W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

. (page 21 of 43)
Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 21 of 43)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

should be a satisfying equipoise of sound ; for nothing more often
disappoints the ear than a sentence solemnly and sonorously pre-
pared, and hastily and weakly finished. Nor should the balance
be too striking and exact, for the one rule is to be infinitely
various; to interest, to disappoint, to surprise, and yet still to
gratify; to be ever changing as it were, the stitch, and yet still
to give the effect of an ingenious neatness.

• The Contemporary Review, April, 1885.


by Google

236 English Composition and Style

Stevenson very evidently, in the foregoing quotation, speaks
from a technical point of view: the sentence is to be kept
going, ideas are to be introduced, even, for the sake of keep-
ing the sentence in its proper movement, its varied and rhyth-
mical start, hold, and down glide. The ideal of Stevenson as
successfully carried out is limited to a few pages in a few
writers, but it suggests several important things which begin-
ners may properly bear in mind. The first of these is

Economy of predication. This has been spoken of with re-
gard to words, but is so important as once more to merit at-
tention. The illuminating word doubtless helps the sentence
to seem to cover ground rapidly, though the actual number of
words may remain the same, but the suppression of predica-
tion results in a positive shortening of space and the oppor-
tunity of a more rapid sentence movement. If, for example,
we say, — as indeed we can very commonly say with a little
care, — ^"Certain things are" instead of "There are certain
things which are," or other like phrases, we evidently make
the sentence move better. The improvement might be re-
ferred to better emphasis, or to reduction of pleonasm, but in
any event the object is to get the matter out as quickly as
possible, and for this end no better point of attention exists than
predication. Probably more stylistic improvements have
sprung from skilful handling of predication than from any
other source. If we have to predicate everything, style will
be without variety. It may have a rugged movement, to be
sure, but no grace. Great refinement and exactness can be
secured only when subordinate clauses are used, when a word
or a phrase may do duty for a sentence. Take the following
wholly competent sentences, good in movement, but of no
extraordinary skill :

At this moment we are all looking for the biography of an
illustrious man of letters, written by a near kinsman, who is
himself naturally endowed with keen literary interests, and who
has invigorated his academic cultivation by practical engagement
in considerable affairs of public business. Before taking up Mr.


by Google

Sentences 237

Trevdyan's two volumes, it is perhaps worth while, on Strafford's
plan, to ask ourselves shortly what kind of significance or value
belongs to Lord Macaulay's achievements, and to what place he
has a claim among the forces of English literature.*

Predicated with some fullness the following sentences might
result :

1. At this moment we are all looking for the biography of
a man of letters, who is illustrious.

2. This biography is by a kinsman, who is nearly related.

3. This kinsman is endowed with interests which are literary
and which are keen and come to him naturally.

4. The kinsman has also been cultivated in an academic way.

5. This cultivation has been invigorated by business of a
character that is public.

6. This business has had to do with affairs.

7. These affairs have been practical.

8. They have also been considerable.

9. Mr. Trevelyan is the kinsman's name.

10. Mr. Trevelyan wrote two biographical volumes on

11. We shall presently take them up.

12. First, however, let us do this.

13. Strafford had a plan (which has been explained before).

14. Let us follow Strafford's plan.

15. Let us be brief in following it.

16. We will ask ourselves what kind of significance or value
belongs to what Lord Macaulay achieved, and to what place he
had a claim in English literature so far as it has been a thing
that has had power.

The result is grotesque, but it serves as an illustration of the
gain in shortness and speed, as well as in logical attractive-
ness, that comes from proper subordinations, and the use of
adjectives, adverbs, and nouns for complete statements. In
simple, concrete narrative there is naturally less chance, than
in the foregoing selection, to use general words like significance
and achievements, and indeed much primitive chronicle con-

*John Morley: Macaulay,


by Google

238 English Composition and Style

forms to the all-predicating type. But as we advance in civil-
ization and in the generality and complexity of ideas, general
words for specific predications tend to be substituted. To do
this is merely logical. To do it consciously and whenever
possible is to increase the output or the movement of sen-

Ease and beauty. A good sentence, however, should not
merely keep going, should not merely keep adding things, or
avoid lagging and eddying and repetition; it should run
smoothly. A sentence may have unity, coherence, and em-
phasis to a considerable degree, and yet not move easily,
though it will probably move much more easily than a sen-
tence without these things. Even so, in sentences these prin-
ciples are sometimes traversed, and sentences are often length-
ened, and phrases altered, for the sake of better sound or
smoother running. The quality of beauty in sentences is
often spoken of and often insisted on in teaching, but, like
any gwajt-musical matter, it is hard to inculcate as a uniform
discipline and source of attraction by reason of the diversity
of human ears. The best way is to cultivate a liking for well-
running prose, of different degrees of stateliness and solem-
nity, and some selections will be given in the exercises at the
end of this chapter. More analytically, smooth running in
sentences seems to depend on the harmony of sound among
the words, the length, variety, and rh3rthm of the phrase, and
the final cadence.

Harmony of words. Keeping in mind that a writer should
avoid excess in any direction, the student may properly culti-
vate assonance and even alliteration in words, and should cer-
tainly avoid harsh combinations. Words are disagreeable or
agreeable because of the letters and syllables that they contain
and because of reiteration of these sounds. Long open vowels
are likely to be pleasanter than short close ones; liquids and
labels, as I, p, b, v, m, etc., are pleasanter than the harder or
more sibilant and guttural sounds, as k, s, g, etc. Stevenson's
preference for


by Google

Sentences ^ 239

The ^arge she sat in, like a burnished throne
Burnt on the water ; the poop was 2^eaten gold,
Purple the sails and so periumed that
The winds were lovesick with them.'

over Macaulay's

Meanwhile the disorders of Cannon's camp went on increasing.
He called a council of war to consider what course it would be
advisable to t^ke, etc. (for several lines)

IS founded on the quality of the sounds chosen for the asso-
nance and it is a point well taken for the pleasure of prose.'
One need not cultivate the art, especially if he has an indiffer-
ent ear, to the extent that Ruskin did in such sentences as

For I do not s^eak, nor haz/e I ever spoken, since the time of
first /orward youth, in any proselytizing temper, as desiring to
persuade any one to believe anything; but whowsoez/er I venture
to address, I take for the time, his creed as I find it; and en-
deavor to ^ush it into such zatal /ruit as it seews cs^pable of;*

but one should recognize the beauty of sound in such a sen-
tence. Change a few words, without altering the sense and
note the difference :

I am not now speaking, nor since I was a young man have I
ever talked in a proselytizing way, as wishing to urge anybody to
any belief; but when I take the liberty of addressing anybody,
I assume his creed as it is for that occasion; and try to make it
bear such fruit as it can.

The proper principle to follow is to use the sounds that, in
conjunction, seem most pleasing, and avoid harsh combina-
tions. Specifically, look out for successive words beginning
and ending with the same syllable, like "one wonders" or
" awfully charitab/y/' and the hard alliterations like "Burke's
Works" or "Sybil trapped on her jkatey and jailed to the
southward." It is especially important to avoid similar final

^On Style in Literature,

•Introduction to A Crown of Wild Olive,


by Google

240 English Composition and Style

syllables in successive words, since rime is at once suggested,
and that has no business in good prose.

Rhythm. Rhythm in style simply means that certain sound
groups of some similarity are to be found in single and in suc-
cessive sentences. In prose, these groups are varied in length
but similar in their rise and fall, so that a kind of beat is
suggested. This is a vast aid to the movement of sentences,
for a good sense of rhythm, especially in spoken discourse,
goes easily with a person's breathing and enables him to speak
without effort. It is the essence of really fine emphasis. In
reading, rhyihm enables the reader to pursue a serene and
smooth but pleasantly varied course. In the superbly rhyth-
mical passages, like Raleigh's apostrophe to Death, the rhythm
IS so strong that the reader is carried by it rather than by
the logic of the phrases. Parallel constructions and sonorous
wording are evidently great aids in sentence rhythm. Two
things, however, are bad, — a swaying back and forth till prose
becomes monotonous, and any actual dropping into a metrical
rhythm, that is, a rhythm that can be measured off into feet
and syllables. (See Part IV., Ch. I.) The italicized words
of the following passage are near the danger line :

The faint, foggy daylight glimmered dimly on the bare floor and
stairs; on the bright suit of armor posted, halbert in hand, u^on
the landing; and on the dark wood-carvings and framed pictures
that hung against the yellow pdnels 6f the wdinscot. So loud was
the beating of the rain through all the house that, in Markheim's
ears, it begdn to hi distinguished into mdny different soUnds,
Footsteps and sighs, the tread of regiments marching in the dis-
tance, the chink of money in the counting, and the creaking of
doors held stealthily ajar, appeared to mingle with the patter of the
drops upon the cupola and the gushing of the water in the pipes.
The sense that he was not alone grew upon him to the verge of
madness. On every side he was haunted and begirt by presences."^

The following passages are very faulty in this respect. The
rhythm repeatedly, sometimes consecutively, slides into meter
of various kinds, and leads to a singsong:
^R. L. Stevenson: Markheim.


by Google

Sentences 241

And so we all came home from church; \ and most of the peo-
ple dined with us, \ as they ahijays do on Sundays, \ because of
the distance to go home, \ with only words inside them. \ The
parson, who always sat next to mother, was afraid that he
might have vexed us, and would not have the best piece of meat,
according tg his custom, \ But soon we put Kim at his ease, |
and showed him we were proud of him; \ and then he made no
more to do, \ but accepted the best of the sirloin.^

But confound it, \ while I ponder, \ with delicious \ dreams sus-
pended, | with my right arm \ hanging frustrate \ and the giant |
sickle drooped, \ with my left arm | bowed for clasping \ something
more \ germane than wheat, \ and my eyes not \ mindtng business, |
but intent on \ distant woods, \ — confound it, what are the men
about, and why am I left vaporing? They have taken advantage
of me, the rogues! They are gone to the hedge for the cider
jars; they have had up the sledd of bread and meat, quite softly
over the stubble, and if I can believe my eyes \ (so dazed with
Lorna's image), \ they are sitting down to an excellent dinner,
before the church clock has gone eleven ! •

Cadence. This is the fall of the sentence, the end glide;
it ends the harmony and enables the next sentence to progress
in a consistent though diverse tone. Cadence is opposed to
any abruptness of termination; it glories in agreeable words
to round out a sentence apart from the sense and logic of the

* R. D. Blackmore : Lorna D'oone, Chap. 17.

*Ibid., Chap. 29. There is much bad prose in the novel; one may
read almost whole pages of iambs, and occasionally dactyls, spondees,
and trochees. Note in passage 27, page 133, the following :

1. " While her over-eager children | (who had started forth to meet
her, I through the frost and shower of sleet) | catkin'd hazel, | gold-
gloved withy, I youthful elder, | and old woodbine." — p. 137.

2. " — Striking in and out with care | where the green blades hung
together, | so that each had space to move in, | and to spread its roots
abroad." p. 137.

3. " When we met together in the evening | round the kitchen chim-
ney place, I after the men had had their supper, | and their heavy boots
were gone." — p. 138.

4. " All the beauty of the spring || went for happy men to think of; |
all the increase of the year 1 1 was for other eyes to mark." p. 139.



by Google

242 English Composition and Style

matter. Note the cadences of the following sentences, and
particularly the final cadences, where the phrases are evidently
introduced chiefly for sound :

Twenty years ago, there was no lovelier piece of lowland
scenery in South England, nor any more pathetic, in the \yorId,
by its expression of sweet human character and life, than that
immediately bordering on the sources of the Wandel, and in-
cluding the low moors of Addington, and the villages of Bed-
dington and Carshalton, with all their pools and streams. No
cleaner or diviner waters ever sang with constant lips of the
hand which "giveth rain from heaven"; no pastures ever light-
ened in spring-time with more passionate blossoming; no sweeter
homes ever hallowed the heart of the passer-by with their pride
of peaceful gladness, — fain-hidden — yet fuU-confessed.^^

These are evidently extreme, but a more ordinary passage
will show the value of cadence. Here no sentence is ended
abruptly :

Whatever Mrs. Johnson's charms, she seems to have been a
woman of good sense and some literary judgment. Johnson's
grotesque appearance did not prevent her from saying to her
daughter on their first introduction, "This is the most sensible
man I ever met." Her praises were, we may believe, sweeter
to, him than those of the severest critics, or the most fervent of
personal flatteries. Like all good men, Johnson loved good
women, and liked to have on hand a flirtation or two, as warm
as might be within the bounds of due decorum. But nothing af-
fected his fidelity to his Letty or displaced her image in his
mind. He remembered her in many solemn prayers, and such
words as "this was dear Letty's book"; or "this was a prayer
which dear Letty was accustomed to say," were found written by
him in many of her books of devotion.*^

The value of rhythm and cadence in the movement of sen-
tences may be illustrated by comparing the opening paragraph
of Newman's definition of a university" with the closing

loRuskin: Introduction to A Crown of Wild Olive,
11 Leslie Stephen : Samuel Johnson, Chap. i.
^2 The Rise and Progress of Universities,


by Google

Sentences 243

paragraphs. Generally speaking, it may be said that any
passage as it approaches its climax increases in the excellence
of rhythm and cadence. In the opening passage below the
movement is almost entirely logical: the fitting of ideas into
one another makes the progress of the sentences in the
paragraph. In the second passage, there is an aggregation
of sentences of which the logical order might possibly be
changed, but which are bound together by the swing and
sweep of stylistic cadences and rhythm ; the movement is not
logical, but stylistic:

If I were asked to describe as briefly and as popularly as I
could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from
its ancient designation of a Studium Generate, or " School of
Universal Learning." This description implies the assemblage of
strangers from all parts in one spot — from all parts; else, how
will you find professors and students for every department of
knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school
at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a
school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and
learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to com-
plete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such
as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the
communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal
intercourse, through a wide extent of country.

Here is the close :

But I have said more than enough in illustration ; I end as I
began; — a University is a place of concourse, whither students
come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge. You can-
not have the best of every kind everywhere; you must go to some
great city or emporium for it. There you have all the choicest
productions of nature and art all together, which you find each
in its own separate place elsewhere. All the riches of the land,
and of the earth, are carried up thither, there are the best mar-
kets, and there the best workmen. It is the center of trade, the
supreme court of fashion, the umpire of rival talents, and the
standard of things rare and precious. It is the place for seeing
galleries of first-rate pictures, and for hearing wonderful voices


by Google

244 English Composition and Style

and pcrfonners of transcendent skilL It is the place for great
preachers, great orators, great nobles, great statesmen. In the
nature of things, greatness and unity go together; excellence im-
plies a center. And such, for the third or fourth time, is a
University; I hope I do not weary out the reader by repeating
it It is the place to which a thousand schools make contribu-
tions; in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure
to find its equal in some antagonistic activity, and its judge in
the tribunal of truth. It is the place where inquiry is pushed
forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness ren-
dered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with
mind, and knowledge with knowledge. It is the place where the
professor becomes eloquent, and is a missionary and a preacher,
displaying his science in its most complete and most winning
form, pouring it forth with the zeal of enthusiasm, and lighting
up his own love of it in the breasts of his hearers. It is the
place where the catechist makes good his ground as he goes,
treading in the truth day by day into the ready memory, and
wedging and tightening it into the expanding reason. It is the
place which wins the admiration of the young by its celebrity,
kindles the affections of the middle-aged by its beauty, and rivets
the fidelity of the old by its associations. It is a seat of wisdom,
a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater
of the rising generation. It is this and a great deal more, and
demands a somewhat better head and hand than mine to describe
it well.

Such is a University in its idea and in its purpose; such in
good measure has it before now been in fact Shall it ever
be again? We are going forward in the strength of the Cross,
under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, in the name of St
Patrick, to attempt it

That the enthusiasm of the picture is greater than the reality
is a comment that will occur to any one, but the point of
Newman's somewhat fanciful picture is here stylistic.
Whereas the difference in movement between parts of essays
and different writings is seldom so marked as in the fore-
going extracts, the phenomena illustrated thereby are very
common, — that is, the fact of a stylistic movement over and


by Google

Sentences 245

above a logical movement and often dominating it, and more
conspicuous toward the end of writing, that is, in climax, than
at the beginning.

The foregoing selection suggests what is commonly the truth
about writing, that, whereas unity, emphasis, and coherence,
are matters that may refer to single sentences, rhythm, har-
mony, and cadence are best observable in sequences of sen-
tences, since the movement, in any large sense, has no oppor-
tunity to get under way within the limits of one period.
There are, however, many sentences of great beauty of move-
ment that may be isolated, and some of these are among the
famous sentences in English literature. Here are a number
of them, with different movements in different rhythms, which
the student would do well to become acquainted with and to
study with some care, less to imitate the rhythm than to see
how important the matter is and to acquire knowledge of
some really beautiful things :

1. Set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm:
for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the
coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown
it; if a man would give all the substance of his house for love,
it would utterly be contemned. The Song of Solomon, viii, &-y,

(Professor Saintsbury ^* calls this the most perfect piece of
English prose with which he is acquainted, including "the
almost equally beautiful charity passage," but such an asser-
tion is somewhat difficult to substantiate except as a matter
of personal taste.)

2. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the
sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither
it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit Gospel ac-
cording to St John, in, 8.

3. Charity suffereth long and is kind; charity envieth not;
charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

^* English Prose Style, in Specimens of English Prose Style.


by Google

246 English Composition and Style

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not
easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, en-
dureth all things.

Charity never faileth; but whether there be prophecies, they
shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether
there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. I Corinthians, xiii,


4. O eloquent, just and mighty Death I Whom none could ad-
vise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared, thou hast done;
and whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast o'ut
of the world and despised; thou hast drawn togeUier all the far-
stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man,
and covered it all over with these two narrow words. Hie jacet
Raleigh: History of the World.

5. Wherefore that here we may briefly end, of law there can
be no less acknowledged, than that her seat is the bosom of God,
her voice the harmony of the world; all things in Heaven and
earth do her homage, the very least as feeling her care, and the
greatest as not exempted from her power; both angels, and men,
and creatures of what condition soever, though each in different
sort and manner, yet all with uniform content, admiring her as
the mother of their peace and joy. Hooker: The Ecclesiastical
Polity, Book I.

6. Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to
take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity. Sir Thomas Browne :
Religio Medici.

7. Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation
rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her
invincible locks ; methinks I see her as an eagle muing her mighty
youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam;
purging and unsealing her long abused sight at the fountain itself
of heavenly radiance, while the whole noise of timorous and
flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about,
amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would
prognosticate a year of sects and schisms. Milton : Areopagitica.

8. For the rest, whatever we have got has been of infinite
labor and search, and ranging through every corner of nature;


by Google

Sentences 247

the difference is, that, instead of dirt and poison, we have rather
chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing
mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and

Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 21 of 43)