Nels L. (Nels Lars) Nelson.

Preaching and public speaking : a manual for the use of preachers of the Gospel and public speakers in general online

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mouth, beard, then body, limbs, dress, etc., in a mere enumeration.
But this might by no means be the natural order. What would be
the natural order? This must be determined by looking at the
man. Perhaps the first detail would be the nose, if this member
were so prominent as first to attract attention. In another instance
it might be the feet. A smile perhaps or a frown might be a start-
ing point in another case. Some women for instance lose them-
selves so completely in finery that the dress would first come under
attention, and gradually the animated dummy beneath it would be
discovered. Whatever be the starting point, other details are to be
given, not in the order of contiguity, but in the order in which they
would actually strike the eye or ear of the observer.

A good test of clearness is to shut the eyes, and then
in imagination try to see the thing described. If the picture is clear
we should ask, "Can the reader, from the outlines and details given,
see what I see?" By this means, we shall perhaps discover that we
see the thing mainly by reason of details not yet given, that the
latter, should he construct a picture from the facts furnished would
get a false impression. In this way then we shall be able to transfer
the picture from our minds to that of our audience, and to do this
with exactness is to bo clear in description.

Importance of Clearness and Accuracy. — Clearness and ac-
curacy of description are what make information valuable, hence
these are the main characteristics of scientific description. Clear-
ness depends upon ability to see v/ithin one's head; accuracy, upon
the training of one's senses, and upon one's native love and respect
for truth. All these qualities — the constructive imagination, the
well-trained observation, and the love of truth — are powers already
made or marred in the preacher, to a greater or less extent, accord-


ing to his previous training. Should he find himself deficient m
descriptive power the only remedy is to educate the faculties that
make clearness and accuracy possible.

Description flust Have a Purpose. — The first requisite of
description, as of all other forms of composition, is that it shall
have a purpose. It is the purpose which determines the nature of
the whole work. Let a mountain or a river he the subject of de-
scription and let the purpose in one case be such as a railroad engin-
eer might have, in another that of a poet or writer of fiction, and
in a third that of a sawyer — and it is obvious that we should have
three very different descriptions of the same object. Not only is
the character but also the length and elaborateness of a description
determined by the purpose in view. For the sake of an illustration
the Rocky Mountains may be described in two bold strokes, while
for the purposes of geography, geology, mineralogy, etc., they may
require a score of volumes.

Poetic Description.— Now, the main use that a preacher will
have for description is in so far as it lends itself to the enforcement
of moral truths. Consequently enough has been said of the other
kind — the kind which seeks only the direct purpose of conveying
facts concerning works of nature or art. "We are now to discuss the
kind whose object is indirect, such, for instance, as the rousing of the
emotions in view of some hoped for decision or action. J. B. Gough
painted the drunkard's home, not to add to our stock of knowledge,
but save men from drunkards' graves. The revivalist gives reins to
his fancy in depicting heaven and hell for a similar reason. Indeed,
outside of text books and catalogues, so accustomed are we to have
our descriptions illustrate or enforce some ulterior truth, that we
hardly have patience to read through a description which exists
simply for description's sake.

Need of Unity. — Our next consideration is that no matter
what be our purpose, we must adhere to it undeviatingly. No de-
tail however beautiful or striking in itself must be introduced if it


would serve to distract attention from the object in view, or arouse
emotions not in harmony with the purpose. To put it technically,
the description must preserve ^unity.' In other fields of invention
the "eternal fitness of things" is ever present, and there is very lit-
tle temptation, to violate unity. The milliner, in building a hat, is
not tempted to put this flower or that bird into the trimming
simply l)ecause she has them at hand, and they are beautiful in
themselves. They might destroy the general effect. Think what
wonderful colors, forms, textures, and designs might enter into the
making of a dress, the building of a house, or the decoration of a
parlor, did not a sense of unity and harmony forbid!

What we need is to get the same severe taste in literary inven-
tion that we display when we make combinations of material things.
It may be added in this connection that until we get such taste, we
shall make poor headway in appealing to mankind; and this for a
reason similar to that which causes us to be held in a kind of con-
tempt if we manife&t a crude and ridiculous taste in dress and the
social amenities. It is with truth as with good clothes, whether it
shall please or displease mankind depends very largely upon the
cutting and fitting.

flust be Saturated with the Human Element. — A de-
scription ouglit always, ;f possible, to keep in touch with the human
element. The beauty of a sunset in print does not appeal to us
unless it is made to affect some soul whose aspirations are akin to
our own. The magnificence of mountain scenery is cold and un-
attractive until we put human figures into it. An old house does
not interest us as a house, but as a home of human beings of our
kind. The turbulence of a river, which in one author we pass by
with scarcely a thought, becomes by the description of another so
dee23ly impressed upon our imagination that we see it in our dreams;
simply because the latter contrived to have a boat-load of our
friends overturned into the raging flood. Jules Verne has perhaps
woven into popular literature more dry facts and statistics on scien-


tific subjects than any other author; and this by the admirable
way in which he mingles the human element in his narrative, de-
scriptions, and expositions.

Completeness and Brevity. — The remaining general qual-
ties of description are that it should be complete and should be
brief. It is complete when the purpose is fulfiled, if it occupy only
two lines. Conversely it is incomplete when the purpose fails — if
it fail on this account — even though ten chapters be devoted to it.

To read and visualize a description requires greater mental
energy than to follow in imagination the characters and events of a
narrative. Hence the greater need of studying brevity in descrip-
tive portrayal. How to do this successfully will be mainly the
theme of the next chapter.

Brevity and suggestiveness are the most invariable qualities
of the best literature in any language. It is not what Shakespeare
says so much as what he makes us think, that gives us pleasure. I
know of no better way to become master of a suggestive stjde — and
such a style is invaluable not only in description, but in every other
form of composition — than to make a careful analytical study of the
English classics. As an illustration of how a choice of words may
enable the writer to be brief without sacrificing completeness, let
the reader follow out the suggestions aroused by almost every word
and phrase in Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner;" a poem which though
it does not devote a single line to description, nevertheless flashes
upon the mind pictures which a volume of conscious descriptive
effort would fail to portray.




Eyes or no Eyes.- — A few years ago there appeared in one of
our home magazines a description of Fish Lake and vicinity, which
is without doubt one of the most picturesque summer resorts on the
continent. Many friends of the writer took occasion to thank him
for the pleasure they had felt in seeing the scenery, as it were,
through his eyes, and declared their purpose to take the first oppor-
tunity of enjoying it for themselves. Some of them did so the fol-
lowing summer and one or two expressed a disappointment.

This is by no means an unusual experience. So far from de-
scriptions not doing justice to scenes or characters, the opposite is
more generally true. If Pecksniff or Uriah Heep were daily to
walk before us should we see as much in them as we learn from
Dickens? If we were to gaze upon the scenes depicted in "Views
Afoot," should be disappointed? Very likely, unless we should
happen to be Bayard Taylors. What is the explanation of our
failure to see in a landscape or other object what others are able to

Effect of Seeing too Much.— The fault may lie in our
eye or in the powers behind the eye. Perhaps we are tired or hun-
gry, or heartsore, or loaded down with business cares. Perhaps the
day is not propitious — sunshine makes a vast difference. Any one
or all of these causes might produce the disappointment. But there
is something in the nature of description itself that will account
for our feeling. When the writer before mentioned made his por-
trayal of Fish Lake he selected just those details which he thought
would make a clear and attractive picture in the reader's imagina-
tion and slurred or left out the thousand and one common-places
which would interfere with the unity of such a picture. Now, un-


less the tourist has the same faculty — the faculty of refusing to see
what is common-place, how shall he discover the unity or harmony
of a scene in nature ? Happily this faculty is capable of cultivation.
But the majority of sight-seers get hopelessly lost in the complexity
of details. As Lowell puts it, because of the trees they fail to see
the forest.

Effect of the Point of View. — He who would success-
fully put a picture into words, must begin by doing precisely what
he does who would put it into colors; that is, he must choose a point
of view, and maintain it till the work is done. He must not attempt
to describe things as they are, but only as they appear. A mountain
will be rugged and precipitous if it is near, or shadow}^ and mist-
veiled, if far. Viewed from its bank, a river may be a muddy,
trubulent flood, but from the neighboring mountain top it is a
"silver thread winding in and out amid the velvety green of the
valley." A human figure near by is Old Mother Hobarty, a little
way off it is an old woman with a cane, still farther, a woman mere-
ly, then a human being, and lastly a moving object. The laws of
perspective can no more be dispensed with in a description than in
a painting.

But let us not make the mistake of supposing that the point
of view must always be a point in space. It is often only an atti-
tude of mind. For instance, a murder has been committed and the
accused is placed behind the bars. Here two reporters face him
and draw his portrait in words, the one from the point of view,
"He is innocent," the other from the conviction, "He is guilty."
Both will be more or less exact descriptions, but how different in
outcome! Of course, in such a case the point of view should be,
"He may or may not be guilty."

Grouping an Act of the Mind. — Contrary to the usual
conception, things do not exist in nature already grouped and uni-
fied for description. True, there are crude divisions and classifi-
cations such as we observe in passing from zone to zone, or in as-



cending to higher altitudes — classifications made by the uniform
and persistent forces of nature. But these divisions are only as the
great limbs of a tree. After that so far as the purposes of man are
concerned, her products and forces are more or less jumbled togeth-
er, haphazard. I say, for man's purposes they are so jumbled; for if
we could look at them from God's point of view, we should perhaps
fmd orderly and inevitable arrangement clear to the uttermost twig
and leaf of creation.

But for man's puny purposes, this natural classification is on
too wide and infinite a scale. He must recombine it by taking here
a little and there a little. His subject-matter lies spread out before
him like the uncut material of a milliner store; and the construct-
ing of a description does not differ essentially in principle
from the putting together of a hat; a certain unity is
conceived in the imagination, and then the forms, colors,
and textures are chosen here and there as needed to
make real the conception. But on nature's shelves the details are
so multitudinous, diverse, and complicated that it requires a dis-
crimination more keen and far-reaching to describe well thcin to
trim hats well.

The Problem of Selection. — From the foregoing it
will be seen that the problem for the descriptive writer
is not so much one of finding as selecting. It is not
the enumeration but the exclusion of details that will tax
his artistic powers. Think, for instance, how long and tedious
would be the description of even the most beautiful building if all
its details were given. While this might be necessary in an archi-
tect's design, yet for tlie purpose of arousing the emotion of
beauty, only a few bold, characteristic strokes dare be trusted; and
just how many details and which details to give constitute the
whole art of picture-making by words. When too many particulars
are furnished the tedium and common-place of the catalogue settle
over the spirits of the reader; and when too few are given the ob-


ject remains so hazy and indistinct in the imagination as not to
excite interest.

Which Details Should be Given. — As to which details
should be furnished only this general principle can be given. Sup-
posing the outlines already drawn, furnish the reader with just those
facts which will stimulate the imagination to creative fervor, and
at the same time guide it in forming a true conception. As a rule
these will bo characteristic details; that is, they will be marks which
enable us to distinguish the thing itself from other members of its
class. For instance, let us suppose tl at one hundred details would
be an exhaustive description of a human being. Then fifty of
them would apply to all human beings alike; twenty-five more
to the sex to which he belongs; ten would be characteristic of his
nationality; ten more would be true of all in the same station and
occupation in life. There would remain then only five details char-
acteristic of himself. And he would perhaps have to be a very
strongly marked individual to have such a proportion of distin-
guishing characteristics.

Now, our knowledge concerning any man becomes indistinct
precisely in the direction in which these figures grow smaller, and
the same principle holds true respecting other objects of description.
Plainly, then, the rule which should guide us in selecting and re-
jecting details might be thus stated: ^^Of details classified acord-
ing to their generalness, draw most largely upon the smallest di-
vision, and least largejy upon the greatest division." Or to put
the idea more tersely. "Draw upon facts in the inverse proportion
to their generalness.'^ This principle applied to the illustration
used above would lead to something like the following choice of
details: four out of the five facts peculiar to the man himself;
three out of the ten peculiar to his station and environments; two
from the ten characteristic of his nationality; one from the twenty-
five relating to his sex; and no other fact than the name human be-
ing from the fifty details true of all mankind.


Word-Painting — The highest art in selection consists in
choosing the one word or phrase which flashes the whole picture
upon the reader's imagination. For instance, if some one should
exclaim: "Here comes an eye glass and a cane!" we should not
only see the whole dude, but have aroused, as well, all the slumber-
ing contempt we may feel for this variety of the biped. Great
writers are noted for their ability thus to "take oif" a character or
a scene in a word. Literature is full of examples. Read, for in-
stance, Goldsmith's satirical pen pictures of the famous coffee house
club of whom Dr. Johnson was the pompous autocrat.

Effect of Arrangement. — But it is not by selection alone that
the reader of description is assisted to just mental pictures. Quite
-as much depends upon grouping. By one arrangement, details ob-
scure each other's light, by another they enhance it. Who has not
been surprised at the difference of effect in, say, the same goods
in a store, or the same furnishings of a room, simply by appropri-
ate changes in the grouping!

Now, grouping in description is only another name for classi-
fying or making appropriate divisions in a theme, and this question
is exhaustively discussed elsewhere in this treatise. (See Chapter
Eight, Section IX, X, and XI.) I cannot refrain, however, from
quoting a fine example of it as applied to description.

"In studying any interesting scene, let your mind look care-
fully at all the details. You will then become conscious of one or
more effects or impressions that have been made upon you. Dis-
cover what these impressions are Then group and describe in order
the details which tend to produce each of the impressions. You
will then find that you have comprised in your description all the
important details of the scene.

"As an instance, let us suppose that a writer is out in the
country on a morning toward the end of May, and wishes to de-
scribe the multitudinous objects which delight his senses. First
of all, he ascertains that the general impressions produced on his


mind are ^luxuriance/ 'brightness/ and 'joy/ He then proceeds
to describe in these groups the details which produce these impres-

"He first takes up the 'luxuriant' features: the springing young
crops of grain, completely hiding the red soil; the rich, living car-
pet of grass and flowers covering the meadow; the hedge-rows on
each side of the way, in their bright summer green; the trees, bend-
ing gracefully under the full weight of their foliage; and the wild
plants, those waifs of nature, flourishing everywhere, smothering
the woodland brook, filling up each scaur and crevice in the rock,
and making a rich fringe along every highway and foot path.

"He then descants upon the 'brightness' of the landscape: the
golden sunshine; the pearly dew-drop hanging on the tip of every
blade of grass, and sparkling in the morning rays; the clusters of
daisies dappling the pasture-land; the dandelion glowing under the
very foot of the traveler, the chest-nut trees, like great candelabra,
stuck all over with white lights, lighting up the woodland; and
lilacs, laburnums, and hawthorns, in full flower, malting the far-
mer's garden one mass of variegated blossoms.

"Last of all he can dwell upon the 'joy' that is abroad on the
face of the earth: the little birds, so full of one feeling that they
can only trill it forth in the same delicious monotone; the lark,
bounding into the air, as if eager and quivering to proclaim his joy
to the whole world; the humble-bee, humming his satisfaction as he
revels among the flowers; and the myriads of insects floating in the
air, and poising and darting with drowsy buzz through the floods
of golden sunshine. Thus, we see that by this habit of generaliz-
ing, the mind can grasp the details of almost any scene."

The Need of Using Comparisons.— We speak of conveying
information. But, really, nothmg is more impossible than this,
taken in the sense of transferring a fact from one mind to another,
as we might convey a letter or a parcel from hand to hand. What
we convey are signs, not ideas. If these signs have the same sig-


nificance for others that they do for us, they arouse into conscious-
ness ideas and thoughts similar to ours. Now, it continually hap-
pens that he who is describing uses signs that do not arouse cor-
responding ideas or thoughts in the minds of his listeners, and
this for the simple reason that there are no such ideas or thoughts
to arouse. The listeners do not explain their confusion in the way I
have: they merely assert that they do not understand.

"Let me see," says the speaker, thoughtfully, "have you seen"
— and here he names something ^like' the thing not understood.
Being assured that they have, he proceeds to say that the thing is
like that in this and this respect, but differs thus and so. By this
means an adequate picture is at length lodged, or rather created ni
the imagination.

There is no other way. It is for this reason that descriptive
writing especially is so full of metaphor and comparison. The pri-
mary aim in the use of figurative language should be, as in this
case, to render an idea clear and accurate. When it does not do
this, it is affectation to employ it. But it cannot make thought
perspicuous without doing more: without adding force and beauty
as well as clearness to the idea. I shall not r.dd illustrations of the
value of figures in description. Every chapter in this book will
furnish examples of metaphor and simile, more or less apt and
useful, and the subject is fully treated elsewhere under the head
of "Imagery and Illustration."

Dynamic Description. — Homer has successfully imposed up-
on the world the conviction that Helen of Troy was the most beau-
tiful woman that has ever lived. Yet if every reader of the Iliad
were called upon to give form and life to the impressions he has
received of the world^s beauty, she would be found to co-incide
with his own ideal, and therefore not differ essentially from the
woman he loves. We should have Helens of every conceived type
of beauty: tall, medium, short; light, and dark; stout and lean;


sad and gay; sentimental and practical; esthetic and matter-of-

Now, Homer could have produced so wonderful an effect only in
one way — ^by description; but it is description of a peculiar kind,
viz: that which gives effects and leaves the reader to create the
causes. The most striking conceptions gained from literature are
produced in this way. What mere grouping of descriptive details
concerning Banquo's ghost, could make us feel the terror inspired
by witnessing the quaking form and horror-stricken face of Mac-
beth at the banquet scene? Here is a passage from the Book of
Job which also describes by noting effects:

"In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep
falleth on men, fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all
my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face, and the
hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern
the form thereof; an image was before mine eyes, there was silence,
and I heard a voice saying, shall mortal man be more just than
God? Shall a man be more pure than his Maker?"

What cause, we ask ourselves, could be adequate to such an
effect? As we sense the deep stillness, the intense darkness, and
see a spirit — or rather know than see that it is there — then picture
the fear, and trembling of the old man, and his hair standing on
end, a terror siezes us, too, that verges upon the sublime.

These examples enable us to understand the merits and defects
of description which proceeds by noting effects. So far as the vivid-
ness of the emotion aroused is concerned the method is more force-
ful than direct description; but so far as furnishing the mind with
a true picture or conception of the thing producing the erect it is
utterly unreliable; since, being a self -creation entirely, such picture
or conception would not be exactly the same in any two minds, but
would in fact differ as the minds differed.



Prominence has been given, in the foregoing chapters, to Nar-
ration and Description, partly because onr Elders neglect these
forms of communication, but mainly because of their intrinsic im-
portance in preaching or teaching. It may be well, by way of in-
troduction to our present theme, to show the connection between
these forms and the form known as Exposition.

Relationship of Narration and Description to Exposition.

Online LibraryNels L. (Nels Lars) NelsonPreaching and public speaking : a manual for the use of preachers of the Gospel and public speakers in general → online text (page 19 of 37)