English Composition

“ A DULL business this seems to many,” Professor Wendell frankly says of his subject,1 “ yet after ten years’ study I do not find it dull at all. I find it, rather, constantly more stimulating ; and this because I grow more and more aware how in its essence this matter of composition is as far from a dull and lifeless business as earthly matters can be ; how he who scribbles a dozen words, just as truly as he who writes an epic, performs — all unknowing — one of those feats that tell us why men have believed that God made man in his image. For he who scrawls ribaldry, just as truly as he who writes for all time, does that most wonderful of things, — gives a material body to some reality which till that moment was immaterial, executes, all unconscious of the power for which divine is none too grand a word, a lasting act of creative imagination.”

A writer who approaches his task in such a spirit as this, and who has the skill, as Professor Wendell eminently has, to make outer expression correspond to inner feeling, will invest every part of his work with living and luminous interest. Carlyle used to rhapsodize about the importance of realizing the wonder that surrounds our daily life ; and he himself, if he was going to portray an object, inveterately sought a point of view from which he could contemplate it in a kind of surprise. The most commonplace thing, the dullest dumdrudge of a life, became interesting as soon as he looked upon it from a station among the infinities. In its more practical and matter-of-fact aim the book before us proves the same truth ; it evinces that an abiding sense of how much a subject means, in its higher and deeper reaches, may be like wings to both reader and writer, buoying them onward profitably through what would otherwise be a waste of barren detail. Nor is our author’s sense of his subject’s significance a mere expedient to make the presentation of it interesting. It is too genuine and deep-seated for that. It rests upon a truth that every teacher of composition misses it not to bear in mind, — the truth, namely, that rhetoric is not an unrelated subject, not a mere grind for student discipline ; rather, from its beginning it is concerned with the making of real and earnestly meant literature, and a crude schoolboy thesis gives its writer a place, albeit humble, among the world’s makers, its Shakespeares and Bacons. From the prosaic details of English composition no highest literary creation can be exempt. An art that in its supreme achievements must still work patiently among the rudiments has no meaningless preliminaries.

The aim of the book before us corresponds to its original delivery in the form of lectures : it is not a textbook for schools, but a treatise for the general reader. Such a treatise was needed ; and the general reader is fortunate in having his need so ably supplied. For he has here a practical philosophy of composition, by no means lacking in thoroughness and depth, yet so adapted in style and plan to all that the layman finds himself thinking naturally in the dialect of the literary art, as M. Jourdain found himself talking prose, without being aware of the fact. The unity and mutual relatedness of its parts, and the skill with which the author has demonstrated how the whole art centres in a few cardinal principles, are admirable. The subject-matter of the book gives the impression of having been “ cast,” as the Germans express it, “ at one Guss;” so closely does principle cling to principle that when you take up one all the rest come with it. Thus the reader is put in possession of a system that he can hold in mind and carry about as a vade mecum. It is no small service to the reading public thus to have articulated a philosophy.

Yet we find in it no startling novelties of nomenclature or system. Terms that have long been standard, some of them from the time of Campbell and Blair, meet us here without apology. We hear once more about usage reputable, national, and present; about barbarisms and solecisms and improprieties; about clearness and elegance and force. There is no reproach in this ; rather the greater service in saving such old terms as are of perennially vital significance, — a service keenly appreciated by those who see how much rubbish of terminology has been quietly ignored. We are not sure but Professor Wendell works more felicitously in the old lines than when, as sometimes occurs, he ventures out for himself. The term “ principle of mass,” for instance, so far as it is suggestive, seems hardly to suggest its own definition ; and the exposition of its requirement that “parts be so placed as readily to catch the eye ” haunts one with the feeling that the most profoundly characterizing word for it is yet to find. Surely, it is not to the eye alone, or to the eye principally, that composition appeals. The spoken word lies below the written, as in the history of literature so in the nature of things ; ought not the spoken word to define the principle of arrangement ?

To write a course of lectures for the Lowell Institute must have imposed upon the writer at some time a period of strenuous, rapid work ; and the pressure of such brief preparation could not but leave, as it has left here and there, its effect on the style of Professor Wendell’s book. We had marked some passages for criticism on this score ; but on further reflection it seemed to endanger the true perspective of a review life this seriously to bring up such faults of haste as reveal themselves. For they are but spontgia soils; though we do wish the writer had been more accurate and selfconsistent in his definition of style. To stick to the main point, however, the book as a whole is by no means a hasty book. The author did not need to insist as he does that it is the fruit of ten years’ studious experience. It reveals a unity of conception, a grasp of elements, main and subordinate, a ripeness of conclusion, a cleanness of definition and illustration, that could have been only the result of long unhasting meditation. Its style, which must deal in precept, is also a continuous example in point. Let this be proved, not by assertion, but by a representative passage. Here is the masterly way in which the author clears up the much discussed question of shall and will: —

“On the other hand, the English usage which generally seems most arbitrary seems to me really reducible to a matter of the simplest common-sense. I refer to the use of shall and will. Shall is the normal form of the future : its literal meaning is absolutely prophetic ; I shall come, for example, settles the question of my coming. Will, on the other hand, implies distinct volition. I will come means, clearly enough, that I should like to come very much. In the first person, in predicting our own conduct, we use the auxiliaries with their literal meaning. In the second person and the third, we find the case apparently changed: we say, not you shall come, but you will come; not it shall rain, but it will rain. Why ? Simply and solely, I believe, because as a matter of good sense, or at least of good manners, we cannot rationally or decently assume such control of persons or things other than ourselves as to risk a distinct prophecy about them. To say you shall come would be to assume complete control of your conduct ; to say it shall rain, to assume complete control of the weather. As a matter of courtesy, then, we use will when we utter predictions about persons other than ourselves, — implying their consent to the line of conduct we assert them about to follow; and pure idiom, personifying such impersonal things as the weather, makes will the word by which, in such questions as that about rain, we rid ourselves of the assumption of impossible authority or responsibility. In a word, I have found this rule invariable : Shall is the normal form of the future tense. Unless good sense or good manners forbid, it should be used; but when good sense or good manners forbid us to assume control of the subject of the verb, we should use will.”

Throughout these lectures Professor Wendell works in the consciousness that the business of a teacher of composition, like that of the dictionary-maker, is not so much to legislate as to record ; not to make rules of usage, but to find them. This, we are inclined to think, is one of the marks of the progressive scientific method as applied to literary creation. Critics are finding it precarious to lay down arbitrary laws that must be obeyed, or to pronounce oracularly on what ought to be. To see Wordsworth surviving Jeffrey’s dictum, “ This will never do,” and taking his calm stand among the first half dozen poets of England ; to see Carlyle reverenced as a vitalizing power in literature despite his mad rebellion against the proprieties, — facts like these have taught them that in literary matters, eminently, prophecy is much safer after the event. A critical Sir Oracle runs great risk of being a literary Wiggins, whose prediction may turn out true or may turn out ridiculous. There is a more excellent way. It is to keep judgment open and flexible by the fact which Professor Wendell acknowledges at the outset, that questions of rhetoric are not questions of absolute right or wrong, but of better or worse. Almost everything is good for something. “ No principle of composition,” he says further on, “ is anywhere absolute.” In a word, calling rhetoric an art, as we do, let us interpret it as such, concerned as are all arts with problems of cause and effect, of means and ends, of tools and workmanship. A manner of writing or of speaking justifies itself in so far as it effects its purpose. If a man chooses to stand on his head in order to attract attention, he will probably be so far forth successful; but if he wants his success to include also dignity or the regard of the selectest people, obviously he must revise his action. Standing on his head to secure the more comprehensive result is not true art. So in rhetoric the question is always open whether the writer’s purpose might not have been attained by worthier or more economical means, or whether such-and-such expression may not really make against rather than for his object. Herein lies the true domain of the rhetorical art. It does not legislate ; it simply says : See what this manner of writing will do ; see how to proceed in order to produce this effect. Here are your working-tools; here is how to use them. A reassuring truth this to the teacher who sees all his industrious pencil-markings on student essays producing so little effect. How are those vexatious errors to stay corrected ; and alas ! when will the list of possible slips and corrections be complete? The answer is hopeless if we go on dealing merely with the drudgery of grammatical detail, important as this is in its place. Rather, illuminate the drudgery by showing its setting as the component of a worthy art. The real question is a question of producing finely calculated effects ; of clearly seeing a goal, and then reaching it by the best way. It is as definite as cabinet-making; it is as comprehensive as literature itself.

Something of the legislative, however, a treatise on composition has still to do; more exactly it has to define what the years have legislated ; that is, what common consent has made or is making good usage. Nowhere has Professor Wendell rendered more useful or satisfying service than in tracing through the various stages of literary procedure the conflict between arbitrary usage, on the one hand, and the principles of composition, on the other ; and his fine determination, from point to point, of the gradually enlarging sphere of usage opens a tempting field for the historian of style to explore. So ingeniously does this part of the treatment weave itself in and out of the larger plan that we can excuse its becoming by and by a little too self-conscious. We see in the beginning how arbitrary usage is supreme, — in spelling, notably, and scarcely less so in the choice of words ; here there is not much question of the free following of principle, but merely of what can be done inside of rather narrow and rigid limits. As we go on to sentence-structure usage is still potent, but with hold considerably relaxed ; and the principles of unity, of mass, and of coherence share with it as laws of procedure. In paragraphs only a trace of the tyranny of usage remains ; while in the planning of whole compositions principle has become supreme, or, as the author expresses it, coincides with usage. Here, then, is the light that Professor Wendell throws on the evolution of style. “Modern style,” he says, “ the style we read and write to-day, I believe to be the result of a constant though generally unconscious struggle between good use and the principles of composition.” Good usage has thus to take its share with theory, as subject-matter of the rhetorical art.

To trace the aspect of these three principles of composition, as they reappear in modified form in successive procedures; to begin to mention the numerous thought - provoking terms in which important processes or qualities of style are focused, as when ordered sentence-structure is defined as the result of revision, paragraph-structure of prevision, and as when the secret of clearness is found in denotation, of force in connotation, of elegance in adaptation, — all this would too far transcend the space at our command. It is largely such felicities as these which leave upon the mind a sense of the crystalline, clear-cut analysis that must have presided over the composition of these lectures.

The last chapter of the book, the one on Elegance, seems to us the least satisfactory, as it is perhaps the most difficult. Not but that the secret of this quality is rightly defined as adaptation ; not that the treatment fails, though it does not squarely reach its goal, at least to point out the direction of it. But, for one thing, the term elegance, though well defended theoretically by reference to its derivation, comes weighted so inevitably with untoward connotation — to use the author’s term — as to be throughout the discussion a sad handicap to firmness of conception. Then, further, the author seems to lose, in some degree, the definite grip that he had on the other qualities, and to furnish less for the average man to grasp and realize. We are somehow transported to another stratum of ideas, out of the practical realm of composition into the hazy region of æsthetic criticism. It may be hard to make the treatment of such a subject otherwise ; we cannot regard it as impossible. That universal principle of adaptation which gives style its beauty must surely have its application in matter-of-fact procedure.

The illustrative examples of the book would have profited especially by revision. Easy, striking, clear, just adapted as they are to oral delivery and a popular audience, some of them, unfortunately, show to less advantage in the change from lecture - form to printed treatise. Instances like the “ maccaroni ” of Yankee Doodle, the author’s exposition of which rests on erroneous citation ; like the remarks on Hamlet’s “miching mallecho,” in which the lecturer too naïvely poses as “ no witch at a riddle ; ” and the sometimes overlabored talking down to a supposably unrhetorical audience, are tempting bait to the critics of small things, who in seizing on them may so roil the current of the discussion as to keep some readers from profiting by the larger merits of the volume, of which these examples are not fairly representative.

Let us not, however, transgress Professor Wendell’s wholesome principle of mass by letting censure of a book on the whole so delightful be the last thing to catch the eye. Our interest and profit demand rather that we record the net result. By the vigor and clearness of his utterances, by his masterly vitalizing of old principles that easily become worn, by his luminous exposition of a simple, perspicuous, eminently utilizable philosophy of expression, he has earned the gratitude of students and teachers, of lay and learned, alike.

  1. English Composition. Eight Lectures given at the Lowell Institute. By BARRETT WENDELL, Assistant Professor of English at Harvard College. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1891.