Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/January 1878/Style

For works with similar titles, see Style.



A RECENT historian of Rome, toward the close of his famous attempt to undeceive the world at large with respect to the genius of Cicero, sums up his argument in the following words: "Ciceronianism is a problem which, in fact, cannot be properly solved, but can only be resolved into that greater mystery of human nature—language, and the effect of language on the mind."

These words are suggestive—suggestive, too, of a wider question than at first sight appears. That men are influenced by language at least as much as by ideas; that power of expression is intimately associated with mental grasp generally; even that a fascination is exercised by style to which nothing equivalent is found in the accompanying thought—these are acknowledged truths, readily granted. But it is a most singular thing that they are so readily granted; it is singular that the question is not oftener asked, "Why is this so?"

How is it that language, which is but the vehicle of thought, comes to have a force which is not the mere weight of that which it carries? Even where this is not the case, where there is an equivalence of value in both style and ideas, great conceptions being nobly expressed, how is it that the matter and the form seem to have independent claims upon the attention? In a word, what is that in language which is not mere expressiveness of the obvious intentions of the writer, but is yet a merit?

At first sight there appears to be a simple answer to the question. Any of the numerous treatises on style or rhetoric abound with rules for the embellishment of discourse: the reader learns the importance of a choice of fitting words, of the judicious use of figures of speech, of the effect of melodious sentences and suitable cadences; he is instructed in the manipulation of complex constructions, and discovers the force of the gradation, the antithesis and the climax; in short, he is easily led to the conclusion that, besides expressiveness, language may have the merit of beauty.

That this distinction is a superficial one has been shown with great ability in an article by Mr. Herbert Spencer, on the "Philosophy of Style."[1] He there traces all excellence of composition to two principles—Economy of the Attention, and Economy of the Sensibility of the recipient. Assuming that a reader can have at his command only a definite amount of power of attention, it is clear that whatever part of this is employed on the form of a composition must be subtracted, and leave so much the less to be occupied in the matter. In its popular aspect this is a truth familiar to all. If any author is said to have an obscure style, it is meant that his form obstructs his matter; that it absorbs an inordinate amount of the reader's attention. If he is tedious, it is because his language, by its monotony or redundancy, exhausts our energies, and leaves us correspondingly deficient in the mental vigor to be devoted to what he has to say.

But Mr. Spencer pushes his theory yet further. He shows, with great ingenuity, how various ornaments of style, at first sight most remote from mere utility, are in reality but devices of language which subserve the same purpose of economizing attention. Thus the canon which prefers words of Saxon to words of Latin origin, is justified by the greater familiarity of the former, recalling the associations of childhood, and their comparative brevity, which adds to their force what it diminishes from the effort required to recognize them. On the other hand, the occasional effect of polysyllabic words is attributed to their associated significance; for the effort involved in deciphering or using them, by hinting at a corresponding weightiness in the things implied, gives a force to an epithet which may do for a sentence. The same principle which explains the rules for choice of words is also found adequate to the solution of the reasons why some one order of words is more effective than another; why certain sequences of sentences are better than others; what are the respective merits of the direct and indirect style, and so forth. Then follows an analysis of the various figures of speech—metaphor, simile, and the like—in which their amenableness to the same law is established; and, finally, the applicability of the theory, even to the complex imagery of the poet, is exhibited in a passage which it would be an injustice to the writer not to quote at length:

"Passing on to a more complex application of the doctrine with which we set out, it must now be remarked that not only in the structure of sentences, and the use of figures of speech, may economy of the recipient's mental energy be assigned as the cause of force; but that in the choice and arrangement of the minor images, out of which some large thought is to be built up, we may trace the same condition to effect. To select from the sentiment, scene, or event described, those typical elements which carry many others along with them; and so, by saying a few things, but suggesting many, to abridge the description, is the secret of producing a vivid impression. An extract from Tennyson's 'Mariana' will well illustrate this:

'All day within the dreamy house
The door upon the hinges creaked,
The blue-fly sung i' the pane, the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shrieked,
Or from the crevice peered about.'

The several circumstances here specified bring with them many appropriate associations. Our attention is rarely drawn by the buzzing of a fly in the window, save when everything is still. While the inmates are moving about the house, mice usually keep silence; and it is only when extreme quietness reigns that they peep from their retreats. Hence, each of the facts mentioned, presupposing numerous others, calls up these with more or less distinctness, and revives the feeling of dull solitude with which they are connected in our experience. Were all these facts detailed, instead of suggested, the attention would be so frittered away that little impression of dreariness would be produced. Similarly in other cases. Whatever the nature of the thought to be conveyed, this skillful selection of a few particulars which imply the rest is the key to success. In the choice of competent ideas, as in the choice of expressions, the aim must be to convey the greatest quantity of thoughts with the smallest quantity of words."[2]

But Mr. Spencer does not rest content with deducing what may be called the adventitious charms of poetry from this principle; he even thinks that its distinctive characteristic—the restrictions of metre—may be explained by the same law. "The pleasure," he says, "which its measured movement gives us is ascribable to the comparative ease with which words metrically arranged can be recognized."[3] Most people will be startled at the first sight of this bold dictum, but Mr. Spencer is not the man to shrink from the logical consequences of his principles, and they lead to more than this.

Any one who has attentively read the article, or even the brief résumé, of it just given, will have seen that the theory furnishes a canon for determining, with some degree of certainty, which of two styles is the better. To quote again: "The relative goodness of any two modes of expressing an idea may be determined by observing which requires the shortest process of thought for its comprehension."[4]

Clearly, then, there must, in every case, be some form of expression which is absolutely the best; in other words, there is such a thing as an ideal style. Mr. Spencer accepts the conclusion, but at the same time reminds us that style must vary with its subject-matter.

"The perfect writer will express himself as Junius, when in the Junius frame of mind; when he feels as Lamb felt, will use a like familiar speech; and will fall into the ruggedness of Carlyle when in a Carlylean mood."[5]

The reservation is a proper one, and with it the argument seems unimpeachable. Yet when Mr. Spencer throws the conclusion into the form of an epigram, and tells us that "to have a specific style is to be poor in speech,"[6] he makes the utmost possible demand upon our loyalty to exact reasoning. Like Adeimantus in "The Republic," we are "confounded by this novel kind of draughtsplaying, played with words for counters."

But if the foregoing theory be carefully reviewed, it will be seen that throughout it the treatment is what may be described as objective rather than subjective. Or, to avoid words in which there is a degree of ambiguity, the definite product language is more or less isolated from the agency using it, and viewed more in relation to the reader's than the writer's mind. But there is another aspect of the relation, which cannot be left out without producing a result which must be one-sided, and may be inaccurate. The following pages will be an attempt to supply this omission by a consideration of the nature of the various devices of language, regarded as the outcome of the mind that employs them.

That "to have a specific style is to be poor in speech" has not been implied in the judgments which the world has from time to time passed upon its greatest writers. Perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that much in proportion as an author has reached a high eminence in his art, there has been found in his productions a corresponding tendency to an individuality of expression. Is it not a common complaint against inferior artists, whether in prose or verse, in painting or music, that their compositions lack character and originality? Uniformity is the distinguishing feature of mediocrity, while the work of genius is at once recognized and attributed to the origin whose impress it bears. And a little reflection will show that this is exactly what is meant by "style." Various tricks of voice, gesture, and dress, are associated by every one with his friends, glimpses of the hidden self being granted in such halt-unnoticed revelations. The chief value, indeed, of such peculiarities rests in the fact that they are commonly unknown to the man himself. For all of us, even the most sincere, are to a certain extent actors in our intercourse with others, and play a part that has been self-assigned, often without due pondering of the player's power. Nature, however, peeps out in countless little traits of character, which find their expression in language, habit, and even in movements. By what subtile union such tricks of manner are linked with what Dr. Johnson has called "the anfractuosities of the human mind," is a curious and intricate question, but no one will doubt the fact of the connection. "That's father!" cries the child as she hears the well-known foot-fall in the hall; "How like the man!" we exclaim, when some characteristic remark is reported to us. Spite of the progress in complexity from a sound to a sentiment, each obeys the same law; and the connection between the foot-fall and the foot, between the speech and the mind that conceived it, is one and the same.

Let us follow out the thought a little further. Not only, to put the fact in its popular aspect, has every one his peculiarities; but there are degrees of peculiarity accompanying degrees of individuality; as a man deviates in character from the type ordinarily met with, so are his habits singular to himself, till a point is reached where the personality is remarkable, and the behavior eccentric. Where such manners are perfectly unaffected they are a reflection of a self that stands alone among many, so that the common dictum, that genius is eccentric, has a philosophical foundation. There is no need to linger on the numerous and tolerably obvious reservations which make it impossible to convert the proposition—in other words, to infer unusual power from singularity; the broad fact remains that where there is that marked originality called genius, it is an originality not of thought, emotion, or pursuits, but of the man.

The application of this to literary style is easy, and will be found to lead to some interesting results.

In its powers of direct expression, language is tolerably efficient, and were there nothing but facts, considered objectively, to be conveyed, even a simpler vehicle would suffice. Swift, in one of the most humorous passages of "Gulliver's Travels," describes a set of philosophers, who, disdaining language as the ordinary means of expressing their thoughts, preferred to carry with them a pack of the things most commonly referred to in every-day parlance, by the dexterous manipulation of which they contrived to carry on long conversations. Now this represents, with the necessary freedom of caricature, a real truth with regard to a certain class of discourse. In any written composition, the less the author's personality is involved in the matter treated, the simpler the language which suffices. The extreme form of this truth is found in the case of algebra, where the discourse is, so to speak, perfectly dispassionate, and the symbolism perfectly adequate. Similarly, the language employed in mathematical proof is found adequate in proportion as the statements are purely objective. As we ascend in the scale of literary composition the author's personality creeps in, and brings with it a corresponding complexity of language, not merely the complexity of structure of sentences, but of choice of words, use of figures of speech, and all the refinements of elaborate writing. It is true that much more than this has to be taken into consideration; the subjects themselves are infinitely more complex as the scale is ascended, the distinctions are more delicate, the contrasts present more sides to view, the gradations are subtiler. But is not this a corollary from the main principle? Is it not because we are then dealing either with facts of our own or the general consciousness; with ideas, emotions, desires, and so forth; or at any rate with external facts looked at from the point of view of an interested and questioning observer, that there is this increase in complexity, or, in other words, decrease in adequacy of language?

But this idea admits of yet further development. The facts perfectly expressed in algebraical symbols receive a nearly perfect expression in mathematical language. The terminology of science is found very tolerably sufficient, if strictly adhered to, and mostly where expository and descriptive. In history and biography what we may call the subjective element is strong, and there we find all the refinements of composition. These express, not only facts and aspects of facts, not only are there delicate implications of expression, embodied in all the recognized figures of rhetoric, the trope, the simile, and the metaphor; but there are the glimpses at the very self of the author which lurks in unconscious tricks of diction and turns of thought, and emerges in epithets, in repetitions, and in phrases. In poetry the author reigns supreme, and there too the imperfection of language is most manifest. In a very fine passage every word is charged with meaning and riveted to its place; in fact, the vehicle is strained to its utmost to bear the load imposed upon it. Hence Coleridge's well-known definition of poetry as "the best words in the best order." Meanwhile the personality of the poet pervades every line of every poem, a hardly recognized but unfailing presence. He colors each picture, and is a spectator at every scene; he is beside Ulysses in the island of Calypso; with him he witnesses the death of Argus and the insolence of the suitors; he shares the recognition of Penelope and the welcome to home; and when dire retribution seizes the usurpers he looks upon their fall.

Not that this personality is directly obtruded upon the hearer's notice; in the instance of Homer, it is markedly withdrawn, the characters speak of themselves, the descriptions are meant to serve no moral end. But what is never brought before us as an avowed element in the composition is everywhere present in the form of the narrative—we never hear the accents of the voice, though we are always listening to its tones. Take as an illustration of this a passage of pure description from the "Odyssey:"

Ηὗ μὲν ἐπ' ἐσχαρόφιν μέγα καιετο, τηλόθι δ'ὸδμὴ
κέδρον τ' ε'νκεάτοιο θ'νον τ' ἀνὰ νῆσον ὀδώδει
δαιομένων' ἦ δ' ἕνδον ἀοιδιάονσ' ὸπὶ καλῆ,
ίστὸν ὲποιχομένη χρνσείη κερκδ' 'νφαινεν
νλη δὲ σπέος ὰμφι πεφ'νκει τηλεθόωσα,
κλήθρη τ' αἷγειρός τε καὶ ε'νὠδης κνπάρισσος.
ἕνθα δέ τ' ὄρνυσίπτεροι ε'υνάζοντο,
σκῶπές τ’ ἷρηκές τε ταν'υγλωσσοι τε κορῶναι
εὶνάλιαι, τῇσίἰντε θαλἀσσια ἒργα μέμηλεν.
ἠ δ' α'υτο'ν τετάνυστο περὶ σπείονς γλαφνροῖο
ήμερὶς ήβώωσα, τεθἠλει δὲ σταφνλῇσιν
κρῆναι δ' έξείης πίσυρες 'ρέον 'υδατι λευκῶ,
πλησίαι ὰλλἠλων τετραμμέναι ἅλλη.
ὰμφὶ δὲ λειμὥνες μαλακοὶ ῖου ὴδὲ σελίνου
θἠλεον ἒνθα κ' ἒπειτα καὶ ὰθἀνατὀς περ έπελθὡν
θηἠσαιτο ὶδὡν καὶ τερφθείη φρεὶν ᾕσιν.
Odyssey, v., 59-74.

(A large fire was burning on the hearth, and at a distance the smell of well-cleft cedar, and of frankincense, that was burning, shed odor through the island; but she within was singing with a beautiful voice, and going over the web, wove with a golden shuttle. But a flourishing wood sprung up around the grot, alder and poplar, and sweet-smelling cypress. There also birds with spreading wings slept, owls and hawks, and wide-tongued crows of the ocean, to which maritime employments are a care. There a vine in its prime was spread about the hollow grot, and it flourished with clusters. But four fountains flowed in succession with white water, turned near one another each in different ways; but around there flourished soft meadows of violets and of parsley. There indeed even an Immortal coming would admire it when he beheld, and would be delighted in his mind.—Buckley's Translation.)

An analysis of this passage which points out its beauties will he found also to draw attention precisely to those parts where the author's presence is latent. The smell of the cedar, and the voice of the divine songstress accompanying the music of her loom, are, by the epithets "fragrant" and "sweet," made part of the real or imagined experience of the poet; while the word ὲποιχομένη suggests, and just suggests, glimpses that he catches of her form as she moves at her work within the cave. Then he describes the wood that shades her abode, implying, by an epithet, how that too appeals to another sense, joining with the incense that burns close by in a mixture of pleasant smells. Another feature is introduced: there are birds harboring in the branches, and the word εὺνάξοντο that describes this, by an implied comparison with the sleeping-chambers of man, shows a sort of tender way of looking at Nature. It is more than if it were merely said, "There were birds in the branches." Again, the allusion to the sea in the words τᾒσίντε θαλάσσια ἔργα μέμηλεν is a direct reflection of the poet's, in no way forming part of a description merely meant to call up an actual scene, instead of a particular way of looking at a scene. The same is true of the words that describe the vine, bending with its burden of ripe clusters, of the labyrinth of streams, and the patches of violet and parsley round them; the accompanying adjectives draw attention to beauties the poet has noticed, and wishes us to notice as well. There is hardly need to point out how the words with which the whole concludes are but an exclamation of wonder and admiration on the part of the poet at the scene he has called up.

But this is not all, for besides the selection of these various elements there is the mode of their combination into a definite picture, the order in which the images follow one another, and the gradation and transition of ideas which are all part of the art, that is, of the mind—of the self—of the author. At a distance the senses of sight and smell are first caught by the glimmer of the fire and the fragrance of what is burning in it; as Hermes approaches he hears the sound of the goddess singing at her work; coming still closer, he has leisure to mark the minute details of the scene—the cavern, the grove, and the vine; while the words ὰθάνατός περ in the concluding lines leave him in amazement, at the beauty of the whole.

Now, this may sound like hypercriticism, and it would be hypercriticism if it were meant that all these points were before the mind of the poet, forming part of an intentional study of effect. On the contrary, the implication is the direct reverse. It is because Homer was such or such a man, because he had been in the habit of regarding what he saw after a certain fashion of his own, that when he set himself to compose poetry he composed it as he did. Hence there is a deep meaning in the saying of Milton, that he who would write good poetry must make his life a poem. It is by virtue of a thousand minute traits of character, the gradual deposit of life's experiences, that any one speaks, writes, even walks and moves, as we see him do. For there must be some reason why, if two men set about describing a scene, or giving even a plain, unvarnished account of some event, the mode of their narration differs—differs, too, in such a way that each can be ascribed to its author, as we say, by internal evidence, that is, by its style. While, then, no better explanation appears, that theory of style may perhaps be provisionally accepted which identifies it with character—with unconscious revelations of the hidden self.

This conclusion needs a little further elaboration before it is compared with that view of what is called the philosophy of style, which resolves all the devices of composition into schemes for economizing the reader's attention. It is necessary to point out, and this may be done briefly, how not only is style generally the impress of the author's self, but that there is a correspondence between the distinctive features of any particular passage and the points at which, in the manner just indicated, the writer's personality glides into the discourse. This is not difficult, if what has been already said be accepted. What, indeed, is meant by saying that an author is best where his writing is most natural?

Is it not implied that the happiest touches are those which are original—that those phrases and expressions are most welcome to the reader which set the matter they convey in a new light—and that the light in which the writer himself sees it? If the foregoing passage from the "Odyssey" be reviewed, it will be found that its beauties are coincident with the parts where the presence of the poet seems to be hinted, and this is equally true, though not equally discernible, in all writing that is at all elaborate.

Now, how does all this square with the dictum that "to have a specific style is to be poor in speech?" It will not at first sight appear so very incompatible. In a certain sense, style at all owes its existence to the imperfection of the vehicle of thought. Were language a perfectly adequate means of embodying ideas, what is now to be looked for in the mode of statement would be found directly declared in the statement itself. For the countless devices of language, the gestures and tones of discourse, the thousand rhetorical figures of written composition, are really one and all simple propositions not capable of exact expression in the body of the narrative. They are the lights and shades of the picture, or perhaps rather the finer touches, which are to tickle the imagination of the reader with suggested beauties. And it is exactly in these refinements of expression that the deepest meaning of any author, in other words, his self, resides. There is something pathetic in the reflection that we walk this world half hidden from one another, a constant struggle going on to make known the thoughts, beliefs, and aspirations of the real but partly-imprisoned being, which never can be known exactly as they are to any but the mind that conceives them. Like savages, we speak mostly by signs, which serve us well enough, but leave much un communicated. It is well, however, that this imperfection is an imperfection that produces beauty; that the grating of the machine is not harsh, but musical. Mr. Herbert Spencer is successful in showing that the various devices of language do serve to the economy of the reader's attention, and that beauties of style are beauties partly because they effect this end. But he has not raised a question which seems closely akin to the subject. Why is it needful to have recourse to these expedients at all, and why is there an infinite variety in every man's use of them? The answer to these questions seems to give an insight into a higher law, to which Mr. Spencer's principle stands rather as an empirical generalization. It is this: that each man's inmost nature is a secret to all but himself—and that a secret which in no two cases is the same. Every attempt to communicate it partly fails, and so language is full of compromises and expedients; each nature to be revealed is different, and so there is a countless variety of styles. This, then, is not due to poverty of speech; rather it is due to multiplicity of individualities, each speaking its own language and telling its own tale.

The ideal style, then, is for an ideal being, but for an ideal being who is to be without personality. The perfect writer may write, now like Junius, now like Lamb, now like Carlyle, but like himself he can never write. He cannot, as we say, express himself. A significant phrase, for after all it is when a man, as far as he can, expresses himself, that his communication is most worth having. It is the one thing of which he certainly knows something, where he can indeed speak with authority. It is not so much what a man knows as how he knows it, not so much the extent as the quality of his information, that gains him a right to be heard. Originality is far oftener originality of expression than idea, a fresh aspect of something old, not a discovery of something new. And so there starts up here an answer to the difficulties encountered at the outset, "Why men are influenced by language at least as much as by ideas;" and "Why power of expression is intimately associated with mental grasp generally." Partly, no doubt, because in language resides the personality of the speaker or writer, and men are influenced by personality—but far more for another reason. The highest form of ability is something which pervades the whole being; it is not restricted to an intellect preternaturally acute, to vividness of imagination, or fineness of feeling; but it is the manifestation of a nature—of a self, which is really great. And it has been seen that it is in expression, or style, that the self of the author is to be sought. That, then, is a true instinct which so intimately associates power of expression with power of character generally. Of this power, too, the distinguishing feature is its individuality. Just as in animal life the ascent of the scale of creation is a process of differentiation of functions; just as a higher form of life is marked off from a lower form by greater specialty of shape, by powers more accurately defined, by habits more peculiarly its own: so in the comparison of man with man, something similar to this law is traceable, pointing out that the superiority of genius in degree is mainly a consequence of its difference in kind.

Thus Nature seems to speak in a continued protest against uniformity, by a thousand analogies insisting upon the supreme importance of the individual. And the critical verdict which pronounces that writing; best which is the most natural can be affiliated to as wide a law as this. Whether or not it be thought that each man is put into the world the possessor of some particular truth, which his acts or words can set before his fellow-creatures, it is at any rate clear that the inevitable specialty of each man's experiences must present things to him in an aspect which can be exactly the same for no other. There are no real doubles in the world, no such thing as identity in constitution and circumstances. While, then, this is so, there is a significance in style, a value in the unconscious self-revelations of traits of personality. However a man may fail of the object he sets before him in what he does or says, yet if there has been in him that conscientious fidelity to his purpose, which is but an attempt to express himself, his work will not have been wasted, though its direct worth be unimportant.—Macmillan's Magazine.

  1. Published in separate form, with flexible covers, by D. Appleton & Co.
  2. "Philosophy of Style," p. 34.
  3. Ibid., p. 39.
  4. Ibid., p. 33.
  5. Ibid., p. 48.
  6. Ibid., p. 47.