The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study, by Sherwin Cody is part of HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here.
CHAPTER XI. THE POWER OF SIMPLICITY
The Bible, Franklin, Lincoln.
We have all heard that the simplest style is the strongest; and no doubt most of us have wondered how this could be, as we turned over in our minds examples of what seemed to us simplicity, comparing them with the rhetorical, the lofty, and the sublime passages we could call to mind.
Precisely this wonder was in the minds of a number of very well educated people who gathered to attend the dedicatory exercises of the Gettysburg monument, and Abraham Lincoln gave them one of the very finest illustrations in the whole range of the world's history, of how simplicity can be stronger than rhetoric. Edward Everett was the orator of the day, and he delivered a most polished and brilliant oration. When he sat down the friends of Lincoln regretted that this homely countryman was to be asked to “say a few words,” since they felt that whatever he might say would be a decided anticlimax. The few words that he did utter are the immortal “Gettysburg speech,” by far the shortest great oration on record. Edward Everett afterward remarked, “I wish I could have produced in two hours the effect that Lincoln produced in two minutes.” The tremendous effect of that speech could have been produced in no other way than by the power of simplicity, which permits the compression of more thought into a few words than any other style-form. All rhetoric is more or less windy. The quality of a simple style is that in order to be anything at all it must be solid metal all the way through.
The Bible, the greatest literary production in the world as atheists and Christians alike admit, is our supreme example of the wonderful power of simplicity, and it more than any other one book has served to mould the style of great writers. To take a purely literary passage, what could be more affecting, yet more simple, than these words from Ecclesiastes?
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them; while the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain: In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened; and the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low; also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshoppers shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
This is the sort of barbaric poetry that man in his natural and original state might be supposed to utter. It lacks the nice logic and fine polish of Greek culture; indeed its grammar is somewhat confused. But there is a higher logic than the logic of grammar, namely the logic of life and suffering. The man who wrote this passage had put a year of his existence into every phrase; and that is why it happens that we can find here more phrases quoted by everybody than we can even in the best passage of similar length in Shakspere or any other modern writer.
We see in proverbs how by the power of simplicity an enormous amount of thought can be packed into a single line. Some of these have taken thousands of years to grow; and because so much time is required in the making of them, our facile modern writers never produce any. Their fleeting epigrams appear to be spurious coin the moment they are placed side by side with Franklin's epigrams, for instance. Franklin worked his proverbs into the vacant spaces in his almanac during a period of twenty-five years, and then collected all those proverbs into a short paper entitled, “The Way to Wealth.” It may be added, also, that he did not even originate most of these sayings, but only gave a new stamp to what he found in Hindu and Arabic records. For all that, Poor Richard's Almanac is more likely to become immortal than even Franklin's own name and fame.
The history of Bacon's essays is another fine example of what simplicity can effect in the way of greatness. These essays were originally nothing more than single sentences jotted down in a notebook, probably as an aid to conversation. How many times they were worked over we have no means of knowing; but we have three printed editions of the essays, each of which is immensely developed from what went before.
In reading the following lines from Franklin, let us reflect that not less than a year went to the writing of every phrase that can be called great; and that if we could spend a year in writing a single sentence, it might be as well worth preserving as these proverbs. Some men have been made famous by one sentence, usually because it somehow expressed the substance of a lifetime.
From “Poor Richard's Almanac.”
Father Abraham stood up and replied, “If you would have my advice, I will give it you in short; for a word to the wise is enough, and essay words won't fill a bushel, as POOR RICHARD says.”
They all joined him and desired him to speak his mind; and gathering them around him, he proceeded as follows:
Friends, says he, and neighbors! The taxes are indeed very heavy; and if those laid on by the Government were the only ones we had to pay, we might the more easily discharge them; but we have many others, and much more grievous to some of us. We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our Pride, and four times as much by our Folly; and from these taxes the Commissioners cannot ease or deliver us by allowing an abatement. However, let us hearken to good advice, and something may be done for us, God helps them that helps themselves, as POOR RICHARD says in his Almanac of 1733. It would be thought a hard government that should tax its people one tenth part of their time, to be employed in its service. But idleness taxes many of us much more; if we reckon all that is spent in absolute sloth, or doing of nothing; with that which is spent in idle employments or amusements that amounts to nothing. Sloth, by bringing on disease, absolutely shortens life. Sloth, like Rust, consumes faster than Labor wean; while the used keg is always bright, as POOR RICHARD says. But dost thou love Life? Then do not squander time! for that's the stuff Life is made of, as POOR RICHARD says.
How much more time than is necessary do we spend in sleep? forgetting that the sleeping fox catches no poultry; and that there will be sleeping enough in the grave, as POOR RICHARD says.
If Time be of all things the most precious, wasting of Time must be (as POOR RICHARD says) the greatest prodigality; and since, as he elsewhere tells us, Lost time is never found again; and what we call Time enough! always proves little enough, let us then up and be doing, and doing to the purpose: so, by diligence, shall we do more with less perplexity. Sloth makes all things difficult, but Industry all things easy, as POOR RICHARD says: and He that riseth late, must trot all day; and shall scarce overtake his business at night. While Laziness travels so slowly, that Poverty soon over-takes him, as we read in POOR RICHARD who adds, Drive thy business! Let not that drive thee! and Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
As Franklin extracted these sayings one by one out of the Arabic and other sources, in each case giving the phrases a new turn, and as Bacon jotted down in his notebook every witty word he heard, so we will make reputations for ourselves if we are always picking up the good things of others and using them whenever we can.
THE GETTYSBURG SPEECH
By Abraham Lincoln.
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we, say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,―that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,―that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,―that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,―and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
About HackerNoon Book Series: We bring you the most important technical, scientific, and insightful public domain books. This book is part of the public domain.
Cody, Sherwin, 2007. The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/19719/pg19719-images.html
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org, located at https://www.gutenberg.org/policy/license.html.