deny.  And not these alone, but many other words,
less indebted to logic for the magnificence of reach that it can lend,
bring before the mind no picture, but a dim emotional framework.  Such
words as “ominous,” “fantastic,” “attenuated,” “bewildered,”
“justification,” are atmospheric rather than pictorial; they infect the
soul with the passion-laden air that rises from humanity.  It is
precisely in his dealings with words like these, “heated originally by
the breath of others,” that a poet’s fine sense and knowledge most avail
him.  The company a word has kept, its history, faculties, and
predilections, endear or discommend it to his instinct.  How hardly will
poetry consent to employ such words as “congratulation” or
“philanthropist,”—words of good origin, but tainted by long immersion in
fraudulent rejoicings and pallid, comfortable, theoretic loves.  How
eagerly will the poetic imagination seize on a word like “control,” which
gives scope by its very vagueness, and is fettered by no partiality of
association.  All words, the weak and the strong, the definite and the
vague, have their offices to perform in language, but the loftiest
purposes of poetry are seldom served by those explicit hard words which,
like tiresome explanatory persons, say all that they mean.  Only in the
focus and centre of man’s knowledge is there place for the hammer-blows
of affirmation, the rest is a flickering world of hints and half-lights,
echoes and suggestions, to be come at in the dusk or not at all.

The combination of these powers in words, of song and image and meaning,
has given us the supreme passages of our romantic poetry.  In
Shakespeare’s work, especially, the union of vivid definite presentment
with immense reach of metaphysical suggestion seems to intertwine the
roots of the universe with the particular fact; tempting the mind to
explore that other side of the idea presented to it, the side turned away
from it, and held by something behind.

    It will have blood; they say blood win have blood:
    Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
    Augurs and understood relations have
    By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
    The secret’st man of blood.

This meeting of concrete and abstract, of sense and thought, keeps the
eye travelling along the utmost skyline of speculation, where the heavens
are interfused with the earth.  In short, the third and greatest virtue
of words is no other than the virtue that belongs to the weapons of
thought,—a deep, wide, questioning thought that discovers analogies and
pierces behind things to a half-perceived unity of law and essence.  In
the employ of keen insight, high feeling, and deep thinking, language
comes by its own; the prettinesses that may be imposed on a passive
material are as nothing to the splendour and grace that transfigure even
the meanest instrument when it is wielded by the energy of thinking
purpose.  The contempt that is cast, by the vulgar phrase, on “mere
words” bears witness to the rarity of this serious consummation.  Yet by
words the world was shaped out of chaos, by words the Christian religion
was established among mankind.  Are these terrific engines fit
play-things for the idle humours of a sick child?

And now it begins to be apparent that no adequate description of the art
of language can be drawn from the technical terminology of the other
arts, which, like proud debtors, would gladly pledge their substance to
repay an obligation that they cannot disclaim.  Let one more attempt to
supply literature with a parallel be quoted from the works of a writer on
style, whose high merit it is that he never loses sight, either in theory
or in practice, of the fundamental conditions proper to the craft of
letters.  Robert Louis Stevenson, pondering words long and lovingly, was
impressed by their crabbed individuality, and sought to elucidate the
laws of their arrangement by a reference to the principles of
architecture.  “The sister arts,” he says, “enjoy the use of a plastic
and ductile material, like the modeller’s clay; literature alone is
condemned to work in mosaic with finite and quite rigid words.  You have
seen those blocks, dear to the nursery: this one a pillar, that a
pediment, a third a window or a vase.  It is with blocks of just such
arbitrary size and figure that the literary architect is condemned to
design the palace of his art.  Nor is this all; for since these blocks or
words are the acknowledged currency of our daily affairs, there are here
possible none of those suppressions by which other arts obtain relief,
continuity, and vigour: no hieroglyphic touch, no smoothed impasto, no
inscrutable shadow, as in painting; no blank wall, as in architecture;
but every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph must move in a logical
progression, and convey a definite conventional import.”

It is an acute comparison, happily indicative of the morose angularity
that words offer to whoso handles them, admirably insistent on the chief
of the incommodities imposed upon the writer, the necessity, at all times
and at all costs, to mean something.  The boon of the recurring
monotonous expanse, that an apprentice may fill, the breathing-space of
restful mechanical repetition, are denied to the writer, who must needs
shoulder the hod himself, and lay on the mortar, in ever varying
patterns, with his own trowel.  This is indeed the ordeal of the master,
the canker-worm of the penny-a-liner, who, poor fellow, means nothing,
and spends his life in the vain effort to get words to do the same.  But
if in this respect architecture and literature are confessed to differ,
there remains the likeness that Mr. Stevenson detects in the building
materials of the two arts, those blocks of “arbitrary size and figure;
finite and quite rigid.”  There is truth enough in the comparison to make
it illuminative, but he would be a rash dialectician who should attempt
to draw from it, by way of inference, a philosophy of letters.  Words are
piled on words, and bricks on bricks, but of the two you are invited to
think words the more intractable.  Truly, it was a man of letters who
said it, avenging himself on his profession for the never-ending toil it
imposed, by miscalling it, with grim pleasantry, the architecture of the
nursery.  Finite and quite rigid words are not, in any sense that holds
good of bricks.  They move and change, they wax and wane, they wither and
burgeon; from age to age, from place to place, from mouth to mouth, they
are never at a stay.  They take on colour, intensity, and vivacity from
the infection of neighbourhood; the same word is of several shapes and
diverse imports in one and the same sentence; they depend on the building
that they compose for the very chemistry of the stuff that composes them.
The same epithet is used in the phrases “a fine day” and “fine irony,” in
“fair trade” and “a fair goddess.”  Were different symbols to be invented
for these sundry meanings the art of literature would perish.  For words
carry with them all the meanings they have worn, and the writer shall be
judged by those that he selects for prominence in the train of his
thought.  A slight technical implication, a faint tinge of archaism, in
the common turn of speech that you employ, and in a moment you have
shaken off the mob that scours the rutted highway, and are addressing a
select audience of ticket-holders with closed doors.  A single natural
phrase of peasant speech, a direct physical sense given to a word that
genteel parlance authorises readily enough in its metaphorical sense, and
at a touch you have blown the roof off the drawing-room of the villa, and
have set its obscure inhabitants wriggling in the unaccustomed sun.  In
choosing a sense for your words you choose also an audience for them.

To one word, then, there are many meanings, according as it falls in the
sentence, according as its successive ties and associations are broken or
renewed.  And here, seeing that the stupidest of all possible meanings is
very commonly the slang meaning, it will be well to treat briefly of
slang.  For slang, in the looser acceptation of the term, is of two
kinds, differing, and indeed diametrically opposite, in origin and worth.
Sometimes it is the technical diction that has perforce been coined to
name the operations, incidents, and habits of some way of life that
society despises or deliberately elects to disregard.  This sort of
slang, which often invents names for what would otherwise go nameless, is
vivid, accurate, and necessary, an addition of wealth to the world’s
dictionaries and of compass to the world’s range of thought.  Society,
mistily conscious of the sympathy that lightens in any habitual name,
seems to have become aware, by one of those wonderful processes of chary
instinct which serve the great, vulnerable, timid organism in lieu of a
brain, that to accept of the pickpocket his names for the mysteries of
his trade is to accept also a new moral stand-point and outlook on the
question of property.  For this reason, and by no special masonic
precautions of his own, the pickpocket is allowed to keep the admirable
devices of his nomenclature for the familiar uses of himself and his
mates, until a Villon arrives to prove that this language, too, was
awaiting the advent of its bully and master.  In the meantime, what
directness and modest sufficiency of utterance distinguishes the dock
compared with the fumbling prolixity of the old gentleman on the bench!
It is the trite story,—romanticism forced to plead at the bar of
classicism fallen into its dotage, Keats judged by _Blackwood_,
Wordsworth exciting the pained astonishment of Miss Anna Seward.  Accuser
and accused alike recognise that a question of diction is part of the
issue between them; hence the picturesque confession of the culprit, made
in proud humility, that he “clicked a red ’un” must needs be interpreted,
to save the good faith of the court, into the vaguer and more general
speech of the classic convention.  Those who dislike to have their
watches stolen find that the poorest language of common life will serve
their simple turn, without the rich technical additions of a vocabulary
that has grown around an art.  They can abide no rendering of the fact
that does not harp incessantly on the disapproval of watch-owners.  They
carry their point of morals at the cost of foregoing all glitter and
finish in the matter of expression.

This sort of slang, therefore, technical in origin, the natural
efflorescence of highly cultivated agilities of brain, and hand, and eye,
is worthy of all commendation.  But there is another kind that goes under
the name of slang, the offspring rather of mental sloth, and current
chiefly among those idle, jocular classes to whom all art is a bugbear
and a puzzle.  There is a public for every one; the pottle-headed lout
who in a moment of exuberance strikes on a new sordid metaphor for any
incident in the beaten round of drunkenness, lubricity, and debt, can set
his fancy rolling through the music-halls, and thence into the street,
secure of applause and a numerous sodden discipleship.  Of the same lazy
stamp, albeit more amiable in effect, are the thought-saying contrivances
whereby one word is retained to do the work of many.  For the language of
social intercourse ease is the first requisite; the average talker, who
would be hard put to it if he were called on to describe or to define,
must constantly be furnished with the materials of emphasis, wherewith to
drive home his likes and dislikes.  Why should he alienate himself from
the sympathy of his fellows by affecting a singularity in the expression
of his emotions?  What he craves is not accuracy, but immediacy of
expression, lest the tide of talk should flow past him, leaving him
engaged in a belated analysis.  Thus the word of the day is on all lips,
and what was “vastly fine” last century is “awfully jolly” now; the
meaning is the same, the expression equally inappropriate.  Oaths have
their brief periods of ascendency, and philology can boast its
fashion-plates.  The tyrant Fashion, who wields for whip the fear of
solitude, is shepherd to the flock of common talkers, as they run hither
and thither pursuing, not self-expression, the prize of letters, but
unanimity and self-obliteration, the marks of good breeding.  Like those
famous modern poets who are censured by the author of _Paradise Lost_,
the talkers of slang are “carried away by custom, to express many things
otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest
them.”  The poverty of their vocabulary makes appeal to the brotherly
sympathy of a partial and like-minded auditor, who can fill out their
paltry conventional sketches from his own experience of the same events.
Within the limits of a single school, or workshop, or social circle,
slang may serve; just as, between friends, silence may do the work of
talk.  There are few families, or groups of familiars, that have not some
small coinage of this token-money, issued and accepted by affection,
passing current only within those narrow and privileged boundaries.  This
wealth is of no avail to the travelling mind, save as a memorial of home,
nor is its material such “as, buried once, men want dug up again.”  A few
happy words and phrases, promoted, for some accidental fitness, to the
wider world of letters, are all that reach posterity; the rest pass into
oblivion with the other perishables of the age.

A profusion of words used in an ephemeral slang sense is evidence, then,
that the writer addresses himself merely to the uneducated and
thoughtless of his own day; the revival of bygone meanings, on the other
hand, and an archaic turn given to language is the mark rather of authors
who are ambitious of a hearing from more than one age.  The accretions of
time bring round a word many reputable meanings, of which the oldest is
like to be the deepest in grain.  It is a counsel of perfection—some will
say, of vainglorious pedantry—but that shaft flies furthest which is
drawn to the head, and he who desires to be understood in the
twenty-fourth century will not be careless of the meanings that his words
inherit from the fourteenth.  To know them is of service, if only for the
piquancy of avoiding them.  But many times they cannot wisely be avoided,
and the auspices under which a word began its career when first it was
imported from the French or Latin overshadow it and haunt it to the end.

Popular modern usage will often rob common words, like “nice,” “quaint,”
or “silly,” of all flavour of their origin, as if it were of no moment to
remember that these three words, at the outset of their history, bore the
older senses of “ignorant,” “noted,” and “blessed.”  It may be granted
that any attempt to return to these older senses, regardless of later
implications, is stark pedantry; but a delicate writer will play shyly
with the primitive significance in passing, approaching it and circling
it, taking it as a point of reference or departure.  The early faith of
Christianity, its beautiful cult of childhood, and its appeal to
unlearned simplicity, have left their mark on the meaning of “silly”; the
history of the word is contained in that cry of St. Augustine, _Indocti
surgunt et rapiunt coelum_, or in the fervent sentence of the author of
the _Imitation_, _Oportet fieri stultum_.  And if there is a later
silliness, altogether unblest, the skilful artificer of words, while
accepting this last extension, will show himself conscious of his
paradox.  So also he will shun the grossness that employs the epithet
“quaint” to put upon subtlety and the devices of a studied workmanship an
imputation of eccentricity; or, if he falls in with the populace in this
regard, he will be careful to justify his innuendo.  The slipshod use of
“nice” to connote any sort of pleasurable emotion he will take care, in
his writings at least, utterly to abhor.  From the daintiness of elegance
to the arrogant disgust of folly the word carries meanings numerous and
diverse enough; it must not be cruelly burdened with all the laudatory
occasions of an undiscriminating egotism.

It would be easy to cite a hundred other words like these, saved only by
their nobler uses in literature from ultimate defacement.  The higher
standard imposed upon the written word tends to raise and purify speech
also, and since talkers owe the same debt to writers of prose that these,
for their part, owe to poets, it is the poets who must be accounted chief
protectors, in the last resort, of our common inheritance.  Every page of
the works of that great exemplar of diction, Milton, is crowded with
examples of felicitous and exquisite meaning given to the infallible
word.  Sometimes he accepts the secondary and more usual meaning of a
word only to enrich it by the interweaving of the primary and
etymological meaning.  Thus the seraph Abdiel, in the passage that
narrates his offer of combat to Satan, is said to “explore” his own
undaunted heart, and there is no sense of “explore” that does not
heighten the description and help the thought.  Thus again, when the poet
describes those

             Eremites and friars,
    White, Black, and Gray, with all their trumpery,

who inhabit, or are doomed to inhabit, the Paradise of Fools, he seems to
invite the curious reader to recall the derivation of “trumpery,” and so
supplement the idea of worthlessness with that other idea, equally
grateful to the author, of deceit.  The strength that extracts this
multiplex resonance of meaning from a single note is matched by the grace
that gives to Latin words like “secure,” “arrive,” “obsequious,”
“redound,” “infest,” and “solemn” the fine precision of intent that art
can borrow from scholarship.

Such an exactitude is consistent with vital change; Milton himself is
bold to write “stood praying” for “continued kneeling in prayer,” and
deft to transfer the application of “schism” from the rent garment of the
Church to those necessary “dissections made in the quarry and in the
timber ere the house of God can be built.”  Words may safely veer to
every wind that blows, so they keep within hail of their cardinal
meanings, and drift not beyond the scope of their central employ, but
when once they lose hold of that, then, indeed, the anchor has begun to
drag, and the beach-comber may expect his harvest.

Fixity in the midst of change, fluctuation at the heart of sameness, such
is the estate of language.  According as they endeavour to reduce letters
to some large haven and abiding-place of civility, or prefer to throw in
their lot with the centrifugal tendency and ride on the flying crest of
change, are writers dubbed Classic or Romantic.  The Romantics are
individualist, anarchic; the strains of their passionate incantation
raise no cities to confront the wilderness in guarded symmetry, but
rather bring the stars shooting from their spheres, and draw wild things
captive to a voice.  To them Society and Law seem dull phantoms, by the
light cast from a flaming soul.  They dwell apart, and torture their
lives in the effort to attain to self-expression.  All means and modes
offered them by language they seize on greedily, and shape them to this
one end; they ransack the vocabulary of new sciences, and appropriate or
invent strange jargons.  They furbish up old words or weld together new
indifferently, that they may possess the machinery of their speech and
not be possessed by it.  They are at odds with the idiom of their country
in that it serves the common need, and hunt it through all its
metamorphoses to subject it to their private will.  Heretics by
profession, they are everywhere opposed to the party of the Classics, who
move by slower ways to ends less personal, but in no wise easier of
attainment.  The magnanimity of the Classic ideal has had scant justice
done to it by modern criticism.  To make literature the crowning symbol
of a world-wide civilisation; to roof in the ages, and unite the elect of
all time in the courtesy of one shining assembly, paying duty to one
unquestioned code; to undo the work of Babel, and knit together in a
single community the scattered efforts of mankind towards order and
reason;—this was surely an aim worthy of labour and sacrifice.  Both have
been freely given, and the end is yet to seek.  The self-assertion of the
recusants has found eulogists in plenty, but who has celebrated the
self-denial that was thrown away on this other task, which is farther
from fulfilment now than it was when the scholars of the Renaissance gave
up their patriotism and the tongue of their childhood in the name of
fellow-citizenship with the ancients and the œcumenical authority of
letters?  Scholars, grammarians, wits, and poets were content to bury the
lustre of their wisdom and the hard-won fruits of their toil in the
winding-sheet of a dead language, that they might be numbered with the
family of Cicero, and added to the pious train of Virgil.  It was a noble
illusion, doomed to failure, the versatile genius of language cried out
against the monotony of their Utopia, and the crowds who were to people
the unbuilded city of their dreams went straying after the feathered
chiefs of the rebels, who, when the fulness of time was come, themselves
received apotheosis and the honours of a new motley pantheon.  The tomb
of that great vision bears for epitaph the ironical inscription which
defines a Classic poet as “a dead Romantic.”

In truth the Romantics are right, and the serenity of the classic ideal
is the serenity of paralysis and death.  A universal agreement in the use
of words facilitates communication, but, so inextricably is expression
entangled with feeling, it leaves nothing to communicate.  Inanity dogs
the footsteps of the classic tradition, which is everywhere lackeyed,
through a long decline, by the pallor of reflected glories.  Even the
irresistible novelty of personal experience is dulled by being cast in
the old matrix, and the man who professes to find the whole of himself in
the Bible or in Shakespeare had as good not be.  He is a replica and a
shadow, a foolish libel on his Creator, who, from the beginning of time,
was never guilty of tautology.  This is the error of the classical creed,
to imagine that in a fleeting world, where the quickest eye can never see
the same thing twice, and a deed once done can never be repeated,
language alone should be capable of fixity and finality.  Nature avenges
herself on those who would thus make her prisoner, their truths
degenerate to truisms, and feeling dies in the ice-palaces that they
build to house it.  In their search for permanence they become unreal,
abstract, didactic, lovers of generalisation, cherishers of the dry bones
of life; their art is transformed into a science, their expression into
an academic terminology.  Immutability is their ideal, and they find it
in the arms of death.  Words must change to live, and a word once fixed
becomes useless for the purposes of art.  Whosoever would make
acquaintance with the goal towards which the classic practice tends,
should seek it in the vocabulary of the Sciences.  There words are fixed
and dead, a botanical collection of colourless, scentless, dried weeds, a
_hortus siccus_ of proper names, each individual symbol poorly tethered
to some single object or idea.  No wind blows through that garden, and no
sun shines on it, to discompose the melancholy workers at their task of
tying Latin labels on to withered sticks.  Definition and division are
the watchwords of science, where art is all for composition and creation.
Not that the exact definable sense of a word is of no value to the
stylist; he profits by it as a painter profits by a study of anatomy, or
an architect by a knowledge of the strains and stresses that may be put
on his material.  The exact logical definition is often necessary for the
structure of his thought and the ordering of his severer argument.  But
often, too, it is the merest beginning; when a word is once defined he
overlays it with fresh associations and buries it under new-found moral
significances, which may belie the definition they conceal.  This is the
burden of Jeremy Bentham’s quarrel with “question-begging appellatives.”
A clear-sighted and scrupulously veracious philosopher, abettor of the
age of reason, apostle of utility, god-father of the panopticon, and
donor to the English dictionary of such unimpassioned vocables as
“codification” and “international,” Bentham would have been glad to
purify the language by purging it of those “affections of the soul”
wherein Burke had found its highest glory.  Yet in censuring the ordinary
political usage of such a word as “innovation,” it was hardly prejudice
in general that he attacked, but the particular and deep-seated prejudice
against novelty.  The surprising vivacity of many of his own
figures,—although he had the courage of his convictions, and laboured,
throughout the course of a long life, to desiccate his style,—bears
witness to a natural skill in the use of loaded weapons.  He will pack
his text with grave argument on matters ecclesiastical, and indulge
himself and literature, in the notes with a pleasant description of the
flesh and the spirit playing leap-frog, now one up, now the other, around
the holy precincts of the Church.  Lapses like these show him far enough
from his own ideal of a geometric fixity in the use of words.  The claim
of reason and logic to enslave language has a more modern advocate in the
philosopher who denies all utility to a word while it retains traces of
its primary sensuous employ.  The tickling of the senses, the raising of
the passions, these things do indeed interfere with the arid business of
definition.  None the less they are the life’s breath of literature, and
he is a poor stylist who cannot beg half-a-dozen questions in a single
epithet, or state the conclusion he would fain avoid in terms that
startle the senses into clamorous revolt.

The two main processes of change in words are Distinction and
Assimilation.  Endless fresh distinction, to match the infinite
complexity of things, is the concern of the writer, who spends all his
skill on the endeavour to cloth the delicacies of perception and thought
with a neatly fitting garment.  So words grow and bifurcate, diverge and
dwindle, until one root has many branches.  Grammarians tell how “royal”
and “regal” grew up by the side of “kingly,” how “hospital,” “hospice,”
“hostel” and “hotel” have come by their several offices.  The inventor of
the word “sensuous” gave to the English people an opportunity of
reconsidering those headstrong moral preoccupations which had already
ruined the meaning of “sensual” for the gentler uses of a poet.  Not only
the Puritan spirit, but every special bias or interest of man seizes on
words to appropriate them to itself.  Practical men of business transfer
such words as “debenture” or “commodity” from debt or comfort in general
to the palpable concrete symbols of debt or comfort; and in like manlier
doctors, soldiers, lawyers, shipmen,—all whose interest and knowledge are
centred on some particular craft or profession, drag words from the
general store and adapt them to special uses.  Such words are sometimes
reclaimed from their partial applications by the authority of men of
letters, and pass back into their wider meanings enhanced by a new
element of graphic association.  Language never suffers by answering to
an intelligent demand; it is indebted not only to great authors, but to
all whom any special skill or taste has qualified to handle it.  The good
writer may be one who disclaims all literary pretension, but there he is,
at work among words,—binding the vagabond or liberating the prisoner,
exalting the humble or abashing the presumptuous, incessantly alert to
amend their implications, break their lazy habits, and help them to
refinement or scope or decision.  He educates words, for he knows that
they are alive.

Compare now the case of the ruder multitude.  In the regard of
literature, as a great critic long ago remarked, “all are the multitude;
only they differ in clothes, not in judgment or understanding,” and the
poorest talkers do not inhabit the slums.  Wherever thought and taste
have fallen to be menials, there the vulgar dwell.  How should they gain
mastery over language?  They are introduced to a vocabulary of some
hundred thousand words, which quiver through a million of meanings; the
wealth is theirs for the taking, and they are encouraged to be
spendthrift by the very excess of what they inherit.  The resources of
the tongue they speak are subtler and more various than ever their ideas
can put to use.  So begins the process of assimilation, the edge put upon
words by the craftsman is blunted by the rough treatment of the confident
booby, who is well pleased when out of many highly-tempered swords he has
manufactured a single clumsy coulter.  A dozen expressions to serve one
slovenly meaning inflate him with the sense of luxury and pomp.  “Vast,”
“huge,” “immense,” “gigantic,” “enormous,” “tremendous,” “portentous,”
and such-like groups of words, lose all their variety of sense in a
barren uniformity of low employ.  The reign of this democracy annuls
differences of status, and insults over differences of ability or
disposition.  Thus do synonyms, or many words ill applied to one purpose,
begin to flourish, and, for a last indignity, dictionaries of synonyms.

Let the truth be said outright: there are no synonyms, and the same
statement can never be repeated in a changed form of words.  Where the
ignorance of one writer has introduced an unnecessary word into the
language, to fill a place already occupied, the quicker apprehension of
others will fasten upon it, drag it apart from its fellows, and find new
work for it to do.  Where a dull eye sees nothing but sameness, the
trained faculty of observation will discern a hundred differences worthy
of scrupulous expression.  The old foresters had different names for a
buck during each successive year of its life, distinguishing the fawn
from the pricket, the pricket from the sore, and so forth, as its age
increased.  Thus it is also in that illimitable but not trackless forest
of moral distinctions.  Language halts far behind the truth of things,
and only a drowsy perception can fail to devise a use for some new
implement of description.  Every strange word that makes its way into a
language spins for itself a web of usage and circumstance, relating
itself from whatsoever centre to fresh points in the circumference.  No
two words ever coincide throughout their whole extent.  If sometimes good
writers are found adding epithet to epithet for the same quality, and
name to name for the same thing, it is because they despair of capturing
their meaning at a venture, and so practise to get near it by a maze of
approximations.  Or, it may be, the generous breadth of their purpose
scorns the minuter differences of related terms, and includes all of one
affinity, fearing only lest they be found too few and too weak to cover
the ground effectively.  Of this sort are the so-called synonyms of the
Prayer-Book, wherein we “acknowledge and confess” the sins we are
forbidden to “dissemble or cloke;” and the bead-roll of the lawyer, who
huddles together “give, devise, and bequeath,” lest the cunning of
litigants should evade any single verb.  The works of the poets yield
still better instances.  When Milton praises the _Virtuous Young Lady_ of
his sonnet in that the spleen of her detractors moves her only to “pity
and ruth,” it is not for the idle filling of the line that he joins the
second of these nouns to the first.  Rather he is careful to enlarge and
intensify his meaning by drawing on the stores of two nations, the one
civilised, the other barbarous; and ruth is a quality as much more
instinctive and elemental than pity as pitilessness is keener, harder,
and more deliberate than the inborn savagery of ruthlessness.

It is not chiefly, however, for the purposes of this accumulated and
varied emphasis that the need of synonyms is felt.  There is no more
curious problem in the philosophy of style than that afforded by the
stubborn reluctance of writers, the good as well as the bad, to repeat a
word or phrase.  When the thing is, they may be willing to abide by the
old rule and say the word, but when the thing repeats itself they will
seldom allow the word to follow suit.  A kind of interdict, not removed
until the memory of the first occurrence has faded, lies on a once used
word.  The causes of this anxiety for a varied expression are manifold.
Where there is merely a column to fill, poverty of thought drives the
hackney author into an illicit fulness, until the trick of verbiage
passes from his practice into his creed, and makes him the dupe of his
own puppets.  A commonplace book, a dictionary of synonyms, and another
of phrase and fable equip him for his task; if he be called upon to
marshal his ideas on the question whether oysters breed typhoid, he will
acquit himself voluminously, with only one allusion (it is a point of
pride) to the oyster by name.  He will compare the succulent bivalve to
Pandora’s box, and lament that it should harbour one of the direst of
ills that flesh is heir to.  He will find a paradox and an epigram in the
notion that the darling of Apicius should suffer neglect under the frowns
of Æsculapius.  Question, hypothesis, lamentation, and platitude dance
their allotted round and fill the ordained space, while Ignorance
masquerades in the garb of criticism, and Folly proffers her ancient
epilogue of chastened hope.  When all is said, nothing is said; and
Montaigne’s _Que sçais-je_, besides being briefer and wittier, was
infinitely more informing.

But we dwell too long with disease; the writer nourished on thought,
whose nerves are braced and his loins girt to struggle with a real
meaning, is not subject to these tympanies.  He feels no idolatrous dread
of repetition when the theme requires, it, and is urged by no necessity
of concealing real identity under a show of change.  Nevertheless he,
too, is hedged about by conditions that compel him, now and again, to
resort to what seems a synonym.  The chief of these is the indispensable
law of euphony, which governs the sequence not only of words, but also of
phrases.  In proportion as a phrase is memorable, the words that compose
it become mutually adhesive, losing for a time something of their
individual scope, bringing with them, if they be torn away too quickly,
some cumbrous fragments of their recent association.  That he may avoid
this, a sensitive writer is often put to his shifts, and extorts, if he
be fortunate, a triumph from the accident of his encumbrance.  By a
slight stress laid on the difference of usage the unshapeliness may be
done away with, and a new grace found where none was sought.  Addison and
Landor accuse Milton, with reason, of too great a fondness for the pun,
yet surely there is something to please the mind, as well as the ear, in
the description of the heavenly judgment,

    That brought into this world a world of woe.

Where words are not fitted with a single hard definition, rigidly
observed, all repetition is a kind of delicate punning, bringing slight
differences of application into clear relief.  The practice has its
dangers for the weak-minded lover of ornament, yet even so it may be
preferable to the flat stupidity of one identical intention for a word or
phrase in twenty several contexts.  For the law of incessant change is
not so much a counsel of perfection to be held up before the apprentice,
as a fundamental condition of all writing whatsoever; if the change be
not ordered by art it will order itself in default of art.  The same
statement can never be repeated even in the same form of words, and it is
not the old question that is propounded at the third time of asking.
Repetition, that is to say, is the strongest generator of emphasis known
to language.  Take the exquisite repetitions in these few lines:—

    Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
    Compels me to disturb your season due;
    For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
    Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.

Here the tenderness of affection returns again to the loved name, and the
grief of the mourner repeats the word “dead.”  But this monotony of
sorrow is the least part of the effect, which lies rather in the
prominence given by either repetition to the most moving circumstance of
all—the youthfulness of the dead poet.  The attention of the discursive
intellect, impatient of reiteration, is concentrated on the idea which
these repeated and exhausted words throw into relief.  Rhetoric is
content to borrow force from simpler methods; a good orator will often
bring his hammer down, at the end of successive periods, on the same
phrase; and the mirthless refrain of a comic song, or the catchword of a
buffoon, will raise laughter at last by its brazen importunity.  Some
modern writers, admiring the easy power of the device, have indulged
themselves with too free a use of it; Matthew Arnold particularly, in his
prose essays, falls to crying his text like a hawker,

    Beating it in upon our weary brains,
    As tho’ it were the burden of a song,

clattering upon the iron of the Philistine giant in the effort to bring
him to reason.  These are the ostentatious violences of a missionary, who
would fain save his enemy alive, where a grimmer purpose is glad to
employ a more silent weapon and strike but once.  The callousness of a
thick-witted auditory lays the need for coarse method on the gentlest
soul resolved to stir them.  But he whose message is for minds attuned
and tempered will beware of needless reiteration, as of the noisiest way
of emphasis.  Is the same word wanted again, he will examine carefully
whether the altered incidence does not justify and require an altered
term, which the world is quick to call a synonym.  The right dictionary
of synonyms would give the context of each variant in the usage of the
best authors.  To enumerate all the names applied by Milton to the hero
of _Paradise Lost_, without reference to the passages in which they
occur, would be a foolish labour; with such reference, the task is made a
sovereign lesson in style.  At Hell gates, where he dallies in speech
with his leman Sin to gain a passage from the lower World, Satan is “the
subtle Fiend,” in the garden of Paradise he is “the Tempter” and “the
Enemy of Mankind,” putting his fraud upon Eve he is the “wily Adder,”
leading her in full course to the tree he is “the dire Snake,” springing
to his natural height before the astonished gaze of the cherubs he is
“the grisly King.”  Every fresh designation elaborates his character and
history, emphasises the situation, and saves a sentence.  So it is with
all variable appellations of concrete objects; and even in the stricter
and more conventional region of abstract ideas the same law runs.  Let a
word be changed or repeated, it brings in either case its contribution of
emphasis, and must be carefully chosen for the part it is to play, lest
it should upset the business of the piece by irrelevant clownage in the
midst of high matter, saying more or less than is set down for it in the
author’s purpose.

The chameleon quality of language may claim yet another illustration.  Of
origins we know nothing certainly, nor how words came by their meanings
in the remote beginning, when speech, like the barnacle-goose of the
herbalist, was suspended over an expectant world, ripening on a tree.
But this we know, that language in its mature state is fed and fattened
on metaphor.  Figure is not a late device of the rhetorician, but the
earliest principle of change in language.  The whole process of speech is
a long series of exhilarating discoveries, whereby words, freed from the
swaddling bands of their nativity, are found capable of new relations and
a wider metaphorical employ.  Then, with the growth of exact knowledge,
the straggling associations that attended the word on its travels are
straitened and confined, its meaning is settled, adjusted, and balanced,
that it may bear its part in the scrupulous deposition of truth.  Many
are the words that have run this double course, liberated from their
first homely offices and transformed by poetry, reclaimed in a more
abstract sense, and appropriated to a new set of facts by science.  Yet a
third chance awaits them when the poet, thirsty for novelty, passes by
the old simple founts of figure to draw metaphor from the latest
technical applications of specialised terms.  Everywhere the intuition of
poetry, impatient of the sturdy philosophic cripple that lags so far
behind, is busy in advance to find likenesses not susceptible of
scientific demonstration, to leap to comparisons that satisfy the heart
while they leave the colder intellect only half convinced.  When an
elegant dilettante like Samuel Rogers is confronted with the principle of
gravitation he gives voice to science in verse:—

    That very law which moulds a tear,
       And bids it trickle from its source,
    That law preserves the earth a sphere,
       And guides the planets in their course.

But a seer like Wordsworth will never be content to write tunes for a
text-book of physics, he boldly confounds the arbitrary limits of matter
and morals in one splendid apostrophe to Duty:—

       Flowers laugh before thee on their beds;
       And fragrance in thy footing treads;
       Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong;
    And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are fresh and strong.

Poets, it is said, anticipate science; here in these four lines is work
for a thousand laboratories for a thousand years.  But the truth has been
understated; every writer and every speaker works ahead of science,
expressing analogies and contrasts, likenesses and differences, that will
not abide the apparatus of proof.  The world of perception and will, of
passion and belief, is an uncaptured virgin, airily deriding from afar
the calculated advances and practised modesty of the old bawd Science;
turning again to shower a benediction of unexpected caresses on the most
cavalier of her wooers, Poetry.  This world, the child of Sense and
Faith, shy, wild, and provocative, for ever lures her lovers to the
chase, and the record of their hopes and conquests is contained in the
lover’s language, made up wholly of parable and figure of speech.  There
is nothing under the sun nor beyond it that does not concern man, and it
is the unceasing effort of humanity, whether by letters or by science, to
bring “the commerce of the mind and of things” to terms of nearer
correspondence.  But Literature, ambitious to touch life on all its
sides, distrusts the way of abstraction, and can hardly be brought to
abandon the point of view whence things are seen in their immediate
relation to the individual soul.  This kind of research is the work of
letters; here are facts of human life to be noted that are never like to
be numerically tabulated, changes and developments that defy all metrical
standards to be traced and described.  The greater men of science have
been cast in so generous a mould that they have recognised the partial
nature of their task; they have known how to play with science as a
pastime, and to win and wear her decorations for a holiday favour.  They
have not emaciated the fulness of their faculties in the name of
certainty, nor cramped their humanity for the promise of a future good.
They have been the servants of Nature, not the slaves of method.  But the
grammarian of the laboratory is often the victim of his trade.  He
staggers forth from his workshop, where prolonged concentration on a
mechanical task, directed to a provisional and doubtful goal, has dimmed
his faculties; the glaring motley of the world, bathed in sunlight,
dazzles him; the questions, moral, political, and personal, that his
method has relegated to some future of larger knowledge, crowd upon him,
clamorous for solution, not to be denied, insisting on a settlement
to-day.  He is forced to make a choice, and may either forsake the
divinity he serves, falling back, for the practical and æsthetic conduct
of life, on those common instincts of sensuality which oscillate between
the conventicle and the tavern as the poles of duty and pleasure, or,
more pathetically still, he may attempt to bring the code of the
observatory to bear immediately on the vagaries of the untameable world,
and suffer the pedant’s disaster.  A martyr to the good that is to be, he
has voluntarily maimed himself “for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake”—if,
perchance, the kingdom of Heaven might come by observation.  The
enthusiasm of his self-denial shows itself in his unavailing struggle to
chain language also to the bare rock of ascertained fact.  Metaphor, the
poet’s right-hand weapon, he despises; all that is tentative, individual,
struck off at the urging of a mood, he disclaims and suspects.  Yet the
very rewards that science promises have their parallel in the domain of
letters.  The discovery of likeness in the midst of difference, and of
difference in the midst of likeness, is the keenest pleasure of the
intellect; and literary expression, as has been said, is one long series
of such discoveries, each with its thrill of incommunicable happiness,
all unprecedented, and perhaps unverifiable by later experiment.  The
finest instrument of these discoveries is metaphor, the spectroscope of

Enough has been said of change; it remains to speak of one more of those
illusions of fixity wherein writers seek exemption from the general lot.
Language, it has been shown, is to be fitted to thought; and, further,
there are no synonyms.  What more natural conclusion could be drawn by
the enthusiasm of the artist than that there is some kind of preordained
harmony between words and things, whereby expression and thought tally
exactly, like the halves of a puzzle?  This illusion, called in France
the doctrine of the _mot propre_, is a will o’ the wisp which has kept
many an artist dancing on its trail.  That there is one, and only one way
of expressing one thing has been the belief of other writers besides
Gustave Flaubert, inspiriting them to a desperate and fruitful industry.
It is an amiable fancy, like the dream of Michael Angelo, who loved to
imagine that the statue existed already in the block of marble, and had
only to be stripped of its superfluous wrappings, or like the indolent
fallacy of those economic soothsayers to whom Malthus brought rough
awakening, that population and the means of subsistence move side by side
in harmonious progress.  But hunger does not imply food, and there may
hover in the restless heads of poets, as themselves testify—

    One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,
    Which into words no virtue can digest.

Matter and form are not so separable as the popular philosophy would have
them; indeed, the very antithesis between them is a cardinal instance of
how language reacts on thought, modifying and fixing a cloudy truth.  The
idea pursues form not only that it may be known to others, but that it
may know itself, and the body in which it becomes incarnate is not to be
distinguished from the informing soul.  It is recorded of a famous Latin
historian how he declared that he would have made Pompey win the battle
of Pharsalia had the effective turn of the sentence required it.  He may
stand for the true type of the literary artist.  The business of letters,
howsoever simple it may seem to those who think truth-telling a gift of
nature, is in reality two-fold, to find words for a meaning, and to find
a meaning for words.  Now it is the words that refuse to yield, and now
the meaning, so that he who attempts to wed them is at the same time
altering his words to suit his meaning, and modifying and shaping his
meaning to satisfy the requirements of his words.  The humblest processes
of thought have had their first education from language long before they
took shape in literature.  So subtle is the connexion between the two
that it is equally possible to call language the form given to the matter
of thought, or, inverting the application of the figure, to speak of
thought as the formal principle that shapes the raw material of language.
It is not until the two become one that they can be known for two.  The
idea to be expressed is a kind of mutual recognition between thought and
language, which here meet and claim each other for the first time, just
as in the first glance exchanged by lovers, the unborn child opens its
eyes on the world, and pleads for life.  But thought, although it may
indulge itself with the fancy of a predestined affiance, is not confined
to one mate, but roves free and is the father of many children.  A belief
in the inevitable word is the last refuge of that stubborn mechanical
theory of the universe which has been slowly driven from science,
politics, and history.  Amidst so much that is undulating, it has pleased
writers to imagine that truth persists and is provided by heavenly
munificence with an imperishable garb of language.  But this also is
vanity, there is one end appointed alike to all, fact goes the way of
fiction, and what is known is no more perdurable than what is made.  Not
words nor works, but only that which is formless endures, the vitality
that is another name for change, the breath that fills and shatters the
bubbles of good and evil, of beauty and deformity, of truth and untruth.

No art is easy, least of all the art of letters.  Apply the musical
analogy once more to the instrument whereon literature performs its
voluntaries.  With a living keyboard of notes which are all incessantly
changing in value, so that what rang true under Dr. Johnson’s hand may
sound flat or sharp now, with a range of a myriad strings, some falling
mute and others being added from day to day, with numberless permutations
and combinations, each of which alters the tone and pitch of the units
that compose it, with fluid ideas that never have an outlined existence
until they have found their phrases and the improvisation is complete, is
it to be wondered at that the art of style is eternally elusive, and that
the attempt to reduce it to rule is the forlorn hope of academic

                                * * * * *

These difficulties and complexities of the instrument are, nevertheless,
the least part of the ordeal that is to be undergone by the writer.  The
same musical note or phrase affects different ears in much the same way;
not so the word or group of words.  The pure idea, let us say, is
translated into language by the literary composer; who is to be
responsible for the retranslation of the language into idea?  Here begins
the story of the troubles and weaknesses that are imposed upon literature
by the necessity it lies under of addressing itself to an audience, by
its liability to anticipate the corruptions that mar the understanding of
the spoken or written word.  A word is the operative symbol of a relation
between two minds, and is chosen by the one not without regard to the
quality of the effect actually produced upon the other.  Men must be
spoken to in their accustomed tongue, and persuaded that the unknown God
proclaimed by the poet is one whom aforetime they ignorantly worshipped.
The relation of great authors to the public may be compared to the war of
the sexes, a quiet watchful antagonism between two parties mutually
indispensable to each other, at one time veiling itself in endearments,
at another breaking out into open defiance.  He who has a message to
deliver must wrestle with his fellows before he shall be permitted to ply
them with uncomfortable or unfamiliar truths.  The public, like the
delicate Greek Narcissus, is sleepily enamoured of itself; and the name
of its only other perfect lover is Echo.  Yet even great authors must lay
their account with the public, and it is instructive to observe how
different are the attitudes they have adopted, how uniform the
disappointment they have felt.  Some, like Browning and Mr. Meredith in
our own day, trouble themselves little about the reception given to their
work, but are content to say on, until the few who care to listen have
expounded them to the many, and they are applauded, in the end, by a
generation whom they have trained to appreciate them.  Yet this noble and
persevering indifference is none of their choice, and long years of
absolution from criticism must needs be paid for in faults of style.
“Writing for the stage,” Mr. Meredith himself has remarked, “would be a
corrective of a too-incrusted scholarly style into which some great ones
fall at times.”  Denied such a corrective, the great one is apt to sit
alone and tease his meditations into strange shapes, fortifying himself
against obscurity and neglect with the reflection that most of the words
he uses are to be found, after all, in the dictionary.  It is not,
however, from the secluded scholar that the sharpest cry of pain is wrung
by the indignities of his position, but rather from genius in the act of
earning a full meed of popular applause.  Both Shakespeare and Ben Jonson
wrote for the stage, both were blown by the favouring breath of their
plebeian patrons into reputation and a competence.  Each of them passed
through the thick of the fight, and well knew that ugly corner where the
artist is exposed to cross fires, his own idea of masterly work on the
one hand and the necessity for pleasing the rabble on the other.  When
any man is awake to the fact that the public is a vile patron, when he is
conscious also that his bread and his fame are in their gift—it is a
stern passage for his soul, a touchstone for the strength and gentleness
of his spirit.  Jonson, whose splendid scorn took to itself lyric wings
in the two great Odes to Himself, sang high and aloof for a while, then
the frenzy caught him, and he flung away his lyre to gird himself for
deeds of mischief among nameless and noteless antagonists.  Even Chapman,
who, in _The Tears of Peace_, compares “men’s refuse ears” to those gates
in ancient cities which were opened only when the bodies of executed
malefactors were to be cast away, who elsewhere gives utterance, in round
terms, to his belief that

    No truth of excellence was ever seen
    But bore the venom of the vulgar’s spleen,

—even the violences of this great and haughty spirit must pale beside the
more desperate violences of the dramatist who commended his play to the
public in the famous line,

    By God, ’tis good, and if you like’t, you may.

This stormy passion of arrogant independence disturbs the serenity of
atmosphere necessary for creative art.  A greater than Jonson donned the
suppliant’s robes, like Coriolanus, and with the inscrutable honeyed
smile about his lips begged for the “most sweet voices” of the journeymen
and gallants who thronged the Globe Theatre.  Only once does the wail of
anguish escape him—

    Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
       And made myself a motley to the view,
    Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear.

And again—

    Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
       And almost thence my nature is subdued
    To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand,
       Pity me then, and wish I were renewed.

Modern vulgarity, speaking through the mouths of Shakesperian
commentators, is wont to interpret these lines as a protest against the
contempt wherewith Elizabethan society regarded the professions of
playwright and actor.  We are asked to conceive that Shakespeare humbly
desires the pity of his bosom friend because he is not put on the same
level of social estimation with a brocaded gull or a prosperous stupid
goldsmith of the Cheap.  No, it is a cry, from the depth of his nature,
for forgiveness because he has sacrificed a little on the altar of
popularity.  Jonson would have boasted that he never made this sacrifice.
But he lost the calm of his temper and the clearness of his singing
voice, he degraded his magnanimity by allowing it to engage in
street-brawls, and he endangered the sanctuary of the inviolable soul.

At least these great artists of the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries
are agreed upon one thing, that the public, even in its most gracious
mood, makes an ill task-master for the man of letters.  It is worth the
pains to ask why, and to attempt to show how much of an author’s literary
quality is involved in his attitude towards his audience.  Such an
inquiry will take us, it is true, into bad company, and exhibit the
vicious, the fatuous, and the frivolous posturing to an admiring crowd.
But style is a property of all written and printed matter, so that to
track it to its causes and origins is a task wherein literary criticism
may profit by the humbler aid of anthropological research.

Least of all authors is the poet subject to the tyranny of his audience.
“Poetry and eloquence,” says John Stuart Mill, “are both alike the
expression or utterance of feeling.  But if we may be excused the
antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard.
Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us
to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener.”  Poetry,
according to this discerning criticism, is an inspired soliloquy; the
thoughts rise unforced and unchecked, taking musical form in obedience
only to the law of their being, giving pleasure to an audience only as
the mountain spring may chance to assuage the thirst of a passing
traveller.  In lyric poetry, language, from being a utensil, or a medium
of traffic and barter, passes back to its place among natural sounds; its
affinity is with the wind among the trees and the stream among the rocks;
it is the cry of the heart, as simple as the breath we draw, and as
little ordered with a view to applause.  Yet speech grew up in society,
and even in the most ecstatic of its uses may flag for lack of
understanding and response.  It were rash to say that the poets need no
audience; the loneliest have promised themselves a tardy recognition, and
some among the greatest came to their maturity in the warm atmosphere of
a congenial society.  Indeed the ratification set upon merit by a living
audience, fit though few, is necessary for the development of the most
humane and sympathetic genius; and the memorable ages of literature, in
Greece or Rome, in France or England, have been the ages of a literary
society.  The nursery of our greatest dramatists must be looked for, not,
it is true, in the transfigured bear-gardens of the Bankside, but in
those enchanted taverns, islanded and bastioned by the protective decree—

    _Idiota_, _insulsus_, _tristis_, _turpis_, _abesto_.

The poet seems to be soliloquising because he is addressing himself, with
the most entire confidence, to a small company of his friends, who may
even, in unhappy seasons, prove to be the creatures of his imagination.
Real or imaginary, they are taken by him for his equals; he expects from
them a quick intelligence and a perfect sympathy, which may enable him to
despise all concealment.  He never preaches to them, nor scolds, nor
enforces the obvious.  Content that what he has spoken he has spoken, he
places a magnificent trust on a single expression.  He neither explains,
nor falters, nor repents; he introduces his work with no preface, and
cumbers it with no notes.  He will not lower nor raise his voice for the
sake of the profane and idle who may chance to stumble across his
entertainment.  His living auditors, unsolicited for the tribute of
worship or an alms, find themselves conceived of in the likeness of what
he would have them to be, raised to a companion pinnacle of friendship,
and constituted peers and judges, if they will, of his achievement.
Sometimes they come late.

This blend of dignity and intimacy, of candour and self-respect, is
unintelligible to the vulgar, who understand by intimacy mutual
concession to a base ideal, and who are so accustomed to deal with masks,
that when they see a face they are shocked as by some grotesque.  Now a
poet, like Montaigne’s naked philosopher, is all face; and the
bewilderment of his masked and muffled critics is the greater.  Wherever
he attracts general attention he cannot but be misunderstood.  The
generality of modern men and women who pretend to literature are not
hypocrites, or they might go near to divine him,—for hypocrisy, though
rooted in cowardice, demands for its flourishing a clear intellectual
atmosphere, a definite aim, and a certain detachment of the directing
mind.  But they are habituated to trim themselves by the cloudy mirror of
opinion, and will mince and temporise, as if for an invisible audience,
even in their bedrooms.  Their masks have, for the most part, grown to
their faces, so that, except in some rare animal paroxysm of emotion, it
is hardly themselves that they express.  The apparition of a poet
disquiets them, for he clothes himself with the elements, and apologises
to no idols.  His candour frightens them: they avert their eyes from it;
or they treat it as a licensed whim; or, with a sudden gleam of insight,
and apprehension of what this means for them and theirs, they scream
aloud for fear.  A modern instance may be found in the angry
protestations launched against Rossetti’s Sonnets, at the time of their
first appearance, by a writer who has since matched himself very exactly
with an audience of his own kind.  A stranger freak of burgess criticism
is everyday fare in the odd world peopled by the biographers of Robert
Burns.  The nature of Burns, one would think, was simplicity itself; it
could hardly puzzle a ploughman, and two sailors out of three would call
him brother.  But he lit up the whole of that nature by his marvellous
genius for expression, and grave personages have been occupied ever since
in discussing the dualism of his character, and professing to find some
dark mystery in the existence of this, that, or the other trait—a love of
pleasure, a hatred of shams, a deep sense of religion.  It is common
human nature, after all, that is the mystery, but they seem never to have
met with it, and treat it as if it were the poet’s eccentricity.  They
are all agog to worship him, and when they have made an image of him in
their own likeness, and given it a tin-pot head that exactly hits their
taste, they break into noisy lamentation over the discovery that the
original was human, and had feet of clay.  They deem “Mary in Heaven” so
admirable that they could find it in their hearts to regret that she was
ever on earth.  This sort of admirers constantly refuses to bear a part
in any human relationship; they ask to be fawned on, or trodden on, by
the poet while he is in life; when he is dead they make of him a
candidate for godship, and heckle him.  It is a misfortune not wholly
without its compensations that most great poets are dead before they are

If great and original literary artists—here grouped together under the
title of poets—will not enter into transactions with their audience,
there is no lack of authors who will.  These are not necessarily
charlatans; they may have by nature a ready sympathy with the grossness
of the public taste, and thus take pleasure in studying to gratify it.
But man loses not a little of himself in crowds, and some degradation
there must be where the one adapts himself to the many.  The British
public is not seen at its best when it is enjoying a holiday in a foreign
country, nor when it is making excursions into the realm of imaginative
literature: those who cater for it in these matters must either study its
tastes or share them.  Many readers bring the worst of themselves to a
novel; they want lazy relaxation, or support for their nonsense, or
escape from their creditors, or a free field for emotions that they dare
not indulge in life.  The reward of an author who meets them half-way in
these respects, who neither puzzles nor distresses them, who asks nothing
from them, but compliments them on their great possessions and sends them
away rejoicing, is a full measure of acceptance, and editions unto
seventy times seven.

The evils caused by the influence of the audience on the writer are many.
First of all comes a fault far enough removed from the characteristic
vices of the charlatan—to wit, sheer timidity and weakness.  There is a
kind of stage-fright that seizes on a man when he takes pen in hand to
address an unknown body of hearers, no less than when he stands up to
deliver himself to a sea of expectant faces.  This is the true panic
fear, that walks at mid-day, and unmans those whom it visits.  Hence come
reservations, qualifications, verbosity, and the see-saw of a wavering
courage, which apes progress and purpose, as soldiers mark time with
their feet.  The writing produced under these auspices is of no greater
moment than the incoherent loquacity of a nervous patient.  All
self-expression is a challenge thrown down to the world, to be taken up
by whoso will; and the spirit of timidity, when it touches a man, suborns
him with the reminder that he holds his life and goods by the sufferance
of his fellows.  Thereupon he begins to doubt whether it is worth while
to court a verdict of so grave possibilities, or to risk offending a
judge—whose customary geniality is merely the outcome of a fixed habit of
inattention.  In doubt whether to speak or keep silence, he takes a
middle course, and while purporting to speak for himself, is careful to
lay stress only on the points whereon all are agreed, to enlarge
eloquently on the doubtfulness of things, and to give to words the very
least meaning that they will carry.  Such a procedure, which glides over
essentials, and handles truisms or trivialities with a fervour of
conviction, has its functions in practice.  It will win for a politician
the coveted and deserved repute of a “safe” man—safe, even though the
cause perish.  Pleaders and advocates are sometimes driven into it,
because to use vigorous, clean, crisp English in addressing an ordinary
jury or committee is like flourishing a sword in a drawing-room: it will
lose the case.  Where the weakest are to be convinced speech must stoop:
a full consideration of the velleities and uncertainties, a little
bombast to elevate the feelings without committing the judgment, some
vague effusion of sentiment, an inapposite blandness, a meaningless
rodomontade—these are the by-ways to be travelled by the style that is a
willing slave to its audience.  The like is true of those
documents—petitions, resolutions, congratulatory addresses, and so
forth—that are written to be signed by a multitude of names.  Public
occasions of this kind, where all and sundry are to be satisfied, have
given rise to a new parliamentary dialect, which has nothing of the
freshness of individual emotion, is powerless to deal with realities, and
lacks all resonance, vitality, and nerve.  There is no cure for this,
where the feelings and opinions of a crowd are to be expressed.  But
where indecision is the ruling passion of the individual, he may cease to
write.  Popularity was never yet the prize of those whose only care is to
avoid offence.

For hardier aspirants, the two main entrances to popular favour are by
the twin gates of laughter and tears.  Pathos knits the soul and braces
the nerves, humour purges the eyesight and vivifies the sympathies; the
counterfeits of these qualities work the opposite effects.  It is
comparatively easy to appeal to passive emotions, to play upon the
melting mood of a diffuse sensibility, or to encourage the narrow mind to
dispense a patron’s laughter from the vantage-ground of its own small
preconceptions.  Our annual crop of sentimentalists and mirth-makers
supplies the reading public with food.  Tragedy, which brings the naked
soul face to face with the austere terrors of Fate, Comedy, which turns
the light inward and dissipates the mists of self-affection and
self-esteem, have long since given way on the public stage to the
flattery of Melodrama, under many names.  In the books he reads and in
the plays he sees the average man recognises himself in the hero, and
vociferates his approbation.

The sensibility that came into vogue during the eighteenth century was of
a finer grain than its modern counterpart.  It studied delicacy, and
sought a cultivated enjoyment in evanescent shades of feeling, and the
fantasies of unsubstantial grief.  The real Princess of Hans Andersen’s
story, who passed a miserable night because there was a small bean
concealed beneath the twenty eider-down beds on which she slept, might
stand for a type of the aristocracy of feeling that took a pride in these
ridiculous susceptibilities.  The modern sentimentalist works in a
coarser material.  That ancient, subtle, and treacherous affinity among
the emotions, whereby religious exaltation has before now been made the
ally of the unpurified passions, is parodied by him in a simpler and more
useful device.  By alleging a moral purpose he is enabled to gratify the
prurience of his public and to raise them in their own muddy conceit at
one and the same time.  The plea serves well with those artless readers
who have been accustomed to consider the moral of a story as something
separable from imagination, expression, and style—a quality, it may be,
inherent in the plot, or a kind of appendix, exercising a retrospective
power of jurisdiction and absolution over the extravagances of the piece
to which it is affixed.  Let virtue be rewarded, and they are content
though it should never be vitally imagined or portrayed.  If their eyes
were opened they might cry with Brutus—“O miserable Virtue!  Thou art but
a phrase, and I have followed thee as though thou wert a reality.”

It is in quite another kind, however, that the modern purveyor of
sentiment exercises his most characteristic talent.  There are certain
real and deeply-rooted feelings, common to humanity, concerning which, in
their normal operation, a grave reticence is natural.  They are universal
in their appeal, men would be ashamed not to feel them, and it is no
small part of the business of life to keep them under strict control.
Here is the sentimental hucksters most valued opportunity.  He tears
these primary instincts from the wholesome privacy that shelters them in
life, and cries them up from his booth in the market-place.  The
elemental forces of human life, which beget shyness in children, and
touch the spirits of the wise to solemn acquiescence, awaken him to
noisier declamation.  He patronises the stern laws of love and pity,
hawking them like indulgences, cheapening and commanding them like the
medicines of a mountebank.  The censure of his critics he impudently
meets by pointing to his wares: are not some of the most sacred
properties of humanity—sympathy with suffering, family affection, filial
devotion, and the rest—displayed upon his stall?  Not thus shall he evade
the charges brought against him.  It is the sensual side of the tender
emotions that he exploits for the comfort of the million.  All the
intricacies which life offers to the will and the intellect he lards and
obliterates by the timely effusion of tearful sentiment.  His
humanitarianism is a more popular, as it is an easier, ideal than
humanity—it asks no expense of thought.  There is a scanty public in
England for tragedy or for comedy: the characters and situations handled
by the sentimentalist might perchance furnish comedy with a theme; but he
stilts them for a tragic performance, and they tumble into watery bathos,
where a numerous public awaits them.

A similar degradation of the intellectual elements that are present in
all good literature is practised by those whose single aim is to provoke
laughter.  In much of our so-called comic writing a superabundance of
boisterous animal spirits, restrained from more practical expression by
the ordinances of civil society, finds outlet and relief.  The grimaces
and caperings of buffoonery, the gymnastics of the punster and the
parodist, the revels of pure nonsense may be, at their best, a
refreshment and delight, but they are not comedy, and have proved in
effect not a little hostile to the existence of comedy.  The prevalence
of jokers, moreover, spoils the game of humour; the sputter and sparkle
of their made jokes interferes with that luminous contemplation of the
incongruities of life and the universe which is humour’s essence.  All
that is ludicrous depends on some disproportion: Comedy judges the actual
world by contrasting it with an ideal of sound sense, Humour reveals it
in its true dimensions by turning on it the light of imagination and
poetry.  The perception of these incongruities, which are eternal,
demands some expense of intellect; a cheaper amusement may be enjoyed by
him who is content to take his stand on his own habits and prejudices and
to laugh at all that does not square with them.  This was the method of
the age which, in the abysmal profound of waggery, engendered that
portentous birth, the comic paper.  Foreigners, it is said, do not laugh
at the wit of these journals, and no wonder, for only a minute study of
the customs and preoccupations of certain sections of English society
could enable them to understand the point of view.  From time to time one
or another of the writers who are called upon for their weekly tale of
jokes seems struggling upward to the free domain of Comedy; but in vain,
his public holds him down, and compels him to laugh in chains.  Some day,
perchance, a literary historian, filled with the spirit of Cervantes or
of Molière, will give account of the Victorian era, and, not disdaining
small things, will draw a picture of the society which inspired and
controlled so resolute a jocularity.  Then, at last, will the spirit of
Comedy recognise that these were indeed what they claimed to be—comic

“The style is the man;” but the social and rhetorical influences
adulterate and debase it, until not one man in a thousand achieves his
birthright, or claims his second self.  The fire of the soul burns all
too feebly, and warms itself by the reflected heat from the society
around it.  We give back words of tepid greeting, without improvement.
We talk to our fellows in the phrases we learn from them, which come to
mean less and less as they grow worn with use.  Then we exaggerate and
distort, heaping epithet upon epithet in the endeavour to get a little
warmth out of the smouldering pile.  The quiet cynicism of our everyday
demeanour is open and shameless, we callously anticipate objections
founded on the well-known vacuity of our seeming emotions, and assure our
friends that we are “truly” grieved or “sincerely” rejoiced at their
hap—as if joy or grief that really exists were some rare and precious
brand of joy or grief.  In its trivial conversational uses so simple and
pure a thing as joy becomes a sandwich-man—humanity degraded to an
advertisement.  The poor dejected word shuffles along through the mud in
the service of the sleek trader who employs it, and not until it meets
with a poet is it rehabilitated and restored to dignity.

This is no indictment of society, which came into being before
literature, and, in all the distraction of its multifarious concerns, can
hardly keep a school for Style.  It is rather a demonstration of the
necessity, amid the wealthy disorder of modern civilisation, for poetic
diction.  One of the hardest of a poet’s tasks is the search for his
vocabulary.  Perhaps in some idyllic pasture-land of Utopia there may
have flourished a state where division of labour was unknown, where
community of ideas, as well as of property, was absolute, and where the
language of every day ran clear into poetry without the need of a
refining process.  They say that Cædmon was a cow-keeper: but the
shepherds of Theocritus and Virgil are figments of a courtly brain, and
Wordsworth himself, in his boldest flights of theory, was forced to allow
of selection.  Even by selection from among the chaos of implements that
are in daily use around him, a poet can barely equip himself with a
choice of words sufficient for his needs; he must have recourse to his
predecessors; and so it comes about that the poetry of the modern world
is a store-house of obsolete diction.  The most surprising characteristic
of the right poetic diction, whether it draw its vocabulary from near at
hand, or avail itself of the far-fetched inheritance preserved by the
poets, is its matchless sincerity.  Something of extravagance there may
be in those brilliant clusters of romantic words that are everywhere
found in the work of Shakespeare, or Spenser, or Keats, but they are the
natural leafage and fruitage of a luxuriant imagination, which, lacking
these, could not attain to its full height.  Only by the energy of the
arts can a voice be given to the subtleties and raptures of emotional
experience; ordinary social intercourse affords neither opportunity nor
means for this fervour of self-revelation.  And if the highest reach of
poetry is often to be found in the use of common colloquialisms, charged
with the intensity of restrained passion, this is not due to a greater
sincerity of expression, but to the strength derived from dramatic
situation.  Where speech spends itself on its subject, drama stands idle;
but where the dramatic stress is at its greatest, three or four words may
enshrine all the passion of the moment.  Romeo’s apostrophe from under
the balcony—

    O, speak again, bright Angel! for thou art
    As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,
    As is a winged messenger of heaven
    Unto the white-upturned wond’ring eyes
    Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him,
    When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds,
    And sails upon the bosom of the air—

though it breathe the soul of romance, must yield, for sheer effect, to
his later soliloquy, spoken when the news of Juliet’s death is brought to

    Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night.

And even the constellated glories of _Paradise Lost_ are less moving than
the plain words wherein Samson forecasts his approaching end—

    So much I feel my genial spirits droop,
    My hopes all flat; Nature within me seems
    In all her functions weary of herself;
    My race of glory run and race of shame,
    And I shall shortly be with them that rest.

Here are simple words raised to a higher power and animated with a purer
intention than they carry in ordinary life.  It is this unfailing note of
sincerity, eloquent or laconic, that has made poetry the teacher of
prose.  Phrases which, to all seeming, might have been hit on by the
first comer, are often cut away from their poetical context and robbed of
their musical value that they may be transferred to the service of prose.
They bring with them, down to the valley, a wafted sense of some region
of higher thought and purer feeling.  They bear, perhaps, no marks of
curious diction to know them by.  Whence comes the irresistible pathos of
the lines—

    I cannot but remember such things were
    That were most precious to me?

The thought, the diction, the syntax, might all occur in prose.  Yet when
once the stamp of poetry has been put upon a cry that is as old as
humanity, prose desists from rivalry, and is content to quote.  Some of
the greatest prose-writers have not disdained the help of these borrowed
graces for the crown of their fabric.  In this way De Quincey widens the
imaginative range of his prose, and sets back the limits assigned to
prose diction.  So too, Charles Lamb, interweaving the stuff of
experience with phrases quoted or altered from the poets, illuminates
both life and poetry, letting his sympathetic humour play now on the warp
of the texture, and now on the woof.  The style of Burke furnishes a
still better example, for the spontaneous evolution of his prose might be
thought to forbid the inclusion of borrowed fragments.  Yet whenever he
is deeply stirred, memories of Virgil, Milton, or the English Bible rise
to his aid, almost as if strong emotion could express itself in no other
language.  Even the poor invectives of political controversy gain a
measure of dignity from the skilful application of some famous line; the
touch of the poet’s sincerity rests on them for a moment, and seems to
lend them an alien splendour.  It is like the blessing of a priest,
invoked by the pious, or by the worldly, for the good success of whatever
business they have in hand.  Poetry has no temporal ends to serve, no
livelihood to earn, and is under no temptation to cog and lie: wherefore
prose pays respect to that loftier calling, and that more unblemished

Insincerity, on the other hand, is the commonest vice of style.  It is
not to be avoided, except in the rarest cases, by those to whom the
written use of language is unfamiliar; so that a shepherd who talks
pithy, terse sense will be unable to express himself in a letter without
having recourse to the _Ready Letter-writer_—“This comes hoping to find
you well, as it also leaves me at present”—and a soldier, without the
excuse of ignorance, will describe a successful advance as having been
made against “a thick hail of bullets.”  It permeates ordinary
journalism, and all writing produced under commercial pressure.  It
taints the work of the young artist, caught by the romantic fever, who
glories in the wealth of vocabulary discovered to him by the poets, and
seeks often in vain for a thought stalwart enough to wear that glistering
armour.  Hence it is that the masters of style have always had to preach
restraint, self-denial, austerity.  His style is a man’s own; yet how
hard it is to come by!  It is a man’s bride, to be won by labours and
agonies that bespeak a heroic lover.  If he prove unable to endure the
trial, there are cheaper beauties, nearer home, easy to be conquered, and
faithless to their conqueror.  Taking up with them, he may attain a brief
satisfaction, but he will never redeem his quest.

As a body of practical rules, the negative precepts of asceticism bring
with them a certain chill.  The page is dull; it is so easy to lighten it
with some flash of witty irrelevance: the argument is long and tedious,
why not relieve it by wandering into some of those green enclosures that
open alluring doors upon the wayside?  To roam at will, spring-heeled,
high-hearted, and catching at all good fortunes, is the ambition of the
youth, ere yet he has subdued himself to a destination.  The principle of
self-denial seems at first sight a treason done to genius, which was
always privileged to be wilful.  In this view literature is a fortuitous
series of happy thoughts and heaven-sent findings.  But the end of that
plan is beggary.  Sprightly talk about the first object that meets the
eye and the indulgence of vagabond habits soon degenerate to a
professional garrulity, a forced face of dismal cheer, and a settled
dislike of strenuous exercise.  The economies and abstinences of
discipline promise a kinder fate than this.  They test and strengthen
purpose, without which no great work comes into being.  They save the
expenditure of energy on those pastimes and diversions which lead no
nearer to the goal.  To reject the images and arguments that proffer a
casual assistance yet are not to be brought under the perfect control of
the main theme is difficult; how should it be otherwise, for if they were
not already dear to the writer they would not have volunteered their aid.

It is the more difficult, in that to refuse the unfit is no warrant of
better help to come.  But to accept them is to fall back for good upon a
makeshift, and to hazard the enterprise in a hubbub of disorderly claims.
No train of thought is strengthened by the addition of those arguments
that, like camp-followers, swell the number and the noise, without
bearing a part in the organisation.  The danger that comes in with the
employment of figures of speech, similes, and comparisons is greater
still.  The clearest of them may be attended by some element of grotesque
or paltry association, so that while they illumine the subject they
cannot truly be said to illustrate it.  The noblest, including those
time-honoured metaphors that draw their patent of nobility from war,
love, religion, or the chase, in proportion as they are strong and of a
vivid presence, are also domineering—apt to assume command of the theme
long after their proper work is done.  So great is the headstrong power
of the finest metaphors, that an author may be incommoded by one that
does his business for him handsomely, as a king may suffer the oppression
of a powerful ally.  When a lyric begins with the splendid lines,

    Love still has something of the sea
    From whence his mother rose,

the further development of that song is already fixed and its knell
rung—to the last line there is no escaping from the dazzling influences
that presided over the first.  Yet to carry out such a figure in detail,
as Sir Charles Sedley set himself to do, tarnishes the sudden glory of
the opening.  The lady whom Burns called Clarinda put herself in a like
quandary by beginning a song with this stanza—

    Talk not of Love, it gives me pain,
       For Love has been my foe;
    He bound me in an iron chain,
       And plunged me deep in woe.

The last two lines deserve praise—even the praise they obtained from a
great lyric poet.  But how is the song to be continued?  Genius might
answer the question; to Clarinda there came only the notion of a valuable
contrast to be established between love and friendship, and a tribute to
be paid to the kindly offices of the latter.  The verses wherein she gave
effect to this idea make a poor sequel; friendship, when it is
personified and set beside the tyrant god, wears very much the air of a
benevolent county magistrate, whose chief duty is to keep the peace.

Figures of this sort are in no sense removable decorations, they are at
one with the substance of the thought to be expressed, and are entitled
to the large control they claim.  Imagination, working at white heat, can
fairly subdue the matter of the poem to them, or fuse them with others of
the like temper, striking unity out of the composite mass.  One thing
only is forbidden, to treat these substantial and living metaphors as if
they were elegant curiosities, ornamental excrescences, to be passed over
abruptly on the way to more exacting topics.  The mystics, and the
mystical poets, knew better than to countenance this frivolity.
Recognising that there is a profound and intimate correspondence between
all physical manifestations and the life of the soul, they flung the
reins on the neck of metaphor in the hope that it might carry them over
that mysterious frontier.  Their failures and misadventures, familiarly
despised as “conceits,” left them floundering in absurdity.  Yet not
since the time of Donne and Crashaw has the full power and significance
of figurative language been realised in English poetry.  These poets,
like some of their late descendants, were tortured by a sense of hidden
meaning, and were often content with analogies that admit of no rigorous
explanation.  They were convinced that all intellectual truth is a
parable, though its inner meaning be dark or dubious.  The philosophy of
friendship deals with those mathematical and physical conceptions of
distance, likeness, and attraction—what if the law of bodies govern souls
also, and the geometer’s compasses measure more than it has entered into
his heart to conceive?  Is the moon a name only for a certain tonnage of
dead matter, and is the law of passion parochial while the law of
gravitation is universal?  Mysticism will observe no such partial

    O more than Moon!
    Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,
    Weep me not dead in thine arms, but forbear
    To teach the sea what it may do too soon.

The secret of these sublime intuitions, undivined by many of the greatest
poets, has been left to the keeping of transcendental religion and the
Catholic Church.

Figure and ornament, therefore, are not interchangeable terms; the
loftiest figurative style most conforms to the precepts of gravity and
chastity.  None the less there is a decorative use of figure, whereby a
theme is enriched with imaginations and memories that are foreign to the
main purpose.  Under this head may be classed most of those allusions to
the world’s literature, especially to classical and Scriptural lore,
which have played so considerable, yet on the whole so idle, a part in
modern poetry.  It is here that an inordinate love of decoration finds
its opportunity and its snare.  To keep the most elaborate comparison in
harmony with its occasion, so that when it is completed it shall fall
back easily into the emotional key of the narrative, has been the study
of the great epic poets.  Milton’s description of the rebel legions
adrift on the flaming sea is a fine instance of the difficulty felt and

             Angel forms, who lay entranced
    Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
    In Vallombrosa, where the Etrurian shades
    High over-arched embower; or scattered sedge
    Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion armed
    Hath vexed the Red-Sea coast, whose waves o’erthrew
    Busiris and his Memphian chivalry,
    While with perfidious hatred they pursued
    The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
    From the safe shore their floating carcases
    And broken chariot-wheels.  So thick bestrown,
    Abject and lost, lay these, covering the flood,
    Under amazement of their hideous change.

The comparison seems to wander away at random, obedient to the slightest
touch of association.  Yet in the end it is brought back, its majesty
heightened, and a closer element of likeness introduced by the skilful
turn that substitutes the image of the shattered Egyptian army for the
former images of dead leaves and sea-weed.  The incidental pictures, of
the roof of shades, of the watchers from the shore, and the very name
“Red Sea,” fortuitous as they may seem, all lend help to the imagination
in bodying forth the scene described.  An earlier figure in the same book
of _Paradise Lost_, because it exhibits a less conspicuous technical
cunning, may even better show a poet’s care for unity of tone and
impression.  Where Satan’s prostrate bulk is compared to

                that sea-beast
    Leviathan, which God of all his works
    Created hugest that swim the ocean-stream,

the picture that follows of the Norse-pilot mooring his boat under the
lee of the monster is completed in a line that attunes the mind once more
to all the pathos and gloom of those infernal deeps:

                while night
    Invests the sea, and wishèd morn delays.

So masterly a handling of the figures which usage and taste prescribe to
learned writers is rare indeed.  The ordinary small scholar disposes of
his baggage less happily.  Having heaped up knowledge as a successful
tradesman heaps up money, he is apt to believe that his wealth makes him
free of the company of letters, and a fellow craftsman of the poets.  The
mark of his style is an excessive and pretentious allusiveness.  It was
he whom the satirist designed in that taunt, _Scire tuum nihil est nisi
te scire hoc sciat alter_—“My knowledge of thy knowledge is the knowledge
thou covetest.”  His allusions and learned periphrases elucidate nothing;
they put an idle labour on the reader who understands them, and extort
from baffled ignorance, at which, perhaps, they are more especially
aimed, a foolish admiration.  These tricks and vanities, the very
corruption of ornament, will always be found while the power to acquire
knowledge is more general than the strength to carry it or the skill to
wield it.  The collector has his proper work to do in the commonwealth of
learning, but the ownership of a museum is a poor qualification for the
name of artist.  Knowledge has two good uses; it may be frankly
communicated for the benefit of others, or it may minister matter to
thought; an allusive writer often robs it of both these functions.  He
must needs display his possessions and his modesty at one and the same
time, producing his treasures unasked, and huddling them in uncouth
fashion past the gaze of the spectator, because, forsooth, he would not
seem to make a rarity of them.  The subject to be treated, the groundwork
to be adorned, becomes the barest excuse for a profitless haphazard
ostentation.  This fault is very incident to the scholarly style, which
often sacrifices emphasis and conviction to a futile air of encyclopædic

Those who are repelled by this redundance of ornament, from which even
great writers are not wholly exempt, have sometimes been driven by the
force of reaction into a singular fallacy.  The futility of these
literary quirks and graces has induced them to lay art under the same
interdict with ornament.  Style and stylists, one will say, have no
attraction for him, he had rather hear honest men utter their thoughts
directly, clearly, and simply.  The choice of words, says another, and
the conscious manipulation of sentences, is literary foppery; the word
that first offers is commonly the best, and the order in which the
thoughts occur is the order to be followed.  Be natural, be
straightforward, they urge, and what you have to say will say itself in
the best possible manner.  It is a welcome lesson, no doubt, that these
deluded Arcadians teach.  A simple and direct style—who would not give
his all to purchase that!  But is it in truth so easy to be compassed?
The greatest writers, when they are at the top of happy hours, attain to
it, now and again.  Is all this tangled contrariety of things a kind of
fairyland, and does the writer, alone among men, find that a beaten
foot-path opens out before him as he goes, to lead him, straight through
the maze, to the goal of his desires?  To think so is to build a childish
dream out of facts imperfectly observed, and worthy of a closer
observation.  Sometimes the cry for simplicity is the reverse of what it
seems, and is uttered by those who had rather hear words used in their
habitual vague acceptations than submit to the cutting directness of a
good writer.  Habit makes obscurity grateful, and the simple style, in
this view, is the style that allows thought to run automatically into its
old grooves and burrows.  The original writers who have combined real
literary power with the heresy of ease and nature are of another kind.  A
brutal personality, excellently muscular, snatching at words as the
handiest weapons wherewith to inflict itself, and the whole body of its
thoughts and preferences, on suffering humanity, is likely enough to
deride the daintiness of conscious art.  Such a writer is William
Cobbett, who has often been praised for the manly simplicity of his
style, which he raised into a kind of creed.  His power is undeniable;
his diction, though he knew it not, both choice and chaste; yet page
after page of his writing suggests only the reflection that here is a
prodigal waste of good English.  He bludgeons all he touches, and spends
the same monotonous emphasis on his dislike of tea and on his hatred of
the Government.  His is the simplicity of a crude and violent mind,
concerned only with giving forcible expression to its unquestioned
prejudices.  Irrelevance, the besetting sin of the ill-educated, he
glories in, so that his very weakness puts on the semblance of strength,
and helps to wield the hammer.

It is not to be denied that there is a native force of temperament which
can make itself felt even through illiterate carelessness.  “Literary
gentlemen, editors, and critics,” says Thoreau, himself by no means a
careless writer, “think that they know how to write, because they have
studied grammar and rhetoric; but they are egregiously mistaken.  The
_art_ of composition is as simple as the discharge of a bullet from a
rifle, and its masterpieces imply an infinitely greater force behind
them.”  This true saying introduces us to the hardest problem of
criticism, the paradox of literature, the stumbling-block of
rhetoricians.  To analyse the precise method whereby a great personality
can make itself felt in words, even while it neglects and contemns the
study of words, would be to lay bare the secrets of religion and life—it
is beyond human competence.  Nevertheless a brief and diffident
consideration of the matter may bring thus much comfort, that the seeming
contradiction is no discredit cast on letters, but takes its origin
rather from too narrow and pedantic a view of the scope of letters.

Words are things: it is useless to try to set them in a world apart.
They exist in books only by accident, and for one written there are a
thousand, infinitely more powerful, spoken.  They are deeds: the man who
brings word of a lost battle can work no comparable effect with the
muscles of his arm; Iago’s breath is as truly laden with poison and
murder as the fangs of the cobra and the drugs of the assassin.  Hence
the sternest education in the use of words is least of all to be gained
in the schools, which cultivate verbiage in a highly artificial state of
seclusion.  A soldier cares little for poetry, because it is the exercise
of power that he loves, and he is accustomed to do more with his words
than give pleasure.  To keep language in immediate touch with reality, to
lade it with action and passion, to utter it hot from the heart of
determination, is to exhibit it in the plenitude of power.  All this may
be achieved without the smallest study of literary models, and is
consistent with a perfect neglect of literary canons.  It is not the
logical content of the word, but the whole mesh of its conditions,
including the character, circumstances, and attitude of the speaker, that
is its true strength.  “Damn” is often the feeblest of expletives, and
“as you please” may be the dirge of an empire.  Hence it is useless to
look to the grammarian, or the critic, for a lesson in strength of style;
the laws that he has framed, good enough in themselves, are current only
in his own abstract world.  A breath of hesitancy will sometimes make
trash of a powerful piece of eloquence; and even in writing, a thing
three times said, and each time said badly, may be of more effect than
that terse, full, and final expression which the doctors rightly commend.
The art of language, regarded as a question of pattern and cadence, or
even as a question of logic and thought-sequence, is a highly abstract
study; for although, as has been said, you can do almost anything with
words, with words alone you can do next to nothing.  The realm where
speech holds sway is a narrow shoal or reef, shaken, contorted, and
upheaved by volcanic action, beaten upon, bounded, and invaded by the
ocean of silence: whoso would be lord of the earth must first tame the
fire and the sea.  Dramatic and narrative writing are happy in this, that
action and silence are a part of their material; the story-teller or the
playwright can make of words a background and definition for deeds, a
framework for those silences that are more telling than any speech.  Here
lies an escape from the poverty of content and method to which
self-portraiture and self-expression are liable; and therefore are epic
and drama rated above all other kinds of poetry.  The greater force of
the objective treatment is witnessed by many essayists and lyrical poets,
whose ambition has led them, sooner or later, to attempt the novel or the
play.  There are weaknesses inherent in all direct self-revelation; the
thing, perhaps, is greatly said, yet there is no great occasion for the
saying of it; a fine reticence is observed, but it is, after all, an easy
reticence, with none of the dramatic splendours of reticence on the rack.
In the midst of his pleasant confidences the essayist is brought up short
by the question, “Why must you still be talking?”  Even the passionate
lyric feels the need of external authorisation, and some of the finest of
lyrical poems, like the Willow Song of Desdemona, or Wordsworth’s
_Solitary Reaper_, are cast in a dramatic mould, that beauty of diction
may be vitalised by an imagined situation.  More than others the dramatic
art is an enemy to the desultory and the superfluous, sooner than others
it will cast away all formal grace of expression that it may come home
more directly to the business and bosoms of men.  Its great power and
scope are shown well in this, that it can find high uses for the
commonest stuff of daily speech and the emptiest phrases of daily

Simplicity and strength, then, the vigorous realistic quality of
impromptu utterance, and an immediate relation with the elementary facts
of life, are literary excellences best known in the drama, and in its
modern fellow and rival, the novel.  The dramatist and novelist create
their own characters, set their own scenes, lay their own plots, and when
all has been thus prepared, the right word is born in the purple, an
inheritor of great opportunities, all its virtues magnified by the
glamour of its high estate.  Writers on philosophy, morals, or æsthetics,
critics, essayists, and dealers in soliloquy generally, cannot hope, with
their slighter means, to attain to comparable effects.  They work at two
removes from life; the terms that they handle are surrounded by the
vapours of discussion, and are rewarded by no instinctive response.
Simplicity, in its most regarded sense, is often beyond their reach; the
matter of their discourse is intricate, and the most they can do is to
employ patience, care, and economy of labour; the meaning of their words
is not obvious, and they must go aside to define it.  The strength of
their writing has limits set for it by the nature of the chosen task, and
any transgression of these limits is punished by a fall into sheer
violence.  All writing partakes of the quality of the drama, there is
always a situation involved, the relation, namely, between the speaker
and the hearer.  A gentleman in black, expounding his views, or narrating
his autobiography to the first comer, can expect no such warmth of
response as greets the dying speech of the baffled patriot; yet he too
may take account of the reasons that prompt speech, may display sympathy
and tact, and avoid the faults of senility.  The only character that can
lend strength to his words is his own, and he sketches it while he states
his opinions; the only attitude that can ennoble his sayings is implied
in the very arguments he uses.  Who does not know the curious blank
effect of eloquence overstrained or out of place?  The phrasing may be
exquisite, the thought well-knit, the emotion genuine, yet all is, as it
were, dumb-show where no community of feeling exists between the speaker
and his audience.  A similar false note is struck by any speaker or
writer who misapprehends his position or forgets his disqualifications,
by newspaper writers using language that is seemly only in one who stakes
his life on his words, by preachers exceeding the license of fallibility,
by moralists condemning frailty, by speculative traders deprecating frank
ways of hazard, by Satan rebuking sin.

“How many things are there,” exclaims the wise Verulam, “which a man
cannot, with any face or comeliness, say or do himself!  A man’s person
hath many proper relations which he cannot put off.  A man cannot speak
to his son but as a father; to his wife, but as a husband; to his enemy
but upon terms; whereas a friend may speak as the case requires, and not
as it sorteth with the person.”  The like “proper relations” govern
writers, even where their audience is unknown to them.  It has often been
remarked how few are the story-tellers who can introduce themselves, so
much as by a passing reflection or sentiment, without a discordant
effect.  The friend who saves the situation is found in one and another
of the creatures of their art.

For those who must play their own part the effort to conceal themselves
is of no avail.  The implicit attitude of a writer makes itself felt; an
undue swelling of his subject to heroic dimensions, an unwarrantable
assumption of sympathy, a tendency to truck with friends or with enemies
by the way, are all possible indications of weakness, which move even the
least skilled of readers to discount what is said, as they catch here and
there a glimpse of the old pot-companion, or the young dandy, behind the
imposing literary mask.  Strong writers are those who, with every reserve
of power, seek no exhibition of strength.  It is as if language could not
come by its full meaning save on the lips of those who regard it as an
evil necessity.  Every word is torn from them, as from a reluctant
witness.  They come to speech as to a last resort, when all other ways
have failed.  The bane of a literary education is that it induces
talkativeness, and an overweening confidence in words.  But those whose
words are stark and terrible seem almost to despise words.

With words literature begins, and to words it must return.  Coloured by
the neighbourhood of silence, solemnised by thought or steeled by action,
words are still its only means of rising above words.  “_Accedat verbum
ad elementum_,” said St. Ambrose, “_et fiat sacramentum_.”  So the
elementary passions, pity and love, wrath and terror, are not in
themselves poetical; they must be wrought upon by the word to become
poetry.  In no other way can suffering be transformed to pathos, or
horror reach its apotheosis in tragedy.

When all has been said, there remains a residue capable of no formal
explanation.  Language, this array of conventional symbols loosely strung
together, and blown about by every wandering breath, is miraculously
vital and expressive, justifying not a few of the myriad superstitions
that have always attached to its use.  The same words are free to all,
yet no wealth or distinction of vocabulary is needed for a group of words
to take the stamp of an individual mind and character.  “As a quality of
style” says Mr. Pater, “soul is a fact.”  To resolve how words, like
bodies, become transparent when they are inhabited by that luminous
reality, is a higher pitch than metaphysic wit can fly.  Ardent
persuasion and deep feeling enkindle words, so that the weakest take on
glory.  The humblest and most despised of common phrases may be the
chosen vessel for the next avatar of the spirit.  It is the old problem,
to be met only by the old solution of the Platonist, that

    Soul is form, and doth the body make.

The soul is able to inform language by some strange means other than the
choice and arrangement of words and phrases.  Real novelty of vocabulary
is impossible; in the matter of language we lead a parasitical existence,
and are always quoting.  Quotations, conscious or unconscious, vary in
kind according as the mind is active to work upon them and make them its
own.  In its grossest and most servile form quotation is a lazy folly; a
thought has received some signal or notorious expression, and as often as
the old sense, or something like it, recurs, the old phrase rises to the
lips.  This degenerates to simple phrase-mongering, and those who
practise it are not vigilantly jealous of their meaning.  Such an
expression as “fine by degrees and beautifully less” is often no more
than a bloated equivalent for a single word—say “diminishing” or
“shrinking.”  Quotations like this are the warts and excremental parts of
language; the borrowings of good writers are never thus superfluous,
their quotations are appropriations.  Whether it be by some witty turn
given to a well-known line, by an original setting for an old saw, or by
a new and unlooked-for analogy, the stamp of the borrower is put upon the
goods he borrows, and he becomes part owner.  Plagiarism is a crime only
where writing is a trade; expression need never be bound by the law of
copyright while it follows thought, for thought, as some great thinker
has observed, is free.  The words were once Shakespeare’s; if only you
can feel them as he did, they are yours now no less than his.  The best
quotations, the best translations, the best thefts, are all equally new
and original works.  From quotation, at least, there is no escape,
inasmuch as we learn language from others.  All common phrases that do
the dirty work of the world are quotations—poor things, and not our own.
Who first said that a book would “repay perusal,” or that any gay scene
was “bright with all the colours of the rainbow”?  There is no need to
condemn these phrases, for language has a vast deal of inferior work to
do.  The expression of thought, temperament, attitude, is not the whole
of its business.  It is only a literary fop or doctrinaire who will
attempt to remint all the small defaced coinage that passes through his
hands, only a lisping young fantastico who will refuse all conventional
garments and all conventional speech.  At a modern wedding the frock-coat
is worn, the presents are “numerous and costly,” and there is an “ovation
accorded to the happy pair.”  These things are part of our public
civilisation, a decorous and accessible uniform, not to be lightly set
aside.  But let it be a friend of your own who is to marry, a friend of
your own who dies, and you are to express yourself—the problem is
changed, you feel all the difficulties of the art of style, and fathom
something of the depth of your unskill.  Forbidden silence, we should be
in a poor way indeed.

Single words too we plagiarise when we use them without realisation and
mastery of their meaning.  The best argument for a succinct style is
this, that if you use words you do not need, or do not understand, you
cannot use them well.  It is not what a word means, but what it means to
you, that is of the deepest import.  Let it be a weak word, with a poor
history behind it, if you have done good thinking with it, you may yet
use it to surprising advantage.  But if, on the other hand, it be a
strong word that has never aroused more than a misty idea and a
flickering emotion in your mind, here lies your danger.  You may use it,
for there is none to hinder; and it will betray you.  The commonest Saxon
words prove explosive machines in the hands of rash impotence.  It is
perhaps a certain uneasy consciousness of danger, a suspicion that
weakness of soul cannot wield these strong words, that makes debility
avoid them, committing itself rather, as if by some pre-established
affinity, to the vaguer Latinised vocabulary.  Yet they are not all to be
avoided, and their quality in practice will depend on some occult ability
in their employer.  For every living person, if the material were
obtainable, a separate historical dictionary might be compiled, recording
where each word was first heard or seen, where and how it was first used.
The references are utterly beyond recovery; but such a register would
throw a strange light on individual styles.  The eloquent trifler, whose
stock of words has been accumulated by a pair of light fingers, would
stand denuded of his plausible pretences as soon as it were seen how
roguishly he came by his eloquence.  There may be literary quality, it is
well to remember, in the words of a parrot, if only its cage has been
happily placed; meaning and soul there cannot be.  Yet the voice will
sometimes be mistaken, by the carelessness of chance listeners, for a
genuine utterance of humanity; and the like is true in literature.  But
writing cannot be luminous and great save in the hands of those whose
words are their own by the indefeasible title of conquest.  Life is spent
in learning the meaning of great words, so that some idle proverb, known
for years and accepted perhaps as a truism, comes home, on a day, like a
blow.  “If there were not a God,” said Voltaire, “it would be necessary
to invent him.”  Voltaire had therefore a right to use the word, but some
of those who use it most, if they would be perfectly sincere, should
enclose it in quotation marks.  Whole nations go for centuries without
coining names for certain virtues; is it credible that among other
peoples, where the names exists the need for them is epidemic?  The
author of the _Ecclesiastial Polity_ puts a bolder and truer face on the
matter.  “Concerning that Faith, Hope, and Charity,” he writes, “without
which there can be no salvation, was there ever any mention made saving
only in that Law which God himself hath from Heaven revealed?  There is
not in the world a syllable muttered with certain truth concerning any of
these three, more than hath been supernaturally received from the mouth
of the eternal God.”  Howsoever they came to us, we have the words; they,
and many other terms of tremendous import, are bandied about from mouth
to mouth and alternately enriched or impoverished in meaning.  Is the
“Charity” of St. Paul’s Epistle one with the charity of
“charity-blankets”?  Are the “crusades” of Godfrey and of the great St.
Louis, where knightly achievement did homage to the religious temper,
essentially the same as that process of harrying the wretched and the
outcast for which the muddle-headed, greasy citizen of to-day invokes the
same high name?  Of a truth, some kingly words fall to a lower estate
than Nebuchadnezzar.

Here, among words, our lot is cast, to make or mar.  It is in this
obscure thicket, overgrown with weeds, set with thorns, and haunted by
shadows, this World of Words, as the Elizabethans finely called it, that
we wander, eternal pioneers, during the course of our mortal lives.  To
be overtaken by a master, one who comes along with the gaiety of assured
skill and courage, with the gravity of unflinching purpose, to make the
crooked ways straight and the rough places plain, is to gain fresh
confidence from despair.  He twines wreaths of the entangling ivy, and
builds ramparts of the thorns.  He blazes his mark upon the secular oaks,
as a guidance to later travellers, and coaxes flame from heaps of
mouldering rubbish.  There is no sense of cheer like this.  Sincerity,
clarity, candour, power, seem real once more, real and easy.  In the
light of great literary achievement, straight and wonderful, like the
roads of the ancient Romans, barbarism torments the mind like a riddle.
Yet there are the dusky barbarians!—fleeing from the harmonious tread of
the ordered legions, running to hide themselves in the morass of vulgar
sentiment, to ambush their nakedness in the sand-pits of low thought.

                                * * * * *

It is a venerable custom to knit up the speculative consideration of any
subject with the counsels of practical wisdom.  The words of this essay
have been vain indeed if the idea that style may be imparted by tuition
has eluded them, and survived.  There is a useful art of Grammar, which
takes for its province the right and the wrong in speech.  Style deals
only with what is permissible to all, and even revokes, on occasion, the
rigid laws of Grammar or countenances offences against them.  Yet no one
is a better judge of equity for ignorance of the law, and grammatical
practice offers a fair field wherein to acquire ease, accuracy and
versatility.  The formation of sentences, the sequence of verbs, the
marshalling of the ranks of auxiliaries are all, in a sense, to be
learned.  There is a kind of inarticulate disorder to which writers are
liable, quite distinct from a bad style, and caused chiefly by lack of
exercise.  An unpractised writer will sometimes send a beautiful and
powerful phrase jostling along in the midst of a clumsy sentence—like a
crowned king escorted by a mob.

But Style cannot be taught.  Imitation of the masters, or of some one
chosen master, and the constant purging of language by a severe
criticism, have their uses, not to be belittled; they have also their
dangers.  The greater part of what is called the teaching of style must
always be negative, bad habits may be broken down, old malpractices
prohibited.  The pillory and the stocks are hardly educational agents,
but they make it easier for honest men to enjoy their own.  If style
could really be taught, it is a question whether its teachers should not
be regarded as mischief-makers and enemies of mankind.  The Rosicrucians
professed to have found the philosopher’s stone, and the shadowy sages of
modern Thibet are said, by those who speak for them, to have compassed
the instantaneous transference of bodies from place to place.  In either
case, the holders of these secrets have laudably refused to publish them,
lest avarice and malice should run amuck in human society.  A similar
fear might well visit the conscience of one who should dream that he had
divulged to the world at large what can be done with language.  Of this
there is no danger; rhetoric, it is true, does put fluency, emphasis, and
other warlike equipments at the disposal of evil forces, but style, like
the Christian religion, is one of those open secrets which are most
easily and most effectively kept by the initiate from age to age.
Divination is the only means of access to these mysteries.  The formal
attempt to impart a good style is like the melancholy task of the teacher
of gesture and oratory; some palpable faults are soon corrected; and, for
the rest, a few conspicuous mannerisms, a few theatrical postures, not
truly expressive, and a high tragical strut, are all that can be
imparted.  The truth of the old Roman teachers of rhetoric is here
witnessed afresh, to be a good orator it is first of all necessary to be
a good man.  Good style is the greatest of revealers,—it lays bare the
soul.  The soul of the cheat shuns nothing so much.  “Always be ready to
speak your minds” said Blake, “and a base man will avoid you.”  But to
insist that he also shall speak his mind is to go a step further, it is
to take from the impostor his wooden leg, to prohibit his lucrative
whine, his mumping and his canting, to force the poor silly soul to stand
erect among its fellows and declare itself.  His occupation is gone, and
he does not love the censor who deprives him of the weapons of his

All style is gesture, the gesture of the mind and of the soul.  Mind we
have in common, inasmuch as the laws of right reason are not different
for different minds.  Therefore clearness and arrangement can be taught,
sheer incompetence in the art of expression can be partly remedied.  But
who shall impose laws upon the soul?  It is thus of common note that one
may dislike or even hate a particular style while admiring its facility,
its strength, its skilful adaptation to the matter set forth.  Milton, a
chaster and more unerring master of the art than Shakespeare, reveals no
such lovable personality.  While persons count for much, style, the index
to persons, can never count for little.  “Speak,” it has been said, “that
I may know you”—voice-gesture is more than feature.  Write, and after you
have attained to some control over the instrument, you write yourself
down whether you will or no.  There is no vice, however unconscious, no
virtue, however shy, no touch of meanness or of generosity in your
character, that will not pass on to the paper.  You anticipate the Day of
Judgment and furnish the recording angel with material.  The Art of
Criticism in literature, so often decried and given a subordinate place
among the arts, is none other than the art of reading and interpreting
these written evidences.  Criticism has been popularly opposed to
creation, perhaps because the kind of creation that it attempts is rarely
achieved, and so the world forgets that the main business of Criticism,
after all, is not to legislate, nor to classify, but to raise the dead.
Graves, at its command, have waked their sleepers, oped, and let them
forth.  It is by the creative power of this art that the living man is
reconstructed from the litter of blurred and fragmentary paper documents
that he has left to posterity.

                                * * * * *

                                 THE END

                                * * * * *

             _Printed by_ R. & R. CLARK, LIMITED, _Edinburgh_

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