The Worship of the Phrase

I HAVE a grievance of long standing. Nobody cares except myself, — perhaps nobody knows. I have kept very still about it. For years I have lived in fear that it would be discovered, and that I should then be excommunicated from the society of the truly knowing. I do not want to be excommunicated. I love the society of the knowing. I love to sit at the feet of the inspired, and I love to have my own feet sat at. None the less, the truth must sometime out ; and the Contributors’ Club offers a safe cover from which to announce it to an indifferent world. I have no style.

I feel more comfortable already by saying this, — almost as if I might attain to one.

But the trouble goes deeper. I not only have no style myself ; I do not know style when I meet it in other people. That is my real grievance. The truly knowing apprehend style. They delight in it. They hold up their hands in ecstasy and awe over an innocent phrase that has, so far as I can see, no wonderful merit. It says what it means, — sometimes, not always, — but it is otherwise like any other phrase. The truly knowing do not find it so. They form a band of esoteric joy about it. They take hold of hands and circle around it, chanting slowly and solemnly : —

“Wonder, wonder, wonder!
A perfect phrase, and mighty! ”

I have circled with them, and I have chanted as loud as anybody ; and all the time I wondered in my guilty heart what it was all about.

A certain Scotchman is perhaps the most concrete form of my grievance. Is it a comfortable position, — I ask it in all humility, — is it comfortable to see other people reveling in something that you cannot see, hear, feel, smell, or taste ; to hear them exulting over something intangible ; to watch them roll up their eyes, and arrange their mouths, and speak with awed breath of the Scotchman’s style as if it were something important and real ? “ It is not so much what Stevenson says,” they explain to me kindly, — “ it is not so much what he says as the way he says it.” Alas, yes. The way he says it! It is not as if I were a stupid person. The sanctity of the Contributors’ Club allows me to say that I believe I am not altogether stupid. Neither am I insensate. I can respond to the charm of Lamb and Montaigne and Walter Pater, and probably to others whom the truly knowing pronounce proper. But my delight in these gentle writers is, I am miserably aware, a very personal delight. They are men and congenial souls ; whereas the genuine, the esoteric delight has to do with “ the perfect phrase.” I would define it more nearly if I could. Walter Pater talks about it, — over my head : “The one word for the one thing, the one thought, amid the multitude of words, terms, that might just do : the problem of style is there.” And there it is likely to remain.

I would gladly sit all day staring at a phrase, mumbling under my breath, changing it, trimming it, clipping it, expanding it, to suit the thought ; but, alas, my thoughts do not come that way. They play about my pen, elusive and shy. Sometimes I impale one and fit it in. But it is always stiff and pathetic. If I want to catch one alive, I must turn my back and pretend to be very busy. One may perchance slip in sideways while I am not looking. But they are shy creatures — with me. I should never dream of staring one out of countenance while I fitted its clothes sternly on, after the manner of the truly great.

I have a mentor. He is a wise man. He has style, and he recognizes style in other people — and lack of style. When I read him my works, he is in despair. “ Can’t you see it ? ” he wails. “ Can’t you see that that preposition spoils the whole thing ? ” No, I can’t see it. I creep away meekly, and change the preposition — sometimes. I have written two or three novels, which the public has not damned with too many editions ; and the critics who sit aloft have spoken kindly of them. But my mentor is not kind. He has not written a novel. He will probably never write one. But he knows style, and I walk humbly before him.