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XXV

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Originally appearing in Volume V25, Page 1058 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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XXV. 34It is boasted by the admirers of Flaubert that his style is an enamel, and those who say this perhaps forget that the beauty of an enamel resides wholly in its surface and not at all in the substance below it. This is the danger which lies in wait for those who consider too exquisitely the value and arrangement of their words. Their style becomes too glossy, too highly varnished, and attracts too much attention to itself. The greatest writing is that which in its magnificent spontaneity carries the reader with it in its flight; that which detains him to admire itself can never rise above the second place. Forgetfulness of self, absence of conceit and affectation, simplicity in the sense not of thinness or poorness but of genuineness—these are elements essential to the cultivation of a noble style. Here again, thought must be the basis, not vanity or the desire to astonish. We do not escape by our ingenuities from the firm principle of Horace, " scribendi recti sapere est et principium et fens." In speaking of originality in style it must not be forgotten that memory exercises a strong and often an insidious effect upon writing. That which has been greatly admired will have a tendency to impregnate the mind, and its echo, or, what is worse, its cadence, will be unconsciously repeated. The cliche is the greatest danger which lies in wait for the vapid modern author, who is tempted to adopt, instead of the one fresh form which suits his special thought, a word or even a chain of words, which conventionally represents it. Thus " the devouring element " was once a striking variant for the short word " fire," and - a dangerous hidden place was once well described as " a veritable death-trap," but these have long been cliches which can only be used by writers who are insincere or languid. Worse than these are continuous phrases, and even sentences, such as are met with in the leaders of daily newspapers, which might be lifted bodily from their places and inserted elsewhere, so completely have they lost all vitality and reality. With regard to the training which those who wish to write well should resign themselves to undergo, there is some difference of opinion, based upon difference of temperament. There are those who believe that the gift of style is inborn, and will reveal itself at the moment of mental maturity without any external help. There are others who hold that no amount of labour is excessive, if it be directed to a study and an emulation of what are called " the best models." No doubt these theories are both admissible. If a man is not born to write well, no toil in the imitation of Addison or Ruskin will make his style a brilliant one; and a born writer will express himself with exactitude and fire even though he be but an idle student of the classics. Yet, on the other hand, the very large number of persons who have a certain aptitude for writing, yet no strong native gift, will undoubtedly cure themselves of faults and achieve skill and smoothness by the study of those writers who have most kinship with themselves. To be of any service, however, it seems that those writers must have used the same language as their pupils. Of the imitation of the ancients much has been written, even to the extent of the publication of manuals. But what is that imitation of the verse of Homer which leads to-day to Chapman and to-morrow to Pope ? What the effect of the study of the prose of Theophrastus which results in the prose of Addison? The good poet or prose-man, however closely he studies an admirable foreign model, is really anxious to say something which has never before been said in his own language. The stimulus which he receives from any foreign predecessor must be in the direction of analogous or parallel effort, not in that of imitation. The importance of words, indeed, is exemplified, if we regard it closely, in this very question, so constantly mooted, of the imitation of the ancients, by the loss of beauty fatally felt in a bad translation. The vocabulary of a great writer has been, as Pater says, " winnowed "; it is impossible to think of Sophocles or of Horace as using a word which is not the best possible for introduction at that particular point. But the translator has to interpret the ideas of these ancient writers into a vocabulary which is entirely different from theirs, and unless he has a genius of almost equal impeccability he will undo the winnowing work. II He will scatter chaff and refuse over the pure grain which the classic poet's genius had so completely fanned and freed. The employment of vague and loose terms where the original author has been eclectic, and of a flood of verbiage where he has been frugal, destroys all semblance of style, although the meaning may be correctly preserved. The errors principally to be avoided in the cultivation of a pure style are confusion, obscurity, incorrectness and affectation. To take the earliest of these first, no fault is so likely to be made by an impetuous beginner as a mingling together of ideas, images, propositions which are not on the same plane or have no proper relation. This is that mass of " stunning sounds and voices all confused " which Milton deprecates. One of the first lessons to be learned in the art of good writing is to avoid perplexity and fatigue in the mind of the reader by retaining clearness and order in all the segments of a paragraph, as well as propriety of grammar and metaphor in every phrase. Those who have overcome this initial difficulty, and have learned to avoid a jumble of misrelated thoughts and sentences, may nevertheless sin by falling into obscurity, which, indeed, is sometimes a`wilful error and arises from a desire to cover poverty of thought by a semblance of profundity. The meaning of " obscurity is, of course, in the first instance " darkness," but in speaking of literature it is used of a darkness which arises from unintelligibility, not from depth of expression, but from cloudiness and fogginess of idea. Of the errors of style which are the consequences of bad taste, it is difficult to speak except in an entirely empirical spirit, because of the absence of any absolute standard of beauty by which artistic products can be judged. That kind of writing which in its own age is extravagantly cultivated and admired may, in the next age, be as violently repudiated; this does not preclude the possibility of its recovering critical if not popular favour. Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this is the revolution made against the cold and stately Ciceronian prose of the middle of the 16th century by the so-called Euphuists. This occurred almost simultaneously in several nations, but has been traced to its sources in the Spanish of Guevara and in his English imitators, North and Pettie, whom Lyly in his turn followed with his celebrated Euphues. Along with these may not unfairly be mentioned Montaigne in France and Castiglione in Italy, for, although these men were not proficients in Guevara's artificial manner, his estilo alto, still, by their easiness and brightness, their use of vivid imagery and their graceful illumination, they marked the universal revulsion against the Ciceronian stiffness. Each of these new manners of writing fell almost immediately into desuetude, and the precise and classic mode of writing in another form came into vogue (Addison, Bossuet, Vico, Johnson). But what was best in the ornamental writers of the 16th century is now once more fully appreciated, if not indeed admired to excess. A facility in bringing up before the memory incessant analogous metaphors is the property, not merely of certain men, but of certain ages; it flourished in the age of Marino and is welcomed again in that of Meredith. A vivid, concrete style, full of colour and images, is not to be condemned because it is not an abstract style, scholastic and systematic. It is to be judged on its own merits and by its own laws. It may be good or bad; it is not bad merely because it is metaphorical and ornate. The amazing errors which lie strewn along the shore of criticism bear evidence to the lack of sympathy which has not perceived this axiom and has wrecked the credit of dogmatists. To De Quincey, a convinced Ciceronian, the style of Keats " belonged essentially to the vilest collections of wax-work filagree or gilt gingerbread "; but to read such a judgment is to encourage a question whether all discussion of style is not futile. Yet that particular species of affectation which encourages untruth, affectation, parade for the mere purpose of producing an effect, must be wrong, even though Cicero be guilty of it. The use of the word " style," in the sense of the present remarks, is not entirely modern. For example, the early English critic Puttenham says that " style is a constant and continualphrase or tenour of speaking and writing" (r58g). But it P7? in France and in the great age of Louis XIV. that the art of writing began to be carefully studied and ingeniously described. Mme de Sevigne, herself mistress of a manner exquisitely disposed to reflect her vivacious, tender and eloquent character, is particularly fond of using the word " style " in its modern sense, as the expression of a complete and rich personality. She says, in a phrase which might stand alone as a text on the subject, " Ne quittez jamais le naturel, votre tour s'y est forme, et cela compose un style parfait." Her contemporary, Boileau, contributed much to the study, and spoke with just pride of mon style, ami de la lumiere." The expression to form one's style, a se faire un style, appears, perhaps for the first time, in the works of the abbe d'Olivet (1682-1768), who was addicted to rhetorical speculation. Two great supporters of the pure art of writing, Swift and Voltaire, contributed much to the study of style in the 18th century. The former declared that " proper words in proper places make the true definition of a style "; the latter, more particularly, that " le style rend singulieres les choses les plus communs, fortifie les plus faibles, donne de la grandeur aux plus simples." Voltaire speaks of " le melange des styles " as a great fault of the age in which he lived; it has come to be looked upon as a principal merit of that in which we live. The problem of how to obtain a style has frequently been treated in works of more or less ephemeral character. In France the treatises of M. Albalat have received a certain amount of official recognition, and may be mentioned here as containing a good deal c£ sound advice mixed with much that is jejune and pedagogic. If M. Albalat distributes a poison, the antidote is supplied by the wit of M. Remy de Gourmont; the one should not be imbibed without the other. See Walter Pater, An Essay on Style (London, 1889) ; Walter Raleigh, Style (London, 1897) ; Antoine Albalat, L'Art d'ecrire enseigneen vingl lecons (Paris, 1898), and De la Formation du style par l'assimilation des auteurs (Paris, 1901); Remy de Gourmont, Le Probleme du style (Paris, 1902). Also Goyer-Linguet, Le Genie de la langue francaise (Paris, 1846), and ' Loyson-Bridet (i.e. Marcel Schwob), Moeurs des diurnales (Paris, 19oz), a satire on the principal errors to which modern writers in all languages are liable. (E. G.)
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