Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch > On the Art of Writing > V. Interlude: On Jargon
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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944).  On the Art of Writing.  1916.

V.  Interlude: On Jargon

Thursday, May 1


WE parted, Gentlemen, upon a promise to discuss the capital difficulty of Prose, as we have discussed the capital difficulty of Verse. But, although we shall come to it, on second thoughts I ask leave to break the order of my argument and to interpose some words upon a kind of writing which, from a superficial likeness, commonly passes for prose in these days, and by lazy folk is commonly written for prose, yet actually is not prose at all; my excuse being the simple practical one that, by first clearing this sham prose out of the way, we shall the better deal with honest prose when we come to it. The proper difficulties of prose will remain: but we shall be agreed in understanding what it is, or at any rate what it is not, that we talk about. I remember to have heard somewhere of a religious body in the United States of America which had reason to suspect one of its churches of accepting Spiritual consolation from a coloured preacher—an offence against the laws of the Synod—and despatched a Disciplinary Committee with power to act; and of the Committee’s returning to report itself unable to take any action under its terms of reference, for that while a person undoubtedly coloured had undoubtedly occupied the pulpit and had audibly spoken from it in the Committee’s presence, the performance could be brought within no definition of preaching known or discoverable. So it is with that infirmity of speech—that flux, that determination of words to the mouth, or to the pen—which, though it be familiar to you in parliamentary debates, in newspapers, and as the staple language of Blue Books, Committees, Official Reports, I take leave to introduce to you as prose which is not prose and under its real name of Jargon.   1
  You must not confuse this Jargon with what is called Journalese. The two overlap, indeed, and have a knack of assimilating each other’s vices. But Jargon finds, maybe, the most of its votaries among good douce people who have never written to or for a newspaper in their life, who would never talk of ‘adverse climatic conditions’ when they mean ‘bad weather’; who have never trifled with verbs such as ‘obsess,’ ‘recrudesce,’ ‘envisage,’ ‘adumbrate,’ or with phrases such as ‘the psychological moment,’ ‘the true inwardness,’ ‘it gives furiously to think.’ It dallies with Latinity—‘sub silentio,’ ‘de die in diem,’ ‘cui bono?’ (always in the sense, unsuspected by Cicero, of ‘What is the profit?’)—but not for the sake of style. Your journalist at the worst is an artist in his way: he daubs paint of this kind upon the lily with a professional zeal; the more flagrant (or, to use his own word, arresting) the pigment, the happier is his soul. Like the Babu he is trying all the while to embellish our poor language, to make it more floriferous, more poetical—like the Babu for example who, reporting his mother’s death, wrote, ‘Regret to inform you, the hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket.’   2
  There is metaphor: there is ornament: there is a sense of poetry, though as yet groping in a world unrealised. No such gusto marks—no such zeal, artistic or professional, animates—the practitioners of Jargon, who are, most of them (I repeat), douce respectable persons. Caution is its father: the instinct to save everything and especially trouble: its mother, Indolence. It looks precise, but it is not. It is, in these times, safe: a thousand men have said it before and not one to your knowledge had been prosecuted for it. And so, like respectability in Chicago, Jargon stalks unchecked in our midst. It is becoming the language of Parliament: it has become the medium through which Boards of Government, County Councils, Syndicates, Committees, Commercial Firms, express the processes as well as the conclusions of their thought and so voice the reason of their being.   3
  Has a Minister to say ‘No’ in the House of Commons? Some men are constitutionally incapable of saying no: but the Minister conveys it thus—‘The answer to the question is in the negative.’ That means ‘no.’ Can you discover it to mean anything less, or anything more except that the speaker is a pompous person?—which was no part of the information demanded.   4
  That is Jargon, and it happens to be accurate. But as a rule Jargon is by no means accurate, its method being to walk circumspectly around its target; and its faith, that having done so it has either hit the bull’s-eye or at least achieved something equivalent, and safer.   5
  Thus the Clerk of a Board of Guardians will minute that—
          In the case of John Jenkins deceased the coffin provided was of the usual character.
Now this is not accurate. ‘In the case of John Jenkins deceased,’ for whom a coffin was supplied, it is wholly superfluous to tell us that he is deceased. But actually John Jenkins never had more than one case, and that was the coffin. The Clerk says he had two,—a coffin in a case: but I suspect the Clerk to be mistaken, and I am sure he errs in telling us that the coffin was of the usual character: for coffins have no character, usual or unusual.
   6
  For another example (I shall not tell you whence derived)—
          In the case of every candidate who is placed in the first class [So you see the lucky fellow gets a case as well as a first-class. He might be a stuffed animal: perhaps he is] In the case of every candidate who is placed in the first class the class-list will show by some convenient mark (1) the Section or Sections for proficiency in which he is placed in the first class and (2) the Section or Sections (if any) in which he has passed with special distinction.
‘The Section or Sections (if any)’—But, how, if they are not any, could they be indicated by a mark however convenient?
          The Examiners will have regard to the style and method of the candidate’s answers, and will give credit for excellence in these respects.
Have you begun to detect the two main vices of Jargon? The first is that it uses circumlocution rather than short straight speech. It says ‘In the case of John Jenkins deceased, the coffin’ when it means ‘John Jenkins’s coffin’: and its yea is not yea, neither is its nay nay: but its answer is in the affirmative or in the negative, as the foolish and superfluous ‘case’ may be. The second vice is that it habitually chooses vague woolly abstract nouns rather than concrete ones. I shall have something to say by-and-by about the concrete noun, and how you should ever be struggling for it whether in prose or in verse. For the moment I content myself with advising you, if you would write masculine English, never to forget the old tag of your Latin Grammar—
        Masculine will only be
Things that you can touch and see.
But since these lectures are meant to be a course in First Aid to writing, I will content myself with one or two extremely rough rules: yet I shall be disappointed if you do not find them serviceable.
   7
  The first is:—Whenever in your reading you come across one of these words, case, instance, character, nature, condition, persuasion, degree—whenever in writing your pen betrays you to one or another of them—pull yourself up and take thought. If it be ‘case’ (I choose it as Jargon’s dearest child—‘in Heaven yclept Metonomy’) turn to the dictionary, if you will, and seek out what meaning can be derived from casus, its Latin ancestor: then try how, with a little trouble, you can extricate yourself from that case. The odds are, you will feel like a butterfly who has discarded his chrysalis.   8
  Here are some specimens to try your hand on—
          (1) All those tears which inundated Lord Hugh Cecil’s head were dry in the case of Mr Harold Cox.
   9
  Poor Mr Cox! left gasping in his aquarium!
          (2) [From a cigar-merchant] In any case, let us send you a case on approval.
  (3) It is contended that Consols have fallen in consequence: but such is by no means the case.
  10
  ‘Such,’ by the way, is another spoilt child of Jargon, especially in Committee’s Rules—‘Co-opted members may be eligible as such; such members to continue to serve for such time as’—and so on.
          (4) Even in the purely Celtic areas, only in two or three cases do the Bishops bear Celtic names.
  11
  For ‘cases’ read ‘dioceses.’
          Instance. In most instances the players were below their form.
  12
  But what were they playing at? Instances?
          Character—Nature. There can be no doubt that the accident was caused through the dangerous nature of the spot, the hidden character of the by-road, and the utter absence of any warning or danger signal.
  13
  Mark the foggy wording of it all! And yet the man hit something and broke his neck! Contrast that explanation with the verdict of a coroner’s jury in the West of England on a drowned postman—‘We find that deceased met his death by an act of God, caused by sudden overflowing of the river Walkhan and helped out by the scandalous neglect of the way-wardens.’
          The Aintree course is notoriously of a trying nature.
  On account of its light character, purity and age, Usher’s whiskey is a whiskey that will agree with you.
  Order. The mésalliance was of a pronounced order.
  Condition. He was conveyed to his place of residence in an intoxicated condition.
  14
  ‘He was carried home drunk.’
          Quality and Section. Mr ——, exhibiting no less than five works, all of a superior quality, figures prominently in the oil section.
—This was written of an exhibition of pictures.
          Degree. A singular degree of rarity prevails in the earlier editions of this romance.
  15
  That is Jargon. In prose it runs simply ‘The earlier editions of this romance are rare’—or ‘are very rare’—or even (if you believe what I take leave to doubt), ‘are singularly rare’; which should mean that they are rarer than the editions of any other work in the world.  16
  Now what I ask you to consider about these quotations is that in each the writer was using Jargon to shirk prose, palming off periphrases upon us when with a little trouble he could have gone straight to the point. ‘A singular degree of rarity prevails,’ ‘the accident was caused through the dangerous nature of the spot,’ ‘but such is by no means the case.’ We may not be capable of much; but we can all write better than that, if we take a little trouble. In place of, ‘the Aintree course is of a trying nature’ we can surely say ‘Aintree is a trying course’ or ‘the Aintree course is a trying one’—just that and nothing more.  17
  Next, having trained yourself to keep a look-out for these worst offenders (and you will be surprised to find how quickly you get into the way of it), proceed to push your suspicions out among the whole cloudy host of abstract terms. ‘How excellent a thing is sleep,’ sighed Sancho Panza; ‘it wraps a man round like a cloak’—an excellent example, by the way, of how to say a thing concretely: a Jargoneer would have said that ‘among the beneficent qualities of sleep its capacity for withdrawing the human consciousness from the contemplation of immediate circumstances may perhaps be accounted not the least remarkable.’ How vile a thing—shall we say?—is the abstract noun! It wraps a man’s thoughts round like cotton wool.  18
  Here is a pretty little nest of specimens, found in The Times newspaper by Messrs. H. W. and F. G. Fowler, authors of that capital little book The King’s English:—
          One of the most important reforms mentioned in the rescript is the unification of the organisation of judicial institutions and the guarantee for all the tribunals of the independence necessary for securing to all classes of the community equality before the law.
I do not dwell on the cacophony; but, to convey a straightforward piece of news, might not the Editor of The Times as well employ a man to write:—
          One of the most important reforms is that of the Courts, which need a uniform system and to be made independent. In this way only can men be assured that all are equal before the law.
I think he might.
  19
  A day or two ago the musical critic of the Standard wrote this:—
        
MR LAMOND IN BEETHOVEN

  Mr Frederick Lamond, the Scottish pianist, as an interpreter of Beethoven has few rivals. At his second recital of the composer’s works at Bechstein Hall on Saturday afternoon he again displayed a complete sympathy and understanding of his material that extracted the very essence of aesthetic and musical value from each selection he undertook. The delightful intimacy of his playing and his unusual force of individual expression are invaluable assets, which, allied to his technical brilliancy, enable him to achieve an artistic triumph. The two lengthy Variations in E flat major (Op. 35) and in D major, the latter on the Turkish March from ‘The Ruins of Athens,’ when included in the same programme, require a master hand to provide continuity of interest. To say that Mr Lamond successfully avoided moments that might at times, in these works, have inclined to comparative disinterestedness, would be but a moderate way of expressing the remarkable fascination with which his versatile playing endowed them, but at the same time two of the sonatas given included a similar form of composition, and no matter how intellectually brilliant may be the interpretation, the extravagant use of a certain mode is bound in time to become somewhat ineffective. In the Three Sonatas, the E major (Op. 109), the A major (Op. 2), No. 2, and the C minor (Op. 111), Mr Lamond signalised his perfect insight into the composer’s varying moods.
Will you not agree with me that here is no writing, here is no prose, here is not even English, but merely a flux of words to the pen?
  20
  Here again is a string, a concatenation—say, rather, a tiara—of gems of purest ray serene from the dark unfathomed caves of a Scottish newspaper:—
          The Chinese viewpoint, as indicated in this letter, may not be without interest to your readers, because it evidently is suggestive of more than an academic attempt to explain an unpleasant aspect of things which, if allowed to materialise, might suddenly culminate in disaster resembling the Chang-Sha riots. It also ventures to illustrate incidents having their inception in recent premature endeavours to accelerate the development of Protestant missions in China; but we would hope for the sake of the interests involved that what my correspondent describes as ‘the irresponsible ruffian element’ may be known by their various religious designations only within very restricted areas.
Well, the Chinese have given it up, poor fellows! and are asking the Christians—as to-day’s newspapers inform us—to pray for them. Do you wonder? But that is, or was, the Chinese ‘viewpoint,’—and what a willow-pattern viewpoint! Observe its delicacy. It does not venture to interest or be interesting; merely ‘to be not without interest.’ But it does ‘venture to illustrate incidents’—which, for a viewpoint, is brave enough: and this illustration ‘is suggestive of something more than an academic attempt to explain an unpleasant aspect of things which, if allowed to materialise, might suddenly culminate.’ What materialises? The unpleasant aspect? or the things? Grammar says the ‘things,’ ‘things which if allowed to materialise.’ But things are materialised already, and as a condition of their being things. It must be the aspect, then, that materialises. But, if so, it is also the aspect that culminates, and an aspect, however unpleasant, can hardly do that, or at worst cannot culminate in anything resembling the Chang-Sha riots.… I give it up.
  21
  Let us turn to another trick of Jargon: the trick of Elegant Variation, so rampant in the Sporting Press that there, without needing to attend these lectures, the Undergraduate detects it for laughter:—
          Haywords and C. B. Fry now faced the bowling; which apparently had no terrors for the Surrey crack. The old Oxonian, however, took some time in settling to work.…
Yes, you all recognise it and laugh at it. But why do you practise it in your Essays? An undergraduate brings me an essay on Byron. In an essay on Byron, Byron is (or ought to be) mentioned many times. I expect, nay exact, that Bryon shall be mentioned again and again. But my undergraduate has a blushing sense that to call Byron Byron twice on one page is indelicate. So Byron, after starting bravely as Byron, in the second sentence turns into ‘that great but unequal poet’ and thenceforward I have as much trouble with Byron as ever Telemachus with Proteus to hold and pin him back to his proper self. Half-way down the page he becomes ‘the gloomy master of Newstead’: overleaf he is reincarnated into ‘the meteoric darling of society’: and so proceeds through successive avatars—‘this arch-rebel,’ ‘the author of Childe Harold,’ ‘the apostle of scorn,’ ‘the ex-Harrovian, proud, but abnormally sensitive of his club-foot,’ ‘the martyr of Missolonghi,’ ‘the pageant-monger of a bleeding heart.’ Now this again is Jargon. It does not, as most Jargon does, come of laziness; but it comes of timidity, which is worse. In literature as in life he makes himself felt who not only calls a spade a spade but has the pluck to double spades and re-double.
  22
  For another rule—just as rough and ready, but just as useful: Train your suspicions to bristle up whenever you come upon ‘as regards,’ ‘with regard to,’ ‘in respect of,’ ‘in connection with,’ ‘according as to whether,’ and the like. They are all dodges of Jargon, circumlocutions for evading this or that simple statement: and I say that it is not enough to avoid them nine times out of ten, or nine-and-ninety times out of a hundred. You should never use them. That is positive enough, I hope? Though I cannot admire his style, I admire the man who wrote to me, ‘Re Tennyson—your remarks anent his In Memoriam make me sick’: for though re is not a preposition of the first water, and ‘anent’ has enjoyed its day, the finish crowned the work. But here are a few specimens far, very far, worse:—
          The special difficulty in Professor Minocelsi’s case [our old friend ‘case’ again] arose in connexion with the view he holds relative to the historical value of the opening pages of Genesis.
That is Jargon. In prose, even taking the miserable sentence as it stands constructed, we should write ‘the difficulty arose over the views he holds about the historical value,’ etc.
  23
  From a popular novelist:—
          I was entirely indifferent as to the results of the game, caring nothing at all as to whether I had losses or gains—
Cut out the first ‘as’ in ‘as to,’ and the second ‘as to’ altogether, and the sentence begins to be prose—‘I was indifferent to the results of the game, caring nothing whether I had losses or gains.’
  24
  But why, like Dogberry, have ‘had losses’? Why not simply ‘lose.’ Let us try again. ‘I was entirely indifferent to the results of the game, caring nothing at all whether I won or lost.’  25
  Still the sentence remains absurd: for the second clause but repeats the first without adding one jot. For if you care not at all whether you win or lose, you must be entirely indifferent to the results of the game. So why not say ‘I was careless if I won or lost,’ and have done with it?
          A man of simple and charming character, he was fitly associated with the distinction of the Order of Merit.
I take this gem with some others from a collection made three years ago, by the Oxford Magazine; and I hope you admire it as one beyond price. ‘He was associated with the distinction of the Order of Merit’ means ‘he was given the Order of Merit.’ If the members of that Order make a society then he was associated with them; but you cannot associate a man with a distinction. The inventor of such fine writing would doubtless have answered Canning’s Needy Knife-grinder with:—
          I associate thee with sixpence! I will see thee in another association first!
But let us close our florilegium and attempt to illustrate Jargon by the converse method of taking a famous piece of English (say Hamlet’s soliloquy) and remoulding a few lines of it in this fashion:—
          To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion. The condition of sleep is similar to, if not indistinguishable from, that of death; and with the addition of finality the former might be considered identical with the latter: so that in this connection it might be argued with regard to sleep that, could the addition be effected, a termination would be put to the endurance of a multiplicity of inconveniences, not to mention a number of downright evils incidental to our fallen humanity, and thus a consummation achieved of a most gratifying nature.
That is Jargon: and to write Jargon is to be perpetually shuffling around in the fog and cotton-wool of abstract terms; to be for ever hearkening, like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, to the voice of the Boyg exhorting you to circumvent the difficulty, to beat the air because it is easier than to flesh your sword in the thing. The first virtue, the touchstone of a masculine style, is its use of the active verb and the concrete noun. When you write in the active voice, ‘They gave him a silver teapot,’ you write as a man. When you write ‘He was made the recipient of a silver teapot,’ you write jargon. But at the beginning set even higher store on the concrete noun. Somebody—I think it was FitzGerald—once posited the question ‘What would have become of Christianity if Jeremy Bentham had had the writing of the Parables?’ Without pursuing that dreadful enquiry I ask you to note how carefully the Parables—those exquisite short stories—speak only of ‘things which you can touch and see’—‘A sower went forth to sow,’ ‘The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took,’—and not the Parables only, but the Sermon on the Mount and almost every verse of the Gospel. The Gospel does not, like my young essayist, fear to repeat a word, if the word be good. The Gospel says ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’—not ‘Render unto Caesar the things that appertain to that potentate.’ The Gospel does not say ‘Consider the growth of the lilies,’ or even ‘Consider how the lilies grow.’ It says, ‘Consider the lilies, how they grow.’
  26
  Or take Shakespeare. I wager you that no writer of English so constantly chooses the concrete word, in phrase after phrase forcing you to touch and see. No writer so insistently teaches the general through the particular. He does it even in Venus and Adonis (as Professor Wendell, of Harvard, pointed out in a brilliant little monograph on Shakespeare, published some ten years ago). Read any page of Venus and Adonis side by side with any page of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and you cannot but mark the contrast: in Shakespeare the definite, particular, visualised image, in Marlowe the beautiful generalisation, the abstract term, the thing seen at a literary remove. Take the two openings, both of which start out with the sunrise. Marlowe begins:—
        Now had the Morn espied her lover’s steeds:
Whereat she starts, puts on her purple weeds,
And, red for anger that he stay’d so long,
All headlong throws herself the clouds among.
Shakespeare wastes no words on Aurora and her feelings, but gets to his hero and to business without ado:—
        Even as the sun with purple-colour’d face—
(You have the sun visualised at once),
        Even as the sun with purple-colour’d face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek’d Adonis hied him to the chase;
Hunting he loved, but love he laugh’d to scorn.
  27
  When Shakespeare has to describe a horse, mark how definite he is:—
        Round-hoof’d, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong;
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide.
Or again, in a casual simile, how definite:—
        Upon this promise did he raise his chin,
Like a dive-dipper peering through a wave,
Which, being look’d on, ducks as quickly in.
Or take, if you will, Marlowe’s description of Hero’s first meeting Leander:—
        It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-ruled by fate…,
and set against it Shakespeare’s description of Venus’ last meeting with Adonis, as she came on him lying in his blood:—
        Or as a snail whose tender horns being hit
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smother’d up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again;
    So, at his bloody view—
I do not deny Marlowe’s lines (if you will study the whole passage) to be lovely. You may even judge Shakespeare’s to be crude by comparison. But you cannot help noting that whereas Marlowe steadily deals in abstract, nebulous terms, Shakespeare constantly uses concrete ones, which later on he learned to pack into verse, such as:—
        Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.
  28
  Is it unfair to instance Marlowe, who died young? Then let us take Webster for the comparison; Webster, a man of genius or of something very like it, and commonly praised by the critics for his mastery over definite, detailed, and what I may call solidified sensation. Let us take this admired passage from his Duchess of Malfy:
        Ferdinand. How doth our sister Duchess bear herself
In her imprisonment?
Basola.     Nobly: I’ll describe her.
She’s sad as one long used to ’t, and she seems
Rather to welcome the end of misery
Than shun it: a behaviour so noble
As gives a majesty to adversity 1 
You may discern the shape of loveliness
More perfect in her tears than in her smiles;
She will muse for hours together; 2  and her silence
Methinks expresseth more than if she spake.
Now set against this the well-known passage from Twelfth Night where the Duke asks and Viola answers a question about someone unknown to him and invented by her—a mere phantasm, in short: yet note how much more definite is the language:—
        Viola. My father had a daughter lov’d a man;
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.
Duke.     And what’s her history?
Viola. A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek; she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like Patience on a monument
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
  29
  Observe (apart from the dramatic skill of it) how, when Shakespeare has to use the abstract noun ‘concealment,’ on an instant it turns into a visible worm ‘feeding’ on the visible rose; how, having to use a second abstract word ‘patience,’ at once he solidifies it in tangible stone.  30
  Turning to prose, you may easily assure yourselves that men who have written learnedly on the art agree in treating our maxim—to prefer the concrete term to the abstract, the particular to the general, the definite to the vague—as a canon of rhetoric. Whately has much to say on it. The late Mr E. J. Payne, in one of his admirable prefaces to Burke (prefaces too little known and valued, as too often happens to scholarship hidden away in a schoolbook), illustrated the maxim by setting a passage from Burke’s speech On Conciliation with America alongside a passage of like purport from Lord Brougham’s Inquiry into the Policy of the European Powers. Here is the deadly parallel:—
BURKE.

  In large bodies the circulation of power must be less vigorous at the extremities. Nature has said it. The Turk cannot govern Ægypt and Arabia and Curdistan as he governs Thrace; nor has he the same dominion in Crimea and Algiers which he has at Brusa and Smyrna. Despotism itself is obliged to truck and huckster. The Sultan gets such obedience as he can. He governs with a loose rein, that he may govern at all; and the whole of the force and vigour of his authority in his centre is derived from a prudent relaxation in all his brothers.
BROUGHAM.

  In all the despotisms of the East, it has been observed that the further any part of the empire is removed from the capital, the more do its inhabitants enjoy some sort of rights and privileges: the more inefficacious is the power of the monarch; and the more feeble and easily decayed is the organisation of the government.
  31
  You perceive that Brougham has transferred Burke’s thought to his own page: but will you not also perceive how pitiably, by dissolving Burke’s vivid particulars into smooth generalities, he has enervated its hold on the mind?  32
  ‘This particularising style,’ comments Mr Payne, ‘is the essence of Poetry; and in Prose it is impossible not to be struck with the energy it produces. Brougham’s passage is excellent in its way: but it pales before the flashing lights of Burke’s sentences. The best instances of this energy of style, he adds, are to be found in the classical writers of the seventeenth century. ‘When South says, “An Aristotle was but the rubbish of an Adam, and Athens but the rudiments of Paradise,” he communicates more effectually the notion of the difference between the intellect of fallen and of unfallen humanity than in all the philosophy of his sermons put together.’  33
  You may agree with me, or you may not, that South in this passage is expounding trash; but you will agree with Mr Payne and me that he uttered it vividly.  34
  Let me quote to you, as a final example of this vivid style of writing, a passage from Dr John Donne far beyond and above anything that ever lay within South’s compass:—
          The ashes of an Oak in the Chimney are no epitaph of that Oak, to tell me how high or how large that was; it tells me not what flocks it sheltered while it stood, nor what men it hurt when it fell. The dust of great persons’ graves is speechless, too; it says nothing, it distinguishes nothing. As soon the dust of a wretch whom thou wouldest not, as of a prince whom thou couldest not look upon will trouble thine eyes if the wind blow it thither; and when a whirlewind hath blown the dust of the Churchyard into the Church, and the man sweeps out the dust of the Church into the Churchyard, who will undertake to sift those dusts again and to pronounce, This is the Patrician, this is the noble flowre [flour], this the yeomanly, this the Plebeian bran? So is the death of Iesabel (Iesabel was a Queen) expressed. They shall not say This is Iesabel; not only not wonder that it is, nor pity that it should be; but they shall not say, they shall not know, This is Iesabel.
  35
  Carlyle noted of Goethe, ‘his emblematic intellect, his never-failing tendency to transform into shape, into life, the feeling that may dwell in him. Everything has form, has visual excellence: the poet’s imagination bodies forth the forms of things unseen, and his pen turns them into shape.’  36
  Perpend this, Gentlemen, and maybe you will not hereafter set it down to my reproach that I wasted an hour of a May morning in a denunciation of Jargon, and in exhorting you upon a technical matter at first sight so trivial as the choice between abstract and definite words.  37
  A lesson about writing your language may go deeper than language; for language (as in a former lecture I tried to preach to you) is your reason, your [Greek8]. So long as you prefer abstract words, which express other men’s summarised concepts of things, to concrete ones which lie as near as can be reached to things themselves and are the first-hand material for your thoughts, you will remain, at the best, writers at second-hand. If your language be Jargon, your intellect, if not your whole character, will almost certainly correspond. Where your mind should go straight, it will dodge: the difficulties it should approach with a fair front and grip with a firm hand it will be seeking to evade or circumvent. For the Style is the Man, and where a man’s treasure is there his heart, and his brain, and his writing, will be also.  38


Note 1.  Note the abstract terms. [back]
Note 2.  Here we first come on the concrete: and beautiful it is. [back]

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