The Act of Composition

EVERYBODY who reads what may be said here has doubtless read also books on the art of composition. Some may, perhaps, recall the perusal of one or more of them among the less exciting incidents of college days. These books on the art of composition began — though they were then of less practical import — with Aristotle some two thousand years ago; and they have been frequent ever since the revival of interest in ancient letters. It is, however, only within the last decade or so that they have come thick and fast. A reviewer who makes a specialty of dealing with these books finds a bunch of five or six arriving every season. Some of them treat of “the broad principles underlying all literature; ” while others narrow down to the technique of the drama or the novel. It would ill become any one to speak with the slightest disrespect of the numerous successors to Aristotle — whether critics or rhetoricians — who have expanded and adjusted the ancient master to new times and new literary conditions. Their work is one of the large items in the history of letters. But it, nevertheless, seems strange that it has occurred to no one in all these twenty-odd centuries to try the public with a book on the act of composition.

For a book with this theme might be made, I should think, quite as interesting and profitable as one built on the old lines. The point of view would shift, you readily see, from the objective to the subjective; from the cold and heartless dissection of a piece of literature to the author’s very self in the act of composing the poem or novel that we had just read with delight. As a result of the inquiry, we might not be able, it is true, to write a poem or a novel as good as the one just laid aside; neither, for that matter, are we likely to write an epic because we have been told by Aristotle that the Iliad has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In either case the chances are equally against us.

It should also be admitted at the outset that the man who tries his fortune with the new theme must have a very sane head. Contemporary writers — especially the novelists — who talk for publication are not as trustworthy as one might desire. Not that they always intend to say what is untrue about themselves; but in the first flush of success, they suffer from a redundancy of the imagination, and consequently see things that never were on land or sea. So it might be necessary to drop from the account most authors still living. But there would still remain all the dead authors who have left behind them letters, journals, and confessions for their most intimate friends.

Authors, when you get a sight of them at their desks,fall into two or three classes distinct enough for separate treatment. There are, first of all, the men who write with a glance now and then at the clock. They are the men of business who go down to their office at eight o’clock sharp, leave for lunch at one, and sometimes return for the afternoon. Their perfect type is Anthony Trollope. When at home he was out of bed at half-past five in the morning, and seated at his desk with watch before him. For three hours thereafter, he turned off two hundred and fifty words every fifteen minutes, and then went to breakfast, and the real business or pleasure of the day. It was all like Hotspur’s killing some score of Scots on a morning, and then complaining to his wife Kate, as he came in to breakfast with bloody hands, that life was becoming dull along the Scottish Border. Trollope repeated the feat at other hours and in other places, — in lodgings, at the club, and, he takes pains to add, on ship amid the interruptions of seasickness. In this manner he wrote within twenty years forty novels, including Barchester Towers and the rest of those delightful cathedral tales. Southey was likewise as regular in his pace as “clockwork.” That he might take all he could out of himself, he wrote not only through the morning, but through most of the afternoon, and far into the night by one solitary candle in a large room, turning for relief from one epic to another, to history, and a magazine article, all in one day. And so he kept it up for weeks and months, in a long succession of years, till the last pathetic scene when the brain gave way.

In illustration of this class of writers, who have made time and circumstance suit their own convenience, examples may be found without number. Like Trollope, Macaulay liked to get his literary work out of the way in the morning. Dr. Johnson wrote when in bed or on a visit to a friend in the country as well as when at his desk. Shorthouse, who was engaged in business, took a day off every week, and in the course of eight or ten years produced John Inqlesant. a romance of singular beauty. Waverley was written with lightning speed at night. A gentleman who lived opposite the famous Edinburgh house where the romancer lived and worked was greatly annoyed by the sight of Scott at the window during those strenuous weeks. “That confounded hand,” he remarked to Scott’s future biographer, as they sat together late one afternoon over their cups, “fascinates my eye, — it never stops, — page after page is finished and thrown on that heap of manuscript, and still it goes on unwearied, — and so it will be till candles are brought in, and God knows how long after that. It is the same every night.” But after Scott settled at Abbotsford, he chose the morning for the later novels; and when health failed him, he found that he could manage dictation, though there were many misgivings at first. No one could imagine that The Bride of Lammermoor came from a man suffering intense pain from cramps in the stomach. Lockhart tells the story. An old Scotch servant was called in to take the dictation. As Scott rolled about on the sofa, dictating and groaning in the same breath, or as, under the excitement of the great scenes, he rose from his couch and walked up and down the room, spilling the blood of the detested bridegroom about the bridal chamber, the old Scotchman at first broke out in exclamations of wonder, and finally became mute and rigid, thinking that the devil had for sure got possession of his dear master.

Scott and his group illustrate, no doubt, what a tremendous will may do in literature. But there is a rather more interesting set of men who can do nothing without a sedative or a stimulant. To tobacco especially the world owes an immense debt. It is, — wrote an old bard who perhaps had enjoyed a smoke with Sir Walter Raleigh himself, — it is —

“ The herb whereby this earthly orb is blest.” Bulwer’s novels were all composed in dense tobacco smoke. After a hasty breakfast, consisting of “a piece of dry toast and a cup of cold tea,” Bulwer withdrew at once to his study, where he worked and smoked incessantly till dinner. Ten minutes for the meal, and a little recreation thereafter, and he was at his desk again till midnight, with Lucretia and The Caxtons, or Kenelm Chillingly and The Parisians, each pair of which was carried on simultaneously. If this example is not quite satisfactory on the virtue of tobacco, — for Bulwer’s novels are not, to say the truth, exactly masterpieces of the human understanding, — there is at hand Lockhart, who was lighting one cigar after another all the time he was at the second best biography in the English language. And Flaubert, in whose art the most fastidious critics find no flaw, required on one day fifteen pipes for eight pages of manuscript. That seems an excessive amount of smoking for so few pages. At any rate, the moderation of Kant is rather to be recommended. The great philosopher discovered, besides time and space and the famous categories, that one small pipe — no more and no less — was just sufficient to wake the pure reason to action after a good night’s sleep.

Instead of tobacco, some have preferred alcohol in small quantities. With Fielding, Sheridan, and most in the eighteenth century, claret was the favorite drink. Balzac chose champagne. Medwin was, of course, mistaken when he said that Byron drank a pint of pure Hollands every night. It was only gin greatly diluted with water that produced Don Juan. Some have gone so far as to say that an author’s drink “has great influence on the forms within which the imagination creates,” wherefore the inference is that it is possible to determine from a particular work what the author was drinking at the time of its composition. Whether this is so or not, I cannot tell. But, with reference to the notion, Ibsen once remarked that his Peer Gynt, which was written in Italy, had to him all “the intoxication of wine,” while his Young Men’s Union, written in the northland, made him think “of smoked sausage and beer.”

A few books have come from opium or chloral. There is, for instance, De Quincey’s famous Confessions, most of Coleridge’s exquisite verse, and some of Rossetti’s. Coleridge — so runs his own account — fell asleep after a dose of laudanum over a fine passage in Purchas’s Pilgrimage, and dreamed out Kubla Khan. Many a man of letters, I dare say, would gladly sleep away the rest of his life, could he thereby have so beautiful a poem set down to his credit. But the penalty is so frightful that I pass to the less harmful aids to the imagination. Montaigne has a passage on the various odors which “change and alter and move my spirits, and work strange effects on me.” But it remained for Schiller to discover the virtue of an odor not in Montaigne’s list. Before sitting down to his work, — with Wallenstein, say, or Wilhelm Tell, — it was Schiller’s custom to place inside his desk a few apples just beyond the mellow stage. The aroma from their slow decay proved to be just the gentle stimulus that was needed in his case to stir the imagination and keep it going. The sensation was, as any one may prove by experiment, not at all disagreeable. It was not the odor of a cider-mill that Schiller had about him, but the sweet smell of an old garret where apples are stored till early winter. And so one might go on forever with the eccentricities of genius. There was the old humorist who sometimes found it necessary to open a vein and let out a little blood before setting out with a new book; another who took a pinch of snuff and then a stride across the room, with perhaps the addition of a clean shave, for he could never write when his beard grew long; and finally there was Dumas, who, according to Thackeray, was accustomed to lie “silent on his back for two whole days on the deck of a yacht, in a Mediterranean port,” and at the end of the period rise up, call for dinner, and have the plot of a new story all worked out in his head.

Women, it may be assumed, have never resorted much to stimulants or other artificial aids to the imagination. Still, we do not know this, as they have all been so exceedingly shy about their literary work. Christina Rossetti, the third and last of the great poetesses, after Sappho and Elizabeth Browning, was never seen in “the act of composition” by the most intimate members of her household, says William Rossetti, except when making playful verses in rivalry with her brothers. “She consulted nobody, and solicited no advice,” it is said further. Frances Burney wrote and published Evelina before her father knew anything about it. The creak of a bad door-hinge warned Jane Austen of the approach of intruders, whereupon the small sheets of paper, cut for easy concealment, were slipped into the mahogany writing-desk or covered with hand or blotter. A niece of hers — a child when the incidents occurred — did, however, remember “how Aunt Jane would sit quietly beside the fire ” in the family circle, “saying nothing for a good while, would then suddenly burst out laughing, jump up, and run across the room ” to pen and paper. Of women, George Sand has perhaps said most on the subject in hand, for she wrote an autobiography. To the stories about, the heavy drinking of Byron and Balzac she gave little or no credence, saying, by the way, that she herself never bedewed her mind with anything stronger than milk or lemonade. The only drink, in her view, that can really avail, is the celestial liquor that the gods sip. The great writer, she held, is directly inspired from above, and must keep perfect control of his faculties, else the divine wave will pass over him without his being able to give distinct form to the thoughts or emotions that it brings.

Just as George Sand says, the very great writers, and some besides who have spoken to the point, confess to inspiration. They rarely feel the need of a stimulant, for to them the exercise of the imagination is of itself an intense emotion of pleasure or pain. They rarely keep fixed times for their work, but wait for the inspired moments, “sleeping and trifling away,” in Goethe’s phrase, “all unprofitable days and hours.” The inspired moments, it is held by all, come without the slightest premonition. “The artist,” so Balzac puts it, “is not in the secret of his intelligence. He works under the empire of certain circumstances, the union of which is a mystery. . . . On one day, without his knowing it, an air is stirring, and all is relaxed. For an empire, for millions . . . he could not write a line. . . . Then some night in the street, some morning on rising, or in the midst of a joyous revel, a coal of fire touches that brain . . . that tongue; suddenly a word awakens ideas; they are born, they grow, they ferment.” The experience of Balzac was also Ibsen’s. Writing to Björnson from Italy back in 1865, Ibsen said that for a year or more he had not known which way to turn, for his literary work would not advance at all. “Then one day,” to quote him exactly, “I went into St. Peter’s . . . and there all at once there dawned upon me a strong and clear form for what I had to say.” What dawned upon Ibsen on that day was the motif of the most impressive tragedy of the nineteenth century. He began writing at once, both forenoon and afternoon, — which he had never before been able to do, — and within two months Brand was complete. In explaining how he was able to maintain through five acts his uncompromising attitude toward modern civilization, Ibsen said at a later date, most curiously: “In the time when I was writing Brand I had standing on my table a scorpion in an empty beer glass. From time to time the animal fell sick; and I used to throw down to it a bit of soft fruit, upon which it cast itself with frenzy, and poured out its venom therein; and so it grew well again.”

As writers have looked back upon some period of inspiration such as came to Ibsen, they have felt that there was a mysterious power working in and through them at the time, wholly apart from their ordinary consciousness. Horace called the power the Deus in nobis. So did George Eliot. This great novelist was, as we all know, an agnostic. On a visit to Cambridge she once took the occasion to declare with terrible earnestness, as she stood there in the presence of the historic church, her disbelief in God and immortality. But when, some years later, she described how “the creative effort affected her,” she could find nothing better than the old language of supernatural direction. “She told me,” says the account bv her husband, “that in all her best writing, there was a ‘not her-self’ which took possession of her, and that she felt her own personality to be merely the instrument through which this spirit, as it were, was acting. Particularly she dwelt on this in regard to the scene in Middlemarch between Dorothea and Rosamond, saying that, although she always knew they had sooner or later to come together, she kept the idea resolutely out of her mind until Dorothea was in Rosamond’s drawing-room. Then, abandoning herself to the inspiration of the moment, she wrote the whole scene exactly as it stands, without alteration or erasure, in an intense state of excitement and agitation.”

This power that guides the hand has seemed, in the view of many, too capricious to come from above. Scott, when taken to task by Captain Clutterbuck for his poor plots, replied that he had sometimes laid out his work by compass and rule, but that a demon seated himself on the feather of his pen whenever he began to write, and led it astray from the purpose. Sterne tells a story directly in this line about a certain John de la Casse, sometime archbishop of Benevento, who discovered “the state of composition” to be ” a state of desperate warfare” with the devil and his imps. For whenever the archbishop sat down to his Gulatea, it is related, myriads of devils rushed from their lurking-places to cajole him with a multitude of profane thoughts and fancies. Wherefore it took the said John de la Casse more than forty years to eliminate from his romance the contributions of his infernal collaborators; and there was left for his own only a small pamphlet of some few pages. So by implication we are to infer that if there is anything in Tristram Shandy unbecoming to a country parson, it is to be set down to Benevento’s devils, who likewise pursued Sterne.

What appeared to Sterne and Scott as caprice has taken with others, who have regarded the matter more seriously, the aspect of impelling fate. So real was the presence of fate to Hawthorne that he once thought of making it the subject of a short story. When the idea came to him, he wrote out this remarkable memorandum: “A person to be writing a tale, and to find that it shapes itself against his intentions; that the characters act otherwise than he thought; that unforeseen events occur; and a catastrophe occurs which he tries in vain to avert.’’ As if to confirm by fact what Hawthorne only imagined, Thackeray wrote about himself some thirty years later. After complaining that his Pegasus refuses the bit, and goes as he pleases at slow or swift pace, the humorist adds: “I wonder, do other novel-writers experience this fatalism ? They must go a certain way, in spite of themselves. I have been surprised at the observations made by some of my characters. It seems as if an occult Power was moving the pen. The personage does or says something, and I ask, how the dickens did he come to think of that ? ... We spake anon of

the inflated style of some writers. What also if there is an afflated style, — when a writer is like a Pythoness on her oracle tripod, and mighty words, words which he cannot help, come blowing, and bellowing, and whistling, and moaning through the speaking pipes of his bodily organ ?”

When the great writers go on to describe the psychic states they are in during the process of composition, we come to most interesting phenomena. To the ancients, the inspired writer was a madman; but to distinguish his state from ordinary madness, it was called “amiable madness.” Shakespeare but repeated Horace and Plato when he spoke of “the poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling.” Macaulay, Balzac, and Disraeli also insisted on an unsoundness of mind in the poet, just short of insanity. And Schopenhauer tried to determine the exact line between the two states. But nearer the truth are probably more pleasing analogies. Thackeray, on finishing The Newcomes, told his children, as he was walking with them in the fields near Berne in Switzerland, that the story had all been revealed to him somehow, as in a dream. George Sand, when writing a novel, was under the spell of an hallucination, wherein a crowd of half-distinct characters hovered about her, separated from her, as it were, by a transparent veil, and speaking in thin voices. And when the novel was completed, they all vanished, leaving no trace behind. So apart from her ordinary self were they, that not even the names she gave them were afterward remembered. Of her first novel, she says: “I felt, on beginning Indiana, an emotion of a very definite and intense kind, resembling nothing that I had experienced in my preceding literary work. But that emotion was rather painful than agreeable. I wrote continuously and without plan, and literally without knowing whither I was going, — even without being aware of the social problem I was elaborating.” The words of George Sand would seem incredible, were it not for the testimony of Goethe to the unconsciousness of much of his own work. Some of his lyrics, Goethe told Eckermann, he carried about in his head for many years as beautiful dreams that came and went, and finally he wrote them out for Schiller, who wanted them for publication. “But others of them,” he added, in the most extraordinary confession I have to relate, “have been preceded by no impressions of forebodings, but have come suddenly upon me, and have insisted on being composed immediately, so that I have felt an instinctive and dreamy impulse to write them down on the spot. In such a somnam bulistic condition, it has often happened that I have had a sheet of paper lying quite askew before me, and I have not discovered it till all has been written, or I have found no room to write any more.”

The mind as here presented in the act of composition suggests views of literary creation that run mostly counter to what is found in books descriptive of the painful evolution of literary masterpieces. If Sheridan said that “easy writing makes d—d hard reading,” he could have referred only to neglect of details in execution, else all are against him. Shakespeare may have known, as Freytag neatly explains him, that to a drama is necessary a rise and fall in the action, cut by a climax, and leading on to a catastrophe; but he was not thinking of that when he wrote Macbeth. He was there and elsewhere guided by an inward and unconscious logic more rigorous than any critic’s formal account of it, illustrated by diagrams. “ What he thought,” said his first editors, who knew him, “he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in the papers.” So it has been with men of less genius. Scott used to be immensely amused at the critics who selected a scene for praise and another for censure on the ground that the one was composed slowly and the other in haste. For they always, said Scott, got the scenes in reverse order. So rapidly did Macaulay Write, that the first draft of his History of England looks like “columns of dashes and flourishes,” says Trevelyan. There was only one manuscript of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; and the same is true of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. “I appeal,” says Shelley, “to the greatest poets of the present day, whether it is not an error to assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labour and study. The toil and the delay recommended by critics can be justly interpreted to mean no more than a careful observation of the inspired moments, and an artificial connexion of the spaces between their suggestions, by the intertexture of conventional expressions.”

Shelley’s word is final, and completes the subject. Any poem, drama, or novel, worthy of the name, springs direct and spontaneously from an emotional mood, and it is invariably written under a strong and steady impulse. A writer may surrender himself completely to his emotions, and then he becomes to an extent unconscious and impersonal, as he pours forth his soul in a lyric, or as rise in his imagination characters, incidents, and situations, all assuming a succession he never dreamed of.

. . . As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothings
A local habitation and a name.

So wrote one who knew. The incentive to a lyric may be merely a strain of music running in the poet’s head. “What produces works of inspiration,” said Schiller in one of his letters, “is not always, I think, the vivid image of the subject, but only the need of a subject, a vague impetus toward the expression of struggling emotions. The music of a poem floats before my soul when I sit down to write it, far more often than the clear concept of its content, concerning which I have often scarcely made up my mind. I am led to this remark by my Hymn to Light, with which I am occupied at many odd moments. Of this poem I have still no Idea, but only a presentiment, and yet I feel certain that it will work itself out.”

Schiller’s lyric is, of course, an extreme case. A playwright or novelist commonly sets out with some general plan, which he may or may not follow to the end. It was Alfieri’s practice, when he had hit upon a theme for a play, to sketch the scenes and characters rapidly under the impulse of his first emotions, and then to throw the work aside until the original plan was forgotten. “If, on reperusing the manuscript after that period had elapsed,” he says, “I felt myself assailed by such a crowd of ideas and emotions as compelled me, so to speak, to take up my pen, I concluded that my sketch was worthy of being unfolded; but if, on the contrary, I felt not an enthusiasm equal at least to what I had experienced on conceiving the design, I either changed my plan or threw the papers into the fire. As soon as I became satisfied that my first idea was perfect, I expanded it with the greatest rapidity, frequently writing two acts a day, and seldom less than one, so that in six days my tragedy was, I will not say finished, but created.”

Alfieri does not mean to say that there was not after-labor of a most serious and painful kind. In six days his tragedy was created, but not finished. He had yet “ to polish, correct, and amend.” For not all minds move with the unconscious logic of Shakespeare’s, Gibbon’s, or George Eliot’s. Rossetti, the most fastidious of writers,illustrates the point exactly. There are extant three versions of The Blessed Damozel, separated by the extremes of a quarter-century. The first version was made in Rossetti’s youth, long before the period of opium and chloral. For the idea of it he did not “cudgel his brains,” says his brother; it. came to him in the course of his reading in Dante. But when the poem was once written out under the sway of a clear inspiration, Rossetti spared no pains “in clarifying and perfecting.” Old stanzas were transposed or dropped altogether, and new ones were added; a cockney rhyme fell out here and there, and for an obscure or weak image was substituted just the phrase that makes for perfection. As Rossetti first published it, The Blessed Damozel is a poem of entrancing but irregular beauty; as he finally left it, every detail has been weighed and considered with reference to every other detail, that its art may be faultless. And yet, after all that may be said in praise of the execution, The Blessed Damozel remains in all prime essentials what it was when first printed in an amateur art journal. Had not the original conception been “a thing of beauty,” no superadded labor could have availed; the manuscript would have gone, with Alfieri’s useless papers, into the fire. One must first have the diamond before he can polish it.