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From time to time we are solemnly warned that in the hands of modern writers language has fallen into a morbid state. It has become degenerate, if not, indeed, the victim of “senile ataxy” or “general paralysis.” Certainly it is well that our monitors should seek to arouse in us the wholesome spirit of self-criticism. Whether we write ill or well, we can never be too seriously concerned with what it is that we are attempting to do. We may always be grateful to those who stimulate us to a more wakeful activity in pursuing a task which can never be carried to perfection.
Yet these monitors seldom fail at the same time to arouse a deep revolt in our minds. We are not only impressed by the critic’s own inability to write any better than those he criticises. We are moved to question the validity of nearly all the rules he lays down for our guidance. We are inclined to dispute altogether the soundness of the premises from which he starts. Of these three terms of our revolt, covering comprehensively the whole ground, the first may be put aside—since the ancient retort is always ineffective and it helps the patient not at all to bid the physician heal himself—and we may take the last first.
Men are always apt to bow down before the superior might of their ancestors. It has been so always and everywhere. Even the author of the once well-known book of Genesis believed that “there were giants in the earth in those days,” the mighty men which were of old, the men of renown, and still to-day among ourselves no plaint is more common than that concerning the physical degeneracy of modern men as compared with our ancestors of a few centuries ago. Now and then, indeed, there comes along a man of science, like Professor Parsons, who has measured the bones from the remains of the ancestors we still see piled up in the crypt at Hythe, and finds that—however fine the occasional exceptions—the average height of those men and women was decidedly less than that of their present-day descendants. Fortunately for the vitality of tradition, we cherish a wholesome distrust of science. And so it is with our average literary stature. The academic critic regards himself as the special depository of the accepted tradition, and far be it from him to condescend to any mere scientific inquiry into the actual facts. He half awakens from slumber to murmur the expected denunciation of his own time, and therewith returns to slumber. He usually seems unaware that even three centuries ago, in the finest period of English prose, Swift, certainly himself a supreme master, was already lamenting “the corruption of our style.”
If it is asserted that the average writer of to-day has not equalled the supreme writer of some earlier age,—there are but one or two in any age,—we can only ejaculate: Strange if he had! Yet that is all that the academic critic usually seems to mean. If he would take the trouble to compare the average prose writer of to-day with the average writer of even so great an age as the Elizabethan, he might easily convince himself that the former, whatever his imperfections, need not fear the comparison. Whether or not Progress in general may be described as “the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance,” it is certainly so with the progress of style, and the imperfections of our average everyday writing are balanced by the quite other imperfections of our forefathers’ writing. What, for instance, need we envy in the literary methods of that great and miscellaneous band of writers whom Hakluyt brought together in those admirable volumes which are truly great and really fascinating only for reasons that have nothing to do with style? Raleigh himself here shows no distinction in his narrative of that discreditable episode,—as he clearly and rightly felt it to be,—the loss of the Revenge by the wilful Grenville. Most of them are bald, savourless, monotonous, stating the obvious facts in the obvious way, but hopelessly failing to make clear, when rarely they attempt it, anything that is not obvious. They have none of the little unconscious tricks of manner which worry the critic to-day. But their whole manner is one commonplace trick from which they never escape. They are only relieved by its simplicity and by the novelty which comes through age. We have to remember that all mediocrity is impersonal and that when we encourage its manifestations on printed pages we merely make mediocrity more conspicuous. Nor can that be remedied by teaching the mediocre to cultivate tricks of fashion or of vanity. There is more personality in Claude Bernard’s “Leçons de Physiologie Expérimentales,” a great critic of life and letters has pointed out, Remy de Gourmont, than in Musset’s “Confession d’un Enfant du Siècle.” For personality is not something that can be sought; it is a radiance that is diffused spontaneously. It may even be most manifest when most avoided, and no writer—the remark has doubtless often been made before—can be more personal than Flaubert who had made almost a gospel of Impersonality. But the absence of research for personality, however meritorious, will not suffice to bring personality out of mediocrity.
Moreover, the obvious fact seems often to be overlooked by the critic that a vastly larger proportion of the population now write, and see their writing printed. We live in what we call a democratic age in which all are compulsorily taught how to make pothooks and hangers on paper. So that every nincompoop—in the attenuated sense of the term—as soon as he puts a pen in ink feels that he has become, like M. Jourdain, a writer of prose. That feeling is justified only in a very limited sense, and if we wish to compare the condition of things to-day with that in an age when people wrote at the bidding of some urgent stimulus from without or from within, we have at the outset to delete certainly over ninety-five per cent of our modern so-called writers before we institute any comparison. The writers thus struck out, it may be added, cannot fail to include many persons of much note in the world. There are all sorts of people to-day who write from all sorts of motives other than a genuine aptitude for writing. To suppose that there can be any comparison at this point of the present with the past and to dodder over the decay of our language would seem a senile proceeding if we do not happen to know that it occurs in all ages, and that, even at the time when our prose speech was as near to perfection as it is ever likely to be, its critics were bemoaning its corruption, lamenting, for instance, the indolent new practice of increasing sibilation by changing “arriveth” into “arrives” and pronouncing “walked” as “walkd,” sometimes in their criticisms showing no more knowledge of the history and methods of growth of English than our academic critics show to-day.
For we know what to-day they tell us; it is not hard to know, their exhortations, though few, are repeated in so psittaceous a manner. One thinks, for instance, of that solemn warning against the enormity of the split infinitive which has done so much to aggravate the Pharisaism of the bad writers who scrupulously avoid it. This superstition seems to have had its origin in a false analogy with Latin in which the infinitive is never split for the good reason that it is impossible to split. In the greater freedom of English it is possible and has been done for at least the last five hundred years by the greatest masters of English; only the good writer never uses this form helplessly and involuntarily, but with a definite object; and that is the only rule to observe. An absolute prohibition in this matter is the mark of those who are too ignorant, or else too unintelligent, to recognise a usage which is of the essence of English speech.
One may perhaps refer, again, to those who lay down that every sentence must end on a significant word, never on a preposition, and who reprobate what has been technically termed the post-habited prefix. They are the same worthy and would-be old-fashioned people who think that a piece of music must always end monotonously on a banging chord. Only here they have not, any more than in music, even the virtue—if such it be—of old fashion, for the final so-called preposition is in the genius of the English language and associated with the Scandinavian—in the wider ancient sense Danish—strain of English, one of the finest strains it owns, imparting much of the plastic force which renders it flexible, the element which helped to save it from the straitlaced tendency of Anglo-Saxon and the awkward formality of Latin and French influence. The foolish prejudice we are here concerned with seems to date from a period when the example of French, in which the final preposition is impossible, happened to be dominant. Its use in English is associated with the informal grace and simplicity, the variety of tender cadence, which our tongue admits.
In such matters as the “split infinitive” and the “post-habited preposition,” there should never have been any doubt as to the complete validity and authority of the questioned usages. But there are other points at which some even good critics may be tempted to accept the condemnation of the literary grammarians. It is sufficient to mention one: the nominative use of the pronoun “me.” Yet, surely, any one who considers social practice as well as psychological necessity should not fail to see that we must recognise a double use of “me” in English. The French, who in such matters seem to have possessed a finer social and psychological tact, have realised that je cannot be the sole nominative of the first person and have supplemented it by moi (mi from mihi). The Frenchman, when asked who is there, does not reply “Je!” But the would-be English purist is supposed to be reduced to replying “I!” Royal Cleopatra asks the Messenger: “Is she as tall as me?” The would-be purist no doubt transmutes this as he reads into: “Is she as tall as I?” We need not envy him.
Such an example indicates how independent the free and wholesome life of language is of grammatical rules. This is not to diminish the importance of the grammarian’s task, but simply to define it, as the formulator, and not the lawgiver, of usage. His rules are useful, not merely in order to know how best to keep them, but in order to know how best to break them. Without them freedom might become licence. Yet even licence, we have to recognise, is the necessary offscouring of speech in its supreme manifestations of vitality and force. English speech was never more syntactically licentious than in the sixteenth century, but it was never more alive, never more fitly the material for a great artist to mould. So it is that in the sixteenth century we find Shakespeare. In post-Dryden days (though Dryden was an excellent writer and engaged on an admirable task) a supreme artist in English speech became impossible, and if a Shakespeare had appeared all his strength would have been wasted in a vain struggle with the grammarians. French speech has run a similar and almost synchronous course with English. There was a magnificently natural force and wealth in sixteenth-century French: in Rabelais it had been even extravagantly exuberant; in Montaigne it is still flexible and various—ondoyant et divers—and still full of natural delight and freedom. But after Malherbe and his fellows French speech acquired orderliness, precision, and formality; they were excellent qualities, no doubt, but had to be paid for by some degree of thinness and primness, even some stiffening of the joints. Rousseau came and poured fresh blood from Switzerland into the language and a new ineffable grace that was all his own; so that if we now hesitate to say, with Landor, that he excels all the moderns for harmony, it is only because they have learnt what he taught; and the later Romantics, under the banner of Hugo, imparted colour and brilliance. Yet all the great artists who have wrestled with French speech for a century have never been able to restore the scent and the savour and the substance which Villon and Montaigne without visible effort could once find within its borders. In this as in other matters what we call Progress means the discovery of new desirable qualities, and therewith the loss of other qualities that were at least equally desirable.
Then there is yet another warning which, especially in recent times, is issued at frequent intervals, and that is against the use of verbal counters, of worn or even worn-out phrases, of what we commonly fall back on modern French to call clichés. We mean thereby the use of old stereotyped phrases—Goethe called them “stamped” or gestempelt—to save the trouble of making a new living phrase to suit our meaning. The word cliché is thus typographic, though, it so happens, it is derived from an old French word of phonetic meaning, cliqueter or cliquer (related to the German klatschen), which we already have in English as to “click” or to “clack,” in a sense which well supplements its more modern technical sense for this literary end. Yet the warning against clichés is vain. The good writer, by the very fact that he is alive and craves speech that is vivid, as clichés never are, instinctively avoids their excessive use, while the nervous and bad writer, in his tremulous anxiety to avoid these tabooed clichés, falls into the most deplorable habits, like the late Mr. Robert Ross, who at one time was so anxious to avoid clichés that he acquired the habit of using them in an inverted form and wrote a prose that made one feel like walking on sharp flints; for, though a macadamized road may not be so good to walk in as a flowered meadow, it is better than a macadamized road with each stone turned upside down and the sharp edge uppermost. As a matter of fact it is impossible to avoid the use of clichés and counters in speech, and if it were possible the results would be in the highest degree tedious and painful. The word “cliché” itself, we have seen, is a cliché, a worn counter of a word, with its original meaning all effaced, and even its secondary meaning now only just visible. That, if those folk who condemn clichés only had the intelligence to perceive it, is a significant fact. You cannot avoid using clichés, not even in the very act of condemning them. They include, if we only look keenly enough, nearly the whole of language, almost every separate word. If one could avoid them one would be unintelligible. Even those common phrases which it is peculiarly meet to call counters are not to be absolutely condemned. They have become so common to use because so fit to use, as Baudelaire understood when he spoke of “the immense depth of thought in vulgar locutions.” There is only one rule to follow here,—and it is simply the rule in every part of art,—to know what one is doing, not to go sheeplike with the flock, ignorantly, unthinkingly, heedlessly, but to mould speech to expression the most truly one knows how. If, indeed, we are seeking clarity and the precise expression of thought, there is nothing we may not do if only we know how to do it—but that “if” might well be in capitals. One who has spent the best part of his life in trying to write things that had not been written before, and that were very difficult to write, may perhaps be allowed to confess the hardness of this task.
To write is thus an arduous intellectual task, a process which calls for the highest tension of the muscles in the escalade of a heaven which the strongest and bravest and alertest can never hope to take by violence. He has to be true,—whether it is in the external world he is working or in his own internal world,—and as truth can only be seen through his own temperament, he is engaged in moulding the expression of a combination which has never been seen in the world before.
It is sometimes said that the great writer seldom quotes, and that in the main is true, for he finds it difficult to mix an alien music of thought and speech with his own. Montaigne, it is also said, is an exception, but that is scarcely true. What Montaigne quoted he often translated and so moulded to the pattern of his own mind. The same may be said of Robert Burton. If it had not been so these writers (almost certainly Burton) could scarcely have attained to the rank of great authors. The significant fact to note, however, is not that the great writer rarely quotes, but that he knows how to quote. Schopenhauer was here a master. He possessed a marvellous flair for fine sayings in remote books, and these he would now and again let fall like jewels on his page, with so happy a skill that they seem to be created for the spot on which they fell. It is the little writer rather than the great writer who seems never to quote, and the reason is that he is really never doing anything else.
It is not in writing only, in all art, in all science, the task before each is that defined by Bacon: man added to Nature. It is so also in painting, as a great artist of modern time, Cézanne, recognised even in those same words: “He who wishes to make art,” he once said to Vollard, “must follow Bacon, who defined the artist as ‘Homo additus Naturæ.’” So it is that the artist, if he has succeeded in being true to his function, is necessarily one who makes all things new. That remarkable artist who wrote the Book of the Revelation has expressed this in his allegorical, perhaps unconscious, Oriental way, for he represents the artist as hearing the divine spirit from the throne within him uttering the command: “Behold, I make all things new. Write!” The command is similar whatever the art may be, though it is here the privilege of the writer to find his own art set forth as the inspired ensample of all art.
Thus it is that to write is a strenuous intellectual task not to be achieved without the exercise of the best trained and most deliberate rational faculties. That is the outcome of the whole argument up to this point. There is so much bad writing in the world because writing has been dominated by ignorance and habit and prudery, and not least by the academic teachers and critics who have known nothing of what they claim to teach and were often themselves singular examples of how not to write. There has, on the other hand, been a little good writing here and there in the world, through the ages, because a few possessed not only courage and passion and patience, but knowledge and the concentrated intellectual attention, and the resolution to seek truth, and the conviction that, as they imagined, the genius they sought consisted in taking pains.
Yet, if that were all, many people would become great writers who, as we well know, will never become writers; if that were all, writing could scarcely even be regarded as an art. For art, or one side of it, transcends conscious knowledge; a poet, as Landor remarked, “is not aware of all that he knows, and seems at last to know as little about it as a silkworm knows about the fineness of her thread.” Yet the same great writer has also said of good poetry, and with equal truth, that “the ignorant and inexpert lose half its pleasures.” We always move on two feet, as Élie Faure remarks in his “L’Arbre d’Éden,” the two poles of knowledge and of desire, the one a matter of deliberate acquirement and the other of profound instinct, and all our movements are a perpetual leap from one to the other, seeking a centre of gravity we never attain. So the achievement of style in writing, as in all human intercourse, is something more than an infinite capacity for taking pains. It is also defined—and, sometimes I think, supremely well defined—as “grace seasoned with salt.” Beyond all that can be achieved by knowledge and effort, there must be the spontaneous grace that springs up like a fountain from the depth of a beautifully harmonious nature, and there must be also the quality which the Spaniards call “sal,” and so rightly admire in the speech of the women of the people of their own land, the salt quality which gives savour and point and antiseptic virtue.
The best literary prose speech is simply the idealisation in the heaven of art of the finest common speech of earth, simply, yet never reached for more than a moment in a nation’s long history. In Greece it was immortally and radiantly achieved by Plato; in England it was attained for a few years during the last years of the seventeenth and the first years of the eighteenth centuries, lingering on, indeed, here and there to the end of that century until crushed between the pedantry of Johnson and the poetic licence of the Romantics. But for the rest only the most happily endowed genius can even attain for a rare moment the perfection of the Pauline ideal of “grace seasoned with salt.”
It is fortunate, no doubt, that an age of machinery is well content with machine-made writing. It would be in bad taste—too physiological, too sentimental, altogether too antiquated—to refer to the symbolical significance of the highly relevant fact that the heart, while undoubtedly a machine, is at the same time a sensitively pulsating organ with fleshy strings stretched from ventricle to valves, a harp on which the great artist may play until our hearts also throb in unison. Yet there are some to whom it still seems that, beyond mechanical skill, the cadences of the artist’s speech are the cadences of his heart, and the footfalls of his rhythm the footfalls of his spirit, in a great adventure across the universe.
Thus we do not always realise that learning to write is partly a matter of individual instinct. This is so even of that writing which, as children, we learnt in copybooks with engraved maxims at the head of the page. There are some, indeed, probably the majority, who quickly achieve the ability to present a passable imitation of the irreproachable model presented to them. There are some who cannot. I speak as one who knows, for I recall how my first schoolmaster, a sarcastic little Frenchman, irritated by my unchastenable hand, would sometimes demand if I wrote with the kitchen poker, or again assert that I kept a tame spider to run over the page, while a later teacher, who was an individualist and more tolerant, yet sometimes felt called upon to murmur, in a tone of dubious optimism: “You will have a hand of your own, my boy.” It is not lack of docility that is in question, but an imperative demand of the nervous system which the efforts of the will may indeed bend but cannot crush.
Yet the writers who cheerfully lay down the laws of style seldom realise this complexity and mystery enwrapping even so simple a matter as handwriting. No one can say how much atavistic recurrence from remote ancestors, how much family nervous habit, how much wayward yet deep-rooted personal idiosyncrasy deflect the child’s patient efforts to imitate the copperplate model which is set before him. The son often writes like the father, even though he may seldom or never see his father’s handwriting; brothers may write singularly alike, though taught by different teachers and even in different continents. It has been noted of the ancient and distinguished family of the Tyrrells that their handwriting in the parish books of Stowmarket remained the same throughout many generations. I have noticed, in a relation of my own, peculiarities of handwriting identical with those of an ancestor two centuries ago whose writing he certainly never saw. The resemblance is often not that of exact formation, but of general air or underlying structure. One is tempted to think that often, in this as in other matters, the possibilities are limited, and that when the child is formed in his mother’s womb Nature cast the same old dice and the same old combinations inevitably tend to recur. But that notion scarcely fits all the facts, and our growing knowledge of the infinite subtlety of heredity, of its presence even in the most seemingly elusive psychic characters, indicates that the dice may be loaded and fall in accord with harmonies we fail to perceive. The development of Mendelian analysis may in time help us to understand them.
The part in style which belongs to atavism, to heredity, to unconscious instinct, is probably very large. It eludes us to an even greater extent than the corresponding part in handwriting because the man of letters may have none among his ancestors who sought expression in style, so that only one Milton speaks for a mute inglorious family, and how far he speaks truly remains a matter of doubt. We only divine the truth when we know the character and deeds of the family. There could be no more instructive revelation of family history in style than is furnished by Carlyle. There had never been any writer in the Carlyle family, and if there had, Carlyle at the time when his manner of writing was formed, would scarcely have sought to imitate them. Yet we could not conceive this stern, laborious, plebeian family of Lowland Scots—with its remote Teutonic affinities, its coarseness, its narrowness, its assertive inarticulative force—in any more fitting verbal translation than was given it by this its last son, the pathetic little figure with the face of a lost child, who wrote in a padded room and turned the rough muscular and reproductive activity of his fathers into more than half a century of eloquent chatter concerning Work and Silence, so writing his name in letters of gold on the dome of the British Museum.
When we consider the characteristics, not of the family, but of the race, it is easier to find examples of the force of ancestry, even remote ancestry, overcoming environment and dominating style. Shakespeare and Bacon were both Elizabethans who both lived from youth upwards in London, and even moved to some extent almost in the same circles. Yet all the influences of tradition and environment, which sometimes seem to us so strong, scarcely sufficed to spread even the faintest veneer of similarity over their style, and we could seldom mistake a sentence of one for a sentence of the other. We always know that Shakespeare—with his gay extravagance and redundancy, his essential idealism—came of a people that had been changed in character from the surrounding stock by a Celtic infolding of the receding British to Wales. We never fail to realise that Bacon—with his instinctive gravity and temperance, the suppressed ardour of his aspiring intellectual passion, his temperamental naturalism—was rooted deep in that East Anglian soil which he had never so much as visited. In Shakespeare’s veins there dances the blood of the men who made the “Mabinogion”; we recognise Bacon as a man of the same countryside which produced the forefathers of Emerson. Or we may consider the mingled Breton and Gascon ancestry of Renan, in whose brain, in the very contour and melody of his style, the ancient bards of Brittany have joined hands with the tribe of Montaigne and Brantôme and the rest. Or, to take one more example, we can scarcely fail to recognise in the style of Sir Thomas Browne—as later, may be, in that of Hawthorne—the glamour of which the latent aptitude had been handed on by ancestors who dwelt on the borders of Wales.
In these examples hereditary influence can be clearly distinguished from merely external and traditional influences. Not that we need imply a disparagement of tradition: it is the foundation of civilised progress. Speech itself is a tradition, a naturally developed convention, and in that indeed it has its universal applicability and use. It is the crude amorphous material of art, of music and poetry. But on its formal side, whatever its supreme significance as the instrument and medium of expression, speech is a natural convention, an accumulated tradition.
Even tradition, however, is often simply the corporeal embodiment, as it were, of heredity. Behind many a great writer’s personality there stands tradition, and behind tradition the race. That is well illustrated in the style of Addison. This style—with a resilient fibre underneath its delicacy and yet a certain freedom as of conversational familiarity—has as its most easily marked structural signature a tendency to a usage it has already been necessary to mention: the tendency to allow the preposition to lag to the end of the sentence rather than to come tautly before the pronoun with which in Latin it is combined. In a century in which the Latin-French elements of English were to become developed, as in Gibbon and Johnson, to the utmost, the totally different physiognomy of Addison’s prose remained conspicuous,—though really far from novel,—and to the sciolists of a bygone age it seemed marked by carelessness, if not licence, at the best by personal idiosyncrasy. Yet, as a matter of fact, we know it was nothing of the kind. Addison, as his name indicates, was of the stock of the Scandinavian English, and the Cumberland district he belonged to is largely Scandinavian; the adjoining peninsula of Furness, which swarms with similar patronymics, is indeed one of the most purely Scandinavian spots in England. Now in the Scandinavian languages, as we know, and in the English dialects based upon them, the preposition comes usually at the end of the sentence, and Scandinavian structural elements form an integral part of English, even more than Latin-French, for it has been the part of the latter rather to enrich the vocabulary than to mould the structure of our tongue. So that, instead of introducing a personal idiosyncrasy or perpetrating a questionable licence, Addison was continuing his own ancestral traditions and at the same time asserting an organic prerogative of English speech. It may be added that Addison reveals his Scandinavian affinities not merely in the material structure, but in the spiritual quality, of his work. This delicate sympathetic observation, the vein of gentle melancholy, the quiet restrained humour, meet us again in modern Norwegian authors like Jonas Lie.
When we put aside these ancestral and traditional influences, there is still much in the writer’s art which, even if personal, we can only term instinctive. This may be said of that music which at their finest moments belongs to all the great writers of prose. Every writer has his own music, though there are few in whom it becomes audible save at rare and precious intervals. The prose of the writer who can deliberately make his own personal cadences monotonously audible all the time grows wearisome; it affects us as a tedious mannerism. This is a kind of machine-made prose which indeed it requires a clever artisan to produce; but, as Landor said, “he must be a bad writer to whom there are no inequalities.” The great writers, though they are always themselves, attain the perfect music of their style under the stress of a stimulus adequate to arouse it. Their music is the audible translation of emotion, and only arises when the waves of emotion are stirred. It is not properly speaking a voluntary effect. We can but say that the winds of the spirit are breathed upon the surface of style, and they lift it into rhythmic movement. And for each writer these waves have their own special rate of vibration, their peculiar shape and interval. The rich deep slow tones of Bacon have nothing in common with the haunting, long-drawn melody, faint and tremulous, of Newman; the high metallic falsetto ring of De Quincey’s rhetoric is far away from the pensive low-toned music of Pater.
Imitation, as psychologists have taught us to realise, is a part of instinct. When we begin to learn to write, it rarely happens that we are not imitators, and, for the most part, unconsciously. The verse of every young poet, however original he may afterwards grow, usually has plainly written across it the rhythmic signature of some great master whose work chances to be abroad in the world; once it was usually Tennyson, then Swinburne, now various later poets; the same thing happens with prose, but the rhythm of the signature is less easy to hear.
As a writer slowly finds his own centre of gravity, the influence of the rhythm of other writers ceases to be perceptible except in so far as it coincides with his own natural movement and tempo. That is a familiar fact. We less easily realise, perhaps, that not only the tunes but the notes that they are formed of are, in every great writer, his own. In other words, he creates even his vocabulary. That is so not only in the more obvious sense that out of the mass of words that make up a language every writer uses only a limited number and even among these has his words of predilection. It is in the meanings he gives to words, to names, that a writer creates his vocabulary. All language, we know, is imagery and metaphor; even the simplest names of the elementary things are metaphors based on resemblances that suggested themselves to the primitive men who made language. It is not otherwise with the aboriginal man of genius who uses language to express his new vision of the world. He sees things charged with energy, or brilliant with colour, or breathing out perfume, that the writers who came before him had overlooked, and to designate these things he must use names which convey the qualities he has perceived. Guided by his own new personal sensations and perceptions, he creates his metaphorical vocabulary. If we examine the style of Montaigne, so fresh and personal and inventive, we see that its originality lies largely in its vocabulary, which is not, like that of Rabelais, manufactured afresh, but has its novelty in its metaphorical values, such new values being tried and tempered at every step, to the measure of the highly individual person behind them, who thereby exerts his creative force. In later days Huysmans, who indeed saw the world at a more eccentric angle than Montaigne, yet with unflinching veracity and absolute devotion, set himself to the task of creating his own vocabulary, and at first the unfamiliarity of its beauty estranges us.
To think of Huysmans is to be led towards an aspect of style not to be passed over. To say that the artist in words is expressing a new vision of the world and seeking the designations for things as he sees them, is a large part of the truth, and, I would say, perhaps the most important part of it. For most of us, I suppose (as I know it has been for me), our vision of Nature has been largely, though by no means entirely, constituted by pictures we have seen, by poems we have read, that left an abiding memory. That is to say that Nature comes to us through an atmosphere which is the emanation of supreme artists who once thrilled us. But we are here concerned with the process of the artist’s work and not with his æsthetic influence. The artist finds that words have a rich content of their own, they are alive and they flourish or decay. They send out connecting threads in every direction, they throb with meaning that ever changes and reverberates afar. The writer is not always, or often, merely preparing a catalogue raisonné of things, he is an artist and his pigments are words. Often he merely takes his suggestions from the things of the world and makes his own pictures without any real resemblance to the scene it is supposed to depict. Dujardin tells us that he once took Huysmans to a Wagner concert; he scarcely listened to the music, but he was fascinated by the programme the attendant handed to him; he went home to write a brilliant page on “Tannhäuser.” Mallarmé, on the other hand, was soaked in music; to him music was the voice of the world, and it was the aim of poetry to express the world by itself becoming music; he stood on a height like a pioneer and looked towards the Promised Land, trying to catch intimations of a new sensibility and a future art, but a great master of language, like Huysmans, he never was. Huysmans has written superb pages about Gustave Moreau and Félicien Rops, thinking, no doubt, that he was revealing supreme artists (though we need not follow too closely the fashion of depreciating either of those artists), but he was really only attracted to their programmes and therein experiencing a stimulus that chanced to be peculiarly fitted for drawing out his own special art. Baudelaire would have written less gorgeously, but he would have produced a more final critical estimate.
Yet even the greatest writers are affected by the intoxication of mere words in the artistry of language. Shakespeare is, constantly, and, not content with “making the green one red,” he must needs at the same time “the multitudinous seas incarnadine.” It is conspicuous in Keats (as Leigh Hunt, perhaps his first sensitively acute critic, clearly explained), and often, as in “The Eve of St. Agnes,” where he seemed to be concerned with beautiful things, he was really concerned with beautiful words. In that way he is sometimes rather misleading for the too youthful reader; “porphyry” seemed to me a marvellous substance when as a boy of twelve I read of it in Keats, and I imagine that Keats himself would have been surprised, had he lived long enough to walk to St. Thomas’s Hospital over the new London Bridge, when told that he was treading a granite that was porphyritic. I recall how Verlaine would sometimes repeat in varying tones some rather unfamiliar word, rolling it round and round in his mouth, sucking it like a sweetmeat, licking the sound into the shape that pleased him; some people may perhaps have found a little bizarre the single words (“Green,” for example) which he sometimes made the title of a song, but if they adopt the preliminary Verlainian process they may understand how he had fitted such words to music and meaning.
The most obviously beautiful things in the world of Nature are birds and flowers and the stones we call precious. But the attitude of the poet in the presence of Nature is precisely that of Huysmans in the presence of art: it is the programme that interests him. Of birds the knowledge of poets generally is of the most generalised and elementary kind; they are the laughing-stock of the ornithologist; they are only a stage removed from the standpoint of the painter who was introducing a tree into his landscape and when asked what tree, replied, “Oh, just the ordinary tree.” Even Goethe mistook the finches by the roadside for larks. The poet, one may be sure, even to-day seldom carries in his pocket the little “Führer durch unsere Vogelwelt” of Bernhard Hoffmann, and has probably never so much as heard of it. Of flowers his knowledge seems to be limited by the quality of the flower’s name. I have long cherished an exquisite and quite common English wild-flower, but have never come across a poem about it, for its unattractive name is the stitchwort, and it is only lately that even in prose it has met (from Mr. Salt) with due appreciation. As regards precious stones the same may be said, and in the galleries of the Geological Museum it has hardly seemed to me that, among the few visitors, there were poets (unless I chanced to bring one myself) to brood over all that beauty. It is the word and its inner reverberation with which the poet is really concerned, even sometimes perhaps deliberately. When Milton misused the word “eglantine” one realises the unconscious appeal to him of the name and one cannot feel quite sure that it was altogether unconscious. Coleridge has been solemnly reproved for speaking of the “loud” bassoon. But it was to the timbre of the word, not of the instrument, that Coleridge was responding, and had he been informed that the bassoon is not loud, I doubt not he would have replied: “Well, if it is not loud it ought to be.” On the plane on which Coleridge moved “the loud bassoon” was absolutely right. We see that the artist in speech moves among words rather than among things. Originally, it is true, words are closely related to things, but in their far reverberation they have become enriched by many associations, saturated with many colours; they have acquired a life of their own, moving on another plane than that of things, and it is on that plane that the artist in words is, as an artist, concerned with them.
It thus comes about that the artist in words, like the artist in pigments, is perpetually passing between two planes—the plane of new vision and the plane of new creation. He is sometimes remoulding the external world and sometimes the internal world; sometimes, by predilection, lingering more on one plane than on the other plane. The artist in words is not irresistibly drawn to the exact study of things or moved by the strong love of Nature. The poets who describe Nature most minutely and most faithfully are not usually the great poets. That is intelligible because the poet—even the poet in the wide sense who also uses prose—is primarily the instrument of human emotion and not of scientific observation. Yet that poet possesses immense resources of strength who in early life has stored within him the minute knowledge of some field of the actual external world. One may doubt, indeed, whether there has been any supreme poet, from Homer on, who has not had this inner reservoir of sensitive impressions to draw from. The youthful Shakespeare who wrote the poems, with their minute descriptions, was not a great poet, as the youthful Marlowe was, but he was storing up the material which, when he had developed into a great poet, he could draw on at need with a careless and assured hand. Without such reservoirs, the novelists also would never attain to that touch of the poet which, beyond their story-telling power, can stir our hearts. “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” is the name of a great modern book, but every novelist during part of his time has been a Ulysses on a perilous voyage of adventure for that far home. One thinks of George Eliot and her early intimacy with the life of country people, of Hardy who had acquired so acute a sensitivity to the sounds of Nature, of Conrad who had caught the flashes of penetrating vision which came to the sailor on deck; and in so far as they move away into scenes where they cannot draw from those ancient reservoirs, the adventures of these artists, however brilliant they may become, lose their power of intimate appeal. The most extravagant example of this to-day is the Spanish novelist Blasco Ibañez, who wrote of the Valencian huerta that had saturated his youth in novels that were penetrating and poignant, and then turned to writing for the cosmopolitan crowd novels about anything, that were completely negligible.
We grow familiar in time with the style of the great writers, and when we read them we translate them easily and unconsciously, as we translate a foreign language we are familiar with; we understand the vocabulary because we have learnt to know the special seal of the creative person who moulded the vocabulary. But at the outset the great writer may be almost as unintelligible to us as though he were writing in a language we had never learnt. In the now remote days when “Leaves of Grass” was a new book in the world, few who looked into it for the first time, however honestly, but were repelled and perhaps even violently repelled, and it is hard to realise now that once those who fell on Swinburne’s “Poems and Ballads” saw at first only picturesque hieroglyphics to which they had no key. But even to-day how many there are who find Proust unreadable and Joyce unintelligible. Until we find the door and the clue the new writer remains obscure. Therein lies the truth of Landor’s saying that the poet must himself create the beings who are to enjoy his Paradise.
For most of those who deliberately seek to learn to write, words seem generally to be felt as of less importance than the art of arranging them. It is thus that the learner in writing tends to become the devoted student of grammar and syntax whom we came across at the outset. That is indeed a tendency which always increases. Civilisation develops with a conscious adhesion to formal order, and the writer—writing by fashion or by ambition and not by divine right of creative instinct—follows the course of civilisation. It is an unfortunate tendency, for those whom it affects conquer by their number. As we know, writing that is real is not learnt that way. Just as the solar system was not made in accordance with the astronomer’s laws, so writing is not made by the laws of grammar. Astronomer and grammarian alike can only come in at the end, to give a generalised description of what usually happens in the respective fields it pleases them to explore. When a new comet, cosmic or literary, enters their sky, it is their descriptions which have to be readjusted, and not the comet. There seems to be no more pronounced mark of the decadence of a people and its literature than a servile and rigid subserviency to rule. It can only make for ossification, for anchylosis, for petrification, all the milestones on the road of death. In every age of democratic plebeianism, where each man thinks he is as good a writer as the others, and takes his laws from the others, having no laws of his own nature, it is down this steep path that men, in a flock, inevitably run.
We may find an illustration of the plebeian anchylosis of advancing civilisation in the minor matter of spelling. We cannot, it is true, overlook the fact that writing is read and that its appearance cannot be quite disregarded. Yet, ultimately, it appeals to the ear, and spelling can have little to do with style. The laws of spelling, properly speaking, are few or none, and in the great ages men have understood this and boldly acted accordingly. They exercised a fine personal discretion in the matter and permitted without question a wide range of variation. Shakespeare, as we know, even spelt his own name in several different ways, all equally correct. When that great old Elizabethan mariner, Sir Martin Frobisher, entered on one of his rare and hazardous adventures with the pen, he created spelling absolutely afresh, in the spirit of simple heroism with which he was always ready to sail out into strange seas. His epistolary adventures are, certainly, more interesting than admirable, but we have no reason to suppose that the distinguished persons to whom these letters were addressed viewed them with any disdain. More anæmic ages cannot endure creative vitality even in spelling, and so it comes about that in periods when everything beautiful and handmade gives place to manufactured articles made wholesale, uniform, and cheap, the same principles are applied to words, and spelling becomes a mechanic trade. We must have our spelling uniform, even if uniformly bad. Just as the man who, having out of sheer ignorance eaten the wrong end of his asparagus, was thenceforth compelled to declare that he preferred that end, so it is with our race in the matter of spelling; our ancestors, by chance or by ignorance, tended to adopt certain forms of spelling and we, their children, are forced to declare that we prefer those forms. Thus we have not only lost all individuality in spelling, but we pride ourselves on our loss and magnify our anchylosis. In England it has become almost impossible to flex our stiffened mental joints sufficiently to press out a single letter, in America it is almost impossible to extend them enough to admit that letter. It is convenient, we say, to be rigid and formal in these things, and therewith we are content; it matters little to us that we have thereby killed the life of our words and only gained the conveniency of death. It would be likewise convenient, no doubt, if men and women could be turned into rigid geometrical diagrams,—as indeed our legislators sometimes seem to think that they already are,—but we should pay by yielding up all the infinite variations, the beautiful sinuosities, that had once made up life.
There can be no doubt that in the much greater matter of style we have paid heavily for the attainment of our slavish adherence to mechanical rules, however convenient, however inevitable. The beautiful incorrection, as we are now compelled to regard it, that so often marked the great and even the small writers of the seventeenth century, has been lost, for all can now write what any find it easy to read, what none have any consuming desire to read. But when Sir Thomas Browne wrote his “Religio Medici” it was with an art made up of obedience to personal law and abandonment to free inspiration which still ravishes us. It is extraordinary how far indifference or incorrection of style may be carried and yet remain completely adequate even to complex and subtle ends. Pepys wrote his “Diary,” at the outset of a life full of strenuous work and not a little pleasure, with a rare devotion indeed, but with a concision and carelessness, a single eye on the fact itself, and an extraordinary absence of self-consciousness which rob it of all claim to possess what we conventionally term style. Yet in this vehicle he has perfectly conveyed not merely the most vividly realised and delightfully detailed picture of a past age ever achieved in any language, but he has, moreover, painted a psychological portrait of himself which for its serenely impartial justice, its subtle gradations, its bold juxtapositions of colours, has all the qualities of the finest Velasquez. There is no style here, we say, merely the diarist, writing with careless poignant vitality for his own eye, and yet no style that we could conceive would be better fitted, or so well fitted, for the miracle that has here been effected.
The personal freedom of Browne led up to splendour, and that of Pepys to clarity. But while splendour is not the whole of writing, neither, although one returns to it again and again, is clarity. Here we come from another side on to a point we had already reached. Bergson, in reply to the question: “Comment doivent écrire les Philosophes?” lets fall some observations, which, as he himself remarks, concern other writers beside philosophers. A technical word, he remarks, even a word invented for the occasion or used in a special sense, is always in its place provided the instructed reader—though the difficulty, as he fails to point out, is to be sure of possessing this instructed reader—accepts it so easily as not even to notice it, and he proceeds to say that in philosophic prose, and in all prose, and indeed in all the arts, “the perfect expression is that which has come so naturally, or rather so necessarily, by virtue of so imperious a predestination, that we do not pause before it, but go straight on to what it seeks to express, as though it were blended with the idea; it became invisible by force of being transparent.” That is well said. Bergson also is on the side of clarity. Yet I do not feel that that is all there is to say. Style is not a sheet of glass in which the only thing that matters is the absence of flaws. Bergson’s own style is not so diaphanous that one never pauses to admire its quality, nor, as a hostile critic (Edouard Dujardin) has shown, is it always so clear as to be transparent. The dancer in prose as well as in verse—philosopher or whatever he may be—must reveal all his limbs through the garment he wears; yet the garment must have its own proper beauty, and there is a failure of art, a failure of revelation, if it possesses no beauty. Style indeed is not really a mere invisible transparent medium, it is not really a garment, but, as Gourmont said, the very thought itself. It is the miraculous transubstantiation of a spiritual body, given to us in the only form in which we may receive and absorb that body, and unless its clarity is balanced by its beauty it is not adequate to sustain that most high function. No doubt, if we lean on one side more than the other, it is clarity rather than beauty which we should choose, for on the other side we may have, indeed, a Sir Thomas Browne, and there we are conscious not so much of a transubstantiation as of a garment, with thick embroidery, indeed, and glistening jewels, but we are not always sure that much is hidden beneath. A step further and we reach D’Annunzio, a splendid mask with nothing beneath, just as in the streets of Rome one may sometimes meet a Franciscan friar with a head superb as a Roman Emperor’s and yet, one divines, it means nothing. The Italian writer, it is significant to note, chose so ostentatiously magnificent a name as Gabriele D’Annunzio to conceal a real name which was nothing. The great angels of annunciation create the beauty of their own real names. Who now finds Shakespeare ridiculous? And how lovely a name is Keats!
As a part of the harmony of art, which is necessarily made out of conflict, we have to view that perpetual seeming alternation between the two planes—the plane of vision and the plane of creation, the form within and the garment that clothes it—which may sometimes distract the artist himself. The prophet Jeremiah once said (and modern prophets have doubtless had occasion to recognise the truth of his remark) that he seemed to the people round him only as “one that hath a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument.” But he failed to understand that it was only through this quality of voice and instrument that his lamentations had any vital force or even any being, and that if the poem goes the message goes. Indeed, that is true of all his fellow prophets of the Old Testament and the New who have fascinated mankind with the sound of those harps that they had once hung by the waters of Babylon. The whole Bible, we may be very sure, would have long ago been forgotten by all but a few intelligent archæologists, if men had not heard in it, again and again and again, “one that hath a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument.” Socrates said that philosophy was simply music. But the same might be said of religion. The divine dance of satyrs and nymphs to the sound of pipes—it is the symbol of life which in one form or another has floated before human eyes from the days of the sculptors of Greek bas-reliefs to the men of our own day who catch the glimpse of new harmonies in the pages of “L’Esprit Nouveau.” We cannot but follow the piper that knows how to play, even to our own destruction. There may be much that is objectionable about Man. But he has that engaging trait. And the world will end when he has lost it.
One asks one’s self how it was that the old way of writing, as a personal art, gave place to the new way of writing, as a mere impersonal pseudo-science, rigidly bound by formal and artificial rules. The answer, no doubt, is to be found in the existence of a great new current of thought which began mightily to stir in men’s minds towards the end of the seventeenth century. It will be remembered that it was at that time, both in England and France, that the new devitalised, though more flexible, prose appeared, with its precision and accuracy, its conscious orderliness, its deliberate method. But only a few years before, over France and England alike, a great intellectual wave had swept, imparting to the mathematical and geometrical sciences, to astronomy, physics, and allied studies, an impetus that they had never received before on so great a scale. Descartes in France and Newton in England stand out as the typical representatives of the movement. If that movement had to exert any influence on language—and we know how sensitively language reacts to thought—it could have been manifested in no other way than by the change which actually took place. And there was every opportunity for that influence to be exerted. This sudden expansion of the mathematical and geometrical sciences was so great and novel that interest in it was not confined to a small band of men of science: it excited the man in the street, the woman in the drawing-room; it was indeed a woman, a bright and gay woman of the world, who translated Newton’s profound book into French. Thus it was that the new qualities of style were invented, not merely to express new qualities of thought, but because new scientific ideals were moving within the minds of men. A similar reaction of thought on language took place at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when an attempt was made to vitalise language once more, and to break the rigid and formal moulds the previous century had constructed. The attempt was immediately preceded by the awakening of a new group of sciences, but this time the sciences of life, the biological studies associated with Cuvier and Lamarck, with John Hunter and Erasmus Darwin. With the twentieth century we see the temporary exhaustion of the biological spirit with its historical form in science and its romantic form in art, and we have a neo-classic spirit which has involved a renaissance of the mathematical sciences and, even before that, was beginning to affect speech.
To admire the old writers, because for them writing was an art to be exercised freely and not a vain attempt to follow after the ideals of the abstract sciences, thus by no means implies a contempt for that decorum and orderliness without which all written speech must be ineffective and obscure. The great writers in the great ages, standing above classicism and above romanticism, have always observed this decorum and orderliness. In their hands such observance was not a servile and rigid adherence to external rules, but a beautiful convention, an instinctive fine breeding, such as is naturally observed in human intercourse when it is not broken down by intimacy or by any great crisis of life or of death.
The freedom of art by no means involves the easiness of art. It may rather, indeed, be said the difficulty increases with freedom, for to make things in accordance with patterns is ever the easiest task. The problem is equally arduous for those who, so far as their craft is conscious, seek an impersonal and for those who seek a personal ideal of style. Flaubert sought—in vain, it is true—to be the most objective of artists and to mould speech with heroic energy in shapes of abstract perfection. Nietzsche, one of the most personal artists in style, sought likewise, in his own words, to work at a page of prose as a sculptor works at a statue. Though the result is not perhaps fundamentally different, whichever ideal it is that, consciously or instinctively, is followed, the personal road of style is doubtless theoretically—though not necessarily in practice—the sounder, usually also that which moves most of us more profoundly. The great prose writers of the Second Empire in France made an unparalleled effort to carve or paint impersonal prose, but its final beauty and effectiveness seem scarcely equal to the splendid energy it embodies. Jules de Goncourt, his brother thought, literally died from the mental exhaustion of his unceasing struggle to attain an objective style adequate to express the subtle texture of the world as he saw it. But, while the Goncourts are great figures in literary history, they have pioneered no new road, nor are they of the writers whom men continuously love to read; for it is as a document that the “Journal” remains of enduring value.
Yet the great writers of any school bear witness, each in his own way, that, deeper than these conventions and decorums of style, there is a law which no writer can escape from, a law which must needs be learnt, but can never be taught. That is the law of the logic of thought. All the conventional rules of the construction of speech may be put aside if a writer is thereby enabled to follow more closely and lucidly the form and process of his thought. It is the law of that logic that he must for ever follow and in attaining it alone find rest. He may say of it as devoutly as Dante: “In la sua voluntade è nostra pace.” All progress in literary style lies in the heroic resolve to cast aside accretions and exuberances, all the conventions of a past age that were once beautiful because alive and are now false because dead. The simple and naked beauty of Swift’s style, sometimes so keen and poignant, rests absolutely on this truth to the logic of his thought. The twin qualities of flexibility and intimacy are of the essence of all progress in the art of language, and in their progressive achievement lies the attainment of great literature. If we compare Shakespeare with his predecessors and contemporaries, we can scarcely say that in imaginative force he is vastly superior to Marlowe, or in intellectual grip to Jonson, but he immeasurably surpasses them in flexibility and in intimacy. He was able with an incomparable art to weave a garment of speech so flexible in its strength, so intimate in its transparence, that it lent itself to every shade of emotion and the quickest turns of thought. When we compare the heavy and formal letters of Bacon, even to his closest friends, with the “Familiar Letters” of the vivacious Welshman Howell, we can scarcely believe the two men were contemporaries, so incomparably more expressive, so flexible and so intimate, is the style of Howell. All the writers who influence those who come after them have done so by the same method. They have thrown aside the awkward and outworn garments of speech, they have woven a simpler and more familiar speech, able to express subtleties or audacities that before seemed inexpressible. That was once done in English verse by Cowper and Wordsworth, in English prose by Addison and Lamb. That has been done in French to-day by Proust and in English by Joyce. When a great writer, like Carlyle or Browning, creates a speech of his own which is too clumsy to be flexible and too heavy to be intimate, he may arouse the admiration of his fellows, but he leaves no traces on the speech of the men who come after him. It is not easy to believe that such will be Joyce’s fate. His “Ulysses”—carrying to a much further point qualities that began to appear in his earlier work—has been hailed as epoch-making in English literature, though a distinguished critic holds that it is this rather by closing than by opening an epoch. It would still be preparing a new road, and as thus operative we may accept it without necessarily judging it to be at the same time a master-work, provided we understand what it is that has been here attempted. This huge Odyssey is an ordinary day’s history in the ordinary life of one ordinary man and the persons of his immediate environment. It is here sought to reproduce as Art the whole of the man’s physical and psychic activity during that period, omitting nothing, not even the actions which the most naturalistic of novelists had hitherto thought too trivial or too indelicate to mention. Not only the thoughts and impulses that result in action, but also the thoughts and emotions that drift aimlessly across the field of his consciousness, are here; and, in the presentation of this combined inner and outer life, Joyce has sometimes placed both on the same plane, achieving a new simplicity of style, though we may at first sometimes find it hard to divine what is outer and what inner. Moreover, he never hesitates, when he pleases, to change the tone of his style and even to adopt without notice, in a deliberately ironical and chameleon-like fashion, the manner of other writers. In these ways Joyce has here achieved that new intimacy of vision, that new flexibility of expression, which are of the essence of all great literature at its vitally moving point of advance. He has succeeded in realising and making manifest in art what others had passed over or failed to see. If in that difficult and dangerous task he has failed, as some of us may believe, to reach either complete clarity or complete beauty, he has at all events made it possible for those who come after to reach a new height which, without the help of the road he had constructed, they might have missed, or even failed to conceive, and that is enough for any writer’s fame.
When we turn to Proust we are in the presence of a writer about whom, no doubt, there is no violent dispute. There may be much about his work that is disturbing to many, but he was not concerned, like Joyce, to affront so many prejudices, and in France it is not even necessary, for the road has already been prepared by heroic pioneers of old during a thousand years. But the writer who brings a new revelation is not necessarily called upon to invite the execration of the herd. That is a risk he must be called upon to face, it is not an inevitable fate. When the mob yell: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” the artist, in whatever medium, hears a voice from Heaven: “This is my beloved son.” Yet it is conceivable that the more perfectly a new revelation is achieved the less antagonism it arouses. Proust has undoubtedly been the master of a new intimacy of vision, a new flexibility of expression, even though the style through which the revelation has been made, perhaps necessarily on account of the complexity involved, has remained a little difficult and also, it must be said, a little negligent. But it has achieved a considerable degree of clarity and a high degree of beauty. So there is less difficulty in recognising a great masterpiece in “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” than if it were more conspicuously the work of a daring pioneer. It is seen as the revelation of a new æsthetic sensibility embodied in a new and fitting style. Marcel Proust has experienced clearly what others have felt dimly or not at all. The significance of his work is thus altogether apart from the power of its dramatic incidents or its qualities as a novel. To the critic of defective intelligence, craving for scenes of sensation, it has sometimes seemed that “À l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur” is the least important section of Proust’s work. Yet it is on that quiet and uneventful tract of his narrative that Proust has most surely set the stamp of his genius, a genius, I should like to add, which is peculiarly congenial to the English mind because it was in the English tradition, rather than in the French tradition, that Proust was moving.
No doubt it is possible for a writer to go far by the exercise of a finely attentive docility. By a dutiful study of what other people have said, by a refined cleverness in catching their tricks, and avoiding their subtleties, their profundities, their audacities, by, in short, a patient perseverance in writing out copperplate maxims in elegant copybooks, he can become at last, like Stevenson, the idol of the crowd. But the great writer can only learn out of himself. He learns to write as a child learns to walk. For the laws of the logic of thought are not other than those of physical movement. There is stumbling, awkwardness, hesitation, experiment—before at last the learner attains the perfect command of that divine rhythm and perilous poise in which he asserts his supreme human privilege. But the process of his learning rests ultimately on his own structure and function and not on others’ example. “Style must be founded upon models”; it is the rule set up by the pedant who knows nothing of what style means. For the style that is founded on a model is the negation of style.
The ardour and heroism of great achievement in style never grow less as the ages pass, but rather tend to grow more. That is so, not merely because the hardest tasks are left for the last, but because of the ever increasing impediments placed in the path of style by the piling up of mechanical rules and rigid conventions. It is doubtful whether on the whole the forces of life really gain on the surrounding inertia of death. The greatest writers must spend the blood and sweat of their souls, amid the execration and disdain of their contemporaries, in breaking the old moulds of style and pouring their fresh life into new moulds. From Dante to Carducci, from Rabelais to Proust, from Chaucer to Whitman, the giants of letters have been engaged in this life-giving task, and behind them the forces of death swiftly gather again. Here there is always room for the hero. No man, indeed, can write anything that matters who is not a hero at heart, even though to the people who pass him in the street or know him in the house he may seem as gentle as any dove. If all progress lies in an ever greater flexibility and intimacy of speech, a finer adaptation to the heights and depths of the mobile human soul, the task can never be finally completed. Every writer is called afresh to reveal new strata of life. By digging in his own soul he becomes the discoverer of the soul of his family, of his nation, of the race, of the heart of humanity. For the great writer finds style as the mystic find God, in his own soul. It is the final utterance of a sigh, which none could utter before him, and which all can who follow.
In the end, it will be seen we return at last to the point from which we start. We have completed the cycle of an art’s evolution,—and it might, indeed, be any other art as much as writing,—reaching in the final sweep of ever wider flights the fact from which we started, but seeing it anew, with a fresh universal significance. Writing is an arduous spiritual and intellectual task, only to be achieved by patient and deliberate labour and much daring. Yet therewith we are only at the beginning. Writing is also the expression of individual personality, which springs up spontaneously, or is slowly drawn up from within, out of a well of inner emotions which none may command. But even with these two opposite factors we have not attained the complete synthesis. For style in the full sense is more than the deliberate and designed creation, more even than the unconscious and involuntary creation, of the individual man who therein expresses himself. The self that he thus expresses is a bundle of inherited tendencies that came the man himself can never entirely know whence. It is by the instinctive stress of a highly sensitive, or slightly abnormal constitution, that he is impelled to instil these tendencies into the alien magic of words. The stylum wherewith he strives to write himself on the yet blank pages of the world may have the obstinate vigour of the metal rod or the wild and quavering waywardness of an insect’s wing, but behind it lie forces that extend into infinity. It moves us because it is itself moved by pulses which in varying measure we also have inherited, and because its primary source is in the heart of a cosmos from which we ourselves spring.
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 It may be as well to point that it is the amateur literary grammarian and not the expert who is at fault in these matters. The attitude of the expert (as in C. T. Onions, Advanced English Syntax) is entirely reasonable.
 It is interesting to note that another aristocratic master of speech had also made just the same observation. Landor puts into the mouth of Horne Tooke the words: “No expression can become a vulgarism which has not a broad foundation. The language of the vulgar hath its source in physics: in known, comprehended, and operative things.” At the same time Landor was as stern a judge as Baudelaire of the random use of clichés.
 Speaking as a writer who has been much quoted,—it ought to be a satisfaction, but I have had my doubts,—I may say that I have observed that those who quote belong mostly to two classes, one consisting of good, or at all events indifferent, writers, and the other of bad writers. Those of the first class quote with fair precision and due acknowledgement, those of the second with no precision, and only the vaguest intimation, or none at all, that they are quoting. This would seem to indicate that the good writer is more honest than the bad writer, but that conclusion may be unjust to the bad writer. The fact is that, having little thought or knowledge of his own, he is not fully conscious of what he is doing. He is like a greedy child who, seeing food in front of him, snatches it at random, without being able to recognise whether or not it is his own. There is, however, a third class of those who cannot resist the temptation of deliberately putting forth the painfully achieved thought or knowledge of others as their own, sometimes, perhaps, seeking to gloss over the lapse with: “As every one knows—”
 Croce, who is no doubt the most instructive literary critic of our time, has, in his own way, insisted on this essential fact. As he would put it, there are no objective standards of judgment; we cannot approach a work of art with our laws and categories. We have to comprehend the artist’s own values, and only then are we fit to pronounce any judgment on his work. The task of the literary critic is thus immensely more difficult than it is vulgarly supposed to be. The same holds good, I would add, of criticism in the fields of art, not excluding the art of love and the arts of living in general.
 “This search is the art of all great thinkers, of all great artists, indeed of all those who, even without attaining expression, desire to live deeply. If the dance brings us so near to God, it is, I believe, because it symbolizes for us the movement of this gesture.” (Élie Faure, L’Arbre d’Éden, p. 318.)
 This is that “divine malice” which Nietzsche, in Ecce Homo, speaking of Heine (“one day Heine and I will be regarded as by far the greatest artists of the German language,” he says rather egotistically, but perhaps truly) considered essential to perfection. “I estimate the value of men and of races,” he added, “by their need to identify their God with a satyr,” a hard saying, no doubt, to the modern man, but it has its meaning.
 This was written fifteen years ago, and as Carlyle has of late been unduly depreciated I would add that, while strictly to the present point, it is not put forward as an estimate of Carlyle’s genius. That I seem to have attempted twenty-five years earlier in a private letter (to my friend the late Reverend Angus Mackay) I may here perhaps be allowed to quote. It was in 1883, soon after the publication of Carlyle’s Reminiscences: “This is not Carlylese, but it is finer. The popular judgment is hopelessly wrong. We can never understand Carlyle till we get rid of the ‘great prophet’ notion. Carlyle is not (as we were once taught) a ‘great moral teacher,’ but, in the high sense, a great comedian. His books are wonderful comedies. He is the Scotch Aristophanes, as Rabelais is the French and Heine the German Aristophanes—of course, with the intense northern imagination, more clumsy, more imperfect, more profound than the Greek. But, at a long distance, there is a close resemblance to Aristophanes with the same mixture of audacity in method and conservatism in spirit. Carlyle’s account of Lamb seems in the true sense Aristophanic. His humour is, too, as broad as he dares (some curious resemblances there, too). In his lyrical outbursts, again, he follows Aristophanes, and again at a distance. Of course he cannot be compared as an artist. He has not, like Rabelais, created a world to play with, but, like Aristophanes generally, he sports with the things that are.” That youthful estimate was alien to popular opinion then because Carlyle was idolised; it is now, no doubt, equally alien for an opposite reason. It is only on extremes that the indolent popular mind can rest.
 I once studied, as an example, colour-words in various writers, finding that every poet has his own colour formula. Variations in length of sentence and peculiarities of usage in metre have often been studied. Reference is made to some of these studies by A. Niceforo, “Metodo Statistico e Documenti Litterari,” Revista d’Italia, August, 1917.
 “The Muses are the daughters of Memory,” Paul Morand tells us that Proust would say; “there is no art without recollection,” and certainly it is supremely true of Proust’s art. It is that element of art which imparts at once both atmosphere and poignant intimacy, external farness with internal nearness. The lyrics of Thomas Hardy owe their intimacy of appeal to the dominance in them of recollection (in Late Lyrics and Earlier one might say it is never absent), and that is why they can scarcely be fully appreciated save by those who are no longer very young.
 The Oxford University Press publishes a little volume of Rules for Compositors and Readers in which this uniform is set forth. It is a useful and interesting manual, but one wonders how many unnecessary and even undesirable usages—including that morbid desire to cling to the ize termination (charming as an eccentricity but hideous as a rule) when ise would suffice—are hereby fostered. Even when we leave out of consideration the great historical tradition of variety in this matter, it is doubtful, when we consider them comprehensively, whether the advantages of encouraging every one to spell like his fellows overbalances the advantages of encouraging every one to spell unlike his fellows. When I was a teacher in the Australian bush I derived far less enjoyment from the more or less “correctly” spelt exercises of my pupils than from the occasional notes I received from their parents who, never having been taught to spell, were able to spell in the grand manner. We are wilfully throwing away an endless source of delight.
 If it is asked why I take examples of a quality in art that is universal from literary personalities that to many are questionable, even morbid or perverse, rather than from some more normal and unquestioned figure, Thomas Hardy, for example, I would reply that I have always regarded it as more helpful and instructive to take examples that are still questionable rather than to fall back on the unquestionable that all will accept tamely without thought. Forty years ago, when Hardy’s genius was scarcely at all recognised, it seemed worth while to me to set forth the quality of his genius. To-day, when that quality is unquestioned, and Hardy receives general love and reverence, it would seem idle and unprofitable to do so.