Monday, February 10, 2014

Jamieson Weighs In On Your Prose Style


I was browsing through Jamieson's Rhetoric last night, a book originally published in 1818, and was struck by the final paragraph.  Positively, because while it was meant to apply to the spoken word, it struck me as being perfectly applicable to the written word as well.  But also negatively because the final word was too strong.  Even assuming that people reacted far more strongly to mediocre art in the early nineteenth century than they do nowadays, it's an overstatement.

Also, I'm amazed that a serious rhetorician would end his book on a negative word.  It seems a rookie mistake to make.

Nevertheless, as I said, applicable:

Finally.  Guard against all affectation, which is the certain ruin of good delivery.  Let your manner, whatever it is, be your own; neither imitated from another nor assumed upon some imaginary model, which is unnatural to you.  Whatever is native, even though accompanied with several defects, yet is likely to please; because it has the appearance of coming from the heart.  Whereas a delivery, attended with several acquired graces and beauties, if it be not easy and free, if it betray the marks of art and affectation, never fails to disgust.

Amen, mostly.

Above:  The title page.  They don't make 'em like that anymore.



Mark Pontin said...

I commend to your attention, if you haven't already encountered it -- although you may well have and it may be what stimulated your further investigations via Jamieson -- FARNSWORTH'S CLASSICAL ENGLISH RHETORIC, a book published in 2012.

It's as excellent as the reviews by both professionals (including David Mamet) and Amazon readers suggest.

To be sure, Farnsworth won't tell you how to do whatever it was that Saul Bellow or Philip Roth did when they were at the height of their powers; nor will it help you, for that matter, to construct metaphors and similes as J.G. Ballard and Lucius Shepard did when they were at their best.

However, it will explain to you the basic substance of what Lincoln and Churchill were doing. Or Macauley when he routinely constructed paragraphs like this, for example, about Milton: -

'This book, were it far more orthodox or far more heretical than it is, would not much edify or corrupt the present generation. The men of our time are not to be converted or perverted by quartos. A few more days, and this essay will follow the DEFENSIO POPULI, to the dust and silence of the upper shelf. The name of its author, and the remarkable circumstances attending to its publication, will secure to it a certain degree of attention. For a month or two it will occupy a few minutes of chat in every drawing-room, and a few columns in every magazine; and it will then, to borrow the elegant language of the play-bills, be withdrawn, to make room for the forthcoming novelties.
'We wish however to avail ourselves of the interest, transient as it may be, which this work has excited. The dexterous Capuchins never choose to preach on the life and the miracles of a saint, till they have awakened the devotional feelings of their auditors by exhibiting some relic of him, a thread of his garment, a lock of his hair, or a drop of his blood. On the same principle, we intend to take advantage of the late interesting discovery, and, while this memorial of a great and good man is still in the hands of all, to say something of his moral and intellectual qualities. Nor, we are convinced, will the severest of our readers blame us if, on an occasion like the present, we turn for a short time from the topics of the day, to commemorate, in all love and reverence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, the poet and statesman, the philosopher, the glory of English literature, the champion and the martyr of English liberty.'

Or this about Machiavelli: -

' On this subject Machiavelli felt most strongly. Indeed the expulsion of the foreign tyrants, and the restoration of that golden age which had preceded the irruption of Charles the Eighth, were projects which, at that time, fascinated all the master-spirits of Italy. The magnificent vision delighted the great but ill-regulated mind of Julius. It divided with manuscripts and sauces, painters and falcons, the attention of the frivolous Leo. It prompted the generous treason of Morone. It excited for one moment an honest ambition in the false heart of Pescara. Ferocity and insolence were not among the vices of the national character. To the discriminating cruelties of politicians, committed for great ends on select victims, the moral code of the Italians was too indulgent. But though they might have recourse to barbarity as an expedient, they did not require it as a stimulant. They turned with loathing from the atrocity of the strangers who seemed to love blood for its own sake, who, not content with subjugating, were impatient to destroy, who found a fiendish pleasure in razing magnificent cities, cutting the throats of enemies who cried for quarter, or suffocating an unarmed population by thousands in the caverns to which it had fled for safety.'

JL Stillman said...

If you go around talking like Macauley for long enough, it won't be an affectation anymore. But where can you find someone to talk to like that?