Essays Aesthetical Part 10

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The high level of strength, suppleness and beauty occupied by our English tongue has been reached, and can only be maintained, by strenuous, varied, and continuous mental action. Offenses against the laws and proprieties of language--like so many other of our lapses--are in most cases effects of the tendency in human nature to relax its tone. None save the most resolute and rigorous but have their moods of unwatchfulness, of indolence. Moreover, men are p.r.o.ne to resist mental refinement and intellectual subdivisions.

Discrimination requires close attention and sustained effort; and without habitual discrimination there can be no linguistic precision or excellence. In this, as in other provinces, people like to take things easily. Now, every capable man of business knows that to take things easily is an easy way to ruin. Language is in a certain sense every one's business; but it is especially the business, as their appellation denotes, of men of letters; and a primary duty of their high vocation is to be jealous of any careless or impertinent meddling with, or mishandling of, those little glistening, marvelous tools wherewith such amazing structures and temples have been built and are ever a-building. Culture, demanding and creating diversity and subtlety of mental processes, is at once a cause and an effect of infinite multiplication in the relations the mind is capable of establishing between itself and the objects of its action, and between its own processes; and language, being a chief instrument of culture, has to follow and subserve these multiplied and diversified demands, Any fall, therefore, on its part from the obedient fineness of its modes and modulations back into barbaric singleness and crudeness, any slide into looseness or vagueness, any unweaving of the complex tissue, psychical and metaphysical, into which it has been wrought by the exquisite wants of the mind, will have a relaxing, debilitating influence on thought itself. To use the clear, wise words of Mr.

Whewell; "Language is often called an instrument of thought, but it is also the nutriment of thought; or, rather, it is the atmosphere on which thought lives--a medium essential to the activity of our speculative powers, although invisible and imperceptible in its operation; and an element modifying, by its changes and qualities, the growth and complexion of the faculties which it feeds."

Our enumeration of _errata_ being made alphabetically, the first to be cited is one of the chief of sinners--the particle.

As. The misuse of _as_ for _so_ is, in certain cases, almost universal. If authority could justify error and convert the faulty into the faultless, it were idle to expose a misuse in justification of which can be cited most of the best names in recent English literature.

"_As_ far as doth concern my single self,"

is a line in Wordsworth ("Prelude," p. 70) which, by a change of the first _as_ into _so_, would gain not only in sound (which is not our affair at present), but, likewise in grammar. The seventh line of the twenty-first stanza in that most tender of elegies and most beautiful of poems, Sh.e.l.ley's "Adonais," begins, "_As_ long as skies are blue," where also there would be a double gain by writing "_So_ long as skies are blue." On page 242 of the first volume of De Quincey's "Literary Remains" occurs this sentence; "Even by _as_ philosophic a politician _as_ Edmund Burke," in which the critical blunder of calling Burke a philosophic politician furnishes no excuse for the grammatical blunder. The rule (derived, like all good rules, from principle) which determines the use of this small particle is, I conceive, that the double _as_ should only be employed when there is direct comparison. In the first part of the following sentence there is no direct comparative relation--in the second, the negative destroys it; "_So_ far as geographical measurement goes, Philadelphia is not _so_ far from New York as from Baltimore." Five writers out of six would commit the error of using _as_ in both members of the sentence. The most prevalent misuse of _as_ is in connection with _soon_; and this general misuse, having moreover the countenance of good writers, is so inwoven into our speech that it will be hard to unravel it. But principle is higher than the authority derived from custom. Judges are bound to give sentence according to the statute; and if the highest writers, whose influence is deservedly judicial, violate the laws of language, their decisions ought to be, and will be, reversed, or language will be undermined, and, slipping into shallow, illogical habits, into anarchical conditions, will forfeit much of its manliness, of its subtlety, of its truthfulness. Language is a living organism, and to subst.i.tute authority, or even long usage, for its innate genius and wisdom, and the requirements and practices that result from these, were to strike at its life, and to expose it to become subject to upstart usurpation, to deadening despotism.

Worcester quotes from the Psalms the phrase, "They go astray _as_ soon as they be born." We ask, Were not the translators of the Bible as liable to err in grammar as De Quincey, or Wordsworth, or Sh.e.l.ley? A writer in the English "National Review" for January, 1862, in an admirable paper on the "Italian Clergy and the Pope," begins a sentence with the same phrase: "_As_ soon as the law was pa.s.sed." And we ourselves, sure though we be that the use of _as_ in this and every similar position is an error, need to brace both pen and tongue against running into it, so strong to overcome principle and conviction is the habit of the senses, accustomed daily to see and to hear the wrong.

AT THAT. We should not have noticed this squat vulgarism, had not the pen blazoned its own depravity by lifting it out of newspapers into bound volumes. The speech and page of every one, who would not be italicized for lingual looseness, should be forever closed against a phrase so shocking to taste, a phrase, we are sorry to say, of American mintage, coined in one of those frolicksome exuberant moods, when a young people, like a loosed horse full of youth and oats, kicks up and scatters mud with the unharnessed license of his heels.

ANOTHER. Before pa.s.sing to the letter B on our alphabetical docket, we will call up a minor criminal in A, viz. _another_, often incorrectly used for _other_; as in "on one ground or another," "from one cause or another." Now, _another_, the prefix _an_ making it singular,--embraces but one ground or cause, and therefore, contrary to the purpose of the writer, the words mean that there are but two grounds or causes. Write "on one ground or other," and the words are in harmony with the meaning of the writer, the word _other_ implying several or many grounds.

BOQUET. The sensibility that gives the desire to preserve a present sparkling so long as is possible with all the qualities that made it materially acceptable, should rule us where the gift is something so precious as a word; and when we receive one from another people, grat.i.tude, as well as sense of grace in the form of the gift itself, should make us watchful that it be not dimmed by the boorish breath of ignorance or cacophanized by unmusical voices. We therefore protest against a useful and tuneful noun-substantive, a native of France, the word _bouquet_, being maimed into _boquet_, a corruption as dissonant to the ear as were to the eye plucking a rose from a variegated nosegay, and leaving only its th.o.r.n.y stem. _Boquet_ is heard at times in well-upholstered drawing-rooms, and may even be seen in print.

Offensive in its mutilated shape, it smells sweet again when restored to its native orthography.

BY NO MANNER OF MEANS. The most vigorous writers are liable, in unguarded moments, to lapse into verbal weakness, and so you meet with this vulgar pleonasm in Ruskin.

BY REASON OF. An ill-a.s.sorted, ugly phrase, used by accomplished reviewers and others, who ought to set a purer example.

COME OFF. Were a harp to give out the nasal whine of the bagpipe, or the throat of a nightingale to emit the caw of a raven, the aesthetic sense would not be more startled and offended than to hear from feminine lips, rosily wreathed by beauty and youth, issue the words, "The concert will _come off_ on Wednesday." This vulgarism should never be heard beyond the "ring" and the c.o.c.k-pit, and should be banished from resorts so respectable as an oyster-cellar.

CONSIDER. Neither weight of authority nor universality of use can purify or justify a linguistic corruption, and make the intrinsically wrong in language right; and therefore such phrases as, "I consider him an honest man," "Do you consider the dispute settled?" will ever be bad English, however generally sanctioned. In his dedication of the "Diversions of Purley" to the University of Cambridge, Horne Tooke uses it wrongly when he says, "who always _considers_ acts of voluntary justice toward himself as favors." The original signification and only proper use of _consider_ are in phrases like these: "If you consider the matter carefully;" "Consider the lilies of the field."

CONDUCT. It seems to us that it were as allowable to say of a man, "He carries well," as "He conducts well." We say of a gun that it carries well, and we might say of a pipe that it conducts well. The gun and pipe are pa.s.sive instruments, not living organisms, and thence the verbs are used properly in the neuter form. Perhaps, strictly speaking, even here _its charge_ and _water_ are understood.

CONTEMPLATE. "Do you contemplate going to Washington to-morrow?" "No: I contemplate moving into the country." This is more than exaggeration and inflation: it is desecration of a n.o.ble word, born of man's higher being; for contemplation is an exercise of the very highest faculties, a calm collecting of them for silent meditation--an act, or rather a mood, which implies even more than concentrated reflection, and involves themes dependent on large, pure sentiment. An able lawyer has to reflect much upon a broad, difficult case in order to master it; but when in the solitude of his study he is drawn, by the conflicts and wrongs he has witnessed during the day, to think on the purposes and destiny of human life, he more than reflects--he is lifted into a contemplative mood. Archbishop Trench, in his valuable volume on the "Study of Words," opens a paragraph with this sentence: "Let us now proceed to _contemplate_ some of the attestations for G.o.d's truth, and some of the playings into the hands of the devil's falsehood, which may be found to lurk in words." Here we suggest that the proper word were _consider_; for there is activity, and a progressive activity, in the mental operation on which he enters, which disqualifies the verb _contemplate_.

Habitual showiness in language, as in dress and manners, denotes lack of discipline or lack of refinement. Our American magniloquence--the tendency to which is getting more and more subdued--comes partly from national youthfulness, partly from license, that b.a.s.t.a.r.d of liberty, and partly from the geographical and the present, and still more the prospective, political grandeur of the country, which Coleridge somewhere says is to be "England in glorious magnification."

I AM FREE TO CONFESS. An irredeemable vulgarism.


INDEBTEDNESS. "The amount of my _engagedness_" sounds as well and is as proper as "the amount of my _indebtedness_." We have already _hard-heartedness_, _wickedness_, _composedness_, and others.

Nevertheless, this making of nouns out of adjectives with the participial form is an irruption over the boundaries of the parts of speech which should not be encouraged.

Archbishop Whately, in a pa.s.sage of his shortcoming comments on Bacon's "Essays," uses _preparedness_. Albeit that brevity is a cardinal virtue in writing, a circ.u.mlocution would, we think, be better than a gawky word like this, so unsteady on its long legs. In favor of _indebtedness_ over others of like coinage, this is to be said--that it imports that which in one form or other comes home to the bosom of all humanity.

INTELLECTS. That man's intellectual power is not one and indivisible, but consists of many separate, independent faculties, is a momentous truth, revealed by the insight of Gall. One of the results of this great discovery may at times underlie the plural use of the important word _intellect_ when applied to one individual. If so, it were still indefensible. It has, we suspect, a much less philosophic origin, and proceeds from the unsafe practice of overcharging the verbal gun in order to make more noise in the ear of the listener. The plural is correctly used when we speak of two or more different men.

LEFT. "I left at ten o'clock." This use of _leave_ as a neuter verb, however attractive from its brevity, is not defensible. _To leave off_ is the only proper neuter form. "We left off at six, and left (the hall) at a quarter past six." The place should be inserted after the second _left_. Even the first is essentially active, some form of action being understood after _off_: we left off _work_ or _play_.

MIDST. "In our midst" is a common but incorrect phrase.

OUR AUTHOR. A vulgarism, which, by its seeming convenience, gets the countenance of critical writers. We say _seeming_ convenience; for in this seeming lies the vulgarity, the writer expressing, unconsciously often, by the _our_, a feeling of patronage. With his _our_ he pats the author on the back.

PERIODICAL is an adjective, and its use as a substantive is an unwarrantable gain of brevity at the expense of grammar.

PROPOSE. Hardly any word that we have cited is so frequently misused, and by so many good writers, as _propose_, when the meaning is to design, to intend to propose. It should always be followed by a personal accusative--I propose to you, to him, to myself. In the preface to Hawthorne's "Marble Faun" occurs the following sentence; "The author _proposed_ to himself merely to write a fanciful story, evolving a thoughtful moral, and did not _purpose_ attempting a portraiture of Italian manners and character"--a sentence than which a fitter could not be written to ill.u.s.trate the proper use of _propose_ and _purpose_.

PREDICATED UPON. This abomination is paraded by persons who lose no chance of uttering "dictionary words," hit or miss; and is sometimes heard from others from whom the educated world has a right to look for more correctness.

RELIABLE. A counterfeit, which no stamping by good writers or universality of circulation will ever be able to introduce into the family circle of honest English as a subst.i.tute for the robust Saxon word whose place it would usurp--_trustworthy_. _Reliable_ is, however, good English when used to signify that one is liable again.

When you have lost a receipt, and cannot otherwise prove that a bill rendered has been paid, you are _re-liable_ for the amount.

RELIGION. Even by scholars this word is often used with looseness. In strictness it expresses exclusively our relation to the Infinite, the _bond_ between man and G.o.d. You will sometimes read that he is the truly religious man who most faithfully performs his duties of neighbor, father, son, husband, citizen. However much a religious man may find himself strengthened by his faith and inspirited for the performance of all his duties, this strength is an indirect, and not a uniform or necessary, effect of religious convictions. Some men who are sincere in such convictions fail in these duties conspicuously; while, on the other hand, they are performed, at times, with more than common fidelity by men who do not carry within them any very lively religious belief or impressions. "And now abideth faith, hope, and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." Nor can the greatest do the work of the others any more than faith that of hope or charity. Each one of "these three" is different from and independent of the other, however each one be aided by cooperation from the others. The deep, unique feeling which lifts up and binds the creature to the Creator is elementarily one in the human mind, and the word used to denote it should be kept solely for this high office, and not weakened or perverted by other uses. Worcester quotes from Dr. Watts the following sound definition: "In a proper sense, _virtue_ signifies duty toward men, and _religion_ duty to G.o.d."

SALOON. That eminent pioneer of American sculpture, brilliant talker, and accomplished gentleman, the lamented Horatio Greenough, was indignantly eloquent against the American abuse of this graceful importation from France, applied as it is in the United States to public billiard-rooms, oyster-cellars and grog-shops.

SUBJECT-MATTER. A tautological humpback.

TO VENTILATE, applied to a subject or person. The scholar who should use this vilest of vulgarisms deserves to have his right thumb taken off.

We have here noted a score of the errors prevalent in written and spoken speech--some of them perversions or corruptions, countenanced even by eminent writers; some, misapplications that weaken and disfigure the style of him who adopts them; and some, downright vulgarisms--that is, phrases that come from below, and are thrust into clean company with the odors of slang about them. These last are often a device for giving piquancy to style. Against such abuses we should be the more heedful, because, from the convenience of some of them, they get so incorporated into daily speech as not to be readily distinguishable from their healthy neighbors, clinging for generations to tongues and pens. Of this tenacity there is a notable exemplification in a pa.s.sage of Boswell, written nearly a hundred years ago. Dr. Johnson found fault with Boswell for using the phrase to _make_ money: "Don't you see the impropriety of it? To _make_ money is to _coin_ it: you should say _get_ money." Johnson, adds Boswell, "was jealous of infractions upon the genuine English language, and prompt to repress colloquial barbarisms; such as _pledging_ myself, for _undertaking_; _line_ for _department_ or _branch_, as the _civil line_, the _banking line_. He was particularly indignant against the almost universal use of the word _idea_ in the sense of _notion_ or _opinion_, when it is clear that _idea_ can only signify something of which an image can be formed in the mind. We may have an _idea_ or _image_ of a mountain, a tree, a building, but we surely cannot have an idea or image of an _argument_ or _proposition_. Yet we hear the sages of the law 'delivering their _ideas_ upon the question under consideration;' and the first speakers of Parliament 'entirely coinciding in the _idea_ which has been ably stated by an honorable member.'"

Whether or not the word _idea_ may be properly used in a deeper or grander sense than that stated by Dr. Johnson, there is no doubt that he justly condemned its use in the cases cited by him, and in similar ones. All the four phrases _make money_, _pledge_, _line_, and _idea_, whereupon sentence of guilty was pa.s.sed by the great lexicographer, are still at large, and, if it be not a bull to say so, more at large to-day than in the last century, since the area of their currency has been extended to America, Australia, and the Pacific Islands.



[8] From _Putnam's Monthly_, 1857.

We are eminently a people of action; we are fond of shows, processions, and organized spectacles; we are so much more imitative than our British cousins, that, without limiting its appeals to the mimetic files of fashion, the ungentlemanly theory of a Simian descent for man might find support in the features of our general life. To complete the large compound of qualities that are required, in order that an emulous people give birth to a drama, one is yet wanting; but that one is not merely the most important of all, but is the one which lifts the others into dramatic importance. Are we poetical? Ask any number of continental Europeans, whether the English are a poetical people. A loud, unanimous, derisive _no_ would be the answer. And yet, there is Shakespeare! and around him, back to Chaucer and forward to Tennyson, a band of such poets, that this prosaic nation has the richest poetic literature in Christendom. Especially in this matter are appearances delusive, and hasty inferences liable to be illogical.

From the prosers that one hears in pulpits, legislatures, lecture-rooms, at morning calls and well-appointed dinner-tables in Anglo-America, let no man infer against our poetic endowment.

Shakespeare, and Milton, and Burns, and Wordsworth, are of our stock; and what we have already done in poetry and the plastic arts, while yet, as a nation, hardly out of swaddling-clothes, is an earnest of a creative future. We are to have a national literature and a national drama. What is a national drama? Premising that as little in their depth as in their length will our remarks be commensurate with the dimensions of this great theme, we would say a few words.

A literature is the expression of what is warmest and deepest in the heart of a people. Good books are the crystallization of thoughts and feelings. To have a literature--that is, a body of enduring books--implies vigor and depth. Such books are the measure of the mental vitality in a people. Those peoples that have the best books will be found to be at the top of the scale of humanity; those that have none, at the bottom. Good books, once brought forth, exhale ever after both fragrance and nourishment. They educate while they delight many generations.

Good books are the best thoughts of the best men. They issue out of deep hearts and strong heads; and where there are deep hearts and strong heads such books are sure to come to life. The mind, like the body, will reproduce itself: the mind, too, is procreative, transmitting itself to a remote posterity.

The best books are the highest products of human effort. Themselves the evidence of creative power, they kindle and nourish power.

Consider what a spring of life to European people have been the books of the Hebrews. What so precious treasure has England as Shakespeare?

To be good, books must be generic. They may be, in subject, in tone, and in color, national; but in substance they must be so universally human, that other cognate nations can imbibe and be nourished by them.

Not that, in their fashioning, this fitness for foreign minds is to be a conscious aim; but to be thus attractive and a.s.similative, is a proof of their breadth and depth--of their high humanity.

The peoples who earliest reached the state of culture which is needed to bring forth books, each standing by itself, each necessarily sang and wrote merely of itself. Thus did the Hebrews and the Greeks.

But already the Romans went out of themselves, and Virgil takes a Trojan for his hero. This appropriation of foreign material shows that the aim of high books is, to ascend to the sphere of ideas and feelings that are independent of time and place. Thence, when, by multiplication of Christian nations our mental world had become vastly enlarged, embracing in one bond of culture, not only all modern civilized peoples, but also the three great ancient ones, the poets--especially the dramatic, for reasons that will be presently stated--looked abroad and afar for the frame-work and corporeal stuff of their writings.

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Essays Aesthetical Part 10 summary

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