W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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having " fallen on an age of prose." This thesis he pushed
to extremity, so that there is no possibility of any one's for-
getting it. The composition is admirable and the tone is dig-
nified, urbane, and tolerant, but — the thesis is not necessarily
correct and is probably far from the whole truth. Gray may
have been lazy, for example, or had intestinal indigestion, all of
which, though less noble as explanations, are probably as near
the truth as any other explanation which does not contemplate
the evidence, but is based on a plausible guess or a striking
theory. Sound writers are somewhat chary of theses, but
theses are very taking, and when one is combined with a very
scrupulous analysis of the facts, as in Darwin's Origin of
Species, or in Burke, the eflfect may be very widespread and

4. Composition by prevailing mood. When the selection
characteristic of thesis writing is made for the purpose of sus-
taining an eflfect, rather than giving an idea, we get what is
usually called a prevailing mood. This is evidently most com-
mon and useful in artistic narrative and description, but it is

despite rhetorical theory, many readers prefer plethora to conciseness.
De Quincey (cf. p. 123) may be wholly wrong in his views of excision.
Certainly many people are heard only "by their much speaking."


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Composition 63

evidently of use also in other forms of discourse. Classic ex-
amples of this method of composition are furnished by Poe's
The Masque of the Red Death, and The Fall of the House of
Usher, and by many of Hawthorne's stories and romances, as
The Ambitious Guest, and Ethan Brand. Like any narrative,
it proceeds by the enumeration of events usually in order of
time, but these events are selected to give a prevailing impres-
sion, as in the examples cited, of futility or gloom. Some
things are all " atmosphere," as the artists say, and it is obvious
that as matters approach this atmospheric state, they become
less and less susceptible of statement as facts. The point of
many stories consists in giving this impression and in nothing
else ; the writer is driving at that impression ; it cannot be sum-
marized in terms. You may say, of course, that Mr. Henry
James's story Thd Great Good Place, for example, is about an
overworked and sleepy man, but in no way except by reading
the story can you get the impression of the intense and unutter-
able weariness of the flesh and spirit that the story is intended
to convey, which is indeed the very point of the tale. A good
many readers, failing to understand the actuality of this kind
of composition or being obsessed with the indispensability of a
definite moral in every tale, miss the reason for a large and
important class of literature.

Though useful chiefly in fiction, the method of mood is not
confined to it. It is common in argumentation and eloquence
that is dominated by real enthusiasm, though here usually
in combination. Facts may be selected, less for their scien-
tific value than for the general impression that they will
convey to the reader or the hearer. Newman, for example,
is usually thought of as a careful and logical writer of a formal
kind: his compositions are orderly and systematic; they de-
velop by stages from one fact to another, from one conclusion
to another. But he also, whether consciously or not, composed
moods in his apparently most exact exposition. Often, as in
The Rise and Progress of Universities or The Idea of a Uni-
versity, sectioning a chapter or address into eight or ten parts.


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64 English Composition and Style

indicative of various aspects, turns, or stages of his subject,
he also often elevated the tone of each section somewhat over
the preceding, and thereby produced an impression of growing
enthusiasm, or climax of tone. Such a method naturally pre-
sumes a very considerable command of style. It might be
called composition by style.

The two cardinal questions, therefore, " What is the writer
driving at?" and, "How does he get there?" are susceptible
of various types of answer. He may be driving at an enimier-
ation of facts, he may be striving to recount a process, me-
chanical or vital, he may be sequestrating a point and playing
with it, or he may be presenting a mood, and while driving
at one thing, he may be combining two or more methods.

Principles of composition. In the preceding paragraphs
reference has from time to time been made to bad composition.
A piece may evidently follow any one of the methods described
and still not be well composed. Accordingly, there are princi-
ples, as well as methods, an understanding and application of
which are necessary for good composition. These principles
are the familiar unity, coherence, and emphasis. The first re-
lates chiefly to the selection of ideas, the two last to the ar-
rangement, or structure, of composition. These principles
apply also to paragraphs and sentences and their applications to
compositions therefore demand further explanation.

I. Unity, This principle simply means that whatever is
in a composition should belong to the subject of the composi-
tion. What unity is may best be seen by an example of what
it is not. The familiar instance is the imaginary composition
devised by Newman* to burlesque a mind untrained in the
comprehension of the diflference between a term and a proposi-
tion. The subject is


Of all the uncertain and capricious powers that rule our des-
tiny, fortune is the chief. Who has not heard of the poor being

* Lectures on University Subjects,


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Composition 65

raised up, and the rich being laid low? Alexander the Great
said he envied Diogenes in his tub, because Diogenes could have
nothing less. We need not go far for an instance of fortune
Who was so great as Nicholas, the Czar of all the Russias, a yi^x
ago, and now he is " fallen, fallen from his high estate, witij(^qt
a friend to grace his obsequies." The Turks are the finest ^9^,917
men of the human race, and yet they, too, have experiencj^j^j^th^
vicissitudes of fortune. Horace says that we should wrap our-
selves in our virtue, when fortune changes. Napoleon, tob', siicfws
us how little we can rely on fortune; but his faults, gri*ilf^k^ iH^
were, are being redeemed by his nephew, Louis Na^lBDrfJ'^hii
has shown himself very different from wh^t we expe^tfel, »fl»iUgh
he has never explained how he came to swear to thecGiHiitiluttoni
and then mounted the imperial throne. > nt ]/ >1 'Air^'Hy

From this it appears that we should rely on f^iftWflefiPnltf y/h'M
it remains, — recollecting the words of the thesis^^Vnf'^t^s ^f^ff?
adjuvat;" and that, above all, we should ever cpl^jlyftte t|j^93e yiji -
tues which will never fail us, and which are a sure j^asis of re-
spectability, and will profit us here and hereafter.. ' / ' :. '

This is, obviously, very grossly exagger^Aedi im^jt^jgto^
burlesque; very few tyros, even, would bw^i^ftjliki^ ottwi
Newman, as very frequently, makes a man Qf -fi^rj^Wv V $WAf^'$
A Tritical Essay on the Faculties of the Afiftrfnisf^nuflb.hcrtf
ter. It illustrates, however, lack of unity, ^a<rjji'jtb»t.ila<^lq!i$
due to the fact that the alleged youth shc^Wrih^W^ ^written
on a thesis, or proposition, fortune favors th^ b^av^iy W^Her§ft9i
he says a number of disjointed things ai^g^j^ jioftm^ &&i
about bravery, which have no connection jwith]-€»ch vOih^
Unity simply asks that what you say on a Swt)f^tiibQ;tt)jlajrg9
or small, shall be d propos of the subject, thsrtjit^^Hftnjbe.^bwt
something, that what you are writing abouH^Mi i^eviimh
The principle of unity will receive much jllvi?itr^Jt«3ffiqir^/t§!4CT
ceeding chapters, and need only be stated h^^v,r,\u )

Referring for a moment, however, to tlj^ji^^^li^Jnian^^yfiil

of methods of composition, we shall see th^t-jiffiijy ifiiJ^ytjI^ft

means a fixed principle and, though import;^l^t ijpii^Hyici^dsof

writing, is not always to be had in one way.'^ii|ni,writiftgjQp,d



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66 English Composition and Style

definite thesis or proposition, in stories painting a prevailing
mood, unity is a more definite thing than in many longer
and looser works; that is to say, the subject is more definite.
About all that one may ask of, say, Boswell's Johnson or
The American Commonwealth is that most of what the au-
thors say shall be about Johnson or about the American Com-
monwealth, that they should not talk too much of unrelated
or, what is worse, unimportant things. The unity of very
much interesting writing is of the most haphazard kind ; much
charm may lie in the lack of rigor, in the license that the
writer, like Isaak Walton or Thoreau or Bishop Berkeley
in his discourse on Tar Water, may take to ramble from his
specific text to cull wisdom by the way. It is doubtful, again,
if the usual human mind can sustain a unity of impression or of
subject for more, at most, than one sitting. Unity of im-
pression — that modern shibboleth — is practically, to a great
degree, determined by physical endurance; in short, by one's
ability to sit still. This fact has often led to the interpreting
of the term in an excessively narrow sense, as if it were both
more present and more necessary in a short story than in, say,
Vanity Fair or Lorna Doone. Young writers, — all writers,
indeed, — should cultivate the' art of sticking to the subject,
but it is safe to say that if one's manner is entertaining or if
one has an interesting body of facts to present, readers will
not be troubled by an alleged lack of unity. Indeed, the fact
that many readers like much about a subject rather than a
closely constructed text probably accounts for the plethoric
character of certain books heretofore referred to (p. 6i, foot-
note). Unity, then, — in compositions, paragraphs, and sen-
tences, — is merely another name for the fact that any compo-
sition, paragraph, or sentence, should be about something.

2. Coherence. This principle, in composition, deals with
the arrangement and the cementing of ideas. Just as certain
materials will combine and others will not combine so well,
so, in writing, ideas that are similar should apparently go
together. In the foregoing example from Newman (p. 64),


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Composition 67

the composition is incoherent, that is, disjointed, as well as
ununified; it follows neither sequence of time nor sequence
of subjects.

It is evident, from reference to the discission of methods of
composition, that coherence may do no more than depend on
a time order, and in all the vast number of compositions that
follow this method, the principle of coherence is readily ap-
plied, — is, as it were, ready made. In writing that calls for
the arrangement of topics, more judgment is required, and
here, even in comparatively short compositions, much skill
mdy be displayed, as in Huxley's well-known lecture On a
Piece of Chalk, or Arnold's Celtic Literature. Usually a text
or a point of departure, a knowledge of the audience, or an
arbitrary method of procedure, as from the simplest ideas to
the most complex, from the least important to the most impor-
tant, from a statement of an idea to the illustration, or, odd as
it may seem, by the reverse of any of these processes, will
determine the arrangement. The essential thing in coherence
is to keep to some scheme of arrangement. The best order
is a matter often requiring much judgment and tact, but in very
many cases it is a matter of indifference. In a recent book
on contemporary politics,* for example, the writer, in dis-
cussing events in America during the past two decades, ar-
ranges his discussion by time, treating the topics as they fol-
lowed each other chronologically. Consequently there are
three separate discussions of the silver agitation, that of
the panic of 1893, that of the election of 1896, and that of the
election of 1900, all separated by the discussion of other topics.
The coherence is entirely simple, but it is evident that the
order might have been topical rather than temporal, in which
case all the silver discussion would have been conjoined. It is
doubtful if this rearrangement would have1)een of an ad-
vantage, particularly as the sketch is short. Generally speak-
ing, if your facts fall into a time order, it is far better so
to arrange them than to shift them into somewhat formal

'A, Cooch, History of Our Time, .


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68 English Composition and Style

topics. Or again, the order of this present book might, with
good reason, have been reversed; there is good example for
beginning with words and closing with composition. The only
really fatal thing, so far as coherence goes, — for one is not
now talking of facts and ideas, — would be to mix topics and
chapters in any random way. The essential thing is some ar-

Coherehce is greatly aided by the employment of such
sentences and connective words as help to indicate the relation
of one passage to another, and, more formally, by tables of
contents, by briefs and outlines of the substance, by topical
analyses, and the various devices that one actually finds in

3. Emphasis. Emphasis in writing, as in elocution, con-
sists in laying stress on the important idea or the important
word. In composition, good emphasis brings out the main
ideas, as sugar and salt are said to bring out the flavor of oat-
meal or melons. In well emphasized composition, the reader
has no difficulty in discerning the most important points.
Obviously the easiest, as well as the most usual, way of giving
salience to main points is^ to say that they are the main
points, — " In this essay I am chiefly concerned,'* etc. " We
now come to a ve.ry important part of our subject," etc., or
to do as Arnold did and repeat catch words over and over
again, " To make reason and the will of God prevail," * etc.
So far the matter is one of no great subtlety ; all that one has
to do is to know what the important points are, to say that
they are important, and to give them important treatment.
There are, also, literary and mechanical devices for gaining
emphasis. Of literary devices, contrast, the throwing of ideas
into opposition, is possibly the best known. Ruskin, for ex-
ample, in descril^ing St. Mark's, compares it with an English
cathedral ; ^ Mr. Shaw, Mr. Chesterton, Mr. Belloc, and other
paradoxical writers, contrast the writings of former publicists,

* Sweetness and Light in Culture and Anarchy, chap. i.
« Cf. pp. 9B-102.


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Composition 69

essayists, and historians with their own, not to the detriment
of the latter : — " It was formerly thought, but the truth is
that." So, too, suspense in stories, or the many ways of mak-
ing mystification are literary devices for gaining emphasis. Of
mechanical devices, one may mention types, black letter or
italic, to call attention to the subject of a paragraph or to em-
phasize a particularly important point. Such devices are often
thought to be in bad taste in literary composition, however use-
ful in text-books, and certainly excessive use of them gives a
cheap, annoying, and flashy effect, like the superlative style of
discourse often affected by young people. Like coherence and
unity, emphasis is better illustrated and may even be more im-
portant in short compositions than in long ones.

The order of composition. Since, as we have seen, the
very act of reading or listening extends over a space of time,
the natural methods of composition are progressive, rather
than, as in painting, visual. The essential difference between
painting and writing has many times been pointed out since
Lessing • achieved the memorable distinction. In writing, one
thing has to follow another ; even with the help of the visual
memory the mind cannot see everything at once. Since a
procession of events and facts is natural to literature as a mode
of expression, just as images are natural to painting and
plastic art, the most common convention of literary composi-
tion is possibly that any piece of writing shall have a begin-
ning, a middle, and an ending. These limits are arbitrary;
they do not, as has previously been said, correspond exactly
witii human experience and knowledge; but the very condi-
tions of publication of ideas, whether by word of mouth, by
manuscript, or by printing, demand such limits. Hence a
knowledge of the use of these divisions of a composition is
of value in writing, and a brief account of them should be
I. The beginning or the introduction. The practical ques-

• Laocoon,


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70 English Composition and Style

tion which confronts nearly every writer is this^ "I have my
subject, my idea; how shall I begin it? " Nearly every writer,
but not all writers; for doubtless, in not a few cases, the in-
troduction begets what follows, and, with experienced men, the
introduction and the idea form themselves side by side.

The answer to the question is contained in the nature of
introductions; they are links between what has been said or
what is known and what is to come. This function is plainly
to be seen in the selection from Bagehot previously quoted
(p. 17), or in the following chapter introduction from The
American Commonwealth (chapter 99) :

Those merits of American gpvernment which belong to its

Federal Constitution have already been discussed: we have no^

to consider such as flow from the rule of public opioioft, frcmi
the temper, habits, and ideas of the people.

This introduction by telling what has preceded and what is
to come is admirably definite ; it leaves the writer in a posi-
tion whence he can proceed, it gives him a scheme of composi-
tion, and tells the reader what to expect. It is altogether
simple and safe, and this kind of introduction should be
played, like trumps, when one is in doubt.

But the matter is not always so simple; there may be no
kindly disposed preceding matter to summarize. In that case
the evident thing to do is to adopt the method of the last
clause of Mr. Bryce's sentence, and say directly what you are
going to do. The best example is the opening sentence of
Macaulay's History of England, — a writer whom, alas, it is
somewhat fashionable now-a-days to despise as wanting in
sufficient subtlety and exactness to serve as a model for young
writers. He says:

I purpose to write the history of England from the accession
of King James the Second down to a time which is within the
memory of men still living.

And thence he goes on for about three pages to outline ex-
plicitly what he did not live to finish. Mill, another lucid


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Composition 71

writer, of very different quality from Macaulay, thus begins his
essay On Liberty:

The subject of this essay is not the so-called Liberty of the
Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Phil-
osophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and
limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society
over the individual A question seldom stated, and hardly ever
discussed, in general terms, but which profoundly influences the
practical controversies of the age by its latent presence, and is
likely soon to make itself recognized as the vital question of the
future. It is so far from being new, Ihat, in a certain sense, it
has divided mankind, almost from the remotest ages; but in the
stage of progress into which the more civilized portions of the
species have now entered, it presents itself under new conditions,
and requires a different and more fundamental treatment.

Herein he tells what he is going to talk about and also speaks
of the importance of the subject. As with the example from
Mr. Bryce in respect to internal introductions, so, with ex-
ternal introductions, the plainness of Macaulay and Mill
should be regarded as normally to be followed, unless there is
manifest reason for using some other method.

Such reasons arise from the nature of the reader or the
hearer. Mill and Macaulay speak to nobody in particular,
nor do they in the least attempt to be literary. To meet these
new demands there are various tricks and refinements in actual
use. A point of departure of greater appositeness than those
in the extracts quoted above — the statement of some fact of
interest to the reader or the use of some' apt quotation — is the
most common of these methods. For example, Huxley, in
his address to an unlettered audience of workingmen, On a
Piece of Chalk,^ begins as follows:

If a well were to be sunk at our feet in the midst of the city
of Norwich, the diggers would very soon find themselves at work
in that white substance almost too soft to be called rock, with
which we are all familiar as " chalk."

''Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews.


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72 English Composition and Style

From this point he goes on to tell more of the facts about
chalk, its distribution, depth, and importance in the crust of the
earth before continuing to the more subtle and conclusive parts
of his discourse. Thackeray, in his essay Nil Nisi Bonum^
a tribute to the memories of Irving and Macaulay, says:

Almost the last words which Sir Walter spoke to Lockhart, his
biographer, were, " Be a good man, my dear I " and with the last
flicker of breath on his dying lips, he sighed a farewell to his
family, and passed away blessing them.

This sympathetic quotation gives Thackeray the point of
departure and the text for his essay, the essential goodness of
Irving and Macaulay.

The following example of a point of departure, taken from
Pater's essay on Wordsworth,' is more intricate and would
evidently interest only the cultivated reader:

Some English critics at the beginning of the present century
had a great deal to say concerning a distinction, of much impor-
tance, as they thought, in the true estimate of poetry, between
the Fancy, and another more powerful faculty — the Imagina-
Hon, This metaphysical distinction, borrowed originally from the
writings of German philosophers, and perhaps not always clearly
apprehended by those who talked of it, involved a far deeper and
more vital distinction, with which indeed all true criticism more
or less directly has to do, the distinction, namely, between higher
and lower degrees of intensity in the poet's perception of his sub-
ject, and in his concentration of himself upon his work. Of those
who dwelt upon the metaphysical distinction between the Fancy
and the Imagination, it was Wordsworth who made the most of
it, assuming it as the basis for the final classification of his poetical
writings; and it is in these writings that the deeper and more
vital distinction, which,, as I have said, underlies the metaphysical
distinction, is most needed, and may best be illustrated.

This, though elaborate, evidently gives the writer a point of
departure and a consequent grip on his subject

^Round-about Papers. ^Appreciations,


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Composition 73

There are other functions which an introduction may per-
form besides a simple getting to the topic. Though of minor
value, the chief may be stated. None of the quoted intro-
ductions, except that of Mill, somewhat, and Pater, slightly,
deal with importance of the subject, its timeliness, or the writ-
er's competence. Certainly Huxley, Macaulay, Mill, and
Thackeray did not need to make any excuse or justification for
what they wrote, and Pater was too much engrossed with his
particular train of thinking and too limited in appeal to care to
do so. Timeliness is, of course, something of an editorial
shibboleth, suitable for passing events in impermanent period-
icals rather than for the statement of important truth. So,
too, one had better not say too much of his special qualifica-
tions for writing on a subject of all-embracing importance,
the like "that never was on sea or land.'* These things
should be allowed, usually, to take care of themselves. But
sometimes one has to win attention with a club, and modesty
is not always popular with the crowd. Too often, especially
in college argumentation and debating, machine-made " inter-
ests in the question," are turned out by the paragraph. They
have no style. As a matter of fact examples among good
writers or among casual writers of explicit statement of inter-
est or of the writer's competence are comparatively rare, the
latter much more so than the former; since both of these
matters are determined by the occasion and by the character

Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 6 of 43)