Where earth is forgotten

The opening of Thomas de Quincey’s review of The Works of Alexander Pope, Esquire in the North British Review (August 1848):

Every great classic in our native language should from time to time be reviewed anew; and especially if he belongs in any considerable extent to that section of the literature which connects itself with manners; and if his reputation originally, or his style of composition, is likely to have been much influenced by the transient fashions of his own age. The withdrawal, for instance, from a dramatic poet, or a satirist, of any false luster which he has owed to his momentary connection with what we may call the personalities of a fleeting generation, or of any undue shelter to his errors which may have gathered round them from political bias, or from intellectual infirmities amongst his partisans, will sometimes seriously modify, after a century or so, the fairest original appreciation of a fine writer. A window composed of Claude Lorraine glasses spreads over the landscape outside a disturbing effect, which not the most practiced eye can evade. The eidola theatri affect us all. No man escapes the contagion from his contemporary bystanders.

As books multiply to an unmanageable excess, selection becomes more and more a necessity for readers, and the power of selection more and more a desperate problem for the busy part of readers. The possibility of selecting wisely is becoming continually more hopeless as the necessity for selection is becoming continually more pressing. Exactly as the growing weight of books overlays and stifles the power of comparison, pari passu is the call for comparison the more clamorous; and thus arises a duty correspondingly more urgent of searching and revising until everything spurious has been weeded out from amongst the Flora of our highest literature, and until the waste of time for those who have so little at their command is reduced to a minimum. For, where the good cannot be read in its twentieth part, the more requisite it is that no part of the bad should steal an hour of the available time; and it is not to be endured that people without a minute to spare should be obliged first of all to read a book before they can ascertain whether in fact it is worth reading. The public cannot read by proxy as regards the good which it is to appropriate, but it can as regards the poison which it is to escape. And thus, as literature expands, becoming continually more of a household necessity, the duty resting upon critics (who are the vicarious readers for the public) becomes continually more urgent — of reviewing all works that may be supposed to have benefited too much or too indiscriminately by the superstition of a name. The praegustatores should have tasted of every cup, and reported its quality, before the public call for it; and, above all, they should have done this in all cases of the higher literature — that is, of literature properly so called.

What is it that we mean by literature? Popularly, and amongst the thoughtless, it is held to include everything that is printed in a book. Little logic is required to disturb that definition. The most thoughtless person is easily made aware that in the idea of literature one essential element is some relation to a general and common interest of man — so that what applies only to a local, or professional, or merely personal interest, even though presenting itself in the shape of a book, will not belong to literature. So far the definition is easily narrowed; and it is as easily expanded. For not only is much that takes a station in books not literature; but inversely, much that really is literature never reaches a station in books. The weekly sermons of Christendom, that vast pulpit literature which acts so extensively upon the popular mind — to warn, to uphold, to renew, to comfort, to alarm — does not attain the sanctuary of libraries in the ten-thousandth part of its extent. The drama again — as, for instance, the finest of Shakespeare’s plays in England, and all leading Athenian plays in the noontide of the Attic stage — operated as a literature on the public mind, and were (according to the strictest letter of that term) published through the audiences that witnessed their representation some time before they were published as things to be read; and they were published in this scenical mode of publication with much more effect than they could have had as books during ages of costly copying or of costly printing.

Books, therefore, do not suggest an idea coextensive and interchangeable with the idea of literature; since much literature, scenic, forensic, or didactic (as from lecturers and public orators) , may never come into books, and much that does come into books may connect itself with no literary interest. But a far more important correction, applicable to the common vague idea of literature is to be sought not so much in a better definition of literature as in a sharper distinction of the two functions which it fulfils. In that great social organ which, collectively, we call literature, there may be distinguished two separate offices that may blend and often do so, but capable, severally, of a severe insulation, and naturally fitted for reciprocal repulsion. There is, first, the Literature of Kowledge; and, secondly, the Literature of Power. The function of the first is — to teach; the function of the second is — to move: the first is a rudder; the second, an oar or a sail. The first speaks to the mere discursive understanding; the second speaks ultimately, it may happen, to the higher understanding or reason, but always through affections of pleasure and sympathy. Remotely, it may travel towards an object seated in what Lord Bacon calls dry light; but, proximately, it does and must operate — else it ceases to be a Literature of Power — on and through that humid light which clothes itself in the mists and glittering iris of human passions, desires, and genial emotions. Men have so little reflected on the higher functions of literature as to find it a paradox if one should describe it as a mean or subordinate purpose of books to give information. But this is a paradox only in the sense which makes it honorable to be paradoxical. Whenever we talk in ordinary language of seeking information or gaining knowledge, we understand the words as connected with something of absolute novelty. But it is the grandeur of all truth which can occupy a very high place in human interests that it is never absolutely novel to the meanest of minds: it exists eternally by way of germ or latent principle in the lowest as in the highest, needing to be developed, but never to be planted. To be capable of transplantation is the immediate criterion of a truth that ranges on a lower scale. Besides which, there is a rarer thing than truth — namely, power, or deep sympathy with truth. What is the effect, for instance, upon society, of children? By the pity, by the tenderness, and by the peculiar modes of admiration, which connect themselves with the helplessness, with the innocence, and with the simplicity of children, not only are the primal affections strengthened and continually renewed, but the qualities which are dearest in the sight of heaven — the frailty, for instance, which appeals to forbearance, the innocence which symbolizes the heavenly, and the simplicity which is most alien from the worldly — are kept up in perpetual remembrance, and their ideals are continually refreshed. A purpose of the same nature is answered by the higher literature, viz. the Literature of Power. What do you learn from Paradise Lost? Nothing at all. What do you learn from a cookery-book? Something new, something that you did not know before, in every paragraph. But would you therefore put the wretched cookery-book on a higher level of estimation than the divine poem? What you owe to Milton is not any knowledge, of which a million separate items are still but a million of advancing steps on the same earthly level; what you owe is power — that is, exercise and expansion to your own latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite, where every pulse and each separate influx is a step upwards, a step ascending as upon a Jacob’s ladder from earth to mysterious altitudes above the earth. All the steps of knowledge, from first to last, carry you further on the same plane, but could never raise you one foot above your ancient level of earth: whereas the very first step in power is a flight — is an ascending movement into another element where earth is forgotten.

Were it not that human sensibilities are ventilated and continually called out into exercise by the great phenomena of infancy, or of real life as it moves through chance and change, or of literature as it recombines these elements in the mimicries of poetry, romance, &c., it is certain that, like any animal power or muscular energy falling into disuse, all such sensibilities would gradually droop and dwindle. It is in relation to these great moral capacities of man that the Literature of Power, as contradistinguished from that of knowledge, lives and has its field of action. It is concerned with what is highest in man; for the Scriptures themselves never condescended to deal by suggestion or cooperation with the mere discursive understanding: when speaking of man in his intellectual capacity, the Scriptures speak not of the understanding, but of “the understanding heart” — making the heart, i.e. the great intuitive (or non-discursive) organ, to be the interchangeable formula for man in his highest state of capacity for the infinite. Tragedy, romance, fairy tale, or epopee, all alike restore to man’s mind the ideals of justice, of hope, of truth, of mercy, of retribution, which else (left to the support of daily life in its realities) would languish for want of sufficient illustration. What is meant, for instance, by poetic justice? — It does not mean a justice that differs by its object from the ordinary justice of human jurisprudence; for then it must be confessedly a very bad kind of justice; but it means a justice that differs from common forensic justice by the degree in which it attains its object, a justice that is more omnipotent over its own ends, as dealing — not with the refractory elements of earthly life, but with the elements of its own creation, and with materials flexible to its own purest preconceptions. It is certain that, were it not for the Literature of Power, these ideals would often remain amongst us as mere arid notional forms; whereas, by the creative forces of man put forth in literature, they gain a vernal life of restoration, and germinate into vital activities. The commonest novel, by moving in alliance with human fears and hopes, with human instincts of wrong and right, sustains and quickens those affections. Calling them into action, it rescues them from torpor. And hence the pre-eminency over all authors that merely teach of the meanest that moves, or that teaches, if at all, indirectly by moving. The very highest work that has ever existed in the Literature of Knowledge is but a provisional work: a book upon trial and sufferance, and quamdiu bene se gesserit. Let its teaching be even partially revised, let it be but expanded — nay, even let its teaching be but placed in a better order — and instantly it is superseded. Whereas the feeblest works in the Literature of Power, surviving at all, survive as finished and unalterable amongst men. For instance, the Principia of Sir Isaac Newton was a book militant on earth from the first. In all stages of its progress it would have to fight for its existence: first, as regards absolute truth; secondly, when that combat was over, as regards its form or mode of presenting the truth. And as soon as a Laplace, or anybody else, builds higher upon the foundations laid by this book, effectually he throws it out of the sunshine into decay and darkness; by weapons won from this book he superannuates and destroys this book, so that soon the name of Newton remains as a mere nominis umbra, but his book, as a living power, has transmigrated into other forms. Now, on the contrary, the Iliad, the Prometheus of Aeschylus, the Othello or King Lear, the Hamlet or Macbeth, and the Paradise Lost, are not militant, but triumphant for ever as long as the languages exist in which they speak or can be taught to speak. They never can transmigrate into new incarnations. To reproduce these in new forms, or variations, even if in some things they should be improved, would be to plagiarize. A good steam-engine is properly superseded by a better. But one lovely pastoral valley is not superseded by another, nor a statue of Praxiteles by a statue of Michelangelo. These things are separated not by imparity, but by disparity. They are not thought of as unequal under the same standard, but as different in kind, and, if otherwise equal, as equal under a different standard. Human works of immortal beauty and works of nature in one respect stand on the same footing; they never absolutely repeat each other, never approach so near as not to differ; and they differ not as better and worse, or simply by more and less: they differ by undecipherable and incommunicable differences, that cannot be caught by mimicries, that cannot be reflected in the mirror of copies, that cannot become ponderable in the scales of vulgar comparison.

All works in this class, as opposed to those in the Literature of Knowledge, first, work by far deeper agencies, and, secondly, are more permanent; in the strictest sense they are χτηματα εσ αει: and what evil they do, or what good they do, is commensurate with the national language, sometimes long after the nation has departed. At this hour, five hundred years since their creation, the tales of Chaucer, never equaled on this earth for their tenderness, and for life of picturesqueness, are read familiarly by many in the charming language of their natal day, and by others in the modernizations of Dryden, of Pope, and Wordsworth. At this hour, one thousand eight hundred years since their creation, the Pagan tales of Ovid, never equaled on this earth for the gaiety of their movement and the capricious graces of their narrative, are read by all Christendom. This man’s people and their monuments are dust; but he is alive: he has survived them, as he told us that he had it in his commission to do, by a thousand years; “and shall a thousand more.”

All the Literature of Knowledge builds only ground nests, that are swept away by floods, or confounded by the plough; but the Literature of Power builds nests in aerial altitudes of temples sacred from violation, or of forests inaccessible to fraud. This is a great prerogative of the power literature; and it is a greater which lies in the mode of its influence. The knowledge literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. An encyclopedia is its abstract; and, in this respect, it may be taken for its speaking symbol — that before one generation has passed an encyclopedia is superannuated; for it speaks through the dead memory and unimpassioned understanding, which have not the repose of higher faculties, but are continually enlarging and varying their phylacteries. But all literature properly so called — literature χατ εξοχην — for the very same reason that it is so much more durable than the Literature of Knowledge, is (and by the very same proportion it is) more intense and electrically searching in its impressions. The directions in which the tragedy of this planet has trained our human feelings to play, and the combinations into which the poetry of this planet has thrown our human passions of love and hatred, of admiration and contempt, exercise a power for bad or good over human life that cannot be contemplated, when stretching through many generations, without a sentiment allied to awe. And of this let every one be assured — that he owes to the impassioned books which he has read many a thousand more of emotions than he can consciously trace back to them. Dim by their origination, these emotions yet arise in him, and mould him through life, like forgotten incidents of his childhood.

A refuge of absolute technique

Glenn Gould’s introductory remarks before playing the last movement of Hindemith’s third piano sonata, in The Anatomy of Fugue, broadcast by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on March 4, 1963:

In more recent times one often notices that the most prolific fugue writers are the composers who have the greatest difficulty in being direct and lucid in a freer compositional style. One thinks of composers like Max Reger or the extraordinary Russian Nikolai Myaskovsky. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the artistic climate of the early years of this century was more hospitable to the concept of the stargazing composer who received lightning bolts of inspiration than to the image of the hardworking academic burning the midnight oil over his fugues and canons. And in such times those composers who for one reason or another find the philosophical liberties of free form frightening or embarrassing tend to use the fugue as a refuge of absolute technique: one can prove one’s mastery of the material more readily in a fugue than one can prove it in a less self-conscious form. There’s less room for arguments to whether or not one has been successful. One need only suggest certain fundamental propositions of aesthetic right and wrong, and one’s colleagues will have to agree that a particular fugal inspiration has been a happy one, or a successful one, or maybe a slightly too risky one. And so in generations in which fewer marks are given for ingenuity, for contrapuntal dexterity, than for vivid imagination, for dramatic flair, the invention of fugue has often attracted composers temperamentally unsuited to larger forms—composers perhaps of a particularly logical mind, who find it difficult to believe unquestioningly in their own subconscious impulses.

In our century, composers have continued writing fugues, particularly those whose style shows a neoclassic influence. But almost every idiom has seen its share of fugues. The Canadian composer Harry Summers has composed fugues in a style which uses the controversial twelve-tone technique. The brilliant American Lukas Foss has taught some of his colleagues to improvise on some fugues out of chart patterns which he draws on paper. And various jazz groups have attempted to improvise fugues, too. But most of these, because of one basic omission, have negated the main source of discipline inherent in the fugue. The harmonic criteria of most of the contemporary musical language shies away from tonality, and they’ve been unable to develop their linear designs into a system which would produce real demands of chord tension and relaxation. And because of this, fugal technique in their work is little more than a respectful bow to the past, really—it’s, it’s not a living tradition.

Paul Hindemith is one of the few composers of our own time who can undeniably be called a fuguist to the manner born. Hindemith has developed a very special language of his own, a language which is contemporary in the best sense of the word but which in its attempt to provide harmonic logic uses what you might call a substitute tonality. It neatly sidesteps the basic confrontations of tonic and dominant chords of conventional tonality, but it has nonetheless a very strong sense of relative tension. And so since he uses a language in which this structure of fugue can be helped along by the exchange of subject and answer at clearly related harmonic levels, Hindemith already has the edge on fugue writers in the tonal idiom. Besides which, he’s quite at home in an idiom which employs a minimum of what you could call textural irregularities: he’s quite able to continue a structure in three or four or five real voices over a period of some minutes’ duration. In fact for most of his career he’s been writing in a style which rather makes us think of an early Renaissance contrapuntal jamboree. The fugue I’m going to play now by Hindemith is actually the concluding movement of a piano sonata, and it doesn’t pretend to the highly romantic connection of Beethoven’s finale, where the concept of fugue is welded into the structure of the sonata, but it happily provides an assurance that the magic of fugue, however rare it may be nowadays, isn’t yet forgotten.

How to resist adult stupidity

Christopher Hitchens on Saki, “Where the Wild Things Are,” The Atlantic (2008):

At the age of 15, Noël Coward was staying in an English country house and found a copy of Beasts and Super-Beasts on a table: “I took it up to my bedroom, opened it casually and was unable to go to sleep until I had finished it.” I had a similar experience at about the same age, and I agree with Coward that H. H. Munro—or “Saki,” the author of the book in question—is among those few writers, inspirational when read at an early age, who definitely retain their magic when revisited decades later. I have the impression that Saki is not very much appreciated in the United States. Good. That means I can put into my debt many of you who are reading these words. Go and get an edition of this Edwardian master of the short story. Begin with, say, “Sredni Vashtar” or “The Lumber-Room” or “The Open Window.” Then see whether you can put the book down.

The spellbinding quality of the stories is almost too easy to analyze and looks mawkish when set down in plain words, because Saki’s great gift was being able to write about children and animals. But consider: How many authors have ever been able to pull off these most difficult of tricks? Kipling, for sure, but then, Kipling would not have been able to render the languid young princes of the drawing room, such as the exquisite Clovis Sangrail, with whom Saki peopled so many a scene. The character of these lethal Narcissi is well netted in a phrase coined by Sandie Byrne, who refers to them as “feral ephebes.”

If you want to incubate an author who will show lifelong sympathy for children and animals, it seems best to sequester him at an early age and then subject him to a long regime of domestic torture. This was the formula that worked so well for Kipling, as evidenced in his frightening autobiographical story, “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” and it is almost uncanny to see how closely Saki’s early life followed the same course. Abandoned to the care of cold and neurotic aunts in England while his father performed colonial duties in India, he and his siblings had to learn how to do without affection, and how to resist and outpoint adult callousness and stupidity. But without those terrible women—and the villains in Saki’s gem-like tales are almost always female—we might not have had the most-fearsome aunts in fiction, outdoing even Wodehouse’s Aunt Agatha or Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.

Wodehouse happily admitted to being influenced by Saki, and it would be interesting to know to what extent Saki was himself influenced by Wilde. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that he was, because some of his epigrams (“Beauty is only sin deep”) betray an obvious indebtedness, and one (“To lose an hotel and a cake of soap in one afternoon suggests willful carelessness”) is an almost direct appropriation from The Importance of Being Earnest. But in that epoch, Wilde’s name lay under a ban, and Saki would have been well advised to not challenge the unstated rules that underlay that prohibition. (I find the speculation about his own homosexuality pointless because there is nothing about which to speculate: he was self-evidently homosexual and, just as obviously, deeply repressed.)


As is by no means uncommon in such cases, Saki was of the extreme right, and even an admirer must concede that some of his witticisms were rather labored and contrived as a consequence. Several of his less amusing stories are devoted to ridicule of the women’s suffrage movement, which was cresting during his heyday, while a persistent subtext of his work is a satirical teasing of his contemporary and bête noire, the ponderously socialistic Bernard Shaw (“Sherard Blaw, the dramatist who had discovered himself, and who had given so ungrudgingly of his discovery to the world”).

Thousands of excellent nouns

The opening of Mencken’s preface to A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949):

In my title I revive the word chrestomathy in its true sense of “a collection of choice passages from an author or authors,” and ignore the late addition of “especially one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language.” In the latter significance the term is often used by linguists, and some of the chrestomathies issued by them in recent years—for example, Dr. Edgar H. Sturtevant’s “Hittite Chrestomathy” of 1935—are works of capital importance. But I see no reason why they should have a monopoly on what is not, after all, their invention. Nor do I see why I should be deterred by the fact that, when this book was announced, a few newspaper smarties protested that the word would be unfamiliar to many readers, as it was to them. Thousands of excellent nouns, verbs and adjectives that have stood in every decent dictionary for years are still unfamiliar to such ignoramuses, and I do not solicit their patronage. Let them continue to recreate themselves with whodunits, and leave my vocabulary and me to my own customers, who have all been to school. Chrestomathy is actually more than a century old in English, which makes it quite as ancient as scientist, which was invented by William Whewell in 1840, or anesthetic, which was proposed by Oliver Wendell Holmes I in 1846. In Greek, where it was contrived by joining chrestos, meaning useful, and mathein, meaning to learn, it goes back to Proclus Disdochos, who used it in Athens in the year 450.

Whether anyone will find anything useful in what follows, or learn from it otherwise, is not for me to guess, but at all events I like the word better than the omnibus, reader, treasury, miscellany, panorama and portable that have been so horribly overworked of late.

Scarcely perceptible, but decisive

from “The Familiar Style,” William Hazlitt, in Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners (1821):

It is not easy to write a familiar style. Many people mistake a familiar for a vulgar style, and suppose that to write without affectation is to write at random. On the contrary, there is nothing that requires more precision, and, if I may so say, purity of expression, than the style I am speaking of. It utterly rejects not only all unmeaning pomp, but all low, cant phrases, and loose, unconnected, slipshod allusions. It is not to take the first word that offers, but the best word in common use; it is not to throw words together in any combinations we please, but to follow and avail ourselves of the true idiom of the language. To write a genuine familiar or truly English style is to write as any one would speak in common conversation who had a thorough command and choice of words, or who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes. Or, to give another illustration, to write naturally is the same thing in regard to common conversation as to read naturally is in regard to common speech. It does not follow that it is an easy thing to give the true accent and inflection to the words you utter, because you do not attempt to rise above the level of ordinary life and colloquial speaking. You do not assume, indeed, the solemnity of the pulpit, or the tone of stage-declamation; neither are you at liberty to gabble on at a venture, without emphasis or discretion, or to resort to vulgar dialect or clownish pronunciation. You must steer a middle course. You are tied down to a given and appropriate articulation, which is determined by the habitual associations between sense and sound, and which you can only hit by entering into the author’s meaning, as you must find the proper words and style to express yourself by fixing your thoughts on the subject you have to write about. Any one may mouth out a passage with a theatrical cadence, or get upon stilts to tell his thoughts; but to write or speak with propriety and simplicity is a more difficult task. Thus it is easy to affect a pompous style, to use a word twice as big as the thing you want to express: it is not so easy to pitch upon the very word that exactly fits it. Out of eight or ten words equally common, equally intelligible, with nearly equal pretensions, it is a matter of some nicety and discrimination to pick out the very one the preferableness of which is scarcely perceptible, but decisive. The reason why I object to Dr. Johnson’s style is that there is no discrimination, no selection, no variety in it. He uses none but ‘tall, opaque words,’ taken from the ‘first row of the rubric’— words with the greatest number of syllables, or Latin phrases with merely English terminations. If a fine style depended on this sort of arbitrary pretension, it would be fair to judge of an author’s elegance by the measurement of his words and the substitution of foreign circumlocutions (with no precise associations) for the mother-tongue. How simple is it to be dignified without case, to be pompous without meaning! Surely it is but a mechanical rule for avoiding what is low, to be always pedantic and affected. It is clear you cannot use a vulgar English word if you never use a common English word at all. A fine tact is shown in adhering to those which are perfectly common, and yet never falling into any expressions which are debased by disgusting circumstances, or which owe their signification and point to technical or professional allusions. A truly natural or familiar style can never be quaint or vulgar, for this reason, that it is of universal force and applicability, and that quaintness and vulgarity arise out of the immediate connection of certain words with coarse and disagreeable or with confined ideas. The last form what we understand by cant or slang phrases. — To give an example of what is not very clear in the general statement, I should say that the phrase To cut with a knife, or To cut a piece of wood, is perfectly free from vulgarity, because it is perfectly common; but to cut an acquaintance is not quite unexceptionable, because it is not perfectly common or intelligible, and has hardly yet escaped out of the limits of slang phraseology. I should hardly, therefore, use the word in this sense without putting it in italics as a license of expression, to be received cum grano salis. All provincial or bye-phrases come under the same mark of reprobation — all such as the writer transfers to the page from his fireside or a particular coterie, or that he invents for his own sole use and convenience. I conceive that words are like money, not the worse for being common, but that it is the stamp of custom alone that gives them circulation or value. I am fastidious in this respect, and would almost as soon coin the currency of the realm as counterfeit the King’s English. I never invented or gave a new and unauthorised meaning to any word but one single one (the term impersonal applied to feelings), and that was in an abstruse metaphysical discussion to express a very difficult distinction. I have been (I know) loudly accused of revelling in vulgarisms and broken English. I cannot speak to that point; but so far I plead guilty to the determined use of acknowledged idioms and common elliptical expressions. I am not sure that the critics in question know the one from the other, that is, can distinguish any medium between formal pedantry and the most barbarous solecism. As an author I endeavour to employ plain words and popular modes of construction, as, were I a chapman and dealer, I should common weights and measures.

The proper force of words lies not in the words themselves, but in their application. A word may be a fine-sounding word, of an unusual length, and very imposing from its learning and novelty, and yet in the connection in which it is introduced may be quite pointless and irrelevant. It is not pomp or pretension, but the adaptation of the expression to the idea, that clenches a writer’s meaning:— as it is not the size or glossiness of the materials, but their being fitted each to its place, that gives strength to the arch; or as the pegs and nails are as necessary to the support of the building as the larger timbers, and more so than the mere showy, unsubstantial ornaments. I hate anything that occupies more space than it is worth. I hate to see a load of bandboxes go along the street, and I hate to see a parcel of big words without anything in them. A person who does not deliberately dispose of all his thoughts alike in cumbrous draperies and flimsy disguises may strike out twenty varieties of familiar everyday language, each coming somewhat nearer to the feeling he wants to convey, and at last not hit upon that particular and only one which may be said to be identical with the exact impression in his mind. This would seem to show that Mr. Cobbett is hardly right in saying that the first word that occurs is always the best. It may be a very good one; and yet a better may present itself on reflection or from time to time. It should be suggested naturally, however, and spontaneously, from a fresh and lively conception of the subject. We seldom succeed by trying at improvement, or by merely substituting one word for another that we are not satisfied with, as we cannot recollect the name of a place or person by merely plaguing ourselves about it. We wander farther from the point by persisting in a wrong scent; but it starts up accidentally in the memory when we least expected it, by touching some link in the chain of previous association.

There are those who hoard up and make a cautious display of nothing but rich and rare phraseology — ancient medals, obscure coins, and Spanish pieces of eight. They are very curious to inspect, but I myself would neither offer nor take them in the course of exchange. A sprinkling of archaisms is not amiss, but a tissue of obsolete expressions is more fit for keep than wear. I do not say I would not use any phrase that had been brought into fashion before the middle or the end of the last century, but I should be shy of using any that had not been employed by any approved author during the whole of that time. Words, like clothes, get old-fashioned, or mean and ridiculous, when they have been for some time laid aside. Mr. Lamb is the only imitator of old English style I can read with pleasure; and he is so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of his authors that the idea of imitation is almost done away. There is an inward unction, a marrowy vein, both in the thought and feeling, an intuition, deep and lively, of his subject, that carries off any quaintness or awkwardness arising from an antiquated style and dress. The matter is completely his own, though the manner is assumed. Perhaps his ideas are altogether so marked and individual as to require their point and pungency to be neutralised by the affectation of a singular but traditional form of conveyance. Tricked out in the prevailing costume, they would probably seem more startling and out of the way. The old English authors, Burton, Fuller, Coryate, Sir Thomas Browne, are a kind of mediators between us and the more eccentric and whimsical modern, reconciling us to his peculiarities. I do not, however, know how far this is the case or not, till he condescends to write like one of us. I must confess that what I like best of his papers under the signature of Elia (still I do not presume, amidst such excellence, to decide what is most excellent) is the account of ‘Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist,’ which is also the most free from obsolete allusions and turns of expression  —

A well of native English undefiled.

To those acquainted with his admired prototypes, these Essays of the ingenious and highly gifted author have the same sort of charm and relish that Erasmus’s Colloquies or a fine piece of modern Latin have to the classical scholar. Certainly, I do not know any borrowed pencil that has more power or felicity of execution than the one of which I have here been speaking.

It is as easy to write a gaudy style without ideas as it is to spread a pallet of showy colours or to smear in a flaunting transparency. ‘What do you read?’ ‘Words, words, words.’—‘What is the matter?’ ‘Nothing,’ it might be answered. The florid style is the reverse of the familiar. The last is employed as an unvarnished medium to convey ideas; the first is resorted to as a spangled veil to conceal the want of them. When there is nothing to be set down but words, it costs little to have them fine. Look through the dictionary, and cull out a florilegium, rival the tulippomaniaRouge high enough, and never mind the natural complexion. The vulgar, who are not in the secret, will admire the look of preternatural health and vigour; and the fashionable, who regard only appearances, will be delighted with the imposition. Keep to your sounding generalities, your tinkling phrases, and all will be well. Swell out an unmeaning truism to a perfect tympany of style. A thought, a distinction is the rock on which all this brittle cargo of verbiage splits at once. Such writers have merely verbal imaginations, that retain nothing but words. Or their puny thoughts have dragon-wings, all green and gold. They soar far above the vulgar failing of the Sermo humi obrepens— their most ordinary speech is never short of an hyperbole, splendid, imposing, vague, incomprehensible, magniloquent, a cento of sounding common-places. If some of us, whose ‘ambition is more lowly,’ pry a little too narrowly into nooks and corners to pick up a number of ‘unconsidered trifles,’ they never once direct their eyes or lift their hands to seize on any but the most gorgeous, tarnished, threadbare, patchwork set of phrases, the left-off finery of poetic extravagance, transmitted down through successive generations of barren pretenders.

A virtue of intolerance

the opening sentences of M. T. McClure’s review in The Journal of Philosophy of W. T. Stace’s A Critical History of Greek Philosophy (1920):

Clarity is often a virtue of intolerance. A man with convictions knows precisely what he believes and is able to measure the worth of ideas as any want of conformity unto or transgression of his standards of belief. Mr. Stace is a man with convictions. He knows exactly what he means by philosophy and writes a “critical” history of Greek thought in the light (or darkness) of this meaning. The style and manner of presentation are extraordinarily simple and clear. There are more monosyllables to the paragraph than in any philosophical treatise with which I am familiar. Lucidity is the chief merit of the book. As a contribution to historical scholarship it is altogether unimportant.

Neat, plausible, and wrong

Two versions of the opening of Mencken’s essay “The Divine Afflatus”:

I. As it appears in A Mencken Chrestomathy

Every man who writes, or paints, or composes knows by hard experience that there are days when his ideas flow freely and clearly and days when they are damned up damnably. On his good days, for some reason quite incomprehensible to him, all the processes and operations of his mind take on an amazing ease and slickness. Almost without conscious effort he solves technical problems that have badgered him for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraordinary efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a feeling that he has suddenly and unaccountably broken through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself out of the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the best work that he is capable of—maybe of far better work than he has ever been capable of before—and goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on the morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any work at all.

This unpleasant experience overtakes poets and contrapuntists, critics and dramatists, painters and sculptors, and also, no doubt, philosophers and journalists; it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertisement writers and the rev. clergy. The characters that all anatomists of melancholy mark in it are the irregular ebb and flow of the tides, and the impossibility of getting them under any sort of rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one side and watches itself pitching and tossing, full of agony but essentially helpless. Here the man of creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all his superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge upon him for dreaming of improvements in the scheme of things. Sitting there in his lonely room, gnawing the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal quest, horribly bedeviled by incessant flashes of itching, toothache, eye-strain and festering conscience—thus tortured, he makes atonement for his crime of having ideas. The normal man, the healthy and honest man, the good citizen and householder—this man, I daresay, knows nothing of all that travail. It is the particular penalty of those who pursue strange butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in enchanted and for bidden streams.

How are we to account for it? My question, of course, is purely rhetorical. Explanations exist; they have existed for all times, for there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients laid the blame upon the gods: sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand, and one reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil. In our own day there are explanations less supernatural but no less fanciful—to wit, the explanation that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and not to be resolved into any orderly process—to wit, the explanation that the controlling factor is external circumstance, that the artist happily married to a dutiful wife is thereby inspired—finally, to make an end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freudian complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable shadows. But all these explanations fail to satisfy the mind that is not to be put off with mere words. Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the question. The problem of the how remains, even when the problem of the why is disposed of. What is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that it sparkles and splutters like an arc-light, and reduced to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and gutters like a tallow dip?

II. As it appears in Prejudices: Second Series

The suave and oedematous Chesterton, in a late effort to earn
the honorarium of a Chicago newspaper, composed a thousand words
of labored counterblast to what is called inspiration in the arts.
The thing itself, he argued, has little if any actual existence; we
hear so much about it because its alleged coyness and fortuitousness
offer a convenient apology for third-rate work. The man taken in such
third-rate work excuses himself on the ground that he is a helpless
slave of some power that stands outside him, and is quite beyond his
control. On days when it favors him he teems with ideas and creates
masterpieces, but on days when it neglects him he is crippled and
impotent–a fiddle without a bow, an engine without steam, a tire
without air. All this, according to Chesterton, is nonsense. A man who
can really write at all, or paint at all, or compose at all should be
able to do it at almost any time, provided only “he is not drunk or

So far Chesterton. The formula of the argument is simple and familiars
to dispose of a problem all that is necessary is to deny that it
exists. But there are plenty of men, I believe, who find themselves
unable to resolve the difficulty in any such cavalier manner–men whose chief burden and distinction, in fact, is that they do not employ
formulae in their thinking, but are thrown constantly upon industry,
ingenuity and the favor of God. Among such men there remains a good
deal more belief in what is vaguely called inspiration. They know
by hard experience that there are days when their ideas flow freely
and clearly, and days when they are dammed up damnably. Say a man of that sort has a good day. For some reason quite incomprehensible to
him all his mental processes take on an amazing ease and slickness.
Almost without conscious effort he solves technical problems that have
badgered him for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraordinary
efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a feeling that he has suddenly
and unaccountably broken through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself
out of the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the best work
that he is capable of—maybe of far better work than he has ever been
capable of before—and goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on
the morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any work at all.

I challenge any man who trades in ideas to deny that he has this
experience. The truth is that he has it constantly. It overtakes
poets and contrapuntists, critics and dramatists, philosophers and
journalists; it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertisement
writers, chautauqua orators and the rev. clergy. The characters that
all anatomists of melancholy mark in it are the irregular ebb and flow
of the tides, and the impossibility of getting them under any sort of
rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one side and watches
itself pitching and tossing, full of agony but essentially helpless.
Here the man of creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all
his superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge upon him for
dreaming of improvements in the scheme of things. Sitting there in his
lonely room, gnawing the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal
quest, horribly bedevilled by incessant flashes of itching, toothache,
eye-strain and evil conscience—thus tortured, he makes atonement for
his crime of being intelligent. The normal man, the healthy and honest
man, the good citizen and householder—this man, I daresay, knows
nothing of all that travail. It is reserved especially for artists
and metaphysicians. It is the particular penalty of those who pursue
strange butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in enchanted and
forbidden streams.

Let us, then, assume that the fact is proved: the nearest poet
is a witness to it. But what of the underlying mystery? How are
we to account for that puckish and inexplicable rise and fall of
inspiration? My questions, of course, are purely rhetorical.
Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always
a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and
wrong. The ancients, in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods:
sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand in the matter, and so one
reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by
the souls of the departed, and even by the devil. In our own day there
are explanations less super-natural but no less fanciful—to wit,
the explanation that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and
not to be resolved into any orderly process—-to wit, the explanation
that the controlling factor is external circumstance, that the artist
happily married to a dutiful wife is thereby inspired–finally, to
make an end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freudian
complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable shadows. But all of these explanations fail to satisfy the mind that is not to be put off with
mere words. Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the question. The problem of the how remains, even when the problem of the why is disposed of. What is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that it sparkles and splutters like an arclight, and reduced to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and gutters like a tallow dip?

Dramas of strength and weakness

Ian Parker on Glenn Greenwald in The New Yorker:

Greenwald was particularly struck by Sandgren’s “brave and defiant” second press conference. In response to the media’s “bullying groupthink,” he hadn’t apologized. This perception of Sandgren’s circumstances helps illuminate Greenwald’s political writing, which focusses on dramas of strength and weakness, and on the corruptions of empires. Greenwald writes aggressively about perceived aggression. His instinct is to identify, in any conflict, the side that is claiming authority or incumbency, and then to throw his weight against that claim, in favor of the unauthorized or the unlicensed—the intruder. Invariably, the body with authority is malign and corrupt; any criticisms of the intruder are vilifications or “smears.” He rarely weighs counter-arguments in public, and his policy goals are more often implied than spoken.

Greenwald’s model will satisfy readers, on Twitter and elsewhere, to the extent that they recognize the same malignancy, or agent of oppression.

What has not been (properly) talked about

from Susan Sontag’s introduction to The Best American Essays, 1992:

The word essay comes from the French essai, attempt—and many essayists, including the greatest of all, Montaigne, have insisted that the distinctive mark of the essay is its tentativeness, its disavowal of closed, systematic ways of thinking. Its most obvious trait, however, is assertiveness of one kind or another.

To read an essay properly, one must understand not only what it is arguing for but what it is arguing against. Reading the essays written by our contemporaries, we easily supply the context, the public argument, the opponent, explicit or implicit. The passage of a few decades can make this almost impossible.

Essays end up in books, but they start their life in magazines. (It’s hard to imagine a book of recent but previously unpublished essays.) The perennial comes now mainly in the guise of the topical and, in the short run, no literary form has as great and immediate an impact on contemporary readers. Many essays are discussed, debated, reacted to in a way that poets and writers of fiction can only envy.

The influential essayist is someone with an acute sense of what has not been (properly) talked about, what should be talked about (but differently). But what makes essays last is less their argument than the display of a complex mind and a distinctive prose voice.

The taint of preciosity

The opening of Chapter 1 (“Vocabulary”) of the second edition of H.W. Fowler’s The King’s English (1908):

Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.

This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:—

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
Prefer the short word to the long.
Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

These rules are given roughly in order of merit; the last is also the least. It is true that it is often given alone, as a sort of compendium of all the others. In some sense it is that: the writer whose percentage of Saxon words is high will generally be found to have fewer words that are out of the way, long, or abstract, and fewer periphrases, than another; and conversely. But if, instead of his Saxon percentage’s being the natural and undesigned consequence of his brevity (and the rest), those other qualities have been attained by his consciously restricting himself to Saxon, his pains will have been worse than wasted; the taint of preciosity will be over all he has written. Observing that translate is derived from Latin, and learning that the Elizabethans had another word for it, he will pull us up by englishing his quotations; he will puzzle the general reader by introducing his book with a foreword. Such freaks should be left to the Germans, who have by this time succeeded in expelling as aliens a great many words that were good enough for Goethe. And they, indeed, are very likely right, because their language is a thoroughbred one; ours is not, and can now never be, anything but a hybrid; foreword is (or may be) Saxon; we can find out in the dictionary whether it is or not; but preface is English, dictionary or no dictionary; and we want to write English, not Saxon. Add to this that, even if the Saxon criterion were a safe one, more knowledge than most of us have is needed to apply it. Few who were not deep in philology would be prepared to state that no word in the following list (extracted from the preface to the Oxford Dictionary) is English:—battle, beast, beauty, beef, bill, blue, bonnet, border, boss, bound, bowl, brace, brave, bribe, bruise, brush, butt, button. Dr. Murray observes that these ‘are now no less “native”, and no less important constituents of our vocabulary, than the Teutonic words’.