Amazing articles on just about every subject...



The Factor Of Style

( Originally Published 1918 )



Structure and Style—Style a Matter of Feeling—Style an Absolute Quality—The Twofold Appeal of Language—Concrete Examples —Onomatopoetic Words—Memorable Words—The Patterning of Syllables—Stevenson on Style—The Pattern of Rhythm—The Pattern of Literation—Style a Fine Art—Style an Important Aid to Fiction—The Heresy of the Accidental—Style an Intuitive Quality—Methods and Materials—Content and Form—The Fusion of Both Elements—The Author's Personality—Recapitulation.

Structure and Style.—The element of style, which has just been touched upon in reference to the short-story, must now be considered in its broader aspect as a factor of fiction in general. Hitherto, in examining the methods of fiction, we have confined our attention for the most part to the study of structural expedients. The reason is that structure, being a matter merely of the intellect, can be analyzed clearly and expounded definitely. Like any other intellectual subject-geometry, for instance—structure may be taught. But style, although it is in fiction a factor scarcely less important, is not a matter merely of the intellect. It is not so easily permissible of clear analysis and definite exposition; and although it is true that, in a certain sense, it may be learned, it is also true that it cannot be taught.

Style a Matter of Feeling.—The word "style" comes trippingly to the tongue of every critic; but it has never yet been satisfactorily defined. Famous phrases have been made about it, to be sure; but most of these, like that corrupted from Buffon's cursory remark in his discourse of reception into the Academy—"Le style est de l'homme même,"—are lofty admissions of the impossibility of definition. By this fact we are fortified in our opinion that style is a matter of feeling rather than of intellect. Avoiding, therefore, as unwise any attempt at definition, we may yet succeed in clarifying our ideas regarding style if we circle round the subject.

Style an Absolute Quality: At the outset, in order to narrow the compass of the circle, let us admit that the familiar phrase "bad style" is a contradiction of terms. Basically, there is no such thing as good style or bad. Either a literary utterance is made with style, or else it is made without it. This initial distinction is absolute, not relative. It must, however, be admitted that of two utterances made with style, the one may be more imbued with that quality than is the other; but even this secondary distinction is a matter of more and less, rather than of better and worse. Style, then, is a quality possessed in a greater or less degree, or else not possessed at all. This much being granted, we may investigate with clearer minds the philosophic aspect of the subject.

The Twofold Appeal of Language.—Language makes to the mind of the reader or the listener an appeal which is twofold. First, it conveys to his intellect a definite meaning through the content of the words that are employed; and secondly, it conveys to his sensibilities an indefinite suggestion through their sound. Consciously, he receives a meaning from the denotation of the words; subconsciously, he receives a suggestion from their con-notation. Now, an utterance has the quality of style when these two appeals of language—the denotative and the connotative, the definite and the indefinite, the intellectual and the sensuous—are so coordinated as to produce upon the reader or the listener an effect which is, not dual, but indissolubly single. And an utterance is devoid of the quality of style, when, although it conveys a meaning to the intellect through the content of the words, it does not reinforce that conveyance of meaning by a cognate and harmonic appeal to the senses through their sound. In the latter case the language produces upon the recipient an effect which is, not single, but dual and divorced.

Concrete Examples.—The matter may be made more clear by the examination of concrete examples. The following sentence, for instance, is devoid of style: "The square on the hypothenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides": for, although by its content it conveys to the intellect a meaning which is entirely clear and absolutely definite, it does not by its sound convey to the senses a suggestion which is cognate. But, on the other hand, the following lines from Tennyson's "The Princess" are rich in style, because the appeals to the intellect and to the ear are so coordinated as to produce a single simultaneous effect:

"Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro' the lawn, The moan of doves in immemorial elms, And murmuring of innumerable bees"

In these lines, fully as much is conveyed to the reader by the mere melody of m's and is and l's as by the content, or denotation, of the words. For instance, the word "innumerable," which denotes to the intellect merely "incapable of being numbered," is in this connection made to suggest to the senses the murmuring of bees. That one word, therefore, accomplishes a dual service, and contributes to the expression of the general idea in one way through its content and in another through its sound.

Onomatopoetic Words.-This coordination of the two appeals is the origin and the essence of the quality of style. But the question now demands to be considered, —how may this coordination be effected? The first detail we must attend to is the choice of words. Tennyson's task, in the lines that we have just considered, was comparatively easy. He was writing about certain sounds; and it was not especially difficult for him to imitate those sounds with the words that he selected to denote them. His device was the obvious one which is called, by rhetoricians, onomatopoeia. In every language those words which are denotative of sounds are nearly always also imitative of them. Such words, as, for example, "whisper," "thunder," "rattle," are in themselves stylistic. Alone, and apart from any context, they incorporate that cognate appeal of significance and sound which is the secret of style. Thus far the matter is extremely simple. But there are also many words which denote other things than sounds and yet some-how convey subtly to the ear a sensuous suggestion of their content. Such words, for instance, are "mud," "nevermore," and "tremulous." Any child could tell you that words like these "sound just like what they mean"; and yet it would be impossible for the critical intellect to explain exactly wherein lies the fitness between sound and sense in such a word as "mud." The fitness, however, is obviously there. If we select from several languages words which are identical in denotation, we are likely to find that, because of their difference in sound, they connote different phases of the idea which they contain. For example, the English word "death" has a spiritual sound; whereas the German "der Tod" sounds horrible and grim, and the French "la mort" sounds fearsome and bizarre. In content, these three words are indistinguishable; but in style they differ very widely. Their diversity of connotation is obviously inherent in their sound; and yet, though the difference may be heard at once, it seems inexplicable by the intellect.

Memorable Words.—But by far the greatest number of stylistic words owe their connotation not so much to their sound alone, as to their capacity for evoking memories. They awake the psychologie process of association. Such are the words which lie close to the heart of every one's experience,—words like "home," "sorrow," "mother," "youth," and "friends." Whenever such a word is used, it conveys to the reader or the listener not only the specific meaning intended by the momentary context, but also a subsidiary and subconscious recollection of many phases of his personal experience. All of the indisputably magic words possess this associative or memorable quality. Saying one thing definitely, they evoke a concordant harmony of subconscious and shadowy suggestion. Expressing a message in the present, they recall remembered beauty from the past. Thus it is with the words of those two enchanted lines of Keats,

"Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn."

They say much more than what they say. Conveying one meaning to the reader, they remind him of many, many others.

The Patterning of Syllables.—But the choice of suggestive and memorable words is only the first step toward mastery of style. The perfect marriage of significance and sound is dependent not so much upon the words themselves as upon the way in which they are arranged. The art of style, like every other art, proceeds by an initial selection of materials and a subsequent arrangement of them in accordance with a pattern. In style, the pattern is of prime importance; and therefore, in order to understand the witchery of writing, we must next consider technically the patterning of words.

Stevenson on Style.—This phase of the subject has been clearly expounded and deftly illustrated by Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay "On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature."' This essay is, so far as I know, the only existing treatise on the technic of style which is of any practical value to the incipient artist. It should therefore be read many times and mastered thoroughly by every student of the mystery of writing. Since it is now easily accessible, it will not be necessary here to do more than summarize its leading points,—stating them in a slightly different way in order that they may better fit the present context.

The Pattern of Rhythm.—Every normal sentence, unless it be extremely brief, contains a knot, or hitch. Up to a certain point, the thought is progressively complicated; after that, it is resolved. Now, the art of style demands that this natural implication and explication of the thought should be attended by a cognate implication and explication of the movement of the sentence. Unless the hitch in the rhythm coincides with the hitch in the thought, the two appeals of the sentence (to the intellect and to the ear) will contest against each other instead of combining to accomplish a common effect. Therefore the first necessity in weaving a web of words is to conquer an accordance between the intellectual progression of the thought and the sensuous progression of the sound. The appeal of rhythm to the human ear is basic and elemental; and style depends for its effect more upon a mastery of rhythmic phrase than upon any other individual detail. In verse, the technical problem is twofold: first, to suggest to the ear of the reader a rhythmic pattern of standard regularity; and then, to vary from the regularity suggested, as deftly and as frequently as may be possible without ever allowing the reader for a moment to forget the fundamental pattern. In prose, the writer works with greater freedom; and his problem is therefore at once more easy and more difficult. Instead of starting with a standard pattern, he has to invent a web of rhythm which is suited to the sense he wishes to convey; and then, without ever disappointing the ear of the reader by unnecessarily withholding an expected fall of rhythm, he must shatter every inkling of monotony by continual and tasteful variation.

The Pattern of Literation.-But language, by its very nature, offers to the ear not only a pattern of rhythm but also a pattern of letters. A mastery of literation is therefore a necessary element of style. Effects indisputably potent in suggestion may be gained by running a recurrence of certain letters, deftly for a time withheld, —since blatancy must always be avoided,-yet triumphant in harmonious return. The great sentences of literature which echo in our ears because their sound is married to their meaning will be found upon examination to incorporate an intricate pattern of tastefully selected letters. Thus it is with the following sentence of Sir Thomas Browne's, wherein it is difficult to decide whether the rhythm or the literation contributes the larger share to its symmetry of sound:—"But the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity." Thus it is, again, with this sentence from Ruskin's "Seven Lamps of Architecture":—"They are but the rests and monotones of the art; it is to its far happier, far higher, exaltation that we owe those fair fronts of variegated mosaic, charged with wild fancies and dark hosts of imagery, thicker and quainter than ever filled the depths of midsummer dream; those vaulted gates, trellised with close leaves; those window-labyrinths of twisted tracery and starry light; those misty masses of multitudinous pinnacle and diademed tower; the only witnesses, perhaps, that remain to us of the faith and fear of nations." So it is also with these sentences from De Quincey's "The English Mail-Coach":—"The sea, the atmosphere, the light, bore each an orchestral part in this universal lull. Moon-light, and the first timid tremblings of the dawn, were by this time blending; and the blendings were brought into a still more exquisite state of unity by a slight silvery mist, motionless and dreamy, that covered the woods and fields, but with a veil of equable transparency."

Style a Fine Art.—A more detailed study of style along these lines would lead us to considerations too minutely technical for the purpose of the present volume. Style, in its highest development, belongs only to the finest art of literature; and it must be admitted that literature is not always, nor even perhaps most frequently, a fine art. Of the four rhetorical moods, or methods, of discourse, exposition lends itself the least to the assistance of the quality of style. Explanations are communicated from intellect to intellect. Words, in exposition, must be chosen chiefly with a view to definite denotation. The expository writer must be clear at any cost; he must aim to be precise rather than to be suggestive. Style is considerably more important as an adjunct to argumentation; since in order really to persuade, a writer must not only convince the reader's intellect but also rouse and conquer his emotions. But it is in narrative and in description that the quality of style is most contributive to the maximum effect. To evoke a picture in the reader's mind, or to convey to his consciousness a sense of movement, it is advisable (I am tempted to say necessary) to play upon his sensibilities with the sound of the very sentences that are framed to convey a content to his intellect.

Style an Important Aid to Fiction.—Since narrative is the natural mood of fiction, and since description is more often introduced than either argument or exposition, it follows that the writer of fiction must always reckon with the factor of style. It is true that stories may be written without style; it is even true that many of the greatest stories have been devoid of this indefinable quality: but it is not therefore logical to argue that the factor of style may be neglected. How much it may be made to contribute to the attainment of the aim of fiction will be recognized instinctively upon examination of any wonderfully written passage. Let us consider, for example, the following paragraphs from "Markheim." After Markheim has killed the dealer, and gone up-stairs to ransack the belongings of the murdered man, he suffers an interval of quietude amid alarms.

"With the tail of his eye he saw the door—even glanced at it from time to time directly, like a besieged commander pleased to verify the good estate of his defenses. But in truth he was at peace. The rain falling in the street sounded natural and pleasant. Presently, on the other side, the notes of a piano were wakened to the music of a hymn, and the voices of many children took up the air and words. How stately, how comfortable was the melody! How fresh the youthful voices! Markheim gave ear to it smilingly, as he sorted out the keys; and his mind was thronged with answerable ideas and images; church-going children and the pealing of the high organ; children afield, bathers by the brook-side, ramblers on the brambly common, kite-fliers in the windy and cloud-navigated sky; and then, at another cadence of the hymn, back again to church, and the somnolence of summer Sundays, and the high genteel voice of the parson (which he smiled a little to recall) and the painted Jacobean tombs, and the dim lettering of the Ten Commandments in the chancel.

"And as he sat thus, at once busy and absent, he was startled to his feet. A flash of ice, a flash of fire, a bursting gush of blood, went over him, and then he stood transfixed and thrilling. A step mounted the stair slowly and steadily, and presently a hand was laid upon the knob, and the lock clicked, and the door opened."

Anybody who has ears to hear will immediately appreciate how much the effect of this passage is enhanced by the masterly employment of every phase of style which we have hitherto discussed. If, instead of writing, "Presently the notes of a piano were wakened to the music of a hymn," Stevenson had written, "Soon a piano began to play a hymn," he would have suggested to the ear a jangle like the banging of tin pans, instead of the measured melody he had in mind. And let it be particularly noted that the phrase suggested for comparison is, in intellectual content alone, scarcely distinct from the original. How little is the difference in denotation, how great the difference in suggestion! The brief phrase, "Kite-fliers in the windy and cloud-navigated sky," seems to blow us bodily upward into the air: here is mastery of rhythm. "The somnolence of summer Sun-days," is whispery and murmurous with s's, m's, and n's:—here (more obviously) is mastery of literation. In the second paragraph, notice how the rhythm suddenly hurries when Markheim is startled to his feet; and in the last sentence, consider the monotonous and measured slowness of the movement, ominous with pauses.

The Heresy of the Accidental.—Every now and then a critic steps forward with the statement that style in fiction is not a deliberate and conscious conquest, that the sound of sentences is accidental and may therefore not be marshaled to contribute to the sense, and that preoccupation with details of rhythm and of literation is an evidence of a finical and narrow mind. To such a statement no answer is necessary but the wholesome advice to re-read, aloud and carefully, several passages on a par with that from "Markheim" which we have just examined. Very evidently Stevenson knew intuitively what he was about when he planned his rhythmic patterns and his literate orchestral harmonies.

Style An Intuitive Quality.—I say "intuitively," because, as I admitted at the outset,. style is, with the author, a matter of feeling rather than of intellect. But matters may be planned with sensibility as well as with intelligence. The writer with the gift of style forehears a rhythmic pattern into which he weaves such words as may be denotative of his thought; and all the while that he is striving to be definite and clear, he carries in his mind a subtle sense of the harmonic accompaniment of consonants, the melodious eloquence of vowels.

By what means a writer may attain to mastery of style is a question not to be answered by the intellect. Matters of sensibility are personal, and every man must solve them for himself. The author of "Markheim," as he tells us in his essay on "A College Magazine," taught himself to write by playing the sedulous ape to many masters; and this method may be recommended to aspirants with an imitative ear. But there can be no general rule; because, although in the process of pure reason all men rightly minded think alike, each man differs from every other in the process of emotion. .

This is the reason why style, besides being (as we asserted at the outset) an absolute quality, possessed or not possessed by any literary utterance, is also in every case a quality personal to the author who attains it. In this regard, Buffon was right in stating that style is a phase of the man himself. Any work that is accomplished by the intellect alone belongs to man in general rather than to one man in particular; but any work that is accomplished by the sensibilities incorporates those profounder qualities by virtue of which each man stands distinct from every other. By studying the structure of an author's work, we can estimate his intellect: by studying the style, we can estimate that subtler entity which is the man himself.

Methods and Materials.—At the close of our study of the materials and methods of fiction, it is advisable that we should consider in general the relation between form and content, the respective value of methods and materials. Primarily, there are two groups of worthy fiction,-that which is great mainly on account of its con-tent, and that which is great mainly on account of its form. It would be unwise, of course, to overestimate the single and inherent value of either material or method. Some comparison, however, may be made between the merits of the one group and the other.

Content and Form.—In the first place, it must be noted that, as far as the general reader is concerned, the appeal of any work of fiction depends far more upon its content than upon its form. The average reader knows little and cares less about the technical methods of the art. What he demands above all is interesting subject-matter. He seeks, in the popular phrase, "a good story"; he wishes to be told interesting things about interesting people; and he does not feel especially concerned about the question whether or not these things are told him in an interesting way. The matter, rather than the manner, is the element that most allures him.

There are many reasons that tempt the critic to accept without reservation the general reader's view. For in-stance, many of the most important works of fiction have been inefficient in mere art. The "Don Quixote" of Cervantes is indubitably one of the very greatest novels in all literature, for the reason that it contains so vast a world. Yet it is very faulty both in structure and in style. The author seems to have built it little by little, as he went along; and he changed his plan so often during the process of construction that the resultant edifice, like the cathedral of St. Peter's, is architecturally incoherent. He showed so little regard for unity that he did not hesitate to halt his novel for half a hundred pages while he set before the reader the totally extraneous novelette of "The Curious Impertinent," which he happened to find lying idle in his desk. How little he was a master of mere style may be felt at once by comparing his plays with those of Calderon. Yet these technical considerations do not count against the value of his masterpiece. All of Spain is there resumed and uttered, all pains that the idealist in any age must suffer, all the pity and the glory of aspiration misapplied.

Scott has no style, and Thackeray has no structure; but these technical defects go down before their magnitude of message. Scott teaches us the glory and the greatness of being healthy, young, adventurous, and happy; and Thackeray, with tears in his eyes that humanize the sneer upon his lips, teaches us that the thing we call Society, with a capital S, is but a vanity of vanities. If we turn from the novel to the short-story, we shall notice that certain themes are in themselves so interesting that the resultant story could not fail to be effective even were it badly told. It is perhaps unfair to take as an example Mr. F. J. Stimson's tale called "Mrs. Knollys," because his story is both correctly constructed and beautifully written; but merely in theme this tale is so effective that it could have endured a less accomplished handling. The story runs as follows : A girl and her husband, both of whom are very young, go to the Alps for their honey-moon. The husband, in crossing a glacier, falls into a crevasse. His body cannot immediately be recovered; but Mrs. Knollys learns from a German scientist who is making a study of the movement of the ice that in forty-five years the body will be carried to the end of the glacier. Thereafter she regards her husband as absent but not lost, and lives her life in continuous imagined communion with him. At the end of the allotted time, she returns and finds his body. She is then a woman in her sixties; but her husband is, in aspect, still a boy of twenty-one. She has dreamt of him as growing old be-side her: she finds him sundered from her by half a century of change.—Even in a bald and ineffective summary the interest of this narrative effect must be apparent. The story scarcely needed to be told so well as Mr. Stimson told it.

We must admit, then, that, from the standpoint of the author as well as from that of the general reader, material may often be regarded as more important than method. But the critic is not therefore justified in stating that style and structure may be neglected with impunity. Other things being equal, the books that have lived the longest are those which have been executed with admirable art. The decline in the fame of Fenimore Cooper is a case in point. Merely in subject-matter, his books are more important now than they were at the time of their original publication; for the conditions of life in the forest primeval must necessarily assume a more especial interest to a world that, in its immediate experience, is rapidly forgetting them. But Cooper wrote very carelessly and very badly; and as we advance to a finer appreciation of the art of fiction, we grow more and more distracted from the contemplation of his message by his preposterous inequalities of craftsmanship.

Novels like the "Leatherstocking Tales" may be most enjoyed (I had almost said appreciated best) by readers with an undeveloped sense of art. This would seem a very strange admission at the close of a study devoted to the art of fiction, were it not for the existence of that other group of stories whose importance lies in method even more than in material. A lesser thing done perfectly is often more significant than a bigger thing done badly. Jane Austen is likely to live longer than George Eliot, because she conveyed her message, less momentous though it were, with a finer and a firmer art. Jane Austen's subjects seem, at the first glance, to be of very small account. From English middle-class society she selects a group of people who are in no regard remarkable, and thereafter concerns herself chiefly with the simple question of who will ultimately marry whom. But by sedulously dwelling on the non-essentials of life, she contrives to remind the reader of its vast essentials. By talking to us skilfully about the many things that do not matter, she suggests to us, inversely and with unobtrusive irony, the few things that really do. Her very message, there-fore, is immediately dependent upon her faultless art. If she had done her work less well, the result would have been non-significant and wearisome.

Poe and de Maupassant are shining examples of the class of authors who are destined to live by their art alone. Poe, in his short-stories, said nothing of importance to the world; and de Maupassant said many matters which might more decorously have remained untalked of. But the thing they meant to do, they did unfalteringly; and perfect workmanship is in itself a virtue in this world of shoddy compromise and ragged effort. Long after people have ceased to care for battle, murder, and sudden death, the thrill and urge of buoyant adventure, they will re-read the boyish tales of Stevenson for the sake of their swiftness of propulsion and exultant eloquence of style.

And fully to appreciate this class of fiction, some technical knowledge of the art is necessary. Washington Irving's efforts must, to a great extent, be lost on readers who are lacking in the ear for style. He had very little to say,—merely that the Hudson is beautiful, that the greatest sadness upon earth arises from the early death of one we love, that laughter and tears are at their deepest indistinguishable, and that it is very pleasant to sit before the fire of an old baronial hall and remember musingly; but he said this little like a gentleman,—with a charm, a grace, an easy urbanity of demeanor, that set his work forever in the class of what has been well done by good and faithful servants.

There is a very fine pleasure in watching with awareness the doing of things that are done well. Hence, even for the casual reader, it is advisable to study the methods of fiction in order to develop a more refined delight in reading. It would seem that a detective story, in which the interest is centred mainly in the long withholding of a mystery, would lose its charm for a reader to whom its secret has been once revealed. But the reader with a developed consciousness of method finds an interest ever-more renewed in returning again and again to Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue." After his first surprise has been abated, he can enjoy more fully the deftness of the author's art. After he has viewed the play from a stall in the orchestra, he may derive another and a different interest by watching it from the wings. To use a familiar form of words, Jane Austen is the novelist's novelist, Stevenson the writer's writer, Poe the builder's builder; and in order fully to appreciate the work of artists such as these, it is necessary (in Poe's words) to "contemplate it with a kindred art."

The Fusion of Both Elements.—But the critic should not therefore be allured into setting method higher than material and overestimating form at the expense of con-tent. The ideal to be striven for in fiction is such an intimate interrelation between the thing said and the way of saying it that neither may be contemplated apart from the other. We are touching now upon a third and smaller group of fiction, which combines the special merits of the two groups already noted. Such a novel as "The Scarlet Letter," such a short-story as "The Brushwood Boy," belong in this third and more extraordinary class. What Hawthorne has to say is searching and profound, and he says it with an equal mastery of structure and of style. "The Scarlet Letter" would be great because of its material alone, even had its author been a bungler; it would be great because of its art alone, even had he been less humanly endowed with understanding. But it is greater as we know it, in its absolute commingling of the two great merits of important subject and commensurate art.

The Author's Personality.—But in studying "The Scarlet Letter" we are conscious of yet another element of interest,—an interest derived from the personality of the author. The same story told with equal art by some one else would interest us very differently. And now we are touching on still another group of worthy fiction. Many stories endure more because of the personality of the men who wrote them than because of any inherent merit of material or method. Charles Lamb's "Dream-Children; A Revery," which, although it is numbered among the "Essays of Elia," may be regarded as a short-story, is important mainly because of the nature of the man who penned it,—a man who, in an age infected with the fever of growing up, remained at heart a little child, looking upon the memorable world with eyes of wonder.

Recapitulation.—These, then, are the three merits to be striven for in equal measure by aspirants to the art of fiction: momentous material, masterly method, and important personality. To discover certain truths of human life that are eminently worth the telling, to embody them in imagined facts with a mastery both of structure and of style, and, behind and beyond the work itself, to be all the time a person worthy of being listened to: this is, for the fiction-writer, the ultimate ideal. Seldom, very seldom, have these three contrarious conditions revealed themselves in a single author; seldom, therefore, have works of fiction been created that are absolutely great. It would be difficult for the critic to select off-hand a single novel which may be accepted in all ways as a standard of the highest excellence. But if the term fiction be regarded in its broadest significance, it may be considered to include the one greatest work of art ever fashioned by the mind of man. The "Divine Comedy" is supreme in subject-matter. The facts of its cosmogony have been disproved by modern science, the religion of which it is the monument has fallen into disbelief, the nation and the epoch that it summarizes have been trampled under the progress of the centuries; but in central and inherent truth, in its exposition of the struggle of the beleaguered human soul to win its way to light and life, it remains perennial and new. It is supreme in art. With unfaltering and undejected effort the master-builder upreared in symmetry its century of cantos; with faultless eloquence he translated into song all moods the human heart has ever known. And it is supreme in personality; because in every line of it we feel ourselves in contact with the vastest individual mind that ever yet inhabited the body of a man. We know (to quote the Poet's most appreciative translator)____

"from what agonies of heart and brain,
What exultations trampling on despair,
What tenderness, what tears, what hate of wrong,
What passionate outcry of a soul in pain,
Uprose this poem of the earth and air,
This medieval miracle of song."

His labor kept him lean for twenty years; and many a time he learned how salt his food who fares upon another's bread,—how steep his path who treadeth up and down another's stairs. But Dante saw and conquered,—realizing what he had to do, knowing how to do it, being worthy of his work. Therefore, singly among authors, he deserves the epithet his countrymen apply to him,—divine.

"The Divine Comedy" is the supreme epic of the world. The supreme novel remains to be written. It is doubtful if human literary art may attain completeness more than once. But as our authors labor to embody truths of human life in arranged imagined facts, they should constantly be guided and inspired by the allurement of the ultimate ideal. The noblest work is evermore accomplished by followers of the gleam. Let us, in parting company, paraphrase the sense of a remark made centuries ago by Sir Philip Sidney,—that model of a scholar and a gentleman:—It is well to shoot our arrows at the moon; for though they may miss their mark, they will yet fly higher than if we had flung them into a bush.

Loading...

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com