W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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snowed in, and all perished through hunger and cold, except Oak-



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336 English Composition and Style

hurst, who shot himself, after writing an epitaph suitable to his
character and ending.

7. Philip Fogarty, a gallant officer in an Irish regiment fight-
ing against Napoleon, was wounded while assaulting a fort, and
on recovering found himself a prisoner of the French. He was,
however, well entertained, was on good and familiar terms with the
great marshals of France, the great men, and the Emperor him-
self, until the last named, hearing that Fogarty had wounded one
of his chief officers in a duel, arising from rivalry in love, tried to
arrest Fogarty. Thereupon Fogarty, in the presence of all the great
men of France and at a review of the grand army, threatened the
Emperor publicly, but succeeded in escaping through the nimbleness
and swiftness of his horse.

8. Steenie Steenson, a rather improvident farmer, owing some
money to his landlord, Sir Robert Redgauntlet, went to pay it
As he was about to take the receipt, Redgauntlet was stridcen
down, and Steenie, in terror, fled, without the receipt, and it so
happened that the only witness, Redgauntlet's steward, died soon
after his master. Steenie, unable to show the successor, Sir John
Redgauntlet, any receipt for the payment, was ordered by the
latter to pay his rent or vacate the holding. To drown his sor-
rows, Steenie, as he rode home, drank considerable brandy, and
presently in a wood encountered a horseman who said that he
would arrange matters. Presently the horseman seemed to stop
before a manor like that of the Redgauntlets. Entering, Steenie
found Sir Robert, surrounded by his old friends, in high revelry,
and with the help of the steward MacCallum, got a receipt from
Redgauntlet. This he took to Sir John, telling him at the same
time where the money was to be found. Examining the place,
they found that a baboon belonging to Sir Robert, had made off
with the money, which they recovered. But they came to the con-
clusion that Steenie had actually made a compact with the Devil
and been in Hell, and they decided to conceal the fact, except from
the parson, who would advise Steenie how to avoid his compact.
This he succeeded in doing, but the Steensons were always un-
lucky ever after.

9. Philip Nolan, a young army officer implicated in the con-
spiracy of Aaron Burr, expressed, at the ensuing court-martial, a
desire never to hear of the United States again. The court sen-
tenced him to the fulfillment of his wish, and for over fifty years
he lived aboard United States ships, cut off from all news re-
garding his country.

10. A young man, while on his wedding journey, fell into a
crevasse in an Austrian glacier. His wife, learning that glaciers



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Narration 337

move very slowly, ascertained that in the course of forty-five years
the body would appear at the terminal moraine of the glacier. At
that time Mrs. KnoUys returned and recovered the body prac-
tically unchanged.

11. Mme. Loisel, a very attractive young woman, married to a
government clerk on a small salary, was invited to a ball. She
borrowed a necklace from her friend Mme. Forester, and had a
delightful time and much success. Unfortunately she lost the neck-
lace. To replace it, she and her husband were obliged to find
thirty-six thousand francs, which they borrowed at high rates of
interest. Only by the most exhausting work during more than
ten years did they succeed in squaring the debt Then they learned
that the lost necklace was of false diamonds not worth five hundred
francs.

12. Colonel Jouve, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, learning
of the French reverses at the opening of the War of 1870, was
stricken with apoplexy. To aid in his recovery, his granddaughter
invented a campaign, in which the French succeeded in taking Ber-
lin and in dictating terms of peace in the German capital. On the
day when this imaginary celebration of this imaginary triumph was
to take place, Colonel Jouve staggered to the window to take part
in the rejoicing and to see the return of the victorious armies. On
perceiving that the advancing ranks were German soldiers, he was
mortally stricken.

9, Show in the stories named in the footnote to Exercise 8
and in any other good tales, the chief elements of interest, as
they lie in action, in humor, in pathos, in character, in dignity,
in local color, in essential truth, in exactness to natural phenomena
(e. g., the alleged fact on which Mrs, Knotty s turns, that a
body could remain unmangled and still smiling after falling into
a deep crevasse and being contained in a flowing mass of ice for
forty-five years, is a bit incredible. What would actually have
happened may be inferred from Mark Twain's account of what
happened to three guides who fell into a crevasse and emerged
forty-one years later. — A Tramp Abroad, Vol. 2, chap. 11), in
sentiment, in dialogue, in point of view, in the prevalence of one
tone, in the specification of details, in plausibility, and in many
other ways.

10. Selecting various paragraphs from the foregoing narra-
tives comment on the quality and number of nouns, verbs and
modifiers, and digest, if possible, the general character of the sen-



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338 English Composition and Style

tences. Examine the selections noted on pages 1 16-139 from this
point of view. What seems to be descriptive, what narrative?

II. Write short narratives of daily events, short sketches of
the lives of people in whom you are interested, brief accounts of
some historical happening, stories of what you yourself have done,
and also imaginative tales, trying in all cases to make what you
have to say interesting to a specific audience.



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CHAPTER III

DESCRIPTION

Description is that form of writing that deals with objects
of sensation and perception and emotion. That is to say, de-
scription tries to reproduce the sensations that come through
sig^t, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, and also the perceptions
and emotions to which these sensations may give rise. It
deals with appearances rather than action, but the term appear-
ances must be taken in a pretty broad sense to include any
more or less complete account, from many different points of
view and with many different purposes, of all objects whatso-
ever, whether treated personally or impersonally, and of all
personal feelings to which these objects may lead. Anything
that may be seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelt, may be de-
scribed, and states of mind which arise from the sensation of
these objects may be described, and the whole process may be
repeated with imaginary objects. Thus we may have descrip-
tions of autumn, of buildings, of sailboats, of dogs, horses,
human characters, waterfalls, baseball games. Oriental towns,
Spanish friars, mangoes, the Rock of Gibraltar, floods, pesti-
lence, terror, despair, cowardice, fear, rapture, provided these
are all specific and individual things; for all can readily, by a
change in point of view, become proper subjects for exposition
and argument.

Descriptions may be very brief, as when simple epithets
are applied to objects, — ^''the milk-white waves," "one fairest
of the ripe unwedded," " a lad of ten," — or they may be very
long, as in many of Scott's well-known, and occasionally tedi-
ous, accounts of people, places, periods, or in, say, Poe's elab-
orate description of Landor^s Cottage, or in much of Ruskin's

3J9



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340 English Composition and Style

worlc Description may be independent, that is, the descrip-
tive writing may exist chiefly for the sake of the object or the
. sensation, a state best seen in sketches of travel, but also, at
another extreme, to be observed in passports, rogues' galleries,
and all matters of identification. Actually, however, for the
most part, description is ancillary and incidental to some other
method of writing ; and in narration we find accounts of places,
of characters, of emotions, which aim to give a better under-
standing of the main narrative points, just as in exposition
and argumentation, description is frequently the means of
illustrating general sayings.

Probably a fairly average use of description would appear
in the passage already quoted from Scott (p. 297). The
description here is incidental to the main narrative* Many
other equally good illustrative passages will occur to any
reader, but of this several representative things may be ob-
served, (ij The movement of the description is progressive ;
the disinherited knight is not described until attention has been
called to him, and the amount of description is limited to what
is necessary for the occasion ; there is merely enough to get a
good picture of the knight while he is entering, and nothing
else. (2) He is described first by his appearance, his ac-
couterments, and his mount. He is then described in action.
He is also described by the effect of sympathy that he had <mi
the spectators. (3) There is much incidental description in
particular words and phrases, as, " Those long and high flour-
ishes, with which they had broken the silence of the lists," " a
solitary trumpet," "breathed a note of defiance," "ascended
the platform by the sloping, alley which led to it from the
lists," etc. (4) It is difficult, as well as unimportant, to tell
whether certain words and phrases are chiefly narrative or
descriptive. Is the opening sentence, for example, more de-
scriptive than narrative, or not? Does the phrase "until it
rung again," describe or narrate? CS) ^^ ^^7 event the pas-
sage is good in movement.

Certain classifications of description have been made, in



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Description 341

couples, like those of fiction. Thus we find scientific and
artistic description, imaginative and literal description, de-
scription by enumeration and by impression, objective and sub-
jective description, and several others. On the whole, these
distinctions are unimportant ; for description is usually a func-
tional matter in other writing or has independent status of its
own, and evidently in all cases, the thing to do is to give as
much information as may be necessary on any specific occa-
sion — about the appearance, the impression, the feelings, or
what not, that may at the time be handy. Guide books, for
example, give us the information about pictures, cathedrals,
and many other fine things, and allow us to supply the emo-
tion for ourselves; but Walter Pater, say, in accounting for
Mona Lisa, may prefer to let us know how he felt about her
celebrated smile, — possibly in the hope, not wholly vain, that
many people would feel likewise. So, too, Charles Darwin
gives us about rock pigeons as much information of a descrip-
tive, sort as is necessary for the more general explanation of
the descent of common pigeons. The real question in any
event is to give the information, of whatever kind, in as suit-
able and clear and interesting a way as possible.

Description varies with the thing to be described and with
the actual results of the description. Description is therefore
good or bad. Good description is what represents whatever
object, sensation, perception, or feeling, you wish to describe
so that the result will be clear and interesting, and, perhaps,
above all, true to what you see and feel. Bad description is
what makes the things vague, dull, and false.

Descriptive methods. In the pursuit of good description,
certain methods are of considerable help.^ All description is,
in a sense, the enumeration of the details that go to make up
an object, a perception, a feeling. Thus Poe enumerates a
great many things regarding Landor's Cottage and its sur-
roundings, and De Quincey, in the English Mail Coach

1 Perhaps the best analysis of this subject is to be found in Professor
C. S. Baldwin's Specimens of Prose Description,



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342 English Composition and Style

enumerates his feelings at considerable length (cf. p. 112).
In describing, one may, if one wishes, enumerate all the ob-
jects of sensation which go to make up a perception; for
example, we may say that a trolley-car is passing, — a fact
which we know because of certain tuunistakable sounds, —
or we may enumerate all those special thuds, squeaks, bump-
ings, grindings, whizzings, tinklings, that go to make up the
sensations which we generalize into one phrase. Enumeration
of these sensations is sometimes called impressionistic descrip-
tion, a term also applied to the catching of general effects.
Be that as it may, a great deal of enumeration, unless, as in
Robinson Crusoe, it has particular point, is as a generad rule,
likely to be tedious ; so that, unless one is sure of being inter-
esting, some other method, except where specific information
is called for, is better. Hence, certain representative details
may be culled out from the great mass ; a selection of impor-
tant and salient points may give more than a proportionate
weight to a passage. Or again, just as in wording, metaphors
and similes add increment to meaning, so in description, the
use of comparisons and suggestive language is of much value.
Where specific information is necessary this catch-as-catch-can
method will not do; it is useful rather where, as in fiction,
exact descriptions are less important than the leaving of as
much as possible to the reader's imagination.

An interesting form of description is to be found in those
general pictures of sensation — of mental states, of accidents,
wars, calamities, joys, sorrows — where the information or
the emotion refuses to submit exact information or any selec-
tion of details really describing the object itself. Here the
attempt is to give the impression of something pretty big, too
big for any really adequate expression. This descriptive
method is based on the principle enunciated by Burke,* when
he said, "We yield to sympathy what we refuse to descrip-
tion," Burke himself, in the picture of the descent of Hyder

^ On the Sublime and the Beautiful.



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Description 343

Ali upon the Carnatic,* in the panegyric on chivalry and the
vision of the Dauphiness,* and in other places, gives examples
of this method. Examples of a more lyrical kind may be seen
in Isaiah, in many of the Psalms, the Song of Deborah and
Barak, and in the Jeshurun passage already quoted (p. 224).
In modem prose a good example is Pater's " Mona Lisa '*
passage. Such phrases from that well-known selection as the
following illustrate the point : " Hers is the head upon which
all ' the ends of the world are come,' " " She is older than
the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been
dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and
has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about
her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants;
and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint
Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but
as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy
with which it has molded the changing lineaments, and tinged
the eyelids and the hands," — these and other phrases illustrate
the point that there is a kind of description, neither entmiera-
tive nor compressed, but, generally, panegyrical, musical, poet-
ical, often nonsensical ; at all events not amenable to the ordi-
nary laws of clearness. All these illustrations belong to a
class of writing that might properly be left unattempted by the
amateur.

Composition in description. Composition is plan, and
where descripticMi is not merely the incident of narration, some
plan may be necessary, if a writer is successfully to get
through the details of a long description. As in narration,
where time order seems to be the simplest and the most
elementary method of composition, unless there is decided
reason for some other method, so in description, place order
would seem to be the best for objects. By that is meant that
one would deal, naturally, with one thing first, then with the
thing next to it, etc., going, say, from head to foot, until the

« The Nabob of Arcofs Debts.

* Reflections on the Revolution in France,



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344 English Composition and Style

enumeration is complete. But this would be by no means
wise in all cases. A grouping of objects of like kinds together,
as windows with windows, might be the better method to pur-
sue in any given case. Or again, it may be well, in describ-
ing a scene, simply to follow the roving of the eye, letting it
be attracted whitiier it will, trusting that the most con-
spicuous things will catch it. Such a method is evidently
natural. The principles of unity, coherence, and emphasis
have probably been sufficiently expounded in the preceding
pages to need no special mention here ; but certain devices may
be named which, in addition to what has already been said,
may be of help in getting safely through a mass of details and
in giving point to the description.

The point of view. Description is evidently clearer and
more lucid if the facts are presented from one point of view.
In a general sense, the systematic use of enumeration, of sug-
gestion, of large pictures, implies a unification of process, which
contributes to the end in question. By point of view, however,
is more specifically meant the presentation of the material as
it appears from one place, or at one time, or as influenced by
a certain mood. Thus the entrance of the disinherited knight
in the selection already quoted is made from the point of view
of a spectator in the lists at Ashby ; Scott does not go outside,
but confines himself to such serviceable detail as would appear
from one point of view only. Such is not so evidently the
case in his formal description of the Knight of the Leopard
in the opening chapter of The Talisman, where he aims to give
a good deal of formal information about the habiliments of
the warrior. Though there is more erudition in this last, it
has its place in the wish of the author to present a pretty com-
plete picture of his hero. This fashion has now largely gone
out in modern description, where only such facts as are useful
for the immediate purpose in mind are likely to be used. A
good illustration of the matter occurs in the various descrip-
tions of Alan Breck Stewart in Kidnapped, which recount the
different impressions that David Balfour had of Alan under



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Description 345

different circumstances.* The safe practice to follow is to see
such facts only as can be seen under one set of circumstances.
If one, when lying sleepless at night, were to describe the
aspect of a city, his material should obviously be gathered from
his auditory sensations rather than from his recollection of
the sights of daytime, though these might be recalled as a
secondary and imaginative effect.

Fundamental images. Often, especially in intricate masses
of material, it is convenient to give unity and coherence to de-
tails by grouping them about some " fundamental image."
The process is essentially one of comparison, as where, in the
well-known instance, Victor Hugo likened the field of Water-
loo to the letter A, the struggle being for the possession of
the heights indicated in the triangle. Such a fundamental
image occurs in the comparison, cited for a different purpose
(p. 230), of New York City to a tongue of land. Gibbon's
oft-quoted description of Byzantium is another case in point:
" If we survey Byzantium in the extent which it acquired with
the august name of Constantinople, the figure of the Imperial
city may be represented under that of an unequal triangle.
The obtuse point which advances toward the east and the
shores of Asia,' meets and repels the waves of the Thracian
Bosphorus. The northern side of the city is bounded by the
harbor ; and the southern is washed by the Propontis, or Sea
of Marmora. The basis of the triangle is opposed to the west,
and terminates the continent of Europe. But the admirable
form and division of the circumjacent land and water cannot,
without a more ample explanation, be clearly or sufficiently
understood.*' Comparisons of the unfamiliar with the famil-
iar are evidently convenient in many kinds of writing, espe-
cially in exposition.

Movement in description. Gibbon's concluding sentence
introduces a long and formal description of a considerable
territory, much more than can be seen from any one point of

^ See my Specimens of Narration, pages 42ff for a more complete
account of this.



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346 English Composition and Style

view. The method which he accordingly adopts is that of
movement among the objects that he wishes to describe.
That is about the only method to pursue when there are many
details, all of which cannot be seen at once. They will not
move, description is largely a static matter; therefore, the
writer must move, Mahomet must go to the mountain. A
method of progression implying various successive views of
different objects is very useful in description of a formal
rather than of an incidental character. In like manner, where
a time element enters, as, say, in different aspects of an October
day, the evident method to pursue is to note the successive
changes of aspect.

Style in description. As with narration, there is no specific
descriptive style. Since the eflfort of description is to convey
information or suggestion to a reader or hearer concerning
the appearance of objects and the perceptions and feelings to
which they give rise, the stylistic problem of description is
likely to be like any other stylistic problem, — that is, the good
descriptive style is that which expresses the information ac-
curately, clearly, and, so far as may be, in an interesting man-
ner. Ordinarily, descriptions will probably be found to deal
considerably in adjectives, but verbs also, even those that name
action, will have place. A good descriptive style is probably
reasonably specific, for individual objects are named ; descrip-
tion thrives on detail and there is evidently no reason for using
general terms to name specific objects. Vagueness is the one
thing abhorrent to it, — unless, of course, the aim is to present
a general vague sensation.

Simunary; practical applications. Formal description
may be pursued as a valuable exercise in observation and com-
position, but from a practical point of view it can hardly com-
pete with good paintings, good photographs, good maps, or
the BertiUon system of identification. As an adjunct to other
kinds of writing, it is of indispensable value, and training in
sound descriptive method should therefore be acquired. De-
scriptions may be written about anything, and any one thing



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Description 347

may furnish a host of possible descriptions. Practically, how-
ever, a writer is limited in the use of the form, to his own
knowledge, — for to describe what he does not know, either
actually or sympathetically, is to invite absurdity, — and he is
also limited by the necessities of an occasion and by his idea
of what his reader legitimately ought to know or to be inter-
ested in. In longer descriptions, some plan is valuable, and in
all writing under the form, the word which conveys the spe-
cific meaning most accurately and most suggestively is the best
for the purpose. It is doubtful whether the usual student
should be so persistent to find the right word as was Flaubert,
or should, like Stevenson, have a note-book continually by
him, "to note down the features of the scene."* But for
special kinds of work such thorough training is necessary.

EXERCISES

I. In the descriptive passages in any of the narratives that
you have read in connection with the preceding chapter, explain
the function of each bit of description. Show how it comes in.
Explain the degree of clearness, or completeness, or suggestiveness
that results from what is said about any person or place or object

a. Note the descriptive methods employed in such longer pieces
of description^ as that by Ruskin of St. Mark's (p. 98), Gib-

• Memories and Portraits: A College Magazine.
''For convenience, most of these selections will be found in several
current books of selections, as Carpenter and Brewster's Modern Eng-
lish Prose, Gardiner's The Forms of Prose Literature, Baldwin's Speci-
mens of Prose Description, Lewis's Specimens of the Forms of Dis-
course, Albright's Descriptive Writing, The original references are as



Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 30 of 43)