Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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temporaries. That invidious task they leave to the unsuc-
cessful novelists. The instruction, the advice are offered
by the persons who cannot achieve performance. It is
thus that all things work together in favor of failure,
which, indeed, may well appear so easy that special in-
struction, however competent, is a luxury rather than a
necessary. But when we look round on the vast multi-
tude of writers who, to all seeming, deliberately aim at
failure, who take every precaution in favor of failure that
untutored inexperience can suggest, it becomes plain that
education in ill-success is really a popular want.

In the following remarks some broad general prin-
ciples, making disaster almost inevitable, will first be
offered, and then special methods of failing in all special
departments of letters will be ungrudgingly communicated.
It is not enough to attain failure, we should deserve it.
The writer, by way of insuring complete confidence,
would modestly mention that he has had ample opportu-
nities of study in this branch of knowledge. While sift-
ing for five or six years the volunteered contributions to
a popular periodical, he has received and considered some
hundredweights of manuscript. In all these myriad con-
tributions he has not found thirty pieces which rose even
to the ordinary dead-level of magazine work. He has
thus enjoyed unrivaled chances of examining such modes
of missing success as spontaneously occur to the human
intellect, to the unaided ingenuity of men, women, and

He who would fail in literature cannot begin too
early to neglect his education, and to adopt every oppor-
tunity of not observing life and character. None of us is
so young but that he may make himself perfect in writing
an illegible hand. This method, I am bound to say, is
too frequently overlooked. Most manuscripts by ardent
literary volunteers are fairly legible. On the other hand
there are novelists, especially ladies, who not only write
a hand wholly declining to let itself be deciphered, but

7 i8


who fill up the margins with interpolations, who write
between the lines, and who cover the page with scratches
running this way and that, intended to direct attention to
after-thoughts inserted here and there in corners and on
the backs of sheets. To pin in scraps of closely written
paper and backs of envelopes adds to the security for
failure, and produces a rich anger in the publisher's reader
or the editor.

The cultivation of a bad handwriting is an element-
ary precaution, often overlooked. Few need to be
warned against having their manuscripts typewritten ;
this gives them a chance of being read with ease and
interest, and this must be neglected by all who have really
set their hearts on failure. In the higher matters of edu-
cation it is well to be as ignorant as possible. No knowl-
edge comes amiss to the true man of letters, so they who
court disaster should know as little as may be.

Mr. Stevenson has told the attentive world how, in
boyhood, he practised himself in studying and imitating
the styles of famous authors of every age. He who aims
at failure must never think of style, and should sedulously
abstain from reading Shakespeare, Bacon, Hooker, Wal-
ton, Gibbon, and other English and foreign classics. He
can hardly be too reckless of grammar, and should always
place adverbs and other words between " to " and the
infinitive, thus : " Hubert was determined to energeti-
cally and on all possible occasions oppose any attempt to
entangle him with such." Here, it will be noticed,
" such " is used as a pronoun, a delightful flower of speech
not to be disregarded by authors who would fail.

But some one may reply that several of our most
popular novelists revel in the kind of grammar which I
am recommending. This is undeniable, but certain peo-
ple manage to succeed in spite of their own earnest en-
deavors and startling demerits. There is no royal road
to failure. There is no rule without its exception, and it
may be urged that the works of the gentlemen and ladies
who " break Priscian's head " as they would say them-
selves may be successful, but are not literature. Now
it is about literature that we are speaking.

In the matter of style, there is another excellent way.
You need not neglect it, but you may study it wrongly.



You may be affectedly self-conscious, you may imitate
the ingenious persons who carefully avoid the natural
word, the spontaneous phrase, and employ some other set
of terms which can hardly be construed. You may use,
like a young essayist whom I have lovingly observed, a
proportion of eighty adjectives to every sixty-five words
of all denominations. You may hunt for odd words, and
thrust them into the wrong places, as where you say that
a man's nose is " beetling," that the sun sank in " a cal-
dron of daffodil chaos," and the like. You may use com-
mon words in an unwonted sense, keeping some private
interpretation clearly before you. Thus you may speak
if you like to write partly in the tongue of Hellas, about
" assimilating the ethos " of a work of art, and so write
that people shall think of the processes of digestion. You
may speak of " exhausting the beauty " of a landscape,
and, somehow, convey the notion of sucking an orange
dry. Or you may wildly mix your metaphors, as when a
critic accuses Mr. Browning of " giving the iridescence
of the poetic afflatus," as if the poetic afflatus were blown
through a pipe, into soap, and produced soap-bubbles.
This is a more troublesome method than the mere picking
up of every newspaper commonplace that floats into your
mind, but it is equally certain to lead where you want
to go. By combining the two fashions a great deal may
be done. Thus you want to describe a fire at sea, and
you say " the devouring element lapped the quivering
spars, the mast, and the sea-shouldering keel of the
doomed ' Mary Jane ' in one coruscating catastrophe.
The sea deeps were incarnadined to an alarming extent
by the flames, and to escape from such many plunged
headlong in their watery bier."

As a rule, authors who would fail stick to one bad
sort of writing; either to the newspaper commonplace, or
to the out of the way and inappropriate epithets, or to
the common word with a twist on it. But there are ex-
amples of the combined method, as when we call the trees
round a man's house his " domestic boscage." This com-
bination is difficult, but perfect for its purpose. You can-
not write worse than "such." To attain perfection the
young aspirant should confine his reading to the news-
papers (carefully selecting his newspapers, for many of


them will not help him to write ill) and to those modern
authors who are most praised for their style by the
people who know least about the matter. Words like
" fictional " and " fictive " are distinctly to be recom-
mended, and there are epithets such as "weird,"
" strange," " wild," " intimate," and the rest, which blend
pleasantly with " all the time " for " always " ; " back of "
for " behind " ; " belong with " for " belong to " ; " live like
I do " for " as I do." The authors who combine those
charms are rare, but we can strive to be among them.

In short, he who would fail must avoid simplicity like
a sunken reef, and must earnestly seek either the com-
monplace or the bizarre, the slipshod or the affected,
the new-fangled or the obsolete, the flippant or the
sepulchral. I need not specially recommend you to write
in " Wardour-street English," the sham archaic, a lingo
never spoken by mortal man, and composed of patches
borrowed from authors between Piers Plowman and
Gabriel Harvey. A few literal translations of Icelandic
phrases may be thrown in ; the result, as furniture-dealers
say, is a " made-up article."

On the subject of style another hint may be offered.
Style may be good in itself, but inappropriate to the
subject. For example, style which may be excellently
adapted to a theological essay, may be but ill-suited for
a dialogue in a novel. There are subjects of which the
poet says:

" Ornari res ipsa vetat, contenta doceri."

The matter declines to be adorned, and is content with
being clearly stated. I do not know what would occur
if the writer of the Money Article in the " Times " treated
his topic with reckless gaiety. Probably that number of
the journal in which the essay appeared would have a
large sale, but the author might achieve professional
failure in the office. On the whole it may not be the
wiser plan to write about the Origins of Religion in the
style which might suit a study of the life of ballet-dancers ;
the two MM. Halevy, the learned and the popular, would
make a blunder if they exchanged styles. Yet Gibbon
never denies himself a jest, and Montesquieu's " Esprit



des Lois " was called " L'Esprit sur les Lois." M.
Kenan's " Historic d'Israel " may almost be called skit-
tish. The French are more tolerant of those excesses
than the English. It is a digression, but he who would
fail can reach his end by not taking himself seriously.
If he gives himself no important airs, whether out of a
freakish humor or real humility, depend upon it the
public and the critics will take him at something under
his own estimate. On the other hand, by copying the
gravity of demeanor admired by Mr. Shandy in a cele-
brated parochial animal, even a very dull person may
succeed in winning no inconsiderable reputation.

To return to style, and its appropriateness : all depends
on the work in hand, and the audience addressed. Thus,
in his valuable " Essay on Style," Mr. Pater says, with
perfect truth :

' The otiose, the facile, surplusage : why are these ab-
horrent to the true literary artist, except because, in liter-
ary as in all other arts, structure is all important, felt or
painfully missed, everywhere ? that architectural concep-
tion of work, which foresees the end in the beginning,
and never loses sight of it, and in every part is conscious
of all the rest, till the last sentence does but with un-
diminished vigor, unfold and justify the first a condi-
tion of literary art, which, in contradistinction to another
quality of the artist himself, to be spoken of later, I shall
call the necessity of mind in style."

These are words which the writer should have al-
ways present to his memory if he has something serious
that he wants to say, or if he wishes to express himself
in the classic and perfect manner. But if it is his fate
merely to be obliged to say something, in the course of
his profession, or if he is bid to discourse for the pleasure
of readers in the Underground Railway, I fear he will
often have to forget Mr. Pater. It may not be literature,
the writing of Causeries, of Roundabout Papers, of
rambling articles " on a broomstick," and yet again it
may be literature ! " Parallel, allusion, the allusive way
generally, the flowers in the garden " Mr. Pater charges
heavily against these. The true artist " knows the nar-
cotic force of these upon the negligent intelligence to
which any diversion, literally, is welcome, any vagrant


intruder, because one can go wandering away with it from
the immediate subject. ... In truth all art does
but consist in the removal of surplusage, from the last
finish of the gem-engraver blowing away the last particle
of invisible dust, back to the earliest divination of the
finished work to be lying somewhere, according to
Michelangelo's fancy, in the rough-hewn block of stone."
Excellent, but does this apply to every kind of literary
art? What would become of Montaigne if you blew
away his allusions, and drove him out of " the allusive
way," where he gathers and binds so many flowers from
all the gardens and all the rose-hung lanes of literature?
Montaigne sets forth to write an " Essay on Coaches."
He begins with a few remarks on sea-sickness in the com-
mon pig; some notes on the Pont Neuf at Paris follow,
and a theory of why tyrants are detested by men whom
they have obliged ; a glance at Coaches is then given,
next a study of Montezuma's gardens, presently a brief
account of the Spanish cruelties in Mexico and Peru,
last retombons a nos coches he tells a tale of the Inca,
and the devotion of his Guard : Another for Hector !

The allusive style has its proper place, like another,
if it is used by the right man, and the concentrated and
structural style has also its higher province. It would
not do to employ either style in the wrong place. In a
rambling discursive essay, for example, a mere straying
after the bird in the branches, or the thorn in the way,
he might not take the safest road who imitated Mr.
Pater's style in what follows : " In this way, according
to the well-known saying, ' The style is the man,' complex
or simple, in his individuality, his plenary sense of what
he really has to say, his sense of the world: all cautions
regarding style arising out of so many natural scruples
as to the medium through which alone he can expose
that inward sense of things, the purity of this medium,
its laws or tricks of refraction : nothing is to be left there
which might give conveyance to any matter save that."

Clearly the author who has to write so that the man
may read who runs will fail if he wrests this manner
from its proper place, and uses it for casual articles : he
will fail to hold the vagrom attention !



Thus a great deal may be done by studying inappro-
priateness of style, by adopting a style alien to our matter
and to our audience. If we " haver " discursively about
serious, and difficult, and intricate topics, we fail; and
we fail if we write on happy, pleasant, and popular topics
in an abstruse and intent, and analytic style. We fail,
too, if in style we go outside our natural selves. " The
style is the man," and the man will be nothing, and no-
body, if he tries for an incongruous manner, not naturally
his own, for example, if Miss Yonge were suddenly to
emulate the manner of Lever, or if Mr. John Morley
were to strive to shine in the fashion of Uncle Remus,
or if Mr. Rider Haggard were to be allured into imita-
tion by the example, so admirable in itself, of the Master
of Balliol.

It is ourselves we must try to improve, our attentive-
ness, our interest in life, our seriousness of purpose, and
then the style will improve with the self. Or perhaps,
to be perfectly frank, we shall thus convert ourselves into
prigs, throw ourselves out of our stride, lapse into self-
consciousness, lose all that is natural, naif, and instinc-
tive within us. Verily there are many dangers, and the
paths to failure are infinite.

So much for style, of which it may generally be said
that you cannot be too obscure, unnatural, involved,
vulgar, slipshod, and metaphorical. See to it that your
metaphors are mixed, though, perhaps, this attention is
hardly needed. The free use of parentheses, in which a
reader gets lost, and of unintelligible allusions, and of
references to unread authors, the Kalevala and Lyco-
phron, and the Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, is in-
valuable to this end. So much for manner, and now for

The young author generally writes because he wants
to write, either for money, from vanity, or in mere
weariness of empty hours and anxiety to astonish his
relations. This is well, he who would fail cannot begin
better than by having nothing to say. The less you
observe, the less you reflect, the less you put yourself in
the paths of adventure and experience, the less you will
have to say, and the more impossible will it be to read


your work. Never notice people's manner, conduct, nor
even dress, in real life. Walk through the world with
your eyes and ears closed, and embody the negative re-
sults in a story or a poem. As to poetry, with a fine
instinct we generally begin by writing verse, because verse
is the last thing that the public want to read. The young
writer has usually read a great deal of verse, however,
and most of it bad. His favorite authors are the bright
lyrists who sing of broken hearts, wasted lives, early
deaths, disappointment, gloom. Without having even
had an unlucky flirtation, or without knowing what it
is to lose a favorite cat, the early author pours forth
laments, just like the laments he has been reading. He
has too a favorite manner, the old consumptive manner,
about the hectic flush, the fatal rose on the pallid cheek,
about the ruined roof-tree, the empty chair, the rest in
the village churchyard. This is now a little rococo and
forlorn, but failure may be assured by traveling in this
direction. If you are ambitious to disgust an editor at
once, begin your poem with " Only." In fact you may
as well head the lyric " Only."


Only a spark of an ember,

Only a leaf on the tree,
Only the days we remember,

Only the days without thee.
Only the flower that thou worest,

Only the book that we read,
Only that night in the forest,

Only a dream of the dead,
Only the troth that was broken,

Only the heart that is lonely,
Only the sigh and the token

That sob in the saying of Onlyl

In literature this is a certain way of failing, but I be-
lieve a person might make a livelihood by writing verses
like these for music. Another good way is to be very
economical in your rhymes, only two to the four lines,
and regretfully vague. Thus :



In the slumber of the winter,

In the secret of the snow,
What is the voice that is crying

Out of the long ago?

When the accents of the children,

Are silent on the stairs,
When the poor forgets his troubles,

And the rich forgets his cares.

What is the silent whisper

That echoes in the room,
When the days are full of darkness

And the night is hushed in gloom?

'Tis the voice of the departed,

Who will never come again
Who has left the weary tumult,

And the struggle and the pain.

And my heart makes heavy answer

To the voice that comes no more
To the whisper that is welling

From the far-off happy shore.

If you are not satisfied with these simple ways of not
succeeding, please try the Grosvenor Gallery style. Here
the great point is to make the rhyme arrive at the end
of a very long word; you should also be free with your
alliterations :


When the sombre night is dumb,
Hushed the loud chrysanthemum,

Sister, sleep !

Sleep, the lissom lily saith
Sleep, the poplar whispereth,

Soft and deep !

Filmy floats the wild woodbine
Jonquil, jacinth, jessamine,

Float and flow.

Sleeps the water wild and wan,
As in far-off Toltecan




See, upon the sun-dial,

Waves the midnight's misty pall,

Waves and wakes,
As, in tropic Timbuctoo,
Water beasts go plashing through

Lilied lakes !

Alliteration is a splendid source of failure in this sort
of poetry, and adjectives like lissom, filmy, weary, weird,
strange, make, or ought to make, the rejection of your
manuscript a certainty. The poem should, as a rule,
seem to be addressed to an unknown person, and should
express regret and despair for circumstances in the past
with which the reader is totally unacquainted. Thus :


We met at length, as Souls that sit,
At funeral feast, and taste of it,
And empty were the words we said,
As fits the converse of the dead.
For it is long ago, my dear,
Since we two met in living cheer,
Yea, we have long been ghosts, you know
And alien ways we twain must go,
Nor shall we meet in Shadow Land,
Till Time's glass, empty of its sand
Is filled up of Eternity.
Farewell enough for once to die
And far too much it is to dream,
And taste not the Lethean stream,
But bear the pain of loves unwed,
Even here, even here, among the dead !

That is a cheerful, intelligible kind of melody, which
is often practised with satisfactory results. Every form
of imitation (imitating of course only the faults of a
favorite writer) is to be recommended.

Imitation does a double service: it secures the failure
of the imitator and also aids that of the unlucky author
who is imitated. As soon as a new thing appears in
literature, many people hurry off to attempt something
of the same sort. It may be a particular trait and accent



in poetry, and the public, weary of the mimicries, begin
to dislike the original.

" Most can grow the flowers now,

For all have got the seed;
And once again the people
Call it but a weed.**

In fiction, if somebody brings in a curious kind of
murder, or a study of religious problems, or a treasure
hunt, or what you will, others imitate till the world is
weary of murders, or theological flirtations, or the search
for buried specie, and the original authors themselves
will fail, unless they fish out something new, to be vulgar-
ized afresh. Therefore, imitation is distinctly to be urged
on the young author.

As a rule, his method is this: He reads very little,
but all that he reads is bad. The feeblest articles in the
weakliest magazines, the very mildest and most conven-
tional novels, appear to be the only studies of the ma-
jority. Apparently the would-be contributor says to him-
self, or herself, " Well, I can do something almost on
the level of this or that maudlin and invertebrate novel."
Then he deliberately sits down to rival the most tame,
dull, and illiterate compositions that get into print. In
this way bad authors become the literary parents of worse
authors. Nobody but a reader of manuscripts knows
what myriads of fiction are written without one single
new situation, original character, or fresh thought. The
most out-worn ideas, sudden loss of fortune, struggles,
faithlessness of first lover, noble conduct of second lover,
frivolity of younger sister, excellence of mother, naughti-
ness of one son, virtue of another, these are habitually
served up again and again. On the sprained ankles, the
mad bulls, the fires, and other simple devices for doing
without an introduction between hero and heroine I need
not dwell. The very youngest of us is acquainted with
these expedients, which, by this time of day, will spell

The common novels of governess life, the daughters
and granddaughters of Jane Eyre, still run riot among
the rejected manuscripts. The lively, large family, all


very untidy and humorous, all wearing each other's boots
and gloves, and making their dresses out of bedroom
curtains and marrying rich men, still rushes down the
easy descent to failure. The skeptical curate is at large,
and is disbelieving in everything except the virtues of
the young woman who " has a history." Mr. Swinburne
hopes that one day the last unbelieving clergyman will
disappear in the embrace of the last immaculate Magda-
len as the Princess and the Geni burn each other to
nothingness, in the " Arabian Nights." On that happy
day there will be one less of the roads leading to failure.
If the pair can carry with them the self-sacrificing charac-
ters who take the blame of all the felonies that they did
not do, and the nice girl who is jilted by the poet, and
finds that the squire was the person whom she really
loved, so much the better. If not only Monte Carlo,
but the inevitable scene in the rooms there can be abol-
ished; if the Riviera and Italy can be removed from the
map of Europe as used by novelists, so much the better.
But failure will always be secured while the huge major-
ity of authors do not aim high, but aim at being a little
lower than the last domestic drivel which came out in
three volumes, or the last analysis of the inmost self of
some introspective young girl which crossed the water
from the States.

These are general counsels, and apply to the produc-
tion of books. But, when you have done your book, you
may play a number of silly tricks with your manuscript.
I have already advised you to make only one copy, a
rough one, as that secures negligence in your work, and
also disgusts an editor or reader. It has another ad-
vantage, you may lose your copy altogether, and, as you
have not another, no failure can be more complete. The
best way of losing it, I think, and the safest, is to give
it to somebody you know who has once met some man
or woman of letters. This somebody must be instructed
to ask that busy and perhaps casual and untidy person
to read your manuscript, and " place " it that is, induce
some poor publisher or editor to pay for and publish it.
Now the man, or woman of letters, will use violent
language on receiving your clumsy brown-paper parcel of

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 29 of 38)