The Principles of Success in Literature
George Henry Lewes

Part 2 out of 3

Whether I make a careful Index, or an inaccurate one, will probably in
no respect affect the money-payment I shall receive. My sins will never
fall heavily on me; my virtue will gain me neither extra pence nor
praise. I shall be hidden by obscurity from the indignation of those
whose valuable time is wasted over my pretence at accuracy, as from the
silent gratitude of those whose time is saved by my honest fidelity.
The consciousness of faithfulness even to the poor index maker may be a
better reward than pence or praise; but of course we cannot expect the
unconscientious to believe this. If I sand my sugar, and tell lies over
my counter, I may gain the rewards of dishonesty, or I may be overtaken
by its Nemesis. But if I am faithful in my work the reward cannot be
withheld from me. The obscure workers who, knowing that they will never
earn renown yet feel an honourable pride in doing their work
faithfully, may be likened to the benevolent who feel a noble delight
in performing generous actions which will never be known to be theirs,
the only end they seek in such actions being the good which is wrought
for others, and their delight being the sympathy with others.

I should be ashamed to insist on truths so little likely to be
disputed, did they not point directly at the great source of bad
Literature, which, as was said in our first chapter, springs from a
want of proper moral guidance rather than from deficiency of talent.
The Principle of Sincerity comprises all those qualities of courage,
patience, honesty, and simplicity which give momentum to talent, and
determine successful Literature. It is not enough to have the eye to
see; there must also be the courage to express what the eye has seen,
and the steadfastness of a trust in truth. Insight, imagination, grace
of style are potent; but their power is delusive unless sincerely
guided. If any one should object that this is a truism, the answer is
ready: Writers disregard its truth, as traders disregard the truism of
honesty being the best policy. Nay, as even the most upright men are
occasionally liable to swerve from the truth, so the most upright
authors will in some passages desert a perfect sincerity; yet the ideal
of both is rigorous truth. Men who are never flagrantly dishonest are
at times unveracious in small matters, colouring or suppressing facts
with a conscious purpose; and writers who never stole an idea nor
pretended to honours for which they had not striven, may be found
lapsing into small insincerities, speaking a language which is not
theirs, uttering opinions which they expect to gain applause rather
than the opinions really believed by them. But if few men are perfectly
and persistently sincere, Sincerity is nevertheless the only enduring

The principle is universal, stretching from the highest purposes of
Literature down to its smallest details. It underlies the labour of the
philosopher, the investigator, the moralist, the poet, the novelist,
the critic, the historian, and the compiler. It is visible in the
publication of opinions, in the structure of sentences, and in the
fidelity of citations. Men utter insincere thoughts, they express
themselves in echoes and affectations, and they are careless or
dishonest in their use of the labours of others, all the time believing
in the virtue of sincerity, all the time trying to make others believe
honesty to be the best policy.

Let us glance for a moment at the most important applications of the
principle. A man must be himself convinced if he is to convince others.
The prophet must be his own disciple, or he will make none. Enthusiasm
is contagious: belief creates belief. There is no influence issuing
from unbelief or from languid acquiescence. This is peculiarly
noticeable in Art, because Art depends on sympathy for its influence,
and unless the artist has felt the emotions he depicts we remain
unmoved: in proportion to the depth of his feeling is our sympathetic
response; in proportion to the shallowness or falsehood of his
presentation is our coldness or indifference. Many writers who have
been fond of quoting the SI VIS ME FLERE of Horace have written as if
they did not believe a word of it; for they have been silent on their
own convictions, suppressed their own experience, and falsified their
own feelings to repeat the convictions and fine phrases of another. I
am sorry that my experience assures me that many of those who will read
with complete assent all here written respecting the power of
Sincerity, will basely desert their allegiance to the truth the next
time they begin to write; and they will desert it because their
misguided views of Literature prompt them to think more of what the
public is likely to applaud than of what is worth applause;
unfortunately for them their estimation of this likelihood is generally
based on a very erroneous assumption of public wants: they grossly
mistake the taste they pander to.

In all sincere speech there is power, not necessarily great power, but
as much as the speaker is capable of. Speak for yourself and from
yourself, or be silent. It can be of no good that you should tell in
your "clever" feeble way what another has already told us with the
dynamic energy of conviction. If you can tell us something that your
own eyes have seen, your own mind has thought, your own heart has felt,
you will have power over us, and all the real power that is possible
for you. If what you have seen is trivial, if what you have thought is
erroneous, if what you have felt is feeble, it would assuredly be
better that you should not speak at all; but if you insist on speaking
Sincerity will secure the uttermost of power.

The delusions of self-love cannot be prevented, but intellectual
misconceptions as to the means of achieving success may be corrected.
Thus although it may not be possible for any introspection to discover
whether we have genius or effective power, it is quite possible to know
whether we are trading upon borrowed capital, and whether the eagle's
feathers have been picked up by us, or grow from our own wings. I hear
some one of my young readers exclaim against the disheartening tendency
of what is here said. Ambitious of success, and conscious that he has
no great resources within his own experience, he shrinks from the idea
of being thrown upon his naked faculty and limited resources, when he
feels himself capable of dexterously using the resources of others, and
so producing an effective work. "Why," he asks, "must I confine myself
to my own small experience, when I feel persuaded that it will interest
no one? Why express the opinions to which my own investigations have
led me when I suspect that they are incomplete, perhaps altogether
erroneous, and when I know that they will not be popular because they
are unlike those which have hitherto found favour? Your restrictions
would reduce two-thirds of our writers to silence!"

This reduction would, I suspect, be welcomed by every one except the
gagged writers; but as the idea of its being operative is too
chimerical for us to entertain it, and as the purpose of these pages is
to expound the principles of success and failure, not to make Quixotic
onslaughts on the windmills of stupidity and conceit, I answer my young
interrogator: "Take warning and do not write. Unless you believe in
yourself, only noodles will believe in you, and they but tepidly. If
your experience seems trivial to you, it must seem trivial to us. If
your thoughts are not fervid convictions, or sincere doubts, they will
not have the power of convictions and doubts. To believe in yourself is
the first step; to proclaim your belief the next. You cannot assume the
power of another. No jay becomes an eagle by borrowing a few eagle
feathers. It is true that your sincerity will not be a guarantee of
power. You may believe that to be important and novel which we all
recognise as trivial and old. You may be a madman, and believe yourself
a prophet. You may be a mere echo, and believe yourself a voice. These
are among the delusions against which none of us are protected. But if
Sincerity is not necessarily a guarantee of power, it is a necessary
condition of power, and no genius or prophet can exist without it."

"The highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton," says
Emerson, "is that they set at nought books and traditions, and spoke
not what men thought, but what they thought. A man should learn to
detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from
within; more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet
he dismisses without notice his thought because it is his. In every
work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts; they come back
to us with a certain alienated majesty." It is strange that any one who
has recognised the individuality of all works of lasting influence,
should not also recognise the fact that his own individuality ought to
be steadfastly preserved. As Emerson says in continuation, "Great works
of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to
abide by our spontaneous impressions with good-humoured inflexibility,
then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else
tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense, precisely what
we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take
with shame our opinion from another." Accepting the opinions of another
and the tastes of another is very different from agreement in opinion
and taste. Originality is independence, not rebellion; it is sincerity,
not antagonism. Whatever you believe to be true and false, that
proclaim to be true and false; whatever you think admirable and
beautiful, that should be your model, even if all your friends and all
the critics storm at you as a crochet-monger and an eccentric. Whether
the public will feel its truth and beauty at once, or after long years,
or never cease to regard it as paradox and ugliness, no man can
foresee; enough for you to know that you have done your best, have been
true to yourself, and that the utmost power inherent in your work has
been displayed.

An orator whose purpose is to persuade men must speak the things they
wish to hear; an orator, whose purpose is to move men, must also avoid
disturbing the emotional effect by any obtrusion of intellectual
antagonism; but an author whose purpose is to instruct men, who appeals
to the intellect, must be careless of their opinions, and think only of
truth. It will often be a question when a man is or is not wise in
advancing unpalateable opinions, or in preaching heresies; but it can
never be a question that a man should be silent if unprepared to speak
the truth as he conceives it. Deference to popular opinion is one great
source of bad writing, and is all the more disastrous because the
deference is paid to some purely hypothetical requirement. When a man
fails to see the truth of certain generally accepted views, there is no
law compelling him to provoke animosity by announcing his dissent. He
may be excused if he shrink from the lurid glory of martyrdom; he may
be justified in not placing himself in a position of singularity. He
may even be commended for not helping to perplex mankind with doubts
which he feels to be founded on limited and possibly erroneous
investigation. But if allegiance to truth lays no stern command upon
him to speak out his immature dissent, it does lay a stern command not
to speak out hypocritical assent. There are many justifications of
silence; there can be none of insincerity.

Nor is this less true of minor questions; it applies equally to
opinions on matters of taste and personal feeling. Why should I echo
what seem to me the extravagant praises of Raphael's "Transfiguration,"
when, in truth, I do not greatly admire that famous work ? There is no
necessity for me to speak on the subject at all; but if I do speak,
surely it is to utter my impressions, and not to repeat what others
have uttered. Here, then, is a dilemma; if I say what I really feel
about this work, after vainly endeavouring day after day to discover
the transcendent merits discovered by thousands (or at least proclaimed
by them), there is every likelihood of my incurring the contempt of
connoisseurs, and of being reproached with want of taste in art. This
is the bugbear which scares thousands. For myself, I would rather incur
the contempt of connoisseurs than my own; the repreach of defective
taste is more endurable than the reproach of insincerity. Suppose I am
deficient in the requisite knowledge and sensibility, shall I be less
so by pretending to admire what really gives me no exquisite enjoyment?
Will the pleasure I feel in pictures be enhanced because other men
consider me right in my admlration, or diminished because they consider
me wrong?

[I have never thoroughly understood the painful anxiety of people to be
shielded against the dishonouring suspicion of not rightly appreciating
pictures, even when the very phrases they use betray their ignorance
and insensibility. Many will avow their indifference to music, and
almost boast of their ignorance of science; will sneer at abstract
theories, and profess the most tepid interest in history, who would
feel it an unpardonable insult if you doubted their enthusiasm for
painting and the "old masters" (by them secretly identified with the
brown masters). It is an insincerity fostered by general pretence. Each
man is afraid to declare his real sentiments in the presence of others
equally timid. Massive authority overawes genuine feeling].

The opinion of the majority is not lightly to be rejected; but
neither is it to be carelessly echoed. There is something noble in the
submission to a great renown, which makes all reverence a healthy
attitude if it be genuine. When I think of the immense fame of Raphael,
and of how many high and delicate minds have found exquisite delight
even in the "Transfiguration," and especially when I recall how others
of his works have affected me, it is natural to feel some diffidence in
opposing the judgment of men whose studies have given them the best
means of forming that judgment--a diffidence which may keep me silent
on the matter. To start with the assumption that you are right, and all
who oppose you are fools, cannot be a safe method. Nor in spite of a
conviction that much of the admiration expressed for the
"Transfiguration" is lip-homage and tradition, ought the non-admiring
to assume that all of it is insincere. It is quite compatible with
modesty to be perfectly independent, and with sincerity to be
respectful to the opinions and tastes of others. If you express any
opinion, you are bound to express your real opinion; let critics and
admirers utter what dithyrambs they please. Were this terror of not
being thought correct in taste once got rid of, how many stereotyped
judgments on books and pictures would be broken up! and the result of
this sincerity would be some really valuable criticism. In the presence
of Raphael's "Sistine Madonna," Titian's "Peter the Martyr," or
Masaccio's great frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, one feels as if
there had been nothing written about these mighty works, so little does
any eulogy discriminate the elements of their profound effects, so
little have critics expressed their own thoughts and feelings. Yet
every day some wandering connoisseur stands before these pictures, and
at once, without waiting to let them sink deep into his mind, discovers
all the merits which are stereotyped in the criticisms, and discovers
nothing else. He does not wait to feel, he is impatient to range
himself with men of taste; he discards all genuine impressions,
replacing them with vague conceptions of what he is expected to see.

Inasmuch as Success must be determined by the relation between the work
and the public, the sincerity which leads a man into open revolt
against established opinions may seem to be an obstacle. Indeed,
publishers, critics, and friends are always loud in their prophecies
against originality and independence on this very ground; they do their
utmost to stifle every attempt at novelty, because they fix their eyes
upon a hypothetical public taste, and think that only what has already
been proved successful can again succeed; forgetting that whatever has
once been done need not be done over again, and forgetting that what is
now commonplace was once originality. There are cases in which a
disregard of public opinion will inevitably call forth opprobrium or
neglect; but there is no case in which Sincerity is not strength. If I
advance new views in Philosophy or Theology, I cannot expect to have
many adherents among minds altogether unprepared for such views; yet it
is certain that even those who most fiercely oppose me will recognise
the power of my voice if it is not a mere echo; and the very novelty
will challenge attention, and at last gain adherents if my views have
any real insight. At any rate the point to be considered is this, that
whether the novel views excite opposition or applause, the one
condition of their success is that they be believed in by the
propagator. The public can only be really moved by what is genuine.
Even an error if believed in will have greater force than an insincere
truth. Lip-advocacy only rouses lip-homage. It is belief which gives

Nor is it any serious objection to what is here said, that insincerity
and timid acquiescence in the opinion and tastes of thc public do often
gain applause and temporary success. Sanding the sugar is not
immediately unprofitable. There is an unpleasant popularity given to
falsehood in this world of ours; but we love the truth notwithstanding,
and with a more enduring love. Who does not know what it is to listen
to public speakers pouring forth expressions of hollow belief and sham
enthusiasm, snatching at commonplaces with a fervour as of faith,
emphasising insincerities as if to make up by emphasis what is wanting
in feeling, all the while saying not only what they do not believe, but
what the listeners KNOW they do not believe, and what the listeners,
though they roar assent, do not themselves believe--a turbulence of
sham, the very noise of which stuns the conscience? Is such an orator
really enviable, although thunders of applause may have greeted his
efforts? Is that success, although the newspapers all over the kingdom
may be reporting the speech? What influence remains when the noise of
the shouts has died away? Whereas, if on the same occasion one man gave
utterance to a sincere thought, even if it were not a very wise
thought, although the silence of the public--perhaps its hisses--may
have produced an impression of failure, yet there is success, for the
thought will re-appear and mingle with the thoughts of men to be
adopted or combated by them, and may perhaps in a few years mark out
the speaker as a man better worth listening to than the noisy orator
whose insincerity was so much cheered.

The same observation applies to books. An author who waits upon the
times, and utters only what he thinks the world will like to hear, who
sails with the stream, admiring everything which it is "correct taste"
to admire, despising everything which has not yet received that
Hall-mark, sneering at the thoughts of a great thinker not yet accepted
as such, and slavishly repeating the small phrases of a thinker who has
gained renown, flippant and contemptuous towards opinions which he has
not taken the trouble to understand, and never venturing to oppose even
the errors of men in authority, such an author may indeed by dint of a
certain dexterity in assorting the mere husks of opinion gain the
applause of reviewers, who will call him a thinker, and of indolent men
and women who will pronounce him "so clever ;" but triumphs of this
kind are like oratorical triumphs after dinner. Every autumn the earth
is strewed with the dead leaves of such vernal successes.

I would not have the reader conclude that because I advocate
plain-speaking even of unpopular views, I mean to imply that
originality and sincerity are always in opposition to public opinion.
There are many points both of doctrine and feeling in which the world
is not likely to be wrong. But in all cases it is desirable that men
should not pretend to believe opinions which they really reject, or
express emotions they do not feel. And this rule is universal. Even
truthful and modest men will sometimes violate the rule under the
mistaken idea of being eloquent by means of the diction of eloquence.
This is a source of bad Literature. There are certain views in
Religion, Ethics, and Politics, which readily lend themselves to
eloquence, because eloquent men have written largely on them, and the
temptation to secure this facile effect often seduces men to advocate
these views in preference to views they really see to be more rational.
That this eloquence at second-hand is but feeble in its effect, does
not restrain others from repeating it. Experience never seems to teach
them that grand speech comes only from grand thoughts, passionate
speech from passionate emotions. The pomp and roll of words, the trick
of phrase, the rhytlnn and the gesture of an orator, may all be
imitated, but not his eloquence. No man was ever eloquent by trying to
be eloquent, but only by being so. Trying leads to the vice of "fine
writing"--the plague-spot of Literature, not only unhealthy in itself,
and vulgarising the grand language which should be reserved for great
thoughts, but encouraging that tendency to select only those views upon
which a spurious enthusiasm can most readily graft the representative
abstractions and stirring suggestions which will move public applause.
The "fine writer" will always prefer the opinion which is striking to
the opinion which is true. He frames his sentences by the ear, and is
only dissatisfied with them when their cadences are ill-distributed, or
their diction is too familiar. It seldom occurs to him that a sentence
should accurately express his meaning and no more; indeed there is not
often a definite meaning to be expressed, for the thought which arose
vanished while he tried to express it, and the sentence, instead of
being determined by and moulded on a thought, is determined by some
verbal suggestion. Open any book or periodical, and see how frequently
the writer does not, cannot, mean what he says; and you will observe
that in general the defect does not arise from any poverty in our
language, but from the habitual carelessness which allows expressions
to be written down unchallenged provided they are sufficiently
harmonious, and not glaringly inadequate.

The slapdash insincerity of modern style entirely sets at nought the
first principle of writing, which is accuracy. The art of writing is
not, as many seem to imagine, the art of bringing fine phrases into
rhythmical order, but the art of placing before the reader intelligible
symbols of the thoughts and feelings in the writer's mind. Endeavour to
be faithful, and if there is any beauty in your thought, your style
will be beautiful; if there is any real emotion to express, the
expression will be moving. Never rouge your style. Trust to your native
pallor rather than to cosmetics. Try to make us see what you see and to
feel what you feel, and banish from your mind whatever phrases others
may have used to express what was in their thoughts, but is not in
yours. Have you never observed what a light impression writers have
produced, in spite of a profusion of images, antitheses, witty
epigrams, and rolling periods, whereas some simpler style, altogether
wanting in such "brilliant passage," has gained the attention and
respect of thousands? Whatever is stuck on as ornament affects us as
ornament; we do not think an old hag young and handsome because the
jewels flash from her brow and bosom; if we envy her wealth, we do not
admire her beauty.

What "fine writing" is to prosaists, insincere imagery is to poets: it
is introduced for effect, not used as expression. To the real poet an
image comes spontaneously, or if it comes as an afterthought, it is
chosen because it expresses his meaning and helps to paint the picture
which is in his mind, not because it is beautiful in itself. It is a
symbol, not an ornament. Whether the image rise slowly before the mind
during contemplation, or is seen in the same flash which discloses the
picture, in each case it arises by natural association, and is SEEN,
not SOUGHT. The inferior poet is dissatisfied with what he sees, and
casts about in search after something more striking. He does not wait
till an image is borne in upon the tide of memory, he seeks for an
image that will be picturesque; and being without the delicate
selective instinct which guides the fine artist, he generally chooses
something which we feel to be not exactly in its right place. He thus--

"With gold and silver covers every part,
And hides with ornament his want of art."

Be true to your own soul, and do not try to express the thought of
another. "If some people," says Ruskin, "really see angels where others
see only empty space, let them paint angels: only let not anybody else
think they can paint an angel too, on any calculated principles of the
angelic." Unhappily this is precisely what so many will attempt,
inspired by the success of the angelic painter. Nor will the failure of
others warn them.

Whatever is sincerely felt or believed, whatever forms part of the
imaginative experience, and is not simply imitation or hearsay, may
fitly be given to the world, and will always maintain an infinite
superiority over imitative splendour; because although it by no means
follows that whatever has formed part of the artist's experience must
be impressive, or can do without artistic presentation, yet his
artistic power will always be greater over his own material than over
another's. Emerson has well remarked "that those facts, words, persons
which dwell in a man's memory without his being able to say why, remain
because they have a relation to him not less real for being as yet
unapprehended. They are symbols of value to him as they can interpret
parts of his consciousness which he would vainly seek words for in the
conventional images of books and other minds. What attracts my
attention shall have it; as I will go to the man who knocks at my door
while a thousand persons as worthy go by it to whom I give no regard.
It is enough that these particulars speak to me. A few anecdotes, a few
traits of character, manners, faces, a few incidents have an emphasis
in your memory out of all proportion to their apparent significance if
you measure them by ordinary standards. They relate to your gift. Let
them have their weight, and do not reject them, or cast about for
illustrations and facts more usual in literature."

In the notes to the last edition of his poems, Wordsworth specified the
particular occasions which furnished him with particular images. It was
the things he had SEEN which he put into his verses; and that is why
they affect us. It matters little whether the poet draws his images
directly from present experience, or indirectly from memory--whether
the sight of the slow-sailing swan, that "floats double swan and
shadow" be at once transferred to the scene of the poem he is writing,
or come back upon him in after years to complete some picture in his
mind; enough that the image be suggested, and not sought.

The sentence from Ruskin, quoted just now, will guard against the
misconception that a writer, because told to rely on his own
experience, is enjoined to forego the glory and delight of creation
even of fantastic types. He is only told never to pretend to see what
he has not seen. He is urged to follow Imagination in her most erratic
course, though like a will-o'-wisp she lead over marsh and fen away
from the haunts of mortals; but not to pretend that he is following a
will-o'-wisp when his vagrant fancy never was allured by one. It is
idle to paint fairies and goblins unless you have a genuine vision of
them which forces you to paint them. They are poetical objects, but
only to poetic minds. "Be a plain photographer if you possibly can,"
says Ruskin, "if Nature meant you for anything else she will force you
to it; but never try to be a prophet; go on quietly with your hard camp
work, and the spirit will come to you as it did to Eldad and Medad if
you are appointed to it." Yes: if you are appointed to it; if your
faculties are such that this high success is possible, it will come,
provided the faculties are employed with sincerity. Otherwise it cannot
come. No insincere effort can secure it.

If the advice I give to reject every insincerity in writing seem cruel,
because it robs the writer of so many of his effects---if it seem
disheartening to earnestly warn a man not to TRY to be eloquent, but
only to BE eloquent when his thoughts move with an impassioned
LARGO--if throwing a writer back upon his naked faculty seem especially
distasteful to those who have a painful misgiving that their faculty is
small, and that the uttermost of their own power would be far from
impressive, my answer is that I have no hope of dissuading feeble
writers from the practice of insincerity, but as under no circumstances
can they become good writers and achieve success, my analysis has no
reference to them, my advice has no aim at them. It is to the young and
strong, to the ambitious and the earnest, that my words are addressed.
It is to wipe the film from their eyes, and make them see, as they will
see directly the truth is placed before them, how easily we are all
seduced into greater or less insincerity of thought, of feeling, and of
style, either by reliance on other writers, from whom we catch the
trick of thought and turn of phrase, or from some preconceived view of
what the public will prefer. It is to the young and strong I say: Watch
vigilantly every phrase you write, and assure yourself that it
expresses what you mean; watch vigilantly every thought you express,
and assure yourself that it is yours, not another's; you may share it
with another, but you must not adopt it from him for the nonce. Of
course, if you are writing humorously or dramatically, you will not be
expected to write your own serious opinions. Humour may take its utmost
licence, yet be sincere. The dramatic genius may incarnate itself in a
hundred shapes, yet in each it will speak what it feels to be the
truth. If you are imaginatively representing the feelings of another,
as in some playful exaggeration or some dramatic personation, the truth
required of you is imaginative truth, not your personal views and
feelings. But when you write in your own person you must be rigidly
veracious, neither pretending to admire what you do not admire, or to
despise what in secret you rather like, nor surcharging your admiration
and enthusiasm to bring you into unison with the public chorus. This
vigilance may render Literature more laborious; but no one ever
supposed that success was to be had on easy terms; and if you only
write one sincere page where you might have written twenty insincere
pages, the one page is worth writing--it is Literature.

Sincerity is not only effective and honourable, it is also much less
difficult than is commonly supposed. To take a trifling example: If for
some reason I cannot, or do not, choose to verify a quotation which may
be useful to my purpose, what is to prevent my saying that the
quotation is taken at second-hand? It is true, if my quotations are for
the most part second-hand and are acknowledged as such, my erudition
will appear scanty. But it will only appear what it is. Why should I
pretend to an erudition which is not mine? Sincerity forbids it.
Prudence whispers that the pretence is, after all, vain, because those,
and those alone, who can rightly estimate erudition will infallibly
detect my pretence, whereas those whom I have deceived were not worth
deceiving. Yet in spite of Sincerity and Prudence, how shamelessly men
compile second-hand references, and display in borrowed footnotes a
pretence of labour and of accuracy! I mention this merely to show how,
even in the humbler class of compilers, the Principle of Sincerity may
find fit illustrations, and how honest work, even in references,
belongs to the same category as honest work in philosophy or poetry.



It is not enough that a man has clearness of Vision, and reliance on
Sincerity, he must also have the art of Expression, or he will remain
obscure. Many have had

"The visionary eye, the faculty to see
The thing that hath been as the thing which is,"

but either from native defect, or the mistaken bias of education, have
been frustrated in the attempt to give their visions beautiful or
intelligible shape. The art which could give them shape is doubtless
intimately dependent on clearness of eye and sincerity of purpose, but
it is also something over and above these, and comes from an organic
aptitude not less special, when possessed with fulness, than the
aptitude for music or drawing. Any instructed person can write, as any
one can learn to draw; but to write well, to express ideas with
felicity and force, is not an accomplishment but a talent. The power of
seizing unapparent relations of things is not always conjoined with the
power of selecting the fittest verbal symbols by which they can be made
apparent to others: the one is the power of the thinker, the other the
power of the writer.

"Style," says De Quincey, "has two separate functions---first, to
brighten the INTELLIGIBILITY of a subject which is obscure to the
understanding; secondly, to regenerate the normal POWER and
impressiveness of a subject which has become dormant to the
sensibilities. . . . . Decaying lineaments are to be retraced and faded
colouring to be refreshed." To effect these purposes we require a rich
verbal memory from which to select the symbols best fitted to call up
images in the reader's mind, and we also require the delicate selective
instinct to guide us in the choice and arrangement of those symbols, so
that the rhythm and cadence may agreeably attune the mind, rendering it
receptive to the impressions meant to be communicated. A copious verbal
memory, like a copious memory of facts, is only one source of power,
and without the high controlling faculty of the artist may lead to
diffusive indecision. Just as one man, gilted with keen insight, will
from a small stock of facts extricate unapparent relations to which
others, rich in knowledge, have been blind; so will a writer gifted
with a fine instinct select from a narrow range of phrases symbols of
beauty and of power utterly beyond the reach of commonplace minds. It
is often considered, both by writers and readers, that fine language
makes fine writers; yet no one supposes that fine colours make a fine
painter. The COPIA VERBORUM is often a weakness and a snare. As Arthur
Helps says, men use several epithets in the hope that one of them may
fit. But the artist knows which epithet does fit, uses that, and
rejects the rest. The characteristic weakness of bad writers is
inaccuracy: their symbols do not adequately express their ideas. Pause
but for a moment over their sentences, and you perceive that they are
using language at random, the choice being guided rather by some
indistinct association of phrases, or some broken echoes of familiar
sounds, than by any selection of words to represent ideas. I read the
other day of the truck system being "rampant" in a certain district;
and every day we may meet with similar echoes of familiar words which
betray the flaccid condition of the writer's mind drooping under the
labour of expression.

Except in the rare cases of great dynamic thinkers whose thoughts are
as turning-points in the history of our race, it is by Style that
writers gain distinction, by Style they secure their immortality. In a
lower sphere many are remarked as writers although they may lay no
claim to distinction as thinkers, if they have the faculty of
felicitously expressing the ideas of others; and many who are really
remarkable as thinkers gain but slight recognition from the public,
simply because in them the faculty of expression is feeble. In
proportion as the work passes from the sphere of passionless
intelligence to that of impassioned intelligence, from the region of
demonstration to the region of emotion, the art of Style becomes more
complex, its necessity more imperious. But even in Philosophy and
Science the art is both subtle and necessary; the choice and
arrangement of the fitting symbols, though less difficult than in Art,
is quite indispensable to success. If the distinction which I formerly
drew between the Scientific and the Artistic tendencies be accepted, it
will disclose a corresponding difference in the Style which suits a
ratiocinative exposition fixing attention on abstract relations, and an
emotive exposition fixing attention on objects as related to the
feelings. We do not expect the scientific writer to stir our emotions,
otherwise than by the secondary influences which arise from our awe and
delight at the unveiling of new truths. In his own researches he should
extricate himself from the perturbing influences of emotion, and
consequently he should protect us from such suggestions in his
exposition. Feellng too often smites intellect with blindness, and
intellect too often paralyses the free play of emotion, not to call for
a decisive separation of the two. But this separation is no ground for
the disregard of Style in works, of pure demonstration--as we shall see

The Principle of Beauty is only another name for Style, which is an
art, incommunicable as are all other arts, but like them subordinated
to laws founded on psychological conditions. The laws constitute the
Philosophy of Criticism; and I shall have to ask the reader's
indulgence if for the first time I attempt to expound them
scientifically in the chapter to which the present is only an
introduction. A knowledge of these laws, even presuming them to be
accurately expounded, will no more give a writer the power of
felicitous expression than a knowledge of the laws of colour,
perspective, and proportion will enable a critic to paint a picture.
But all good writing must conform to these laws; all bad writing will
be found to violate them. And the utility of the knowledge will be that
of a constant monitor, warning the artist of the errors into which he
has slipped, or into which he may slip if unwarned.

How is it that while every one acknowledges the importance of Style,
and numerous critics from Quinctilian and Longinus down to Quarterly
Reviewers have written upon it, very little has been done towards a
satisfactory establishment of principles? Is it not partly because the
critics have seldom held the true purpose of Style steadily before
their eyes, and still seldomer justified their canons by deducing them
from psychological conditions? To my apprehension they seem to have
mistaken the real sources of influence, and have fastened attention
upon some accidental or collateral details, instead of tracing the
direct connection between effects and causes. Misled by the splendour
of some great renown they have concluded that to write like Cicero or
to paint like Titian must be the pathway to success; which is true in
one sense, and profoundly false as they understand it. One pestilent
contagious error issued from this misconception, namely, that all
maxims confirmed by the practice of the great artists must be maxims
for the art; although a close examination might reveal that the
practice of these artists may have been the result of their peculiar
individualities or of the state of culture at their epoch. A true
Philosophy of Criticism would exhibit in how far such maxims were
universal, as founded on laws of human nature, and in how far
adaptations to particular individualities. A great talent will discover
new methods. A great success ought to put us on the track of new
principles. But the fundamental laws of Style, resting on the truths of
human nature, may be illustrated, they cannot be guaranteed by any
individual success. Moreover, the strong individuality of the artist
will create special modifications of the laws to suit himself, making
that excellent or endurable which in other hands would be intolerable.
If the purpose of Literature be the sincere expression of the
individual's own ideas and feelings it is obvious that the cant about
the "best models" tends to pervert and obstruct that expression. Unless
a man thinks and feels precisely after the manner of Cicero and Titian
it is manifestly wrong for him to express himself in their way. He may
study in them the principles of effect, and try to surprise some of
their secrets, but he should resolutely shun all imitation of them.
They ought to be illustrations not authorities, studies not models.

The fallacy about models is seen at once if we ask this simple
question: Will the practice of a great writer justify a solecism in
grammar or a confusion in logic? No. Then why should it justify any
other detail not to be reconciled with universal truth? If we are
forced to invoke the arbitration of reason in the one case, we must do
so in the other. Unless we set aside the individual practice whenever
it is irreconcilable with general principles, we shall be unable to
discriminate in a successful work those merits which SECURED from those
demerits which ACCOMPANIED success. Now this is precisely the condition
in which Criticism has always been. It has been formal instead of being
psychological: it has drawn its maxims from the works of successful
artists, instead of ascertaining the psychological principles involved
in the effects of those works. When the perplexed dramatist called down
curses on the man who invented fifth acts, he never thought of escaping
from his tribulation by writing a play in four acts; the formal canon
which made five acts indispensable to a tragedy was drawn from the
practice of great dramatists, but there was no demonstration of any
psychological demand on the part of the audience for precisely five

[English critics are much less pedantic in adherence to "rules" than
the French, yet when, many years ago, there appeared a tragedy in three
acts, and without a death, these innovations were considered
inadmissible; and if the success of the work had been such as to elicit
critical discussion, the necessity of five acts and a death would
doubtless have been generally insisted on].

Although no instructed mind will for a moment doubt the immense
advantage of the stimulus and culture derived from a reverent
familiarity with the works of our great predecessors and
contemperaries, there is a pernicious error which has been fostered by
many instructed minds, rising out of their reverence for greatness and
their forgetfulness of the ends of Literature. This error is the notion
of "models," and of fixed canons drawn from the practice of great
artists. It substitutes Imitation for Invention; reproduction of old
types instead of the creation of new. There is more bad than good work
produced in consequence of the assiduous following of models. And we
shall seldom be very wide of the mark if in our estimation of youthful
productions we place more reliance on their departures from what has
been already done, than on their resemblances to the best artists. An
energetic crudity, even a riotous absurdity, has more promise in it
than a clever and elegant mediocrity, because it shows that the young
man is speaking out of his own heart, and struggling to express himself
in his own way rather than in the way he finds in other men's books.
The early works of original writers are usually very bad; then succeeds
a short interval of imitation in which the influence of some favourite
author is distinctly traceable; but this does not last long, the native
independence of the mind reasserts itself, and although perhaps
academic and critical demands are somewhat disregarded, so that the
original writer on account of his very originality receives but slight
recognition from the authorities, nevertheless if there is any real
power in the voice it soon makes itself felt in the world. There is one
word of counsel I would give to young authors, which is that they
should be humbly obedient to the truth proclaimed by their own souls,
and haughtily indifferent to the remonstrances of critics founded
solely on any departure from the truths expressed by others. It by no
means follows that because a work is unlike works that have gone before
it, therefore it is excellent or even tolerable; it may be original in
error or in ugliness; but one thing is certain, that in proportion to
its close fidelity to the matter and manner of existing works will be
its intrinsic worthlessness. And one of the severest assaults on the
fortitude of an unacknowledged writer comes from the knowledge that his
critics, with rare exceptions, will judge his work in reference to
pre-existing models, and not in reference to the ends of Literature and
the laws of human nature. He knows that he will be compared with
artists whom he ought not to resemble if his work have truth and
originality; and finds himself teased with disparaging remarks which
are really compliments in their objections. He can comfort himself by
his trust in truth and the sincerity of his own work. He may also draw
strength from the reflection that the public and posterity may
cordially appreciate the work in which constituted authorities see
nothing but failure. The history of Literature abounds in examples of
critics being entirely at fault missing the old familiar landmarks,
these guides at once set up a shout of warning that the path has been

Very noticeable is the fact that of the thousands who have devoted
years to the study of the classics, especially to the "niceties of
phrase" and "chastity of composition," so much prized in these
classics, very few have learned to write with felicity, and not many
with accuracy. Native incompetence has doubtless largely influenced
this result in men who are insensible to the nicer shades of
distinction in terms, and want the subtle sense of congruity; but the
false plan of studying "models" without clearly understanding the
psychological conditions which the effects involve, without seeing why
great writing is effective, and where it is merely individual
expression, has injured even vigorous minds and paralysed the weak.
From a similar mistake hundreds have deceived themselves in trying to
catch the trick of phrase peculiar tn some distinguished contemporary.
In vain do they imitate the Latinisms and antitheses of Johnson, the
epigrammatic sentences of Macaulay, the colloquial ease of Thackeray,
the cumulative pomp of Milton, the diffusive play of De Quincey: a few
friendly or ignorant reviewers may applaud it as "brilliant writing,"
but the public remains unmoved. It is imitation, and as such it is

We see at once the mistake directly we understand that a genuine style
is the living body of thought, not a costume that can be put on and
off; it is the expression of the writer's mind; it is not less the
incarnation of his thoughts in verbal symbols than a picture is the
painter's incarnation of his thoughts in symbols of form and colour. A
man may, if it please him, dress his thoughts in the tawdry splendour
of a masquerade. But this is no more Literature than the masquerade is

No Style can be good that is not slncere. It must be the expression of
its author's mind. There are, of course, certain elements of
composition which must be mastered as a dancer learns his steps, but
the style of the writer, like the grace of the dancer, is only made
effective by such mastery; it springs from a deeper source. Initiation
into the rules of construction will save us from some gross errors of
composltion, but it will not make a style. Still less will imitation of
another's manner make one. In our day there are many who imitate
Macaulay's short sentences, iterations, antitheses, geographical and
historical illustrations, and eighteenth century diction, but who
accepts them as Macaulays? They cannot seize the secret of his charm,
because that charm lies in the felicity of his talent, not in the
structure of his sentences; in the fulness of his knowledge, not in the
character of his illustrations. Other men aim at ease and vigour by
discarding Latinisms, and admitting colloquialisms; but vigour and ease
are not to be had on recipe. No study of models, no attention to rules,
will give the easy turn, the graceful phrase, the simple word, the
fervid movement, or the large clearness; a picturesque talent will
express itself in concrete images; a genial nature will smile in
pleasant firms and inuendos; a rapid, unhesitating, imperious mind will
deliver its quick incisive phrases; a full deliberating mind will
overflow in ample paragraphs laden with the weight of parentheses and
qualifying suggestions. The style which is good in one case would be
vicious in another. The broken rhythm which increases the energy of one
style would ruin the LARGO of another. Both are excellencies where both
are natural.

We are always disagreeably impressed by an obvious imitation of the
manner of another, because we feel it to be an insincerity, and also
because it withdraws our attention from the thing said, to the way of
saying it. And here lies the great lesson writers have to
learn--namely, that they should think of the immediate purpose of their
writing, which is to convey truths and emotions, in symbols and images,
intelligible and suggestive. The racket-player keeps his eye on the
ball he is to strike, not on the racket with which he strikes. If the
writer sees vividly, and will say honestly what he sees, and how he
sees it, he may want something of the grace and felicity of other men,
but he will have all the strength and felicity with which nature has
endowed him. More than that he cannot attain, and he will fall very
short of it in snatching at the grace which is another's. Do what he
will, he cannot escape from the infirmities of his own mind: the
affectation, arrogance, ostentation, hesitation, native in the man will
taint his style, no matter how closely he may copy the manner of
another. For evil and for good, LE STYLE EST DE L'HOMME MEME.

The French critics, who are singularly servile to all established
reputations, and whose unreasoning idolatry of their own classics is
one of the reasons why their Literature is not richer, are fond of
declaring with magisterial emphasis that the rules of good taste and
the canons of style were fixed once and for ever by their great writers
in the seventeenth century. The true ambition of every modern is said
to be by careful study of these models to approach (though with no hope
of equalling) their chastity and elegance. That a writer of the
nineteenth century should express himself in the manner which was
admirable in the seventeenth is an absurdity which needs only to be
stated. It is not worth refuting. But it never presents itself thus to
the French. In their minds it is a lingering remnant of that older
superstition which believed the Ancients to have discovered all wisdom,
so that if we could only surprise the secret of Aristotle's thoughts
and clearly comprehend the drift of Plato's theories (which unhappily
was not clear) we should compass all knowledge. How long this
superstition lasted cannot accurately be settled; perhaps it is not
quite extinct even yet; but we know how little the most earnest
students succeeded in surprising the secrets of the universe by reading
Greek treatises, and how much by studying the universe itself.
Advancing Science daily discredits the superstition; yet the advance of
Criticism has not yet wholly discredited the parallel superstition in
Art. The earliest thinkers are no longer considered the wisest, but the
earliest artists are still proclaimed the finest. Even those who do not
believe in this superiority are, for the most part, overawed by
tradition and dare not openly question the supremacy of works which in
their private convictions hold a very subordinate rank. And this
reserve is encouraged by the intemperate scorn of those who question
the supremacy without having the knowledge or the sympathy which could
fairly appreciate the earlier artists. Attacks on the classics by men
ignorant of the classical languages tend to perpetuate the superstition.

But be the merit of the classics, ancient and modern, what it may, no
writer can become a classic by imitating them. The principle of
Sincerity here ministers to the principle of Beauty by forbidding
imitation and enforcing rivalry. Write what you can, and if you have
the grace of felicitous expression or the power of energetic expression
your style will be admirable and admired. At any rate see that it be
your own, and not another's; on no other terms will the world listen to
it. You cannot be eloquent by borrowing from the opulence of another;
you cannot be humorous by mimicking the whims of another; what was a
pleasant smile dimpling his features becomes a grimace on yours.

It will not be supposed that I would have the great writers
disregardod, as if nothing were to be learned from them; but the study
of great writers should be the study of general principles as
illustrated or revealed in these writers; and if properly pursued it
will of itself lead to a condemnation of the notion of models. What we
may learn from them is a nice discrimination of the symbols which
intelligibly express the shades of meaning and kindle emotion. The
writer wishes to give his thoughts a literary form. This is for others,
not for himself; consequently he must, before all things, desire to be
intelligible, and to be so he must adapt his expressions to the mental
condition of his audience. If he employs arbitrary symbols, such as old
words in new and unexpected senses, he may be clear as daylight to
himself, but to others, dark as fog. And the difficulty of original
writing lies in this, that what is new and individual must find
expression in old symbols. This difficulty can only be mastered by a
peculiar talent, strengthened and rendered nimble by practice, and the
commerce with original minds. Great writers should be our companions if
we would learn to write greatly; but no familiarity with their manner
will supply the place of native endowment. Writers are born, no less
than poets, and like poets, they learn to make their native gifts
effective. Practice, aiding their vigilant sensibility, teaches them,
perhaps unconsciously, certain methods of effective presentation, how
one arrangement of words carries with it more power than another, how
familiar and concrete expressions are demanded in one place, and in
another place abstract expressions unclogged with disturbing
suggestions. Every author thus silently amasses a store of empirical
rules, furnished by his own practice, and confirmed by the practice of
others. A true Philosophy of Criticism would reduce these empirical
rules to science by ranging them under psychological laws, thus
demonstrating the validity of the rules, not in virtue of their having
been employed by Cicero or Addison, by Burke or Sydney Smith, but in
virtue of their conformity with the constancies of human nature.

The importance of Style is generally unsuspected by philosophers and
men of science, who are quite aware of its advantage in all departments
of BELLES LETTRES; and if you allude in their presence to the
deplorably defective presentation of the ideas in some work
distinguished for its learning, its profundity or its novelty, it is
probable that you will be despised as a frivolous setter up of manner
over matter, a light-minded DILLETANTE, unfitted for the simple
austerities of science. But this is itself a light-minded contempt; a
deeper insight would change the tone, and help to remove the
disgraceful slovenliness and feebleness of composition which deface the
majority of grave works, except those written by Frenchmen, who have
been taught that composition is an art and that no writer may neglect
it. In England and Germany, men who will spare no labour in research,
grudge all labour in style; a morning is cheerfully devoted to
verifying a quotation, by one who will not spare ten minutes to
reconstruct a clumsy sentence; a reference is sought with ardour, an
appropriate expression in lleu of the inexact phrase which first
suggests itself does not seem worth seeking. What are we to say to a
man who spends a quarter's income on a diamond pin which he sticks in a
greasy cravat? A man who calls public attention on him, and appears in
a slovenly undress? Am I to bestow applause on some insignificant
parade of erudition, and withhold blame from the stupidities of style
which surround it?

Had there been a clear understanding of Style as the living body of
thought, and not its "dress," which might be more or less ornamental,
the error I am noticing would not have spread so widely. But,
naturally, when men regarded the grace of style as mere grace of
manner, and not as the delicate precision giving form and relief to
matter--as mere ornament, stuck on to arrest incurious eyes, and not as
effective expression--their sense of the deeper value of matter made
them despise such aid. A clearer conception would have rectified this
error. The matter is confluent with the manner; and only THROUGH the
style can thought reach the reader's mind. If the manner is involved,
awkward, abrupt, obscure, the reader will either be oppressed with a
confused sense of cumbrous material which awaits an artist to give it
shape, or he will have the labour thrown upon him of extricating the
material and reshaping it in his own mind.

How entirely men misconceive the relation of style to thought may be
seen in the replies they make when their writing is objected to, or in
the ludicrous attempts of clumsy playfulness and tawdry eloquence when
they wish to be regarded as writers.

"Le style le moins noble a pourtant sa noblesse,"

and the principle of Sincerity, not less than the suggestions of taste,
will preserve the integrity of each style. A philosopher, an
investigator, an historian, or a moralist so far from being required to
present the graces of a wit, an essayist, a pamphleteer, or a novelist,
would be warned off such ground by the necessity of expressing himself
sincerely. Pascal, Biot, Buffon, or Laplace are examples of the
clearness and beauty with which ideas may be presented wearing all the
graces of fine literature, and losing none of the severity of science.
Bacon, also, having an opulent and active intellect, spontaneously
expressed himself in forms of various excellence. But what a pitiable
contrast is presented by Kant! It is true that Kant having a much
narrower range of sensibility could have no such ample resource of
expression, and he was wise in not attempting to rival the splendour of
the NOVUM ORGANUM; but he was not simply unwise, he was extremely
culpable in sending forth his thoughts as so much raw material which
the public was invited to put into shape as it could. Had he been aware
that much of his bad writing was imperfect thinking, and always
imperfect adaptation of means to ends, he might have been induced to
recast it into more logical and more intelligible sentences, which
would have stimulated the reader's mind as much as they now oppress it.
Nor had Kant the excuse of a subject too abstruse for clear
presentation. The examples of Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, and Hume are
enough to show how such subjects can be mastered, and the very
implication of writing a book is that the writer has mastered his
material and can give it intelligible form.

A grave treatise, dealing with a narrow range of subjects or moving
amid severe abstractions, demands a gravity and severity of style which
is dissimilar to that demanded by subjects of a wider scope or more
impassioned impulse; but abstract philosophy has its appropriate
elegance no less than mathematics. I do not mean that each subject
should necessarily be confined to one special mode of treatment, in the
sense which was understood when people spoke of the "dignity of
history," and so forth. The style must express the writer's mind; and
as variously constituted minds will treat one and the same subject,
there will be varieties in their styles. If a severe thinker be also a
man of wit, like Bacon, Hobbes, Pascal, or Galileo, the wit will flash
its sudden illuminations on the argument; but if he be not a man of
wit, and condescends to jest under the impression that by jesting he is
giving an airy grace to his argument, we resent it as an impertinence.

I have throughout used Style in the narrower sense of expression rather
than in the wider sense of "treatment" which is sometimes affixed to
it. The mode of treating a subject is also no doubt the writer's or the
artist's way of expressing what is in his mind, but this is Style in
the more general sense, and does not admit of being reduced to laws
apart from those of Vision and Sincerity. A man necessarily sees a
subject in a particular light--ideal or grotesque, familiar or
fanciful, tragic or humorous, he may wander into fairy-land, or move
amid representative abstractions; he may follow his wayward fancy in
its grotesque combinations, or he may settle down amid the homeliest
details of daily life. But having chosen he must be true to his choice.
He is not allowed to represent fairy-land as if it resembled Walworth,
nor to paint Walworth in the colours of Venice. The truth of
consistency must be preserved in his treatment, truth in art meaning of
course only truth within the limits of the art; thus the painter may
produce the utmost relief he can by means of light and shade, but is
peremptorily forbidden to use actual solidities on a plane surface. He
must represent gold by colour, not by sticking gold on his fIgures.
[This was done with naivete by the early painters, and is really very
effective in the pictures of Gentile da Fabriano--that Paul Veronese of
the fifteenth century--as the reader will confess if he has seen the
"Adoration of the Magi," in the Florence Academy; but it could not be
tolerated now]. Our applause is greatly determined by our sense of
difficulty overcome, and to stick gold on a picture is an avoidance of
the difficulty of painting it.

Truth of presentation has an inexplicable charm for us, and throws a
halo round even ignoble objects. A policeman idly standing at the
corner of the street, or a sow lazily sleeping against the sun, are not
in nature objects to excite a thrill of delight, but a painter may, by
the cunning of his art, represent them so as to delight every
spectator. The same objects represented by an inferior painter will
move only a languid interest; by a still more inferior painter they may
be represented so as to please none but the most uncultivated eye. Each
spectator is charmed in proportion to his recognition of a triumph over
difficulty which is measured by the degree of verisimilitude. The
degrees are many. In the lowest the pictured object is so remote from
the reality that we simply recognise what the artist meant to
represent. In like manner we recognise in poor novels and dramas what
the authors mean to be characters, rather than what our experience of
life suggests as characteristic.

Not only do we apportion our applause according to the degree of
versimilitude attained, but also according to the difficulty each
involves. It is a higher difficulty, and implies a nobler art to
represent the movement and complexity of life and emotion than to catch
the fixed lineaments of outward aspect. To paint a policeman idly
lounging at the street corner with such verisimilitude that we are
pleased with the representation, admiring the solidity of the figure,
the texture of the clothes, and the human aspect of the features, is so
difficult that we loudly applaud the skill which enables an artist to
imitate what in itself is uninteresting; and if the imitation be
carried to a certain degree of verisimilitude the picture may be of
immense value. But no excellence of representation can make this high
art. To carry it into the region of high art, another and far greater
difficulty must be overcome; the man must be represented under the
strain of great emotion, and we must recognise an equal truthfulness in
the subtle indications of great mental agitation, the fleeting
characters of which are far less easy to observe and to reproduce, than
the stationary characters of form and costume. We may often observe how
the novelist or dramatist has tolerable success so long as his
personages are quiet, or moved only by the vulgar motives of ordinary
life, and how fatally uninteresting, because unreal, these very
personages become as soon as they are exhibited under the stress of
emotion: their language ceases at once to be truthful, and becomes
stagey; their conduct is no longer recognisable as that of human beings
such as we have known. Here we note a defect of treatment, a mingling
of styles, arising partly from defect of vision, and partly from an
imperfect sincerity; and success in art will always be found dependent
on integrity of style. The Dutch painters, so admirable in their own
style, would become pitiable on quitting it for a higher.

But I need not enter at any length upon this subject of treatment.
Obviously a work must have charm or it cannot succeed; and the charm
will depend on very complex conditions in the artist's mind. What
treatment is in Art, composition is in Philosophy. The general
conception of the point of view, and the skilful distribution of the
masses, so as to secure the due preparation, development, and
culmination, without wasteful prodigality or confusing want of
symmetry, constitute Composition, which is to the structure of a
treatise what Style--in the narrower sense--is to the structure of
sentences. How far Style is reducible to law will be examined in the
next chapter.



From what was said in the preceding chapter, the reader will understand
that our present inquiry is only into the laws which regulate the
mechanism of Style. In such an analysis all that constitutes the
individuality, the life, the charm of a great writer, must escape. But
we may dissect Style, as we dissect an organism, and lay bare the
fundamental laws by which each is regulated. And this analogy may
indicate the utility of our attempt; the grace and luminousness of a
happy talent will no more be acquired by a knowledge of these laws,
than the force and elasticity of a healthy organism will be given by a
knowledge of anatomy; but the mistakes in Style, and the diseases of
the organism, may be often avoided, and sometimes remedied, by such

On a subject like this, which has for many years engaged the researches
of many minds, I shall not be expected to bring forward discoveries;
indeed, novelty would not unjustly be suspected of fallacy. The only
claim my exposition can have on the reader's attention is that of being
an attempt to systematise what has been hitherto either empirical
observation, or the establishment of critical rules on a false basis. I
know but of one exception to this sweeping censure, and that is the
essay on the Philosophy of Style, by Mr. Herbert Spencer, [Spencer's
where for the first time, I believe, the right method was pursued of
seeking in psychological conditions for the true laws of expression.

The aims of Literature being instruction and delight, Style must in
varying degrees appeal to our intellect and our sensibilities,
sometimes reaching the intellect through the presentation of simple
ideas, and at others through the agitating influence of emotions;
sometimes awakening the sensibilities through the reflexes of ideas,
and sometimes through a direct appeal. A truth may be nakedly expressed
so as to stir the intellect alone; or it may be expressed in terms
which, without disturbing its clearness, may appeal to our sensibility
by their harmony or energy. It is not possible to distinguish the
combined influences of clearness, movement, and harmony, so as to
assign to each its relative effect; and if in the ensuing pages one law
is isolated from another, this must be understood as an artifice
inevitable in such investigations.

There are five laws under which all the conditions of Style may be
grouped.--1. The Law of Economy. 2. The Law of Simplicity. 3. The Law
of Sequence. 4, The Law of Climax. 5. The Law of Variety.

It would be easy to reduce these five to three, and range all
considerations under Economy, Climax, and Variety; or we might amplify
the divisions; but there are reasons of convenience as well as symmetry
which give a preference to the five. I had arranged them thus for
convenience some years ago, and I now find they express the equivalence
of the two great factors of Style---Intelligence and Sensibility. Two
out of the five, Economy and Simplicity, more specially derive their
significance from intellectual needs; another two, Climax and Variety,
from emotional needs; and between these is the Law of Sequence, which
is intermediate in its nature, and may be claimed with equal justice by
both. The laws of force and the laws of pleasure can only be
provisionally isolated in our inquiry; in style they are blended. The
following brief estimate of each considers it as an isolated principle
undetermined by any other.


Our inquiry is scientific, not empirical; it therefore seeks the
psychological basis for every law, endeavouring to ascertain what
condition of a reader's receptivity determines the law. Fortunately for
us, in the case of the first and most important law the psychological
basis is extremely simple, and may be easily appreciated by a reference
to its analogue in Mechanics.

What is the first object of a machine? Effective work--VIS VIVA. Every
means by which friction can be reduced, and the force thus economised
be rendered available, necessarily solicits the constructor's care. He
seeks as far as possible to liberate the motion which is absorbed in
the working of the machine, and to use it as VIS VIVA. He knows that
every superfluous detail, every retarding influence, is at the cost of
so much power, and is a mechanical defect though it may perhaps be an
aesthetic beauty or a practical convenience. He may retain it because
of the beauty, because of the convenience, but he knows the price of
effective power at which it is obtained.

And thus it stands with Style. The first object of a writer is
effective expression, the power of communicating distinct thoughts and
emotional suggestions. He has to overcome the friction of ignorance and
pre-occupation. He has to arrest a wandering attention, and to clear
away the misconceptions which cling around verbal symbols. Words are
not llke iron and wood, coal and water, invariable in their properties,
calculable in their effects. They are mutable in their powers, deriving
force and subtle variations of force from very trifling changes of
position; colouring and coloured by the words which precede and
succeed; significant or insignificant from the powers of rhythm and
cadence. It is the writer's art so to arrange words that they shall
suffer the least possible retardation from the inevitable friction of
the reader's mind. The analogy of a machine is perfect. In both cases
the object is to secure the maximum of disposable force, by diminishing
the amount absorbed in the working. Obviously, if a reader is engaged
in extricating the meaning from a sentence which ought to have
reflected its meaning as in a mirror, the mental energy thus employed
is abstracted from the amount of force which he has to bestow on the
subject; he has mentally to form anew the sentence which has been
clumsily formed by the writer; he wastes, on interpretation of the
symbols, force which might have been concentrated on meditation of the
propositions. This waste is inappreciable in writing of ordinary
excellence, and on subjects not severely tasking to the attention; but
if inappreciable, it is always waste; and in bad writing, especially on
topics of philosophy and science, the waste is important. And it is
this which greatly narrows the circle for serious works. Interest in
the subjects treated of may not be wanting; but the abundant energy is
wanting which to the fatigue of consecutive thinking will add the
labour of deciphering the language. Many of us are but too familiar
with the fatigue of reconstructing unwieldy sentences in which the
clauses are not logically dependent, nor the terms free from equivoque;
we know what it is to have to hunt for the meaning hidden in a maze of
words; and we can understand the yawning indifference which must soon
settle upon every reader of such writing, unless he has some strong
external impulse or abundant energy.

Economy dictates that the meaning should be presented in a form which
claims the least possible attention to itself as form, unless when that
form is part of the writer's object, and when the simple thought is
less important than the manner of presenting it. And even when the
manner is playful or impassioned, the law of Economy still presides,
and insists on the rejection of whatever is superfluous. Only a
delicate susceptibility can discriminate a superfluity in passages of
humour or rhetoric; but elsewhere a very ordinary understanding can
recognise the clauses and the epithets which are out of place, and in
excess, retarding or confusing the direct appreciation of the thought.
If we have written a clumsy or confused sentence, we shall often find
that the removal of an awkward inversion liberates the ides, or that
the modification of a cadence increases the effect. This is sometimes
strikingly seen at the rehearsal of a play: a passage which has fallen
flat upon the ear is suddenly brightened into effectiveness by the
removal of a superfluous phrase, which, by its retarding influence, had
thwarted the declamatory crescendo.

Young writers may learn something of the secrets of Economy by careful
revision of their own compositions, and by careful dissection of
passages selected both from good and bad writers. They have simply to
strike out every word, every clause, and every sentence, the removal of
which will not carry away any of the constituent elements of the
thought. Having done this, let them compare the revised with the
unrevised passages, and see where the excision has improved, and where
it has injured, the effect. For Economy, although a primal law, is not
the only law of Style. It is subject to various limitations from the
pressure of other laws; and thus the removal of a trifling superfluity
will not be justified by a wise economy if that loss entails a
dissonance, or prevents a climax, or robs the expression of its ease
and variety. Economy is rejection of whatever is superfluous; it is not
Miserliness. A liberal expenditure is often the best economy, and is
always so when dictated by a generous impulse, not by a prodigal
carelessness or ostentatious vanity. That man would greatly err who
tried to make his style effective by stripping it of all redundancy and
ornament, presenting it naked before the indifferent public. Perhaps
the very redundancy which he lops away might have aided the reader to
see the thought more clearly, because it would have kept the thought a
little longer before his mind, and thus prevented him from hurrying on
to the next while this one was still imperfectly conceived.

As a general rule, redundancy is injurious; and the reason of the rule
will enable us to discriminate when redundancy is injurious and when
beneficial. It is injurious when it hampers the rapid movement of the
reader's mind, diverting his attention to some collateral detail. But
it is beneficial when its retarding influence is such as only to detain
the mind longer on the thought, and thus to secure the fuller effect of
the thought. For rapid reading is often imperfect reading. The mind is
satisfied with a glimpse of that which it ought to have steadily
contemplated; and any artifice by which the thought can be kept long
enough before the mind, may indeed be a redundancy as regards the
meaning, but is an economy of power. Thus we see that the phrase or the
clause which we might be tempted to lop away because it threw no light
upon the proposition, would be retained by a skilful writer because it
added power. You may know the character of a redundancy by this one
test: does it divert the attention, or simply retard it? The former is
always a loss of power; the latter is sometlmes a gain of power. The
art of the writer consists in rejecting all redundancies that do not
conduce to clearness. The shortest sentences are not necessarily the
clearest. Concision gives energy, but it also adds restraint. The
labour of expanding a terse sentence to its full meaning is often
greater than the labour of picking out the meaning from a diffuse and
loitering passage. Tacitus is more tiresome than Cicero.

There are occasions when the simplest and fewest words surpass in
effect all the wealth of rhetorical amplification. An example may be
seen in the passage which has been a favourite illustration from the
days of Longinus to our own. "God said: Let there be light! and there
was light." This is a conception of power so calm and simple that it
needs only to be presented in the fewest and the plainest words, and
would be confused or weakened by any suggestion of accessories. Let us
amplify the expression in the redundant style of miscalled eloquent
writers: "God, in the magnificent fulness of creative energy,
exclaimed: Let there be light! and lo! the agitating fiat immediately
went forth, and thus in one indivisible moment the whole universe was
illumlned." We have here a sentence which I am certain many a writer
would, in secret, prefer to the masterly plainness of Genesis. It is
not a sentence which would have captivated critics.

Although this sentence from Genesis is sublime in its simplicity, we
are not to conclude that simple sentences are uniformly the best, or
that a style composed of propositions briefly expressed would obey a
wise Economy. The reader's pleasure must not be forgotten; and he
cannot be pleased by a style which always leaps and never flows. A
harsh, abrupt, and dislocated manner irritates and perplexes him by its
sudden jerks. It is easier to write short sentences than to read them.
An easy, fluent, and harmonious phrase steals unobtrusively upon the
mind, and allows the thought to expand quietly like an opening flower.
But the very suasiveness of harmonious writing needs to be varied lest
it become a drowsy monotony; and the sharp short sentences which are
intolerable when abundant, when used sparingly act like a trumpet-call
to the drooping attention.


The first obligation of Economy is that of using the fewest words to
secure the fullest effect. It rejects whatever is superfluous; but the
question of superfluity must, as I showed just now, be determined in
each individual case by various conditions too complex and numerous to
be reduced within a formula. The same may be said of Simplicity, which
is indeed so intimately allied with Economy that I have only given it a
separate station for purposes of convenience. The psychological basis
is the same for both. The desire for simplicity is impatience at
superfluity, and the impatience arises from a sense of hindrance.

The first obligation of Simplicity is that of using the simplest means
to secure the fullest effect. But although the mind instinctlvely
rejects all needless complexity, we shall greatly err if we fail to
recognise the fact, that what the mind recoils from is not the
complexity, but the needlessness. When two men are set to the work of
one, there is a waste of means; when two phrases are used to express
one meaning twice, there is a waste of power; when incidents are
multiplied and illustrations crowded without increase of illumination,
there is prodigality which only the vulgar can mistake for opulence.
Simplicity is a relative term. If in sketching the head of a man the
artist wishes only to convey the general characteristics of that head,
the fewest touches show the greatest power, selecting as they do only
those details which carry with them characteristic significance. The
means are simple, as the effect is simple. But if, besides the general
characteristics, he wishes to convey the modelling of the forms, the
play of light and shade, the textures, and the very complex effect of a
human head, he must use more complex means. The simplicity which was
adequate in the one case becomes totally inadequate in the other.

Obvious as this is, it has not been sufficiently present to the mind of
critics who have called for plain, familiar, and concrete diction, as
if that alone could claim to be simple; who have demanded a style
unadorned by the artifices of involution, cadence, imagery, and
epigram, as if Simplicity were incompatible with these; and have
praised meagreness, mistaking it for Simplicity. Saxon words are words
which in their homeliness have deep-seated power, and in some places
they are the simplest because the most powerful words we can employ;
but their very homeliness excludes them from certain places where their
very power of suggestion is a disturbance of the general effect. The
selective instinct of the artist tells him when his language should be
homely, and when it should be more elevated; and it is precisely in the
imperceptible blending of the plain with the ornate that a great writer
is distinguished. He uses the simplest phrases without triviality, and
the grandest without a suggestion of grandiloquence.

Simplicity of Style will therefore be understood as meaning absence of
needless superfluity:

"Without o'erflowing full."

Its plainness is never meagreness, but unity. Obedient to the primary
impulse of ADEQUATE expression, the style of a complex subject should
be complex; of a technical subject, technical; of an abstract subject,
abstract; of a familiar subject, familiar; of a pictorial subject,
picturesque. The structure of the "Antigone" is simple; but so also is
the structure of "Othello," though it contains many more elements; the
simplicity of both lies in their fulness without superfluity.

Whatever is outside the purpose, or the feeling, of a scene, a speech,
a sentence, or a phrase, whatever may be omitted without sacrifice of
effect, is a sin against this law. I do not say that the incident,
description, or dialogue, which may be omitted without injury to the
unity of the work, is necessarily a sin against art; still less that,
even when acknowledged as a sin, it may not sometimes be condoned by
its success. The law of Simplicity is not the only law of art; and,
moreover, audiences are, unhappily, so little accustomed to judge works
as wholes, and so ready to seize upon any detail which pleases them, no
matter how incongruously the detail may be placed,

["Was hilft's, wenn ihr ein Ganzes dargebracht!
Das I'ublicum wird es euch doch zerpfiucken."--GOETHE].

that a felicitous fault will captivate applause, let critics shake
reproving heads as they may. Nevertheless the law of Simplicity remains
unshaken, and ought only to give way to the pressure of the law of

The drama offers a good opportunity for studying the operation of this
law, because the limitations of time compel the dramatist to attend
closely to what is and what is not needful for his purpose. A drama
must compress into two or three hours material which may be diffused
through three volumes of a novel, because spectators are more impatient
than readers, and more unequivocally resent by their signs of weariness
any disregard of economy, which in the novel may be skipped. The
dramatist having little time in which to evolve his story, feels that
every scene which does not forward the progress of the action or
intensify the interest in the characters is an artistic defect; though
in itself it may be charmingly written, and may excite applause, it is
away from his immediate purpose. And what is true of purposeless scenes
and characters which divert the current of progress, is equally true,
in a minor degree, of speeches and sentences which arrest the
culminating interest by calling attention away to other objects. It is
an error which arises from a deficient earnestness on the writer's
part, or from a too pliant facility. The DRAMATIS PERSONAE wander in
their dialogue, not swayed by the fluctuations of feeling, but by the
author's desire to show his wit and wisdom, or else by his want of
power to control the vagrant suggestions of his fancy. The desire for
display and the inability to control are weaknesses that lead to almost
every transgression of Simplicity; but sometimes the transgressions are
made in more or less conscious obedience to the law of Variety,
although the highest reach of art is to secure variety by an opulent

The novelist is not under the same limitations of time, nor has he
to contend against the same mental impatience on the part of his
public. He may therefore linger where the dramatist must hurry; he may
digress, and gain fresh impetus from the digression, where the
dramatist would seriously endanger the effect of his scene by retarding
its evolution. The novelist with a prudent prodigality may employ
descriptions, dialogues, and episodes, which would be fatal in a drama.
Characters may be introduced and dismissed without having any important
connection with the plot; it is enough if they serve the purpose of the
chapter in which they appear. Although as a matter of fine art no
character should have a place in a novel unless it form an integral
element of the story, and no episode should be introduced unless it
reflects some strong light on the characters or incidents, this is a
critical demand which only fine artists think of satisfying, and only
delicate tastes appreciate. For the mass of readers it is enough if
they are mused; and indeed all readers, no matter how critical their
taste, would rather be pleased by a transgression of the law than
wearied by prescription. Delight condones offence. The only question
for the writer is, whether the offence is so trivial as to be submerged
in the delight. And he will do well to remember that the greater
flexibility belonging to the novel by no means removes the novel from
the laws which rule the drama. The parts of a novel should have organic
relations. Push the licence to excess, and stitch together a volume of
unrelated chapters,--a patchwork of descriptions, dialogues, and
incidents,--no one will call that a novel; and the less the work has of
this unorganised character the greater will be its value, not only in
the eyes of critics, but in its effect on the emotions of the reader.

Simplicity of structure means organic unity, whether the organism be
simple or complex; and hence in all times the emphasis which critics
have laid upon Simplicity, though they have not unfrequently confounded
it with narrowness of range. In like manner, as we said just now, when
treating of diction they have overlooked the fact that the simplest
must be that which best expresses the thought. Simplicity of diction is
integrity of speech; that which admits of least equivocation, that
which by the clearest verbal symbols most readily calls up in the
reader's mind the images and feelings which the writer wishes to call
up. Such diction may be concrete or abstract, familiar or technical;
its simplicity is determined by the nature of the thought. We shall
often be simpler in using abstract and technical terms than in using
concrete and familiar terms which by their very concreteness and
familiarity call up images and feelings foreign to our immediate
purpose. If we desire the attention to fall upon some general idea we
only blur its outlines by using words that call up particulars. Thus,
although it may be needful to give some definite direction to the
reader's thoughts by the suggestion of a particular fact, we must be
careful not to arrest his attention on the fact itself, still less to
divert it by calling up vivid images of facts unrelated to our present
purpose. For example, I wish to fix in the reader's mind a conception
of a lonely meditative man walking on the sea-shore, and I fall into
the vicious style of our day which is lauded as word-painting, and
write something like this :--

"The fishermen mending their storm-beaten boats upon the shore would
lay down the hammer to gaze after him as he passed abstractedly before
their huts, his hair streaming in the salt breeze, his feet crushing
the scattered seaweed, his eyes dreamily fixed upon the purple heights
of the precipitous crags."

Now it is obvious that the details here assembled are mostly foreign to
my purpose, which has nothing whatever to do with fishermen, storms,
boats, sea-weeds, or purple crags; and by calling up images of these I
only divert the attention from my thought. Whereas, if it had been my
purpose to picture the scene itself, or the man's delight in it, then
the enumeration of details would give colour and distinctness to the

The art of a great writer is seen in the perfect fitness of his
expressions. He knows how to blend vividness with vagueness, knows
where images are needed, and where by their vivacity they would be
obstacles to the rapid appreciation of his thought. The value of
concrete illustration artfully used may be seen illustrated in a
passage from Macaulay's invective against Frederick the Great: "On his
head is all the blood which was shod in a war which raged during many
years and in every quarter of the globe, the blood of the column at
Fentonoy, the blood of the mountaineers who were slaughtered at
Culloden. The evils produced by his wickedness were felt in lands where
the name of Prussia was unknown; and in order that he might rob a
neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast
of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of
North America." Disregarding the justice or injustice of the thought,
note the singular force and beauty of this passage, delightful alike to
ear and mind; and observe how its very elaborateness has the effect of
the finest simplicity, because the successive pictures are constituents
of the general thought, and by their vividness render the conclusion
more impressive. Let us suppose him to have wrltten with the vague
generality of expression much patronised by dignified historians, and
told us that "Frederick was the cause of great European conflicts
extending over long periods; and in consequence of his political
aggression hideous crimes were perpetrated in the most distant parts of
the globe." This absence of concrete images would not have been
simplicity, inasmuch as the labour of converting the general
expressions into definite meanings would thus have been thrown upon the

Pictorial illustration has its dangers, as we daily see in the clumsy
imitators of Macaulay, who have not the fine instinct of style, but
obey the vulgar instinct of display, and imagine they can produce a
brilliant effect by the use of strong lights, whereas they distract the
attention with images alien to the general impression, just as crude
colourists vex the eye with importunate splendours. Nay, even good
writers sometimes sacrifice the large effect of a diffusive light to
the small effect of a brilliant point. This is a defect of taste
frequently noticeable in two very good writers, De Quincey and Ruskin,
whose command of expression is so varied that it tempts them into
FIORITURA as flexibility of voice tempts singers to sin against
simplicity. At the close of an eloquent passage De Quincey writes :--

"Gravitation that works without holiday for ever and searches every
corner of the universe, what intellect can follow it to its fountains?
And yet, shyer than gravitation, less to be counted on than the
fluxions of sun-dials, stealthier than the growth of a forest, are the
footsteps of Christianity amongst the political workings of man."

The association of holidays and shyness with an idea so abstract as
that of gravitation, the use of the learned word fluxions to express
the movements of the shadows on a dial, and the discordant suggestion
of stealthiness applied to vegetable growth and Christianity, are so
many offences against simplicity. Let the passage be contrasted with
one in which wealth of imagery is in accordance with the thought it

"In the edifices of man there should be found reverent worship and
following, not only of the spirit which rounds the pillars of the
forest, and arches the vault of the avenue--which gives veining to the
leaf and polish to the shell, and grace to every pulse that agitates
animal organisation but of that also which reproves the pillars of the
earth, and builds up her barren precipices into the coldness of the
clouds, and lifts her shadowy cones of mountain purple into the pale
arch of the sky; for these and other glories more than these refuse not
to connect themselves in his thoughts with the work of his own hand;
the grey cliff loses not its nobleness when it reminds us of some
Cyclopoan waste of mural stone; the pinnacles of the rocky promontory
arrange themselves, undegraded, into fantastic semblances of fortress
towns; and even the awful cone of the far-off mountain has a melancholy
mixed with that of its own solitude, which is cast from the images of
nameless tumuli on white sea-shores, and of the heaps of reedy clay
into which chambered cities melt in their mortality." [Ruskin].

I shall notice but two points in this singularly beautiful passage. The
one is the exquisite instinct of Sequence in several of the phrases,
not only as to harmony, but as to the evolution of the meaning,
especially in "builds up her barren precipices into the coldness of the
clouds, and lifts her shadowy cones of mountain purple into the pale
arch of the sky." The other is the injurious effect of three words in
the sentence, "for these and other glories more than these REFUSE NOT
TO connect themselves in his thoughts." Strike out the words printed in
italics, and you not only improve the harmony, but free the sentence
from a disturbing use of what Ruskin has named the "pathetic fallacy."
There are times in which Nature may be assumed as in sympathy with our
moods; and at such times the pathetic fallacy is a source of subtle
effect. But in the passage just quoted the introduction seems to me a
mistake: the simplicity of the thought is disturbed by this hint of an
active participation of Nature in man's feelings; it is preserved in
its integrity by the omission of that hint.

These illustrations will suffice to show how the law we are considering
will command and forbid the use of concrete expressions and vivid
imagery according to the purpose of the writer. A fine taste guided by
Sincerity will determine that use. Nothing more than a general rule can
be laid down. Eloquence, as I said before, cannot spring from the
simple desire to be eloquent; the desire usually leads to
grandiloquence. But Sincerity will save us. We have but to remember
Montesquieu's advice: "Il faut prendre garde aux grandes phrases dans
les humbles sujets; elles produisent l'effet d'une masque a barbe
blanche sur la joue d'un enfant."

Here another warning may be placed. In our anxiety lest we err on the
side of grandiloquence we may perhaps fall into the opposite error of
tameness. Sincerity will save us here also. Let us but express the
thought and feeling actually in our minds, then our very grandiloquence
(if that is our weakness) will have a certain movement and vivacity not
without effect, and our tameness (if we are tame) will have a
gentleness not without its charm.

Finally, let us banish from our critical superstitions the notion that
chastity of composition, or simplicity of Style, is in any respect
allied to timidity. There are two kinds of timidity, or rather it has
two different origins, both of which cripple the free movement of
thought. The one is the timidity of fastidiousness, the other of placid
stupidity: the one shrinks from originality lest it should be regarded
as impertinent; the other lest, being new, it should be wrong. We
detect the one in the sensitive discreetness of the style. We detect
the other in the complacency of its platitudes and the stereotyped
commonness of its metaphors. The writer who is afraid of originality
feels himself in deep water when he launches into a commonplace. For
him who is timid because weak, there is no advice, except suggesting
the propriety of silence. For him who is timid because fastidious,
there is this advice: get rid of the superstition about chastity, and
recognise the truth that a style may be simple, even if it move amid
abstractions, or employ few Saxon words, or abound in concrete images
and novel turns of expression.


Much that might be included under this head would equally well find its
place under that of Economy or that of Climax. Indeed it is obvious
that to secure perfect Economy there must be that sequence of the words
which will present the least obstacle to the unfolding of the thought,
and that Climax is only attainable through a properly graduated
sequence. But there is another element we have to take into account,
and that is the rhythmical effect of Style. Mr. Herbert Spencer in his
Essay very clearly states the law of Sequence, but I infer that he
would include it entirely under the law of Economy; at any rate he
treats of it solely in reference to intelligibility, and not at all in
its scarcely less important relation to harmony. We have A PRIORI
reasons," he says, "for believing that in every sentence there is one
order of words more effective than any other, and that this order is
the one which presents the elements of the proposition in the
succession in which they may be most readily put together. As in a
narrative, the events should be stated in such sequence that the mind
may not have to go backwards and forwards in order rightly to connect
them; as in a group of sentences, the arrangement should be such that
each of them may be understood as it comes, without waiting for the
subsequent ones; so in every sentence, the sequence of the words should
be that which suggests the constituents of the thought in the order
most convenient for building up that thought."

But Style appeals to the emotions as well as to the intellect, and the
arrangement of words and sentences which will be the most economical
may not be the most musical, and the most musical may not be the most
pleasurably effective. For Climax and Variety it may be necessary to
sacrifice something of rapid intelligibillty: hence involutions,
antitheses, and suspensions, which disturb the most orderly
arrangement, may yet, in virtue of their own subtle influences, be
counted as improvements on that arrangement.

Tested by the Intellect and the Feelings, the law of Sequence is seen
to be a curious compound of the two. If we isolate these elements for
the purposes of exposition, we shall find that the principle of the
first is much simpler and more easy of obedience than the principle of
the second. It may be thus stated:--

The constituent elements of the conception expressed in the sentence
and the paragraph should be arranged in strict correspondence with an
inductive or a deductive progression.

All exposition, like all research, is either inductive or deductive. It
groups particulars so as to lead up to a general conception which
embraces them all, but which could not be fully understood until they
had been estimated; or else it starts from some general conception,
already familar to the mind, and as it moves along, casts its light
upon numerous particulars, which are thus shown to be related to it,
but which without that light would have been overlooked.

If the reader will meditate on that brief statement of the principle,
he will, I think, find it explain many doubtful points. Let me merely
notice one, namely, the dispute as to whether the direct or the
indirect style should be preferred. Some writers insist, and others
practise the precept without insistance, that the proposition should be
stated first, and all its qualifications as well as its evidences be
made to follow; others maintain that the proposition should be made to
grow up step by step with all its evidences and qualifications in their
due order, and the conclusion disclose itself as crowning the whole.
Are not both methods right under different circumstances? If my object
is to convince you of a general truth, or to impress you with a
feeling, which you are not already prepared to accept, it is obvious
that the most effective method is the inductive, which leads your mind
upon a culminating wave of evidence or emotion to the very point I aim
at. But the deductive method is best when I wish to direct the light of
familiar truths and roused emotions, upon new particulars, or upon
details in unsuspected relation to those truths; and when I wish the
attention to be absorbed by these particulars which are of interest in
themselves, not upon the general truths which are of no present
interest except in as far as they light up these details. A growing
thought requires the inductive exposition, an applied thought the

This principle, which is of very wide application, is subject to two
important qualifications--one pressed on it by the necessities of
Climax and Variety, the other by the feebleness of memory, which cannot
keep a long hold of details unless their significance is apprehended;
so that a paragraph of suspended meaning should never be long, and when
the necessities of the case bring together numerous particulars in
evidence of the conclusion, they should be so arranged as to have
culminating force: one clause leading up to another, and throwing its
impetus into it, instead of being linked on to another, and dragging
the mind down with its weight.

It is surprising how few men understand that Style is a Fine Art; and
how few of those who are fastidious in their diction give much care to
the arrangement of their sentences, paragraphs, and chapters--in a
word, to Composition. The painter distributes his masses with a view to
general effect; so does the musician: writers seldom do so. Nor do they
usually arrange the members of their sentences in that sequence which
shall secure for each its proper emphasis and its determining influence
on the others--influence reflected back and influence projected
forward. As an example of the charm that lies in unostentatious
antiphony, consider this passage from Ruskin:--"Originality in
expression does not depend on invention of new words; nor originality
in poetry on invention of new measures; nor in painting on invention of
new colours or new modes of using them. The chords of music, the
harmonies of colour, the general principles of the arrangement of
sculptural masses, have been determined long ago, and in all
probability cannot be added to any more than they can be altered." Men
write like this by instinct; and I by no means wish to suggest that
writing like this can be produced by rule. What I suggest is, that in
this, as in every other Fine Art, instinct does mostly find itself in
accordance with rule; and a knowledge of rules helps to direct the
blind gropings of feeling, and to correct the occasional mistakes of
instinct. If, after working his way through a long and involved
sentence in which the meaning is rough hewn, the writer were to try its
effect upon ear and intellect, he might see its defects and re-shape it
into beauty and clearness. But in general men shirk this labour, partly
because it is irksome, and partly because they have no distinct
conception of the rules which would make the labour light.

The law of Sequence, we have seen, rests upon the two requisites of
Clearness and Harmony. Men with a delicate sense of rhythm will
instinctively distribute their phrases in an order that falls agreeably
on the ear, without monotony, and without an echo of other voices; and
men with a keen sense of logical relation will instinctively arrange
their sentences in an order that best unfolds the meaning. The French
are great masters of the law of Sequence, and, did space Permit, I
could cite many excellent examples. One brief passage from Royer
Collard must suffice:--"Les faits que l'observation laisse epars et
muets la causalite les rassemble, les enchaine, leur prete un langage.
Chaque fait revele celui qui a precede, prophetise celui qui va suivre."

The ear is only a guide to the harmony of a Period, and often tempts us
into the feebleness of expletives or approximative expressions for the
sake of a cadence. Yet, on the other hand, if we disregard the subtle
influences of harmonious arrangement, our thoughts lose much of the
force which would otherwise result from their logical subordination.
The easy evolution of thought in a melodious period, quietly taking up
on its way a variety of incidental details, yet never lingering long
enough over them to divert the attention or to suspend the continuous
crescendo of interest, but by subtle influences of proportion allowing
each clause of the sentence its separate significance, is the product
of a natural gift, as rare as the gift of music, or of poetry. But
until men come to understand that Style is an art, and an amazingly
difficult art, they will continue with careless presumption to tumble
out their sentences as they would lilt stones from a cart, trusting
very much to accident or gravitation for the shapeliness of the result.
I will write a passage which may serve as an example of what I mean,
although the defect is purposely kept within very ordinary limlts--

"To construct a sentence with many loosely and not obviously dependent
clauses, each clause containing an important meaning or a concrete
image the vivacity of which, like a boulder in a shallow stream,
disturbs the equable current of thought, and in such a case the more
beautiful the image the greater the obstacle, so that the laws of
simplicity and economy are violated by it,--while each clause really
requires for its interpretation a proposition that is however kept
suspended till the close, is a defect."

The weariness produced by such writing as this is very great, and yet
the recasting of the passage is easy. Thus:--

"It is a defect when a sentence is constructed with many loosely and
not obviously dependent clauses, each of which requires for its
interpretation a preposition that is kept suspended till the close; and
this defect is exaggerated when each clause contains an important
meaning, or a concrete image which, like a boulder in a shallow stream,
disturbs the equable current of thought: the more beautiful the image,
the greater its violation of the laws of simplicity and economy."

In this second form the sentence has no long suspension of the main
idea, no diversions of the current. The proposition is stated and
illustrated directly, and the mind of the reader follows that of the
writer. How injurious it is to keep the key in your pocket until all
the locks in succession have been displayed may be seen in such a
sentence as this:--

"Phantoms of lost power, sudden intuitions and shadowy restorations of
forgotten feelings, sometimes dim and perplexing, sometimes by bright
but furtive glimpses, sometimes by a full and steady revelation
overcharged with light, throw us back in a moment upon scenes and
remembrances that we have left full thirty years behind us."

Had De Quincey liberated our minds from suspense by first presenting
the thought which first arose in his own mind,--namely, that we are
thrown back upon scenes and remembrances by phantoms of lost power,
&c.--the beauty of his language in its pregnant suggestiveness would
have been felt at once. Instead of that, he makes us accompany him in
darkness, and when the light appears we have to travel backwards over
the ground again to see what we have passed. The passage continues:--

"In solitudes, and chiefly in the solitudes of nature, and, above all,
amongst the great and enduring features of nature, such as mountains
and quiet dells, and the lawny recesses of forests, and the silent
shores of lakes--features with which (as being themselves less liable
to change) our feelings have a more abiding associatlon,--under these
circumstances it is that such evanescent hauntings of our forgotten
selves are most apt to startle and waylay us."

The beauty of this passage seems to me marred by the awkward yet
necessary interruption, "under these circumstances it is," which would
have been avoided by opening the sentence with "such evanescent
hauntings of our forgotten selves are most apt to startle us in
solitudes," &c. Compare the effect of directness in the following:--

"This was one of the most common shapes of extinguished power from
which Coleridge fled to the great city. But sometimes the same decay
came back upon his heart in the more poignant shape of intimations and
vanishing glimpses recovered for one moment from the Paradise of youth,
and from fields of joy and power, over which for him too certainly he
felt that the cloud of night was settling for ever."

Obedience to the law of Sequence gives strength by giving clearness and
beauty of rhythm; it economises force and creates music. A very
trifling disregard of it will mar an effect. See an example both of
obedience and trifling disobedience in the following passage from

"People speak in this working age, when they speak from their hearts,
as if houses and lands and food and raiment were alone useful, and as
if Sight, Thought, and Admiration were all profitless, so that men
insolently call themselves Utilitarians, who would turn, if they had
their way, themselves and their race into vegetables; men who think, as
far as such can be said to think, that the meat is more than life and
the raiment than the body, who look on earth as a stable and to its
fruit as fodder; vinedressers and husbandmen who love the corn they
grind and the grapes they crush better than the gardens of the angels
upon the slopes of Eden."

It is instinctive to contrast the dislocated sentence, "who would turn,
if they had their way, themselves and their race," with the sentence
which succeeds it, "men who think, as far as such men can be said to
think, that the meat," &c. In the latter the parenthetic interruption
is a source of power: it dams the current to increase its force; in the
former the inversion is a loss of power: it is a dissonance to the ear
and a diversion of the thought.

As illustrations of Sequence in composition, two passages may be quoted
from Macaulay which display the power of pictorial suggestions when,
instead of diverting attention from the main purpose, they are arranged
with progressive and culminating effect.

"Such, or nearly such, was the change which passed on the Mogul empire
during the forty years which followed the death of Aurungzebe. A series
of nominal sovereigns, sunk in indolence and debauchery, sauntered away
life in secluded palaces, chewing bang, fondling dancing girls, and
listening to buffoons. A series of ferocious invaders had descended
through the western passes to prey on the defenceless wealth of
Hindostan. A Persian conqueror crossed the Indus, marched through the
gates of Delhi, and bore away in triumph those treasures of which the
magnificence had astounded Roe and Bernier;--the peacock throne, on
which the richest jewels of Golconda had been disposed by the most
skilful hands of Europe, and the inestimable Mountain of Light, which,
after many strange vicissitudes, lately shone in the bracelet of
Runjeet Sing, and is now destined to adorn the hideous idol of Prista.
The Afghan soon followed to complete the work of devastation which the
Persian had begun. The warlike tribe of Rajpoots threw off the
Mussulman yoke. A band of'mercenary soldiers occupied the Rohilcund.
The Seiks ruled on the Indus. The Jauts spread terror along the Jumnah.
The high lands which border on the western sea-coast of India poured
forth a yet more formidable race--a race which was long the terror of
every native power, and which yielded only after many desperate and
doubtful struggles to the fortune and genius of England. It was under
the reign of Aurungzebe that this wild clan of plunderers first
descended from the mountains; and soon after his death every corner of
his wide empire learned to tremble at the mighty name of the Mahrattas.
Many fertile viceroyalties were entirely subdued by them. Their
dominions stretched across the peninsula from sea to sea. Their
captains reigned at Poonah, at Gualior, in Guzerat, in Berar, and in

Such prose as this affects us like poetry. The pictures and suggestions
might possibly have been gathered together by any other historian; but
the artful succession, the perfect sequence, could only have been found
by a fine writer. I pass over a few paragraphs, and pause at this
second example of a sentence simple in structure, though complex in its
elements, fed but not overfed with material, and almost perfect in its
cadence and logical connection. "Scarcely any man, however sagacious,
would have thought it possible that a trading company, separated from
India by fifteen thousand miles of sea, and possessing in India only a
few acres for purposes of commerce, would in less than a hundred years
spread its empire from Cape Comorin to the eternal snows of the
Himalayas--would compel Mahratta and Mahomedan to forget their mutual
feuds in common subjection--would tame down even those wild races which
had resisted the most powerful of the Moguls; and having established a
government far stronger than any ever known in those countries, would
carry its victorious arms far to the east of the Burrampooter, and far
to the west of the Hydaspes--dictate terms of peace at the gates of
Ava, and seat its vassals on the throne of Candahar."

Let us see the same principle exhibited in a passage at once pictorial
and argumentative. "We know more certainly every day," says Ruskin,
"that whatever appears to us harmful in the universe has some
beneficent or necessary operation; that the storm which destroys a
harvest brightens the sunbeams for harvests yet unsown, and that a
volcano which buries a city preserves a thousand from destruction. But
the evil is not for the time less fearful because we have learned it to
be necessary; and we can easily understand the timidity or the
tenderness of the spirit which could withdraw itself from the presence
of destruction, and create in its imagination a world of which the
peace should be unbroken, in which the sky should not darken nor the
sea rage, in which the leaf should not change nor the blossom wither.
That man is greater, however, who contemplates with an equal mind the
alternations of terror and of beauty; who, not rejoicing less beneath
the sunny sky, can also bear to watch the bars of twilight narrowing on
the horizon; and, not less sensible to the blessing of the peace of
nature, can rejoice in the magnificence of the ordinances by which that
peace is protected and secured. But separated from both by an
immeasurable distance would be the man who delighted in convulsion and
disease for their own sake; who found his daily food in the disorder of
nature mingled with the suffering of humanity; and watched joyfully at
the right hand of the Angel whose appointed work is to destroy as well
as to accuse, while the corners of the house of feasting were struck by
the wind from the wilderness."

I will now cite a passage from Burke, which will seem tame after the
pictorial animation of the passages from Macaulay and Ruskin; but
which, because it is simply an exposition of opinions addressed to the
understanding, will excellently illustrate the principle I am
enforcing. He is treating of the dethronement of kings. "As it was not
made for common abuses, so it is not to be agitated by common minds.
The speculative line of demarcation, where obedience ought to end and
resistance must begin, is faint, obscure, and not easily definable. It
is not a single act or a single event which determines it. Governments
must be abused and deranged, indeed, before it can be thought of; and
the prospect of the future must be as bad as the experience of the
past. When things are in that lamentable condition, the nature of the
disease is to indicate the remedy to those whom nature has qualified to
administer in extremities this critical, ambiguous, bitter potion to a
distempered state. Times and occasions and provocations will teach
their own lessons. The wise will determine from the gravity of the
case; the irritable from sensibility to oppression; the high-minded
from disdain and indignation at abusive power in unworthy hands; the
brave and bold from love of honourable danger in a generous cause. But
with or without right, a revolution will be the very last resource of
the thinking and the good."

As a final example I will cite a passage from M. Taine:--"De la encore
cette insolence contre les inferieurs, et ce mepris verse d'etage en
etage depuis le premier jusqu'au dernier. Lorsque dans une societe la
loi consacre les conditions inegales, personne n'est exempt d'insulte;
le grand seigneur, outrage par le roi, outrage le noble qui outrage le
peuple; la nature humaine est humilie a tous les etages, et la societe
n'est plus qu'un commerce d'affronts."

The law of Sequence by no means prescribes that we should invariably
state the proposition before its qualifications--the thought before its
illustrations; it merely prescribes that we should arrange our phrases
in the order of logical dependence and rhythmical cadence, the order
best suited for clearness and for harmony. The nature of the thought
will determine the one, our sense of euphony the other.


We need not pause long over this; it is generally understood. The
condition of our sensibilities is such that to produce their effect
stimulants must be progressive in intensity and varied in kind. On this
condition rest the laws of Climax and Variety. The phrase or image
which in one position will have a mild power of occupying the thoughts,
or stimulating the emotions, loses this power if made to succeed one of
like kind but more agitating influence, and will gain an accession of
power if it be artfully placed on the wave of a climax. We laugh at

"Then came Dalhousie, that great God of War,
Lieutenant-Colonel to the Earl of Mar,"

because of the relaxation which follows the sudden tension of the mind;
but if we remove the idea of the colonelcy from this position of
anti-climax, the same couplet becomes energetic rather than ludicrous--

"Lieutenant-Colonel to the Earl of Mar,
Then came Dalhousie, that great God of War."

I have selected this strongly marked case, instead of several feeble
passages which might be chosen from the first book at hand, wherein
carelessness allows the sentences to close with the least important,
phrases, and the style droops under frequent anti-climax. Let me now
cite a passage from Macaulay which vividly illustrates the effect of

"Never, perhaps, was the change which the progress of civilisation has
produced in the art of war more strikingly illustrated than on that
day. Ajax beating down the Trojan leader with a rock which two ordinary
men could scarcely lift; Horatius defending the bridge against an army;
Richard, the lion-hearted, spurring along the whole Saracen line
without finding an enemy to withstand his assault; Robert Bruce
crushing with one blow the helmet and head of Sir Harry Bohun in sight
of the whole array of England and Scotland,--such are the heroes of a
dark age. [Here is an example of suspended meaning, where the suspense
intensifies the effect, because each particular is vividly apprehended
in itself, and all culminate in the conclusion; they do not complicate
the thought, or puzzle us, they only heighten expectation]. In such an
age bodily vigour is the most indispensable qualification of a warrior.
At Landen two poor sickly beings, who, in a rude state of society,
would have been regarded as too puny to bear any part in combats, were
the souls of two great armies. In some heathen countries they would
have been exposed while infants. In Christendom they would, six hundred
years earlier, have been sent to some quiet cloister. But their lot had
fallen on a time when men had discovered that the strength of the
muscles is far inferior in value to the strength of the mind. It is
probable that among the hundred and twenty thousand soldiers that were
marshalled round Neerwinden, under all the standards of Western Europe,
the two feeblest in body were the hunchbacked dwarf, who urged forward
the fiery onset of France, and the asthmatic skeleton who covered the
slow retreat of England."

The effect of Climax is very marked in the drama. Every speech, every
scene, every act, should have its progressive sequence. Nothing can be
more injudicious than a trivial phrase following an energetic phrase, a
feeble thought succeeding a burst of passion, or even a passionate
thought succeeding one more passionate. Yet this error is frequently

In the drama all laws of Style are more imperious than in fiction or
prose of any kind, because the art is more intense. But Climax is
demanded in every species of composition, for it springs from a
psychological necessity. It is pressed upon, however, by the law of
Variety in a way to make it far from safe to be too rigidly followed.
It easily degenerates into monotony.


Some one, after detailing an elaborate recipe for a salad, wound up the
enumeration of ingredients and quantities with the advice to "open the
window and throw it all away." This advice might be applied to the
foregoing enumeration of the laws of Style, unless these were
supplemented by the important law of Variety. A style which rigidly
interpreted the precepts of economy, simplicity, sequence, and climax,
which rejected all superfluous words and redundant ornaments, adopted
the easiest and most logical arrangement, and closed every sentence and
every paragraph with a climax, might be a very perfect bit of mosaic,
but would want the glow and movement of a living mind. Monotony would
settle on it like a paralysing frost. A series of sentences in which
every phrase was a distinct thought, would no more serve as pabulum for
the mind, than portable soup freed from all the fibrous tissues of meat
and vegetable would serve as food for the body. Animals perish from
hunger in the presence of pure albumen; and minds would lapse into
idiocy in the presence of unadulterated thought. But without invoking
extreme cases, let us simply remember the psychological fact that it is
as easy for sentences to be too compact as for food to be too
concentrated; and that many a happy negligence, which to microscopic
criticism may appear defective, will be the means of giving clearness
and grace to a style. Of course the indolent indulgence in this laxity
robs style of all grace and power. But monotony in the structure of
sentences, monotony of cadence, monotony of climax, monotony anywhere,
necessarily defeats the very aim and end of style; it calls attention
to the manner; it blunts the sensibilities; it renders excellences

"Beauty deprived of its proper foils and adjuncts ceases to be enjoyed
as beauty, just as light deprived of all shadow ceases to be enjoyed as
light. A white canvas cannot produce an effect of sunshine; the painter
must darken it in some places before he can make it look luminous in
others; nor can the uninterrupted succession of beauty produce the true


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