Walter Alexander Raleigh.

Style online

. (page 1 of 6)
Online LibraryWalter Alexander RaleighStyle → online text (page 1 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Style, the Latin name for an iron pen, has come to designate the
art that handles, with ever fresh vitality and wary alacrity, the
fluid elements of speech. By a figure, obvious enough, which yet
might serve for an epitome of literary method, the most rigid and
simplest of instruments has lent its name to the subtlest and most
flexible of arts. Thence the application of the word has been
extended to arts other than literature, to the whole range of the
activities of man. The fact that we use the word "style" in
speaking of architecture and sculpture, painting and music,
dancing, play-acting, and cricket, that we can apply it to the
careful achievements of the housebreaker and the poisoner, and to
the spontaneous animal movements of the limbs of man or beast, is
the noblest of unconscious tributes to the faculty of letters. The
pen, scratching on wax or paper, has become the symbol of all that
is expressive, all that is intimate, in human nature; not only arms
and arts, but man himself, has yielded to it. His living voice,
with its undulations and inflexions, assisted by the mobile play of
feature and an infinite variety of bodily gesture, is driven to
borrow dignity from the same metaphor; the orator and the actor are
fain to be judged by style. "It is most true," says the author of
The Anatomy of Melancholy, "stylus virum arguit, our style bewrays
us." Other gestures shift and change and flit, this is the
ultimate and enduring revelation of personality. The actor and the
orator are condemned to work evanescent effects on transitory
material; the dust that they write on is blown about their graves.
The sculptor and the architect deal in less perishable ware, but
the stuff is recalcitrant and stubborn, and will not take the
impress of all states of the soul. Morals, philosophy, and
aesthetic, mood and conviction, creed and whim, habit, passion, and
demonstration - what art but the art of literature admits the
entrance of all these, and guards them from the suddenness of
mortality? What other art gives scope to natures and dispositions
so diverse, and to tastes so contrarious? Euclid and Shelley,
Edmund Spenser and Herbert Spencer, King David and David Hume, are
all followers of the art of letters.

In the effort to explain the principles of an art so bewildering in
its variety, writers on style have gladly availed themselves of
analogy from the other arts, and have spoken, for the most part,
not without a parable. It is a pleasant trick they put upon their
pupils, whom they gladden with the delusion of a golden age, and
perfection to be sought backwards, in arts less complex. The
teacher of writing, past master in the juggling craft of language,
explains that he is only carrying into letters the principles of
counterpoint, or that it is all a matter of colour and perspective,
or that structure and ornament are the beginning and end of his
intent. Professor of eloquence and of thieving, his winged shoes
remark him as he skips from metaphor to metaphor, not daring to
trust himself to the partial and frail support of any single
figure. He lures the astonished novice through as many trades as
were ever housed in the central hall of the world's fair. From his
distracting account of the business it would appear that he is now
building a monument, anon he is painting a picture (with brushes
dipped in a gallipot made of an earthquake); again he strikes a
keynote, weaves a pattern, draws a wire, drives a nail, treads a
measure, sounds a trumpet, or hits a target; or skirmishes around
his subject; or lays it bare with a dissecting knife; or embalms a
thought; or crucifies an enemy. What is he really doing all the

Besides the artist two things are to be considered in every art, -
the instrument and the audience; or, to deal in less figured
phrase, the medium and the public. From both of these the artist,
if he would find freedom for the exercise of all his powers, must
sit decently aloof. It is the misfortune of the actor, the singer,
and the dancer, that their bodies are their sole instruments. On
to the stage of their activities they carry the heart that
nourishes them and the lungs wherewith they breathe, so that the
soul, to escape degradation, must seek a more remote and difficult
privacy. That immemorial right of the soul to make the body its
home, a welcome escape from publicity and a refuge for sincerity,
must be largely foregone by the actor, who has scant liberty to
decorate and administer for his private behoof an apartment that is
also a place of business. His ownership is limited by the
necessities of his trade; when the customers are gone, he eats and
sleeps in the bar-parlour. Nor is the instrument of his
performances a thing of his choice; the poorest skill of the
violinist may exercise itself upon a Stradivarius, but the actor is
reduced to fiddle for the term of his natural life upon the face
and fingers that he got from his mother. The serene detachment
that may be achieved by disciples of greater arts can hardly be
his, applause touches his personal pride too nearly, the mocking
echoes of derision infest the solitude of his retired imagination.
In none of the world's great polities has the practice of this art
been found consistent with noble rank or honourable estate.
Christianity might be expected to spare some sympathy for a calling
that offers prizes to abandonment and self-immolation, but her eye
is fixed on a more distant mark than the pleasure of the populace,
and, as in gladiatorial Rome of old, her best efforts have been
used to stop the games. Society, on the other hand, preoccupied
with the art of life, has no warmer gift than patronage for those
whose skill and energy exhaust themselves on the mimicry of life.
The reward of social consideration is refused, it is true, to all
artists, or accepted by them at their immediate peril. By a
natural adjustment, in countries where the artist has sought and
attained a certain modest social elevation, the issue has been
changed, and the architect or painter, when his health is proposed,
finds himself, sorely against the grain, returning thanks for the
employer of labour, the genial host, the faithful husband, the
tender father, and other pillars of society. The risk of too great
familiarity with an audience which insists on honouring the artist
irrelevantly, at the expense of the art, must be run by all; a more
clinging evil besets the actor, in that he can at no time wholly
escape from his phantasmal second self. On this creature of his
art he has lavished the last doit of human capacity for expression;
with what bearing shall he face the exacting realities of life?
Devotion to his profession has beggared him of his personality;
ague, old age and poverty, love and death, find in him an
entertainer who plies them with a feeble repetition of the triumphs
formerly prepared for a larger and less imperious audience. The
very journalist - though he, too, when his profession takes him by
the throat, may expound himself to his wife in phrases stolen from
his own leaders - is a miracle of detachment in comparison; he has
not put his laughter to sale. It is well for the soul's health of
the artist that a definite boundary should separate his garden from
his farm, so that when he escapes from the conventions that rule
his work he may be free to recreate himself. But where shall the
weary player keep holiday? Is not all the world a stage?

Whatever the chosen instrument of an art may be, its appeal to
those whose attention it bespeaks must be made through the senses.
Music, which works with the vibrations of a material substance,
makes this appeal through the ear; painting through the eye; it is
of a piece with the complexity of the literary art that it employs
both channels, - as it might seem to a careless apprehension,

For the writer's pianoforte is the dictionary, words are the
material in which he works, and words may either strike the ear or
be gathered by the eye from the printed page. The alternative will
be called delusive, for, in European literature at least, there is
no word-symbol that does not imply a spoken sound, and no
excellence without euphony. But the other way is possible, the
gulf between mind and mind may be bridged by something which has a
right to the name of literature although it exacts no aid from the
ear. The picture-writing of the Indians, the hieroglyphs of Egypt,
may be cited as examples of literary meaning conveyed with no
implicit help from the spoken word. Such an art, were it capable
of high development, would forsake the kinship of melody, and
depend for its sensual elements of delight on the laws of
decorative pattern. In a land of deaf-mutes it might come to a
measure of perfection. But where human intercourse is chiefly by
speech, its connexion with the interests and passions of daily life
would perforce be of the feeblest, it would tend more and more to
cast off the fetters of meaning that it might do freer service to
the jealous god of visible beauty. The overpowering rivalry of
speech would rob it of all its symbolic intent and leave its bare
picture. Literature has favoured rather the way of the ear and has
given itself zealously to the tuneful ordering of sounds. Let it
be repeated, therefore, that for the traffic of letters the senses
are but the door-keepers of the mind; none of them commands an only
way of access, - the deaf can read by sight, the blind by touch. It
is not amid the bustle of the live senses, but in an under-world of
dead impressions that Poetry works her will, raising that in power
which was sown in weakness, quickening a spiritual body from the
ashes of the natural body. The mind of man is peopled, like some
silent city, with a sleeping company of reminiscences,
associations, impressions, attitudes, emotions, to be awakened into
fierce activity at the touch of words. By one way or another, with
a fanfaronnade of the marching trumpets, or stealthily, by
noiseless passages and dark posterns, the troop of suggesters
enters the citadel, to do its work within. The procession of
beautiful sounds that is a poem passes in through the main gate,
and forthwith the by-ways resound to the hurry of ghostly feet,
until the small company of adventurers is well-nigh lost and
overwhelmed in that throng of insurgent spirits.

To attempt to reduce the art of literature to its component sense-
elements is therefore vain. Memory, "the warder of the brain," is
a fickle trustee, whimsically lavish to strangers, giving up to the
appeal of a spoken word or unspoken symbol, an odour or a touch,
all that has been garnered by the sensitive capacities of man. It
is the part of the writer to play upon memory, confusing what
belongs to one sense with what belongs to another, extorting images
of colour at a word, raising ideas of harmony without breaking the
stillness of the air. He can lead on the dance of words till their
sinuous movements call forth, as if by mesmerism, the likeness of
some adamantine rigidity, time is converted into space, and music
begets sculpture. To see for the sake of seeing, to hear for the
sake of hearing, are subsidiary exercises of his complex
metaphysical art, to be counted among its rudiments. Picture and
music can furnish but the faint beginnings of a philosophy of
letters. Necessary though they be to a writer, they are transmuted
in his service to new forms, and made to further purposes not their

The power of vision - hardly can a writer, least of all if he be a
poet, forego that part of his equipment. In dealing with the
impalpable, dim subjects that lie beyond the border-land of exact
knowledge, the poetic instinct seeks always to bring them into
clear definition and bright concrete imagery, so that it might seem
for the moment as if painting also could deal with them. Every
abstract conception, as it passes into the light of the creative
imagination, acquires structure and firmness and colour, as flowers
do in the light of the sun. Life and Death, Love and Youth, Hope
and Time, become persons in poetry, not that they may wear the
tawdry habiliments of the studio, but because persons are the
objects of the most familiar sympathy and the most intimate

How long, O Death? And shall thy feet depart
Still a young child's with mine, or wilt thou stand
Full grown the helpful daughter of my heart,
What time with thee indeed I reach the strand
Of the pale wave which knows thee what thou art,
And drink it in the hollow of thy hand?

And as a keen eye for the imagery attendant on a word is essential
to all writing, whether prose or poetry, that attempts the heart,
so languor of the visual faculty can work disaster even in the calm
periods of philosophic expatiation. "It cannot be doubted," says
one whose daily meditations enrich The People's Post-Bag, "that
Fear is, to a great extent, the mother of Cruelty." Alas, by the
introduction of that brief proviso, conceived in a spirit of
admirably cautious self-defence, the writer has unwittingly given
himself to the horns of a dilemma whose ferocity nothing can
mitigate. These tempered and conditional truths are not in nature,
which decrees, with uncompromising dogmatism, that either a woman
is one's mother, or she is not. The writer probably meant merely
that "fear is one of the causes of cruelty," and had he used a
colourless abstract word the platitude might pass unchallenged.
But a vague desire for the emphasis and glamour of literature
having brought in the word "mother," has yet failed to set the
sluggish imagination to work, and a word so glowing with picture
and vivid with sentiment is damped and dulled by the thumb-mark of
besotted usage to mean no more than "cause" or "occasion." Only
for the poet, perhaps, are words live winged things, flashing with
colour and laden with scent; yet one poor spark of imagination
might save them from this sad descent to sterility and darkness.

Of no less import is the power of melody which chooses, rejects,
and orders words for the satisfaction that a cunningly varied
return of sound can give to the ear. Some critics have amused
themselves with the hope that here, in the laws and practices
regulating the audible cadence of words, may be found the first
principles of style, the form which fashions the matter, the
apprenticeship to beauty which alone can make an art of truth. And
it may be admitted that verse, owning, as it does, a professed and
canonical allegiance to music, sometimes carries its devotion so
far that thought swoons into melody, and the thing said seems a
discovery made by the way in the search for tuneful expression.

What thing unto mine ear
Wouldst thou convey, - what secret thing,
O wandering water ever whispering?
Surely thy speech shall be of her,
Thou water, O thou whispering wanderer,
What message dost thou bring?

In this stanza an exquisitely modulated tune is played upon the
syllables that make up the word "wandering," even as, in the poem
from which it is taken, there is every echo of the noise of waters
laughing in sunny brooks, or moaning in dumb hidden caverns. Yet
even here it would be vain to seek for reason why each particular
sound of every line should be itself and no other. For melody
holds no absolute dominion over either verse or prose; its laws,
never to be disregarded, prohibit rather than prescribe. Beyond
the simple ordinances that determine the place of the rhyme in
verse, and the average number of syllables, or rhythmical beats,
that occur in the line, where shall laws be found to regulate the
sequence of consonants and vowels from syllable to syllable? Those
few artificial restrictions, which verse invents for itself, once
agreed on, a necessary and perilous license makes up the rest of
the code. Literature can never conform to the dictates of pure
euphony, while grammar, which has been shaped not in the interests
of prosody, but for the service of thought, bars the way with its
clumsy inalterable polysyllables and the monotonous sing-song of
its inflexions. On the other hand, among a hundred ways of saying
a thing, there are more than ninety that a care for euphony may
reasonably forbid. All who have consciously practised the art of
writing know what endless and painful vigilance is needed for the
avoidance of the unfit or untuneful phrase, how the meaning must be
tossed from expression to expression, mutilated and deceived, ere
it can find rest in words. The stupid accidental recurrence of a
single broad vowel; the cumbrous repetition of a particle; the
emphatic phrase for which no emphatic place can be found without
disorganising the structure of the period; the pert intrusion on a
solemn thought of a flight of short syllables, twittering like a
flock of sparrows; or that vicious trick of sentences whereby each,
unmindful of its position and duties, tends to imitate the
deformities of its predecessor; - these are a select few of the
difficulties that the nature of language and of man conspire to put
upon the writer. He is well served by his mind and ear if he can
win past all such traps and ambuscades, robbed of only a little of
his treasure, indemnified by the careless generosity of his
spoilers, and still singing.

Besides their chime in the ear, and the images that they put before
the mind's eye, words have, for their last and greatest possession,
a meaning. They carry messages and suggestions that, in the effect
wrought, elude all the senses equally. For the sake of this, their
prime office, the rest is many times forgotten or scorned, the tune
is disordered and havoc played with the lineaments of the picture,
because without these the word can still do its business. The
refutation of those critics who, in their analysis of the power of
literature, make much of music and picture, is contained in the
most moving passages that have found utterance from man. Consider
the intensity of a saying like that of St. Paul:- "For I am
persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor
principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to
separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our

Do these verses draw their power from a skilful arrangement of
vowel and consonant? But they are quoted from a translation, and
can be translated otherwise, well or ill or indifferently, without
losing more than a little of their virtue. Do they impress the eye
by opening before it a prospect of vast extent, peopled by vague
shapes? On the contrary, the visual embodiment of the ideas
suggested kills the sense of the passage, by lowering the cope of
the starry heavens to the measure of a poplar-tree. Death and
life, height and depth, are conceived by the apostle, and creation
thrown in like a trinket, only that they may lend emphasis to the
denial that is the soul of his purpose. Other arts can affirm, or
seem to affirm, with all due wealth of circumstance and detail;
they can heighten their affirmation by the modesty of reserve, the
surprises of a studied brevity, and the erasure of all
impertinence; literature alone can deny, and honour the denial with
the last resources of a power that has the universe for its
treasury. It is this negative capability of words, their privative
force, whereby they can impress the minds with a sense of "vacuity,
darkness, solitude, and silence," that Burke celebrates in the fine
treatise of his younger days. In such a phrase as "the angel of
the Lord" language mocks the positive rivalry of the pictorial art,
which can offer only the poor pretence of an equivalent in a young
man painted with wings. But the difference between the two arts is
even better marked in the matter of negative suggestion; it is
instanced by Burke from the noble passage where Virgil describes
the descent of AEneas and the Sibyl to the shades of the nether
world. Here are amassed all "the images of a tremendous dignity"
that the poet could forge from the sublime of denial. The two most
famous lines are a procession of negatives:-

Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram,
Perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna.

Through hollow kingdoms, emptied of the day,
And dim, deserted courts where Dis bears sway,
Night-foundered, and uncertain of the path,
Darkling they took their solitary way.

Here is the secret of some of the cardinal effects of literature;
strong epithets like "lonely," "supreme," "invisible," "eternal,"
"inexorable," with the substantives that belong to them, borrow
their force from the vastness of what they deny. And not these
alone, but many other words, less indebted to logic for the
magnificence of reach that it can lend, bring before the mind no
picture, but a dim emotional framework. Such words as "ominous,"
"fantastic," "attenuated," "bewildered," "justification," are
atmospheric rather than pictorial; they infect the soul with the
passion-laden air that rises from humanity. It is precisely in his
dealings with words like these, "heated originally by the breath of
others," that a poet's fine sense and knowledge most avail him.
The company a word has kept, its history, faculties, and
predilections, endear or discommend it to his instinct. How hardly
will poetry consent to employ such words as "congratulation" or
"philanthropist," - words of good origin, but tainted by long
immersion in fraudulent rejoicings and pallid, comfortable,
theoretic loves. How eagerly will the poetic imagination seize on
a word like "control," which gives scope by its very vagueness, and
is fettered by no partiality of association. All words, the weak
and the strong, the definite and the vague, have their offices to
perform in language, but the loftiest purposes of poetry are seldom
served by those explicit hard words which, like tiresome
explanatory persons, say all that they mean. Only in the focus and
centre of man's knowledge is there place for the hammer-blows of
affirmation, the rest is a flickering world of hints and half-
lights, echoes and suggestions, to be come at in the dusk or not at

The combination of these powers in words, of song and image and
meaning, has given us the supreme passages of our romantic poetry.
In Shakespeare's work, especially, the union of vivid definite
presentment with immense reach of metaphysical suggestion seems to
intertwine the roots of the universe with the particular fact;
tempting the mind to explore that other side of the idea presented
to it, the side turned away from it, and held by something behind.

It will have blood; they say blood win have blood:
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret'st man of blood.

This meeting of concrete and abstract, of sense and thought, keeps
the eye travelling along the utmost skyline of speculation, where
the heavens are interfused with the earth. In short, the third and
greatest virtue of words is no other than the virtue that belongs
to the weapons of thought, - a deep, wide, questioning thought that
discovers analogies and pierces behind things to a half-perceived
unity of law and essence. In the employ of keen insight, high
feeling, and deep thinking, language comes by its own; the
prettinesses that may be imposed on a passive material are as
nothing to the splendour and grace that transfigure even the
meanest instrument when it is wielded by the energy of thinking
purpose. The contempt that is cast, by the vulgar phrase, on "mere
words" bears witness to the rarity of this serious consummation.
Yet by words the world was shaped out of chaos, by words the
Christian religion was established among mankind. Are these
terrific engines fit play-things for the idle humours of a sick

And now it begins to be apparent that no adequate description of
the art of language can be drawn from the technical terminology of
the other arts, which, like proud debtors, would gladly pledge
their substance to repay an obligation that they cannot disclaim.
Let one more attempt to supply literature with a parallel be quoted
from the works of a writer on style, whose high merit it is that he
never loses sight, either in theory or in practice, of the
fundamental conditions proper to the craft of letters. Robert
Louis Stevenson, pondering words long and lovingly, was impressed
by their crabbed individuality, and sought to elucidate the laws of
their arrangement by a reference to the principles of architecture.

1 3 4 5 6

Online LibraryWalter Alexander RaleighStyle → online text (page 1 of 6)