The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study, by Sherwin Cody is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here.
CHAPTER VI. THE RHETORICAL, IMPASSIONED AND LOFTY STYLES:
Macaulay and De Quincey. The familiar style of the humorist is almost universal in its availability. It is the style of conversation, to a great extent―at least of the best conversation,―of letter-writing, of essay-writing, and, in large part, of fiction. But there are moments when a different and more, hard and artificial style is required. These moments are few, and many people never have them at all. Some people try to have them and thereby fall into the fault of “fine writing.” But it is certainly very important that when the great moment comes we should be prepared for it. Then a lofty and more or less artificial style is demanded as imperatively as the key-stone of an arch when the arch is completed except for the key-stone. Without the ability to write one lofty sentence, all else that we have said may completely fail of its effect, however excellent in itself.
There are three kinds of prose which may be used on such occasions as we have described. The lowest and most common of these, as it is the most artificial and most easily acquired, is the rhetorical, or oratorical, style, the style of all orators, the style which is called eloquence. Of course we may find specimens of it in actual oratory, but it is best illustrated in its use for written compositions in Macaulay. The next variety, more rarely used, was especially developed if not actually invented by De Quincey and was called by him impassioned prose.
It would seem at first that language could go no higher; but it does mount a little higher simply by trying to do less, and we have loftiness in its plain simplicity, as when man stands bareheaded and humble in the presence of God alone.
Macaulay's style is highly artificial, but its rotundity, its movement, its impressive sweep have made it popular. Almost any one can acquire some of its features; but the ease with which it is acquired makes it dangerous in a high degree, for the writer becomes fascinated with it and uses it far too often. It is true that Macaulay used it practically all the time; but it is very doubtful it Macaulay would have succeeded so well with it to-day, when the power of simplicity is so much better understood.
De Quincey's “impassioned prose” was an attempt on his part to imitate the effects of poetry in prose. Without doubt he succeeded wonderfully; but the art is so difficult that no one else has equalled him and prose of the kind that he wrote is not often written. Still, it is worth while to try to catch some of his skill. He began to write this kind of composition in “The Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” but he reached perfection only in some compositions intended as sequels to that book, namely, “Suspiria de Profundis,” and “The English Mail Coach,” with its “Vision of Sudden Death,” and “Dream-Fugue” upon the theme of sudden death.
What we should strive for above all is the mighty effect of simple and bare loftiness of thought. Masters of this style have not been few, and they seem to slip into it with a sudden and easy upward sweep that can be compared to nothing so truly as to the upward flight of an eagle. They mount because their spirits are lofty. No one who has not a lofty thought has any occasion to write the lofty style; and such a person will usually succeed best by paying very little attention to the manner when he actually comes to write of high ideas. Still, the lofty style should be studied and mastered like any other.
It is to be noted that all these styles are applicable chiefly if not altogether to description. Narration may become intense at times, but its intensity demands no especial alteration of style. Dialogue, too, may be lofty, but only in dramas of passion, and very few people are called upon to write these. But it is often necessary to indicate a loftier, a more serious atmosphere, and this is effected by description of surrounding details in an elevated manner.
One of the most natural, simple, and graceful of lofty descriptions may be found in Ruskin's “King of the Golden River,” Chapter III, where he pictures the mountain scenery:
It was, indeed, a morning that might have made any one happy, even with no Golden River to seek for. Level lines of dewy mist lay stretched along the valley, out of which rose the massy mountains,―their lower cliffs in pale gray shadow, hardly distinguishable from the floating vapor, but gradually ascending till they caught the sunlight, which ran in sharp touches of ruddy color along the angular crags, and pierced in long, level rays, through their fringes of spear-like Pine. Far above, shot up splintered masses of castellated rock, jagged and shivered into myriads of fantastic forms, with here and there a streak of sunlit snow, traced down their chasms like a line of forked lightning; and, far beyond, and far above all these, fainter than the morning cloud, but purer and changeless, slept in the blue sky, the utmost peaks of the eternal snow.
If we ask how this loftiness is attained, the reply must be, first, that the subject is lofty and deserving of lofty description. Indeed, the description never has a right to be loftier than the subject. Then, examining this passage in detail, we find that the words are all dignified, and in their very sound they are lofty, as for instance “massy,” “myriads,” “castellated,” “angular crags.” The very sound of the words seems to correspond to the idea. Notice the repetition of the letter i in “Level lines of dewy mist lay stretched along the valley.” This repetition of a letter is called alliteration, and here it serves to suggest in and of itself the idea of the level. The same effect is produced again in “streak of sunlit snow” with the repetition of s. The entire passage is filled with alliteration, but it is used so naturally that you would never think of it unless your attention were called to it.
Next, we note that the structure rises gradually but steadily upward.
We never jump to loftiness, and always find it necessary to climb there.
“Jumping to loftiness” is like trying to lift oneself by one's boot-straps: it is very ridiculous to all who behold it. Ruskin begins with a very ordinary sentence. He says it was a fine morning, just as any one might say it. But the next sentence starts suddenly upward from the dead level, and to the end of the paragraph we rise, terrace on terrace, by splendid sweeps and jagged cliffs, till at the end we reach “the eternal snow.”
The study of the following selections from Macaulay and De Quincey may be conducted on a plan a trifle different from that heretofore employed.
The present writer spent two hours each day for two weeks reading this passage from Macaulay over and over: then he wrote a short essay on “Macaulay as a Model of Style,” trying to describe Macaulay's style as forcibly and skillfully as Macaulay describes the Puritans. The resulting paper did not appear to be an imitation of Macaulay, but it had many of the strong features of Macaulay's style which had not appeared in previous work. The same method was followed in the study of De Quincey's “English Mail Coach,” with even better results. The great difficulty arose from the fact that these lofty styles were learned only too well and were not counterbalanced by the study of other and more universally useful styles. It is dangerous to become fascinated with the lofty style, highly useful as it is on occasion.
If the student does not feel that he is able to succeed by the method of study just described, let him confine himself to more direct imitation, following out Franklin's plan.
(From the essay on Milton.)
By T. B. Macaulay.
We would speak first of the Puritans, the most remarkable body of men, perhaps, which the world has ever produced. The odious and ridiculous parts of their character lie on the surface. He that runs may read them; nor have there been wanting attentive and malicious observers to point them out. For many years after the Restoration, they were the theme of unmeasured invective and derision. They were exposed to the utmost licentiousness of the press and of the stage, when the press and the stage were most licentious. They were not men of letters; they were, as a body, unpopular; they could not defend themselves; and the public would not take them under its protection. They were therefore abandoned, without reserve, to the tender mercies of the satirists and dramatists. The ostentatious simplicity of their dress, their sour aspect, their nasal twang, their stiff posture, their long graces, their Hebrew names, the Scriptural phrases which they introduced on every occasion, their contempt of human learning, their destestation of polite amusements, were indeed fair game for the laughers. But it is not from the laughers alone that the philosophy of history is to be learnt. And he who approaches this subject should carefully guard against the influence of that potent ridicule which has already misled so many excellent writers.
. . . . . . . .
Those who roused the people to resistance, who directed their measures through a long series of eventful years, who formed out of the most unpromising materials, the finest army that Europe has ever seen, who trampled down King, Church, and Aristocracy, who, in the short intervals of domestic sedition and rebellion, made the name of England terrible to every nation on the face of the earth, were no vulgar fanatics. Most of their absurdities were mere external badges, like the signs of freemasonry, or the dress of the friars. We regret that these badges were not more attractive. We regret that a body to whose courage and talents mankind has owed inestimable obligations had not the lofty elegance which distinguished some of the adherents of Charles the First, or the easy good-breeding for which the court of Charles the Second was celebrated. But, if we must make our choice, we shall, like Bassanio in the play, turn from the specious caskets which contain only the Death's head and the Fool's head and fix on the plain leaden chest which conceals the treasure.
The Puritans were men whose minds had derived a peculiar character from the daily contemplation of superior beings and eternal interests. Not content with acknowledging in general terms an overruling Providence, they habitually ascribed every event to the will of the Great Being, for whose power nothing was too vast, for whose inspection nothing was too minute. To know him, to serve him, to enjoy him, was with them the great end of existence. They rejected with contempt the ceremonious homage which other sects substituted for the pure worship of the soul. Instead of catching occasional glimpses of the Deity through an obscuring veil, they aspired to gaze full on his intolerable brightness, and to commune with him face to face. Hence originated their contempt for terrestrial distinctions. The difference between the greatest and the meanest of mankind seemed to vanish, when compared with the boundless intervals which separated the whole race from him on whom their eyes were constantly fixed. They recognized no title to superiority but his favor; and, confident of that favor, they despised all the accomplishments and all the dignities of the world. If they were unacquainted with the works of philosophers and poets, they were deeply read in the oracles of God. If their names were not found in the registers of heralds, they were recorded in the Book of Life. If their steps were not accompanied by a splendid train of menials, legions of ministering angels had charge over them. Their palaces were houses not made with hands; their diadems crowns of glory which should never fade away. On the rich and the eloquent, on nobles and priests, they looked down with contempt: for they esteemed themselves rich in a more precious treasure, and eloquent in a more sublime language, nobles' by the right of an earlier creation, and priests by the imposition of a mightier hand. The very meanest of them was a being to whose fate a mysterious and terrible importance belonged, on whose slightest action the spirits of light and darkness looked with anxious interest, who had been destined, before heaven and earth were created, to enjoy a felicity which should continue when heaven and earth should have passed away. Events which shortsighted politicians ascribed to earthly causes, had been ordained on his account. For his sake empires had risen, and flourished, and decayed. For his sake the Almighty had proclaimed his will by the pen of the Evangelist, and the harp of the prophet. He had been wrested by no common deliverer from the grasp of no common foe. He had been ransomed by the sweat of no vulgar agony, by the blood of no earthly sacrifice. It was for him that the sun had been darkened, that the rocks had been rent, that the dead had risen, that all nature had shuddered at the suffering of her expiring God.
Thus the Puritans were made up of two different men, the one all self-abasement, penitence, gratitude, passion, the other proud, calm, inflexible, sagacious. He prostrated himself in the dust before his Maker: but he set his foot on the neck of his king. In his devotional retirement, he prayed with convulsions, and groans, and tears. He was half maddened by glorious or terrible illusions. He heard the lyres of angels or the tempting whispers of fiends. He caught a gleam of the Beatific Vision, or woke screaming from dreams of everlasting fire. Like Vane, he thought himself intrusted with the sceptre of the millienial year. Like Fleetwood he cried in the bitterness of his soul that God had hid his face from him. But when he took his seat in the council, or girt on his sword for war, these tempestuous works of the soul had left no perceptible trace behind them.
People who saw nothing of the godly but their uncouth visages, and heard nothing from them but their groans and their whining hymns, might laugh at them. But those had little reason to laugh who encountered them in the hall of debate or in the field of battle. These fanatics brought to civil affairs a coolness of judgment and an immutability of purpose which some writers have thought inconsistent with their religious zeal, but which were in fact the necessary effects of it. The intensity of their feelings on one subject made them tranquil on every other. One overpowering sentiment had subjected to itself pity and hatred, ambition and fear. Death had lost its terrors, and pleasure its charms.
They had their smiles and their tears, their raptures and their sorrows, but not for the things of this world. Enthusiasm had made them Stoics, had cleared their minds from every vulgar passion and prejudice, and raised them above the influence of danger and of corruption. It sometimes might lead them to pursue unwise ends, but never to choose unwise means. They went through the world like Sir Artegal's iron man Talus with his flail, crushing and trampling down oppressors, mingling with human beings, but having neither part nor lot in human infirmities, insensible to fatigue, to pleasure, and to pain, not to be pierced by any weapon, not to be withstood by aһ barrier.
Such we believe to have been the character of the Puritans. We perceive the absurdity of their manners. We dislike the sullen gloom of their domestic habits. We acknowledge that the tone of their minds was often injured by straining after things too high for mortal reach: and we know that, in spite of their hatred of Popery, they too often fell into the worst vices of that bad system, intolerance and extravagant austerity, that they had their anchorites and their crusades, their Dunstans and their De Montforts, their Dominics and their Escobars. Yet, when all circumstances are taken into consideration, we do not hesitate to pronounce them a brave, a wise, an honest, and a useful body.
The most casual examination of Macaulay's style shows us that the words, the sentences, and the paragraphs are all arranged in rows, one on this side, one on that, a column here, another just like it over there, a whole row of columns above this window, and a whole row of columns above that window, just as bricks are built up in geometrical design. Almost every word contains an antithesis. The whole constitutes what is called the balanced structure.
We see also that Macaulay frequently repeats the same word again and again, and the repetition gives strength. Indeed, repetition is necessary to make this balanced structure: there must always be so much likeness and so much unlikeness―and the likeness and unlikeness must just balance.
We have shown the utility of variation: Macaulay shows the force there is in monotony, in repetition. In one sentence after another through an entire paragraph he repeats the same thing over and over and over. There is no rising by step after step to something higher in Macaulay: everything is on the dead level; but it is a powerful, heroic level.
The first words repeated and contrasted are press and stage. The sentence containing these words is balanced nicely. In the following sentence we have four short sentences united into one, and the first clause contrasts with the second and the third with the fourth. The sentence beginning “The ostentatious simplicity of their dress” gives us a whole series of subjects, all resting on a single short predicate―“were fair game for the laughers.” The next sentence catches up the, word “laughers” and plays upon it.
In the second paragraph we have as subject “those” followed by a whole series of relative clauses beginning with “who,” and this series again rests on a very short predicate―“were no vulgar fanatics.”
And so on through the entire description, we find series after series, contrast after contrast; now it is a dozen words all in the same construction, now a number of sentences all beginning in the same way and ending in the same way.
The first paragraph takes up the subject of the contrast of those who laughed and those who were laughed at. The second paragraph enlarges upon good points in the objects of the examination. The third paragraph describes their minds, and we perceive that Macaulay has all along been leading into this by his series of contrasts. In the fourth paragraph he brings the two sides into the closest possible relations, so that the contrast reaches its height. The last short paragraph sums up the facts.
This style, though highly artificial, is highly useful when used in moderation. It is unfortunate that Macaulay uses it so constantly. When he cannot find contrasts he sometimes makes them, and to make them he distorts the truth. Besides, he wearies us by keeping us too monotonously on a high dead level. In time we come to feel that he is making contrasts merely because he has a passion for making them, not because they serve any purpose. But for one who wishes to learn this style, no better model can be found in the English language.
On the Theme of Sudden Death.*
By Thomas De Quincey.
*“The English Mail-Coach” consists of three sections, “The Glory of Motion,” “vision of Sudden Death,” and “Dream-Fugue.” De Quincey describes riding on the top of a heavy mail-coach. In the dead of night they pass a young couple in a light gig, and the heavy mail-coach just escapes shattering the light gig and perhaps killing the young occupants. De Quincey develops his sensations in witnessing this “vision of sudden death,” and rises step by step to the majestic beauty and poetic passion of the dream-fugue.
“Whence the sound
Of instruments, that made melodious chime,
Was heard, of harp and organ; and who moved
Their stops and chords, was seen; his volant touch
Instinct through all proportions, low and high,
Fled and pursued transverse the resonant fugue.”
Paradise Lost, Book XI.
Passion of sudden death! that once in youth I read and interpreted by the shadows of thy averted signs!―rapture of panic taking the shape (which amongst tombs in churches I have seen) of woman bursting her selpuchral bonds―of woman's ionic form bending forward from the ruins of her grave with arching foot, with eyes upraised, with clasped, adoring hands―waiting, watching, trembling, praying for the trumpet's call to rise from dust forever! Ah, vision too fearful of shuddering humanity on the brink of mighty abysses!―vision that didst start back, that didst reel away, like a shivering scroll before the wrath of fire racing on the wings of the wind! Epilepsy so brief of horror, wherefore is it that thou canst not die? Passing so suddenly into darkness, wherefore is it that still thou sheddest thy sad funeral blights upon the gorgeous mosaic of dreams? Fragments of music too passionate, heard once and heard no more, what aileth thee, that thy deep rolling chords come up at intervals through all the worlds of sleep, and after forty years, have lost no element of horror?
Lo, it is summer―almighty summer! The everlasting gates of life and summer are thrown open wide; and on the ocean tranquil and verdant as a savannah, the unknown lady from the dreadful vision and I myself are floating―she upon a fairy pinnace, and I upon an English three-decker.
Both of us are wooing gales of festive happiness within the domain of our common country, within that ancient watery park, within that pathless chase of ocean, where England takes her pleasure as a huntress through winter and summer, from the rising to the setting sun. Ah, what a wilderness of floral beauty was hidden, or was suddenly revealed, upon the tropic islands through which the pinnace moved! And upon her deck what a bevy of human flowers―young women how lovely, young men bow noble, that were dancing together, and slowly drifting toward us amidst music and incense, amidst blossoms from forests and gorgeous corymbi from vintages, amidst natural carolling, and the echoes of sweet girlish laughter. Slowly the pinnace nears us, gaily she hails us, and silently she disappears beneath the shadow of our mighty bows. But then, as at some signal from heaven, the music, and the carols, and the sweet echoing of girlish laughter,―all are hushed. What evil has smitten the pinnace, meeting or overtaking her? Did ruin to our friends couch within our own dreadful shadow? Was our shadow the shadow of death? I looked over the bow for an answer, and, behold! the pinnace was dismantled; the revel and the revellers were found no more; the glory of the vintage was dust; and the forests with their beauty were left without a witness upon the seas. “But where,” and I turned to our crew― “where are the lovely women that danced beneath the awning of flowers and clustering corynibi? Whither have fled the noble young men that danced with them?” Answer there was none. But suddenly the man at the masthead, whose countenance darkened with alarm, cried out, “Sail on the weather beam! Down she comes upon us; in seventy seconds she also will founder,”
I looked to the weather side, and the summer had departed. The sea was rocking, and shaking with gathering wrath. Upon its surface sat mighty mists, which grouped themselves into arches and long cathedral aisles. Down one of these, with the fiery pace of a quarrel from a crossbow, ran a frigate right athwart our course. “Are they mad?” some voice exclaimed from our deck. “Do they woo their ruin?” But in a moment, as she was close upon us, some impulse of a heady current or local vortex gave a wheeling bias to her course, and off she forged without a shock. As she ran past us, high aloft amongst the shrouds stood the lady of the pinnace. The deeps in malice opened ahead to receive her, the billows were fierce to catch her. But far away she was borne upon the desert spaces of the sea: whilst still by sight I followed her, she ran before the howling gale, chased by angry sea-birds and by maddening billows: still I saw her, as at the moment when she ran past us, standing amongst the shrouds, with her white draperies streaming before the wind. There she stood, with hair dishevelled, one hand clutched amongst the tackling―rising, sinking, fluttering, trembling, praying―there for leagues I saw her as she stood, raising at intervals one hand to heaven, amidst the fiery crests of the pursuing waves and the raving of the storm; until at last, upon a sound from afar of malicious laughter and mockery, all was hidden forever in driving showers; and afterwards, but when I know not, nor how.
De Quincey's “Dream-Fugue” is as luxuriant and extravagant a use of metaphor as Macaulay's “Puritans” is of the use of antithesis and the balanced structure. The whole thing is a metaphor, and every part is a metaphor within a metaphor.
This is much more than mere fine writing. It is a metaphorical representation of the incident he has previously described. In that incident he was particular struck by the actions of the lady. The young man turned his horse out of the path of the coach, but some part of the coach struck one of the wheels of the gig, and as it did so, the lady involuntarily started up, throwing up her arms, and at once sank back as in a faint. De Quincey did not see her face, and hence he speaks in this description of “averted signs?” The “woman bursting her sepulchral bonds” probably refers to a tomb in Westminster Abbey which represents a woman escaping from the door of the tomb, and Death, a skeleton, is just behind her, but too late to catch her “arching foot” as she flies upward―presumably as a spirit.
So every image corresponds to a reality, either in the facts or in De Quincey's emotion at the sight of them. The novice fails in such writing as this because he becomes enamored of his beautiful images and forgets what he is trying to illustrate. The relation between reality and image should be as invariable as mathematics. If such startling images cannot be used with perfect clearness and vivid perception of their usefulness and value, they should not be used at all. De Quincey is so successful because his mind comprehends every detail of the scene, and through the images we see the bottom truth as through a perfect crystal. A clouded diamond is no more ruined by its cloudiness than a clouded metaphor.
As in Ruskin's description of the mountain, we see in this the value of the sounds of words, and how they seem to make music in themselves. A Word lacking in dignity in the very least would have ruined the whole picture, and so would a word whose rotund sound did not correspond to the loftiness of the passage. Perhaps the only word that jars is “English three-decker”―but the language apparently afforded De Quincey no substitute which would make his meaning clear.
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