Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Becoming a Writer - ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON "Contents of the Phrase"

Photograph of Robert Louis StevensonImage via Wikipedia

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON (1850-94) was born on November 13, 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He did not achieve lasting commercial success until five years later with the publication of Treasure Island in 1883, and later with Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1888.

Here is a great deal of talk about rhythm-and naturally; for in our canorous language rhythm is always at the door. But it must not be forgotten that in some languages this element is almost, if not quite, extinct, and that in our own it is probably decaying. The even speech of many educated Americans sounds the note of danger. I should see it go with something as bitter as despair, but I should not be desperate. As in verse no element, not even rhythm, is necessary, so, in prose also, other sorts of beauty will arise and take the place and play the part of those that we outlive. The beauty of the expected beat in verse, the beauty in prose of its larger and more lawless melody, patent as they are to English hearing, are already silent in the ears of our next neighbors; for in France the oratorical accent and the pat­tern of the web have almost or altogether succeeded to their places; and the French prose writer would be astounded at the labours of his brother across the Channel, and how a good quar­ter of his toil, above all invita Minerva, is to avoid writing verse. So wonderfully far apart have races wandered in spirit, and so hard it is to understand the literature next door!
Yet French prose is distinctly better than English; and French verse, above all while Hugo lives, it will not do to place upon one side. What is more to our purpose, a phrase or a verse in French is easily distinguishable as comely or uncomely. There is then another element of comeliness hitherto overlooked in this analysis: the contents of the phrase. Each phrase in literature is built of sounds, as each phrase in music consists of notes. One sound suggests, echoes, demands, and harmonizes with another; and the art of rightly using these concordances is the final art in literature. It used to be a piece of good advice to all young writ­ers to avoid alliteration; and the advice was sound, in so far as it prevented daubing. None the less for that, was it
abominable nonsense, and the mere raving of those blindest of the blind who will not see. The beauty of the contents of a phrase, or of a sentence, depends implicitly upon alliteration and upon asso­nance. The vowel demands to be repeated; the consonant demands to be repeated; and both cry aloud to be perpetually varied. You may follow the adventures of a letter through any passage that has particularly pleased you, find it, perhaps, denied a while, to tantalize the ear; find it fired again at you in a whole broadside; or find it pass into congenerous sounds, one liquid or labial melting away into another. And you will find another and much stranger circumstance. Literature is written by and for two senses: a sort of internal ear, quick to perceive "unheard melodies"; and the eye, which directs the pen and deciphers the printed phrase. Well, even as there are rhymes for the eye, so you will find that there are assonances and allitera­tions; that where an author is running the open A, deceived by the eye and our strange English spelling, he will often show a tenderness for the flat A; and that where he is running a partic­ular consonant, he will not improbably rejoice to write it down even when it is mute or bears a different value.
Here, then, we have a fresh pattern—a pattern, to speak grossly, of letters—which makes the fourth preoccupation of the prose writer, and the fifth of the versifier. At times it is very del­icate and hard to perceive, and then perhaps most excellent and winning (I say perhaps); but at times again the elements of this literal melody stand more boldly forward and usurp the ear. It becomes, therefore, somewhat a matter of conscience to select examples; and as I cannot very well ask the reader to help me, I shall do the next best by giving him the reason or the history of each selection. The two first, one in prose, one in verse, I chose without previous analysis, simply as engaging passages that had long re-echoed in my ear.
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. (4)
Down to "virtue," the current S and R are both announced and repeated unobtrusively, and by way of a grace-note that almost inseparable group PVF is given entire. (5)
The next phrase is a period of repose, almost ugly in itself, both Sand R still audible, and B given as the last fulfillment of PVF. In the next four phrases, from "that never" down to "run for," the mask is thrown off, and, but for a slight repetition of the F and V, the whole matter turns, almost too obtrusively, on Sand R; first S coming to the front, and then R.
In the concluding phrase all these favourite letters, and even the flat A, a timid preference for which is just perceptible, are discarded at a blow and in a bundle; and to make the break more obvious, every word ends with a dental, and all but one with T, for which we have been cautiously prepared since the beginning. The singular dignity of the first clause, and this hammer-stroke of the last, go far to make the charm of this exquisite sentence. But it is fair to own that Sand R are used a little coarsely.
In Xanady did Kubla Khan (KANDL)
A stately pleasure dome decree, (KDLSR)
 Where Alph the sacred river ran, (KANDLSR)
Through caverns measureless to man, (KANLSR)
Down to a sunless sea." (NDLS)
Here I have put the analysis of the main group alongside the lines; and the more it is looked at, the more interesting it will seem. But there are further niceties. In lines two and four, the current S is most delicately varied with Z. In line three, the current flat A is twice varied with the open A, already suggested in line two, and both times ("where" and "sacred") in conjunction with the current R. In the same line F and V (a harmony in themselves, even when shorn of their comrade P) are admirably contrasted. And in line four there is a marked subsidiary M, which again was announced in line two. I stop from weariness, for more might yet be said.
My next example was recently quoted from Shakespeare as an example of the poet's colour sense. Now, I do not think litera­ture has anything to do with colour, or poets anyway the better of such a sense; and I instantly attacked this passage, since "pur­ple" was the word that had so pleased the writer of the article, to see if there might not be some literary reason for its use. It will be seen that I succeeded amply; and I am bound to say I think the passage exceptional in Shakespeare-exceptional, indeed, in literature; but it was not I who chose it.
The BaRge she sat iN, like a BURNished throne
BURNT oN the water: the POOP was BeateN gold,
PURPle the sails and so PUR" Fumed that
The wiNds were love-sick with them. (7)
It may be asked why I have put the F of "perfumed" in capi­tals; and I reply, because this change from P to F is the comple­tion of that from B to P, already so adroitly carried out. Indeed, the whole passage is a monument of curious ingenuity; and it seems scarce worth while to indicate the subsidiary S, L, and W. In the same article, a second passage from Shakespeare was quoted, once again as an example of his color sense:
A mole cinque-spotted like the crimson drops
I' the bottom of a cowslip. (8)
It is very curious, very artificial, and not worth while to analyse at length: I leave it to the reader. But before I tum my back on Shakespeare, I should like to quote a passage, for my own pleasure, and for a very model of every technical art:
But in the wind and tempest of her frown (9)
W P. V F. (st) (ow)
Distinction with a loud and powerful fan,
WP. F. (st) (ow) L.
Puffing at all, winnows the light away;
W P. F. L
And what hath mass and matter by itself
W F. L. M. A.
Lies rich in virtue and unmingled!'(10)
From these delicate and choice writers I turned with some curiosity to a player of the big drum-Macaulay. I had in hand the two-volume edition, and I opened at the beginning of the second volume. Here was what I read:
"The violence of revolutions is generally proportioned to the degree of the maladministration which has produced them. It is therefore not strange that the government of Scotland, having been during many years greatly more corrupt than the govern­ment of England, should have fallen with a far heavier ruin. The movement against the last king of the house of Stuart was in England conservative, in Scotland destructive. The English com­plained not of the law, but of the violation of the law."
This was plain-sailing enough; it was our old friend PVF, float­ed by the liquids in a body; but as I read on, and turned the page, and still found PVF with his attendant liquids, I confess my mind misgave me utterly. This could be no trick of Macaulay's; it must be the nature of the English tongue. In a kind of despair, I turned half-way through the volume; and coming upon his lord­ship dealing with General Cannon, and fresh from Claverhouse and Killiecrankie, here, with elucidative spelling, was my reward:
"Meanwhile the disorders of Kannon's Kamp went on inKreasing. He Kalled a Kouncil of war to Konsider what Kourse it would be advisable to taKe. But as soon as the Kouncil had met, a preliminary Kuestion was raised. The army was almost eKsKlusivelya Highland army. The recent vKktory had been won eKsKlusively by Highland warriors. Great chiefs who had brought siKs or Seven hundred fighting men into the field did not think it fair that they should be outvoted by gentlemen from Ireland, and from the Low Kountries, who bore indeed King James's Kommission, and were Kalled Kolonels and Kaptains, but who were Kolonels without regiments and Kaptains without Kornpanies."
A moment of FV in all this world of K's! It was not the English language, then, that was an instrument of one string, but Macaulay that was an incomparable dauber.
It was probably from this barbaric love of repeating the same sound, rather than from any design of clearness, that he acquired his irritating habit of repeating words; I say the one rather than the other, because such a trick of the ear is deeper­seated and more original in man than any logical consideration. Few writers, indeed, are probably conscious of the length to which they push this melody of letters. One, writing very dili­gently, and only concerned about the meaning of his words and the rhythm of his phrases, was struck into amazement by the eager triumph with which he cancelled one expression to sub­stitute another. Neither changed the sense; both being mono­syllables, neither could affect the scansion; and it was only by looking back On what he had already written that the mystery was solved: the second word contained an open A, and for near­ly half a page he had been riding that vowel to the death.
In practice, I should add, the ear is not always so exacting; and ordinary writers, in ordinary moments, content themselves with avoiding what is harsh, and here and there, upon a rare occa­sion, buttressing a phrase, or linking two together, with a patch of assonance or a momentary jingle of alliteration. To under­stand how constant is this preoccupation of good writers, even where its results are least obtrusive, it is only necessary to turn to the bad. There, indeed, you will find cacophony supreme, the rattle of incongruous consonants only relieved by the jaw­breaking hiatus, and whole phrases not to be articulated by the powers of man.
We may now briefly enumerate the elements of style. We have, peculiar to the prose writer, the task of keeping his phrases large, rhythmical, and pleasing to the ear, without ever allowing them to fall into the strictly metrical: peculiar to the versifier, the task of combining and contrasting his double, tre­ble, and quadruple pattern, feet and groups, logic and meter ­harmonious in diversity: common to both, the task of artfully combining the prime elements of language into phrases that shall be musical in the mouth; the task of weaving their argu­ment into a texture of committed phrases and of rounded peri­ods-but this particularly binding in the case of prose: and, again common to both, the task of choosing apt, explicit, and communicative words. We begin to see now what an intricate affair is any perfect passage; how many faculties, whether of taste or pure reason, must be held upon the stretch to make it; and why, when it is made, it should afford us so complete a plea­sure. From the arrangement of according letters, which is alto­gether arabesque and sensual, up to the architecture of the ele­gant and pregnant sentence, which is a vigorous act of the pure intellect, there is scarce a faculty in man but has been exercised. We need not wonder, then, if perfect sentences are rare, and perfect pages rarer.
((4) Milton.
(5) As PVF will continue to haunt us through our English examples, take, by way of comparison, this Latin verse, of which it forms a chief adornment, and do not hold me answerable for the all too Roman freedom of the sense: "Hone vola, quae facilis, quae palliolata vagatur."
(6) Coleridge.
(7) Antony and Cleopatra.
(8) Cymbeline.
(9) The V is in "of."
(10) Troilus and Cressida.

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