Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch > On the Art of Writing > VII. Some Principles Reaffirmed
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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944).  On the Art of Writing.  1916.

VII.  Some Principles Reaffirmed

Thursday, May 29


LET me begin to-day, Gentlemen, with a footnote to my last lecture. It ended, as you may remember, upon an earnest appeal to you, if you would write good English, to study the Authorised Version of the Scriptures; to learn from it, moreover, how by mastering rhythm, our Prose overcame the capital difficulty of Prose and attuned itself to rival its twin instrument, Verse; compassing almost equally with Verse man’s thought however sublime, his emotion however profound.   1
  Now in the course of my remarks I happened—maybe a little incautiously—to call the Authorised Version a ‘miracle’; using that word in a colloquial sense, in which no doubt you accepted it; meaning no more than that the thing passed my understanding. I have allowed that the famous forty-seven owed an immense deal to earlier translators—to the Bishops, to Tyndale, to the Wyclif Version, as themselves allowed it eagerly in their preface:—
          Truly (good Christian reader) wee never thought from the beginning that we should needs to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principall good one, not justly to be excepted against: that hath bene our indeavour, that our marke. 1
   2
  Nevertheless the Authorised Version astounds me, as I believe it will astound you when you compare it with earlier translations. Aristotle (it has been said) invented Chance to cover the astonishing fact that there were certain phenomena for which he found himself wholly unable to account. Just so, if one may compare very small things with very great, I spoke of the Authorised Version as a ‘miracle.’ It was, it remains, marvellous to me.   3
  Should these deciduous discourses ever come to be pressed within the leaves of a book, I believe their general meaning will be as clear to readers as I hope it is to you who give me so much pleasure by pursuing them—almost (shall I say?) like Wordsworth’s Kitten with those other falling leaves:—
        That almost I could repine
That your transports are not mine.
But meanwhile certain writers in the newspapers are assuming that by this word ‘miracle’ I meant to suggest to you a something like plenary inspiration at once supernatural and so authoritative that it were sacrilege now to alter their text by one jot or tittle.
   4
  Believe me, I intended nothing of the sort: for that, in my plain opinion, would be to make a fetish of the book. One of these days I hope to discuss with you what inspiration is: with what accuracy—with what meaning, if any—we can say of a poet that he is inspired; questions which have puzzled many wise men from Plato downwards.   5
  But certainly I never dreamt of claiming plenary inspiration for the forty-seven. Nay, if you will have it, they now and again wrote stark nonsense. Remember that I used this very same word ‘miracle’ of Shakespeare, meaning again that the total Shakespeare quite outpasses my comprehension; yet Shakespeare, too, on occasion talks stark nonsense, or at any rate stark bombast. He never blotted a line—‘I would he had blotted a thousand’ says Ben Jonson: and Ben Jonson was right. Shakespeare could have blotted out two or three thousand lines: he was great enough to afford it. Somewhere Matthew Arnold supposes us as challenging Shakespeare over this and that weak or bombastic passage, and Shakespeare answering with his tolerant smile, that no doubt we were right, but after all, ‘Did it greatly matter?’   6
  So we offer no real derogation to the forty-seven in asserting that here and there they wrote nonsense. They could afford it. But we do stultify criticism if, adoring the grand total of wisdom and beauty, we prostrate ourselves indiscriminately before what is good and what is bad, what is sublime sense and what is nonsense, and forbid any reviser to put forth a hand to the ark.   7
  The most of us Christians go to church on Christmas Day, and there we listen to this from Isaiah, chapter ix, verses 1–7:—
          Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.
  The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
  Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
  For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian.
  For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood: but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.
  For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.
The forty-seven keep their majestic rhythm. But have you ever, sitting in church on a Christmas morning, asked yourself what it all means, or if it mean anything more than a sing-song according somehow with the holly and ivy around the pillars? ‘Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest,’ But why—if the joy be not increased? ‘For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood: but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.’ Granted the rhythmical antithesis, where is the real antithesis, the difference, the improvement? If a battle there must be, how is burning better than garments rolled in blood? And, in fine, what is it all about? Now let us turn to the Revised Version:—
          But there shall be no gloom to her that was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time hath he made it glorious, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
  The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Thou hast multiplied the nation, thou hast increased their joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
  For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, thou hast broken as in the day of Midian.
  For all the armour of the armed man in the tumult, and the garments rolled in blood, shall even be for burning, for fuel of fire.
  For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
I say (knowing no Hebrew, merely assuming our Revisers to be at least no worse scholars than the forty-seven) that here, with the old cadences kept so far as possible, we are given sense in place of nonsense: and I ask you to come to the Revised Version with a fair mind. I myself came to it with some prejudice; in complete ignorance of Hebrew, and with no more than the usual amount of Hellenistic Greek. I grant at once that the Revised New Testament was a literary fiasco; largely due (if gossip may be trusted) to trouble with the Greek Aorist, and an unwise decision—in my opinion the most gratuitously unwise a translator can take—to use one and the same English word, always and in every connotation, as representing one and the same Greek word: for in any two languages few words are precisely equivalent. A fiasco at any rate the Revised New Testament was, deserving in a dozen ways and in a thousand passages the scorn which Professor Saintsbury has recently heaped on it. But I protest against the injustice of treating the two Revisions—of the New Testament and of the Old—as a single work, and saddling the whole with the sins of a part. For two years I spent half-an-hour daily in reading the Authorised and Revised Versions side by side, marking as I went, and in this way worked through the whole—Old Testament, Apocrypha, New Testament. I came to it (as I have said) with some prejudice; but I closed the books on a conviction, which my notes sustain for me, that the Revisers of the Old Testament performed their task delicately, scrupulously, on the whole with great good judgment; that the critic does a wrong who brings them under his indiscriminate censure; that on the whole they have clarified the sense of the Authorised Version while respecting its consecrated rhythms; and that—to name an example, that you may test my words and judge for yourselves—the solemn splendour of that most wonderful poem, the story of Job, [Greek9], ‘shines through’ the new translation as it never shone through the old.
    *    *    *    *    *
   8
  And now Gentlemen (as George Herbert said on a famous occasion), let us tune our instruments.   9
  
  Before discussing with you another and highly important question of style in writing, I will ask you to look back for a few moments on the road we have travelled.  10
  We have agreed that our writing should be appropriate: that it should fit the occasion; that it should rise and fall with the subject, be grave where that is serious, where it is light not afraid of what Stevenson in The Wrong Box calls ‘a little judicious levity.’ If your writing observe these precepts, it will be well-mannered writing.  11
  To be sure, much in addition will depend on yourself—on what you are or have made yourself, since in writing the style can never be separated from the man. But neither can it in the practice of virtue: yet, though men differ in character, I do not observe that moralists forbear from laying down general rules of excellence. Now if you will recall our further conclusion, that writing to be good must be persuasive (since persuasion is the only true intellectual process), and will test this by a passage of Newman’s I am presently to quote to you, from his famous ‘definition of a gentleman,’ I think you will guess pretty accurately the general law of excellence I would have you, as Cambridge men, tribally and particularly obey.  12
  Newman says of a gentleman that among other things:
          He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out… If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they found it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion: but he is too clear-sighted to be unjust. He is simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive.
Enough for the moment on this subject: but commit these words to your hearts, and you will not only triumph in newspaper controversy. You will do better: you will avoid it.
  13
  To proceed.—We found further that our writing should be accurate: because language expresses thought—is, indeed, the only expression of thought—and if we lack the skill to speak precisely, our thought will remain confused, ill-defined. The editor of a mining paper in Denver, U.S.A., boldly the other day laid down this law, that niceties of language were mere ‘frills’: all a man needed was to ‘get there,’ that is, to say what he wished in his own way. But just here, we found, lies the mischief. You will not get there by hammering away on your own untutored impulse. You must first be your own reader, chiselling out the thought definitely for yourself: and, after that, must carve out the intaglio yet more sharply and neatly, if you would impress its image accurately upon the wax of other men’s minds. We found that even for Men of Science this neat clean carving of words was a very necessary accomplishment. As Sir James Barrie once observed, ‘The Man of Science appears to be the only man who has something to say, just now—and the only man who does not know how to say it.’ But the trouble by no means ends with Science. Our poets—those gifted strangely prehensile men who, as I said in my first lecture, seem to be born with filaments by which they apprehend, and along which they conduct, the half-secrets of life to us ordinary mortals—our poets would appear to be scamping artistic labour, neglecting to reduce the vague impressions to the clearly cut image which is, after all, what helps. It may be a triumph that they have taught modern French poetry to be suggestive. I think it would be more profitable could they learn from France—that nation of fine workmen—to be definite.  14
  But about ‘getting there’—I ask you to remember Wolfe, with the seal of his fate on him, stepping into his bateau on the dark St. Lawrence River and quoting as they tided him over:—
        The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
  And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Await alike th’ inevitable hour;
  The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
‘I had rather have written those lines,’ said Wolfe, ‘than conquer Canada.’ That is how our forefathers valued noble writing. The Denver editor holds that you may write as you please so long as you get there. Well, Wolfe got there: and so, in Wolfe’s opinion, did Gray: but perhaps to Wolfe and Gray, and to the Denver editor, ‘there’ happened to mean two different places. Wolfe got to the Heights of Abraham.
  15
  Further, it was against this loose adaptation of words to thought and to things that we protested in our interpolated lecture on Jargon, which is not so much bad writing as the avoidance of writing. The man who employs Jargon does not get ‘there’ at all, even in a raw rough pioneering fashion: he just walks around ‘there’ in the ambient tracks of others. Let me fly as high as I can and quote you two recent achievements by Cabinet Ministers, as reported in the Press:—(1) ‘Mr McKenna’s reasons for releasing from Holloway Prison Miss Lenton while on remand charged in connexion with (sweet phrase!) the firing of the tea pavilion in Kew Gardens are given in a letter which he has caused to be forwarded to a correspondent who inquired as to the circumstances of the release. The letter says “I am desired by the Home Secretary to say that Lilian Lenton was reported by the medical officer at Holloway Prison to be in a state of collapse and in imminent danger of death consequent upon her refusal to take food. Three courses were open—(1) To leave her to die; (2) To attempt to feed her forcibly, which the medical officer advised would probably entail death in her existing condition: (3) To release her. The Home Secretary adopted the last course.”’  16
  ‘Would probably entail death in her existing condition’! Will anyone tell me how Mr McKenna or anyone else could kill, or (as he prefers to put it) entail death upon, Miss Lenton in a non-existing condition?  17
  (2) Next take the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As we know, the Chancellor of the Exchequer can use incisive speech when he chooses. On May 8th as reported in next day’s Morning Post, Mr Lloyd George, answering a question, delivered himself of this to an attentive Senate:—
          With regard to Mr Noel Buxton’s questions, I cannot answer for an enquiry which is of a private and confidential character, for although I am associated with it I am not associated with it as a Minister of the Crown.… Those enquiries are of a very careful systematic and scientific character, and are being conducted by the ablest investigators in this country, some of whom have reputations of international character. I am glad to think that the investigation is of a most impartial character.
It must be a comforting thought, that an inquiry of a private and confidential character is also of a very systematic and scientific character, and besides being of a most impartial character, is conducted by men of international character—whatever that may happen to mean. What is an international character, and what would you give for one?
  18
  We found that this way of talking, while pretending to be something pontifical, is really not prose at all, nor reputable speech at all, but Jargon; nor is the offence to be excused by pleading, as I have heard it pleaded, that Mr Lloyd George was not using his own phraseology but quoting from a paper supplied him by some permanent official of the Treasury: since we select our civil servants among men of decent education and their salaries warrant our stipulating that they shall be able, at least, to speak and write their mother tongue.  19
  We laid down certain rules to help us in the way of straight Prose:—  20
  (1) Always always prefer the concrete word to the abstract.  21
  (2) Almost always prefer the direct word to the circumlocution.  22
  (3) Generally, use transitive verbs, that strike their object; and use them in the active voice, eschewing the stationary passive, with its little auxiliary its’s and was’s, and its participles getting into the light of your adjectives, which should be few. For, as a rough law, by his use of the straight verb and by his economy of adjectives you can tell a man’s style, if it be masculine or neuter, writing or ‘composition.’  23
  The authors of that capital handbook The King’s English, which I have already recommended to you, add two rules:—  24
  (4) Prefer the short word to the long.  25
  (5) Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.
But these two precepts you would have to modify by so long a string of exceptions that I do not commend them to you. In fact I think them false in theory and likely to be fatal in practice. For, as my last lecture tried to show, you no sooner begin to philosophise things instead of merely telling a tale of them than you must go to the Mediterranean languages: because in these man first learnt to discuss his ‘why’ and ‘how,’ and these languages yet guard the vocabulary.
  26
  Lastly, we saw how, by experimenting with rhythm, our prose ‘broke its birth’s invidious bar’ and learnt to scale forbidden heights.  27
  Now by attending to the few plain rules given above you may train yourselves to write sound, straightforward, work-a-day English. But if you would write melodious English, I fear the gods will require of you what they ought to have given you at birth—something of an ear. Yet the most of us have ears, of sorts; and I believe that, though we can only acquire it by assiduous practice, the most of us can wonderfully improve our talent of the ear.  28
  If you will possess yourselves of a copy of Quintilian or borrow one from any library (Bohn’s translation will do) and turn to his 9th book, you will find a hundred ways indicated, illustrated, classified, in which a writer or speaker can vary his Style, modulate it, lift or depress it, regulate its balance.  29
  All these rules, separately worth studying, if taken together may easily bewilder and dishearten you. Let me choose just two, and try to hearten you by showing that, even with these two only, you can go a long way.  30
  Take the use of right emphasis. What Quintilian says of right emphasis—or the most important thing he says—is this:—
          There is sometimes an extraordinary force in some particular word, which, if it be placed in no very conspicuous position in the middle part of a sentence, is likely to escape the attention of the hearer and to be obscured by the words surrounding it; but if it be put at the end of the sentence is urged upon the reader’s sense and imprinted on his mind.
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  That seems obvious enough, for English use as well as for Latin. ‘The wages of sin is Death’—anyone can see how much more emphatic that is than ‘Death is the wages of sin.’ But let your minds work on this matter of emphasis, and discover how emphasis has always its right point somewhere, though it be not at all necessarily at the end of the sentence. Take a sentence in which the strong words actually repeat themselves for emphasis:—
        Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city.
Our first impulse would be to place the emphasis at the end:—
        Babylon, that great city, is fallen, is fallen.
The Latin puts it at the beginning:—
        Cecidit, cecidit, Babylonia illa magna.
Fallen, fallen, is Babylon, that great city.
  32
  The forty-seven preserved the ‘falling close’ so exquisite in the Latin; the emphasis, already secured by repetition, they accentuated by lengthening the pause. I would urge on you that in every sentence there is just a right point of emphasis which you must train your ears to detect. So your writing will acquire not only emphasis, but balance, and you will instinctively avoid such an ill-emphasised sentence as this, which, not naming the author, I will quote for your delectation:—
          ‘Are Japanese Aprils always as lovely as this?’ asked the man in the light tweed suit of two others in immaculate flannels with crimson sashes round their waists and puggarees folded in cunning plaits round their broad Terai hats.
  33
  Explore, next, what (though critics have strangely neglected it) to my mind stands the first, or almost the first, secret of beautiful writing in English, whether in prose or in verse; I mean that inter-play of vowel-sounds in which no language can match us. We have so many vowel sounds indeed, and so few vowels to express them, that the foreigner, mistaking our modesty, complains against God’s plenty. We alone, for example, sound by a natural vowel that noble I, which other nations can only compass by diphthongs. Let us consider that vowel for a moment or two and mark how it leads off the dance of the Graces, its sisters:—
          Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
  34
  Mark how expressively it drops to the solemn vowel ‘O,’ and anon how expressively it reasserts itself to express rearisen delight:—
          Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and Kings to the brightness of thy rising.
  35
  Take another passage in which the first lift of this I vowel yields to its graver sisters as though the sound sank into the very heart of the sense.
          I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.’
  36
  ‘And am no more worthy to be called thy son.’ Mark the deep O’s. ‘For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ‘O my son, my son Absalom’—observe the I and O how they interchime, until the O of sorrow tolls the lighter note down:—
          O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absolom, my son, my son!
  37
  Or take this lyric, by admission one of the loveliest written in this present age, and mark here too how the vowels play and ring and chime and toll.
        I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
  And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
  And live alone in the bee-loud glade. 2
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
  Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
  And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
  
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
  I hear lake-water lapping, with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
  I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
  38
  I think if you will but open your ears to this beautiful vowel-play which runs through all the best of our prose and poetry, whether you ever learn to master it or not, you will have acquired a new delight, and one various enough to last you though you live to a very old age.  39
  All this of which I am speaking is Art: and Literature being an Art, do you not see how personal a thing it is—how it cannot escape being personal? No two men (unless they talk Jargon) say the same thing in the same way. As is a man’s imagination, as is his character, as is the harmony in himself, as is his ear, as is his skill, so and not otherwise he will speak, so and not otherwise than they can respond to that imagination, that character, that order of his intellect, that harmony of his soul, his hearers will hear him. Let me conclude with this great passage from Newman which I beg you, having heard it, to ponder:—
          If then the power of speech is as great as any that can be named,—if the origin of language is by many philosophers considered nothing short of divine—if by means of words the secrets of the heart are brought to light, pain of soul is relieved, hidden grief is carried off, sympathy conveyed, experience recorded, and wisdom perpetuated,—if by great authors the many are drawn up into unity, national character is fixed, a people speaks, the past and the future, the East and the West are brought into communication with each other,—if such men are, in a word, the spokesmen and the prophets of the human family—it will not answer to make light of Literature or to neglect its study: rather we may be sure that, in proportion as we master it in whatever language, and imbibe its spirit, we shall ourselves become in our own measure the ministers of like benefits to others—be they many or few, be they in the obscurer or the more distinguished walks of life—who are united to us by social ties, and are within the sphere of our personal influence.
  40


Note 1.  I append the following specimen translations of the famous passage in St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians xv. 51 sqq. I choose this because (1) it is an important passage; (2) it touches a high moment of philosophising; (3) the comparison seems to me to represent with great fairness to Tyndale the extent of the forty-seven’s debt to him; (4) it shows that they meant exactly what they said in their Preface; and (5) it illustrates, towards the close, their genius for improvement. The Greek runs:—
        [Greek10]


Wyclif translates:—
          Lo, I seie to you pryvyte of holi thingis | and alle we schulen rise agen | but not alle we schuln be chaungid | in a moment in the twynkelynge of an yë, in the last trumpe | for the trumpe schal sowne: and deed men schulen rise agen with out corrupcion, and we schuln be changid | for it bihoveth this corruptible thing to clothe uncorropcion and this deedly thing to putte aweye undeedlynesse. But whanne this deedli thing schal clothe undeedlynesse | thanne schal the word be don that is written | deeth is sopun up in victorie | deeth, where is thi victorie? deeth, where is thi pricke?


Tyndate:—
          Beholde I shewe you a mystery. We shall not all slepe: but we shall all be chaunged | and that in a moment | and in the twinclinge of an eye | at the sounde of the last trompe. For the trompe shall blowe, and the deed shall ryse incorruptible and we shalbe chaunged. For this corruptible must put on incorruptibilite: and this mortall must put on immortalite. When this corruptible hath put on incorruptibilite | and this mortall hath put on immortalite: than shalbe brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Deeth is consumed in to victory.’ Deeth, where is thy stynge? Hell, where is thy victory?


The Authorised Version:—
          Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleepe, but wee shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinckling of an eye, at the last trumpe, (for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed). For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortall must put on immortalitie. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortall shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to passe the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
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Note 2.  
          I E O : I O E
  I O : E O U A
‘As, musing slow, I hail
Thy genial loved return.’
        COLLINS, Ode to Evening.
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