Charles Sears Baldwin.

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Instructor in T^hetoric in Yale College ; formerly Instructor

in Rhetoric and English Composition in

Columbia College


v*j n-








THESE Specimens of Prose Description, though
intended primarily for college classes, will be found
available in the higher classes of schools. For not
only is description, in its simpler forms, the kind of
writing most proper to elementary work in composi-
tion, but even the theory of description, and its appli-
cation in more finished art, may be very stimulating
without being at all confusing. In fact, it is difficult
to conduct a course in description adequately without
leading up to the few fundamental principles enunci-
ated here. And where the elaboration of these prin-
ciples may seem beyond the grasp of the younger
student, it is hoped that they will still be convenient
for the teacher.

To avoid the ugliness of a catalogue of fragments,
the shorter extracts have been grouped within the
introduction. Of course these are quite as important
as the longer pieces, and are equally recognized in the
index. Moreover, they serve, not only to give point
to the enunciation of principle, but also to obviate the
necessity of scattered comment on the longer pieces.
Instead of such detailed annotation, it seemed better
to present in one place, as compactly as possible, the
whole theory of description; to fortify this theory by


abundant examples; and to add at the head of each
longer selection only such notes as might serve to
indicate the purpose and to suggest the most profit-
able lines of study. Thus the aim has been, at once
to furnish doctrine and directions for its application,
and to leave the main body of selections free for such
use as may seem best for each class. The only
exception to this rule is in Selection I., where the
notes are intended to show how the application may
be made in detail.

In the selection of the longer extracts the aim has
been to present such examples of all worthy methods
as seemed most apt for instruction. Whether a given
piece were characteristic of its author, whether it
were famous, these considerations were but second-
ary. In fact most of the selections are fairly char-
acteristic. As for fame, the descriptions that every
one has heard of are the least in need of reprinting.
Moreover, they are not the most likely to bear

Indeed, the editor deprecates all charges of omis-
sion. Scott and Thackeray, Dickens and George
Eliot, are so near to every one's elbow that the student
should be encouraged to bring into class and discuss
those passages which seem to him most impressive.
The omission of every teacher's favorite description
is of the less moment because that description every
teacher will surely quote. If the descriptions found
here are good, each in its kind; if the kinds are many;
finally, if the method in each case is pointed without
being obtrusive, this little book will serve its purpose.

The editor wishes to express his appreciation of the


courtesy through which he is permitted to reprint
many of his best extracts. In each case due ac-
knowledgment will be found to book, author, and

To Professor G. R. Carpenter, Professor Brander
Matthews, Professor Thomas R. Price, and Mr. W.
T. Brewster of Columbia College, the editor presents
his sincere thanks, both for valuable advice and for
the favor of corrections in proof.

Perhaps the greatest debt is to the dead. In look-
ing over the first rough draft of his introduction, the
editor found that a preponderating number of cita^
tions had been drawn involuntarily from one author.
Though he was moved to restore equilibrium, the
editor would not neglect to acknowledge his obliga-
tion to Robert Louis Stevenson.




Introduction, , ix

I. Ancient Athens, . John Henry Newman. I

Edward Gibbon. 10

II. Pestilence, .

Augustus H. Jessopp. 13

III. Paris before the Second Empire,

George du Maurier. 19

IV. Bees, John Burroughs. 28

V. The Parish of Selborne, . . Gilbert White. 41

VI. Byzantium, .... Edward Gibbon. 45
VII. Geneva, ..... John Ruskin. 52

VIII. The Storming of the Bastille, Thomas Carlyle. 61

IX. Sketches by Michael Angelo,

Algernon Charles Swinburne. 70

{I. La Gioconda, V
II. A Roman Villa, > . . Walter Pater. 73
III. Auxerre, . )

XI. Blois, ...... Henry James. 81

XII. Spring in a Side Street, . Brander Matthews. 92

XIII. Scenes from Western Life, . Hamlin Garland. 101
The South-Sea House, . . . Charles Lamb. 114
Ser Francesco Goes to Church,

Walter Savage Landor. 126
A Night Among the Pines,
Memoirs of an Islet,

Robert Louis Stevenson. 134



or .

CAI ire*:'


THE series of specimens of which Ithis volume is a
part is founded upon the current rhetorical division of
Rhetoric dis- a ^ wr i tm g ir} ^ ^ our kinds, description,
kinds is of s writ- narrat i n exposition, and persuasion. 1
in e- The convenience of this division has

not shielded it from objection. And it must of
course remain doubtful to which category many well-
known writings properly belong. Argument hardly
proceeds without exposition, exposition without
description ; and whether a given work shall be
classed as narration or as description it is often im-
possible to decide. The object of the division, how-
ever, is not to classify writings, but to distinguish
methods of writing. Thus, though only a pedant
would insist on a definite label, the teacher of com-
position insists properly on the definiteness of the
methods, now argumentative, now expository, now
descriptive. Thus again, though none of the selec-
tions in the four volumes of this series may be purely
argumentative, narrative, expository, descriptive, each
will be found to exemplify some distinct phase or
phases of a distinct method.

What is true of the series in general is especially

* Including argumentation.


true of this volume. No form of writing has less
independence than description. Pieces of pure de-
scription are rare in English literature, rare especially
Dependence in the, literature of the last thirty years,
of description. Most description is naturally accessory
to narration, and naturally, therefore, brief and frag-
mentary. On the other hand, the methods of descrip-
tion are distinct and tolerably indepen-

Description . ..... r ^, 1

denned by its dent, because its aim is distinct. 1 he
aim of description is the suggestion of
mental images ; l and the means to this end are suffi-
ciently distinct from the means of securing compre-
hension, say, or conviction, to urge separate discussion
and separate exemplification. For instance, description
seeks to present the individual, exposition the class ;
description the concrete, exposition the abstract. In
description, action is purely incidental ; in narration,
it is vital. 8

But in aiming to suggest images description is not
only distinguished from the other " kinds of writing" ;
it is at once associated with the other arts. The vul-
gar phrase " word-painting " indicates that. Indeed,

Description this word-painting, this apparent ten-
and painting. dency i n description to poach on the
manor of another art, has excited no little critical
reprobation. Without beating over the ground so
thoroughly explored by Lessing, 8 or attempting to

1 For more elaborate definition see Genung, p. 326 ; Fletcher
and Carpenter , p. 2.
* Genung, p. 327.
1 Laokoon, cf. especially capp. xvi, xvii. M. Ferdinand Bru


readjust the provinces of the arts, it is worth while
to emphasize one practical consideration.

What description lacks in vividness of appeal it
properly aims to make good in range of appeal. Cer-
tainly description may be said to fall as far below
painting as suggestion falls below representation.
But it is idle to speak of them as rival methods.
The representation of painting is limited to form
and attitude, light and colour. The suggestions of
description, feebler in these, may add sound, motion,
and even odour. The opportunity here, as will appear

The range of l ater > * s not so HlUCll to accumulate SUg-

suggestion. gestions as to select what is most apt
to a particular case. But how valuable this range of
appeal is in itself appears in descriptions like the
following :

The track that I had followed in the evening soon died out
and I continued to follow over a bald turf ascent a row of stone
pillars, such as had conducted me across the Goulet. It was
already warm. I tied my jacket on the pack, and walked in my
knitted waistcoat. Modestine herself was in high spirits, and
broke of her own accord, for the first time in my experience, into
a jolting trot that sent the oats swashing in the pocket of my coat.
The view, back upon the northern Gtvaudan, extended with every
step ; scarce a tree, scarce a house, appeared upon the fields of
wild hill that ran north, east, and west, all blue and gold in the
haze and sunlight of the morning. A multitude of little birds
kept sweeping and twittering about my path ; they perched on
the stone pillars, they pecked and strutted on the turf, and I

netiere goes farther : " il n'y a pas de commune mesure entre les
sensations de 1'oreille et celles de 1'oeil." V Impressionismc dam
le Roman, pp. 103-108 of le Roman Naturaliste.


saw them circle in volleys in the blue air, and show, from time to
time, translucent flickering wings between the sun and me.

Almost from the first moment of my march, a faint large noise,
like a distant surf, had filled my ears. Sometimes I was tempted
to think it the voice of a neighboring waterfall, and sometimes a
subjective result of the utter stillness of the hill. But as I con-
tinued to advance, the noise increased and became like the hissing
of an enormous tea-urn, and at the same time breaths of cool air
began to reach me from the direction of the summit. At length
I understood. It was ' blowing stiffly from the south upon the
other slope of the Lozere, and every step that I took I was draw-
ing nearer to the wind. Stevenson : Travels with a Dvnkey.

Colour, form, light, sound, odour, motion, evidently
all may be used in description. To be constantly mind-
ful of this range is almost to insure one's self against
word-painting. Though sound and motion are more
easily and properly suggested by language, yet all the
others may play some part. Which is most useful must
be decided afresh for each description. In general,
all the play of light and shadow, all the evanes-
cent features so valuable in individualising a scene,
and even the movements of living things, are deter-
mined by the time of day and the kind of light,
Madison Square in the spring has one aspect at
high noon, when the lawns are brilliant in colour,
the tulips flaring in the great flower-beds, the spar-
rows and nurses chattering everywhere, and the
loungers filling every bench ; and an^utterly different
aspect an hour after sundown, when the birds and
the nurses are gone, the tulips closed, and the electric
lights beginning to cast sharp lines of inky shadow,
and to turn the lawns a dull, unnatural hue.

In particular, it has been remarked that Shelley's


suggestiveness arises often from his abundant and ex
quisite use of the half-forgotten element

Odour. *

of odour. The mention of Greek incense
may be as suggestive of a Greek church as the resinous
scent of burning pin^ is of an Adirondack camp. 1 v
The mention of colour is, perhaps, more faintly
suggestive, and should be simple. Re
finement of hues may be confusing. 2

Before us lies a sea of fern, gone a russet brown from decay,
in which are isles of dark green gorse, and little trees with scarlet
and orange and lemon-colored leaflets fluttering down, and run-
ning after each other on the bright grass, under the brisk west
wind which makes the willows rustle, and turn up the whites of
their leaves in pious resignation to the coming change.

Harrow-on-the-Hill, with its pointed spire, rises blue in the
distance ; and distant ridges, like receding waves, rise into blue-
ness, one after the other, out of the low-lying mist ; the last ridge
bluely melting into space. In the midst of it all gleams the
Welsh Harp Lake, like a piece of sky that has become unstuck
and tumbled into the landscape with its shiny side up. Du
Maurier : Peter Ibbetson.

Sounds may be suggested more quickly and defin-
itely. Wordsworth's "soft inland murmur," Cole-
Sound ridge's " the sails did sigh like sedge/' !
Dickens's rooks in David Copperfidd,

1 See also Holmes : A utocrat, iv.

8 Cf. the description in Ruskin's Prceterita^ iii (Naples, January
9, 1841), vol. ii, p. 85, of the Orpington edition. For a study
in contrasted colours, see A Cameo and A Pastel, by Brander
Matthews, The Story of a Story ^ Harper & Brothers, 1893.

* It is well to point out the force of onomatopoeia, and at the
same time to warn against the abuse of it. Cf. the opening of
Dickens's Cricket on the Hearth*


the " echoing footsteps" in the Tale of Two Cities^
and the kettle in The Cricket on the Hearth are
famous instances. Further citation is unnecessary to
show that description, without transgressing its proper
limits, may attain distinct or even vivid images by the
range of its appeal.

Of course the range of any one man's appeal, the
extent of his power in suggestion, is measured by
the extent and the keenness of his own perceptions.
Herein lies the real affinity of description to the other
arts. For it is a truism that all artistic training is
primarily and constantly the training of the eye or the
The training ear. Truism though it be, however, it
of the senses. should never become stale in the teach-
ing of description. The observation of most men is
dim in perception and narrow in range. When the
student has been roused from blurred impressions of
a few things to sharper impressions of many things, his
description will take care of itself. Better than that,
his whole education has gained a great impulse. For
this reason more than one wise teacher has made
description a foundation for the teaching of rhetoric.
Do you know how a cow lies down, or a horse,
or a dog, or a cat? Do you know the habits of
each in drinking? Do you know how a hansom
cab is balanced, or how a railway car takes a curve ?
What is the difference in appearance between an
ailanthus tree and a walnut, a spruce and a hemlock?
How of the note of the meadow-lark, or the Roman-
esque revivals in contemporary architecture ? Ques-
tions like these have been known to stir a whole class.
Realization of the range of suggestion, the awaken*


ing of closer observation, these are prerequisites.

Definite instruction begins with the first principle of

all art, the principle of selection. The

The catalogue.

student s first tendency is to catalogue.
He needs to learn, then, first, that the details of his
mental image are too numerous and too complex to be
catalogued ; secondly, that the catalogue, even if he
could achieve it, would not be suggestive. Its use is
for identification, not for suggestion. It has no
artistic value. Indeed, progress in description is
mainly the development of an ability to get effects
with fewer and fewer details.

Be the details few or many, however, they must
always be chosen chosen first according to their
choose salient prominence. The salient details, those
details that leap to meet the senses, are evi-

dently suggestive : the clatter of a New York street,
the white glare of Athens, the scent of buckwheat, the
scarlet coat of a British soldier. But some details
and character- tnat are not salient are still suggestive,
istic details. because they are characteristic, as, for
instance, the fact that the clocks on the church towers
in southeastern Switzerland have only one hand, or
that Coleridge would shift constantly from one side of
his garden path to the other. Whatever serves to
individualise, whatever is peculiar to the time or the
person or the scene described, is always important for
description, however slight its intrinsic value.

Select what isjalient, what is characteristic. Fur-
ther comment tends to become too minute, and ir?
any case the choice is peculiarly the affair of the
chooser. According as a writer merely suggests whaf


he sees, or projects into his suggestion his own per-
sonal feeling, his description is said to be

Description , .

objective and objective or subjective. The latter kind

Ubjective. .. -r* T .

is naturally the more common. It is,
moreover, the habit of our century as distinguished
from the habit, for instance, of the eighteenth cen-
tury, and becomes one of the marks of Romanticism. 1
But in a certain sense all worthy description is sub-
jective ; that is, \it cannot be worthy unless it repre-
sent the seeing of the writer.) No two men see
exactly alike. Literally and metaphorically every
man's eyesight is really distinct from every other
man's. Specimens of description, therefore, should
not mislead any student into attempting Hawthorne
description or Stevenson description./ Imitation here,
The study of as * n a ll rhetorical study, should be

study of method. ; The student on his
high stool at the Louvre is not trying to paint like
Rembrandt or Murillo. He is learning the manage-
ment of colour and light. (And invaluable as is this
study of models, his task remains to see for himself
and to paint what he sees. ) No other way is
thoroughly worth while.

With these conditions, the study of models may be
assisted by suck a classification as shall lead from the
simplest handling of details, through more elaborate
treatment, to the most artistic method. It will be un-
derstood, however, that any given description may
combine several methods, that no description, in

1 See W. L. Phelps : English Romantic Movement, p. 4.
kin : Pratfrita, vi (vol. i, p. 195, Orpington edition).


fact, is likely to employ one method exclusively. The
selections, therefore, both in this introduction and in
simple enu- tne pages following, are grouped ac-
meration. cording to the method that, in each case,

is dominant. Now the simplest method is enumer-

The warrant for the arrest of Defoe described him
as follows :

He is a middle-aged, spare man, about forty years old, of a
brown complexion, and dark-brown coloured hair, but wears a
wig ; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole
near his mouth.

This is not very suggestive. Indeed, the lesson of
the description in a warrant is, first, how weak in sug-
gestion the enumeration of details-may be, and, sec-
ondly, how important is the slightest detail that is
individual. ^Note in the following the same method
more artistically applied :

Nine years old, on 3d January, 1858, thus now rising towards
ten ; neither tall nor short for her age ; a little stiff in her way of
standing. The eyes rather deep blue at that time, and fuller and
softer afterwards. Lips perfectly lovely in profile ; a little too
wide and hard in the edge, seen in front ; the rest of the features
what a fair, well-bred Irish girl's usually are ; the hair, perhaps,
more graceful in short curl round the forehead, and softer than
one sees often, in the close-bound tresses above the neck. Rus-
kin : Praterita^ iii.

How suggestive enumeration may be appears in the
following descriptions :

Almost every body knows, in our part of the world at least,
how pleasant and soft the fall of the land is round about Plover's
Barrows farm. All above it is strong dark mountain, spread with


heath, and desolate, but near our house the valleys cove, and open
warmth and shelter. Here are trees, and bright green grass, and
orchards full of contentment, and a man may scarce espy the
brook, although he hears it everywhere. And, indeed, a stout
good piece of it comes through our farm-yard, and swells some-
times to a rush of waves, when the clouds are on the hill-tops.
But all below, where the valley bends, and the Lynn stream
goes along with it, pretty meadows slope their breast, and the sun
spreads on the water., And nearly all of this is ours, till you come
to Nicholas Snowe's land. Blackmore : Lorna Doom.

It was a delicious drive quite of itself, and the great end in
view added a piquancy to the excursion that not every one who
posts toward San Gimignano can hope to enjoy. The weather
was charming, bright yet cool ; the country was ravishing, being
in the first full green of spring ; and the country-folk, flocking to
or from some great festa, filled the winding and undulating roads
with a gay excess of life and color. The cypressed villas, the
ruinous old abbeys in delightful gothic brickwork, the campanili
of village churches rising from the olived slopes of hillsides, the
twisted graces of vine-wreathed pergole, the wide-flapping straw
hats of the women trudging by, the jauntily-carried jackets of the
men, the gay romping of blossom-snatching children, the bustle
of roadside osterie, the slow jolting of ox-carts along the common
highway, the sturdy-arched, low-roofed farmhouses, the flowers,
the sunshine, the lightly stirring breeze, all the thousand things
that combine into that inexhaustible feast of grace and beauty
and social and historical interest which Tuscany knows so well
how to spread, caused our two friends more than once to quite
lose sight of the great undertaking that they had been commis-
sioned to carry through ; and, for the half hour previous to the
first appearance of San Gimignano's high-set coronet of towers, I
doubt if the Madonna Incognita received from them the tribute of
a single thought. Henry B. Fuller : The Chevalier of Pensieri-
Vani^ cap. iii.

But high up in the steeple ! There the foul blast roars and
whistles! High up in the steeple, where it is free to come and


go through many an airy arch and loophole, and to twist and
twine itself about the giddy stair, and twirl the groaning weather-
cock, and make the very tower shake and shiver ! High up in
the steeple where the belfry is, and iron rails are ragged with
rust, and sheets of lead and copper, shrivelled by the changing
weather, crackle and heave beneath the unaccustomed tread ; and
birds stuff shabby nests into corners of old oaken joists and
beams ; and dust grows old and grey ; and speckled spiders, in-
dolent and fat with long security, swing idly to and fro in the
vibration of the bells, and never loose their hold upon their thread-
spun castles in the air, or climb up sailor-like in quick alarm, or
drop upon the ground and ply a score of nimble legs to save a
life ! Dickens : The Chimes.

Besides, some of the smaller cities are charming. If they have
an old church or two, a few stately mansions of former grandees,
here and there an old dwelling with the second story projecting,
(for the convenience of shooting the Indians knocking at the front-
door with their tomahawks,) if they have, scattered about, those
mighty square houses built something more than half a century
ago, and standing like architectural bowlders dropped by the for-
mer diluvium of wealth, whose refluent wave has left them as its
monument, if they have gardens with elbowed apple-trees that
push their branches over the high board-fence and drop their fruit
on the sidewalk, if they have a little grass in the side-streets,
enough to betoken quiet without proclaiming decay, I think I
conk* go to pieces, after my life's work were done, in one of those
tranquil places, as sweetly as in any cradle that an old man may
be rocked to sleep in. Holmes : Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.

The last selection hints that enumeration needs
usually some distinct suggestion of the whole, some

single impression to give unitoL-and co-
Enumeration . < 7*
with suggestion herencc to the successive impressions

of the whole. . . .

of the separate details. This impres-
sion of the whole may be of the simplest, as at the
beginning of Defoe's description of Winchester :


From hence, at the end of seven miles over the Downs, we
come to the very ancient city of Winchester ; not only the great

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Online LibraryCharles Sears BaldwinSpecimens of prose description → online text (page 1 of 13)