Lo! The Poor Adjective

IN the old happy days of barbarism, when the rude pioneers of American literature, Hawthorne, Lowell, Holmes, Emerson, and the others of that unrestrained, inartistic generation, were turning out their rough-hewn tales and essays, we used to be taught that the parts of speech were nine in number, and that they all had their part to play in language. It is different now. To be sure the parts of speech, though somewhat changed in definition and arrangement, are still with us, but the old equality is gone. One class of words the subtle rhetoricians of our day have exalted with rapturous adulation, another they have made a by-word and a reproach.

What have the poor adjectives done, I wonder, that our sophisticated literati should shudder at their mention, and speak of them with stinging words like these: —

“The worst feature of all inexperienced writers is their abominable adjectivity.” “Use the adjective sparingly if at all. It is not the ‘ Word of Power,’ A thing is better described by a statement of what it does than by the attribution to it of qualities. Speak in verbs, that is, rather than in adjectives. Examine the works of the writers who move you. You will find that they write in words of motion, in verbs.”

This is the spirit of the time: on all sides, in the school composition and rhetoric, as well as in the authoritative journal of criticism, this reiterated exhortation is being dinned into the ears of the growing generation of authors. “Use the adjective sparingly if at all. Speak in verbs! ” and the typical magazine hackwriter, trying desperately to break into the man-of-letters class, exterminates as vermin the chance attributive that strays into his first rough draft. But was it always so ? Has the adjective always been too soft in temper for the master’s fine, sure hand, — the tool of none but bungling ’prentices? I remember some lines by a poet of considerable importance in his day: —

Him the almighty power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal aky
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
In adamantine chains and penal fire.

Here there are one or two adjectives used not without effect. Or again (I quote from an even better-known poet), —

Ere the bat hath flown
His cloistered flight, ere to black Hecate’s summons
The shard-borne beetle, with his drowsy hums,
Hath rung night’s yawning peal, there shall
be done A deed of dreadful note.

It seems almost as if the poets had rather a fancy for the adjective, as if they believed that its careful but liberal use brought to their verse an added fullness of sound, a richness of association. But this is hardly fair. Classics though they are, Milton and Shakespeare are not the models to be copied by a pupil in the art of writing, for the phrases that swell in harmony with the majesty of a great argument, in lesser hands, when the surge of genius is lacking, ring false and hollow.

Let us turn then to the modern masters of style, whom the half-scoffing poet has characterized as men, “ who, having nothing much to say, said it supremely well.” The description is inadequate, for some of them rub elbows with the immortals, but it is not unsuggestive, for however much we may marvel at the beauty and finish of their work, we never doubt that they like us are men, — men whom we may try to equal, not without hope of success. They are our true models in technique; let us see how they have treated the adjective.

Foreigner though he was, De Maupassant may justly be called the literary father of many of our cleverest workmen. Note his “ scanty use of the adjective ” in this description: —

“ Les crapauds à tout instant jetaient par l’espace leur note courte et métallique, et des rossignols lointains mêlaient leur musique égrenée qui fait rêver saus faire penser, leur musique légère et vibrante, faite pour les baisers, à la séduction du clair de lune.”

No one can call the prose of Mr. Henry James slipshod or Corinthian. Here is a characteristic passage from The Ambassadors:

“ The place itself was a great impression — a small pavilion, clear-faced and sequestered, an effect of polished parquet, of fine white panel and spare sallow gilt, of decoration delicate and rare, in the heart of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and on the edge of a cluster of gardens attached to old noble houses.”

Mr. James could not possibly have overlooked all those adjectives in the proofs. No more could Mr. Walter Pater when he revised this sentence: —

“In him first appears the taste for what is bizarre or recherché in landscape; hollow places full of the green shadow of bituminous rocks, ridged reefs of traprock which cut the water into quaint sheets of light; all the solemn effects of moving water; you may follow it springing from its distant source among the rocks on the heath of the Madonna of the Balances, passing as a little fall into the treacherous calm of the Madonna of the Lake, next, as a goodly river, below the cliffs of the Madonna of the Rocks, washing the white walls of its distant villages, stealing out in a network of divided streams in La Gioconda to the seashore of Saint Anne — that delicate place, where the wind passes like the hand of some fine etcher over the surface, and the untorn shells are lying thick upon the sand, and the tops of the rocks, to which the waves never rise, are green with grass grown fine as hair.”

No! Those adjectives cannot have been left there by mistake, and I fancy that each author, as he read his passage over, allowed himself the vanity of thinking it not so bad. Perhaps he had never been taught the necessity of using adjectives “ sparingly if at all.” Perhaps in his own blundering way, ignorant of our worthy professors of rhetoric, he studied the problem of diction in experiment after experiment, and came to the conclusion that all parts of speech become abominable in incompetent hands, yet each has its peculiar excellence and all are essential to balanced prose.

Surely the truth of the matter is not that the adjective is in itself a thing of evil, but that it has come into discredlt through the fascination it exercises over the beginner. He has but one resource whenever he thinks it necessary to color the tedious flatness of his style: he slaps in an adjective; and it is the reaction from his reckless misuse that lies behind the general suspicion of this class of words. It is well to advise the schoolboy to use fewer adjectives (for he generally dumps them on his page by the barrowload); it is well to tell him to use more verbs (for that is where he is sure to be weak). But such advice is too sweeping for even the least experienced of mature writers, and even the schoolboy should be told that adjectives have their virtues, and verbs themselves have drawbacks. The schoolgirl composition, sodden with “ verys,” “ sweets,” and “ nices,” is a terrible thing, but is it any worse than the New Narrative, monotonous for all its sound and fury, which runs from beginning to end at about this level. —

“ Beverly raged into the café and flung himself into the seat opposite Mme. Blanc. He glimpsed the menu, then flashed a glance around the room. A waiter rushed forward. ‘ Coffee and rolls! ' he bellowed. The waiter cowered against a side table, shattering the glassware. Beverly guffawed, then, shooting a look at his vis-à-vis, ' Madame,’ he insinuated. She brightened. ' Garçon! ’ She hesitated. ‘ Garçon! — bring me,’ — she took the plunge, — ‘ bring me also coffee and rolls! ’ ”