In Defense of the Verb

I HAVE just had the pleasure of reading, in the October Contributors’ Club, a defense of the adjective. It is always balm to the soul of the professor of rhetoric, to hear the dignity of any part of speech insisted on. This defense of the adjective, however, is achieved largely by subtle animadversions upon the verb. The teachers of composition and rhetoric — I confess myself, here, of the clan that, over countless undergraduate themes, dies daily in defense of grammar — are accused of discrediting the adjective in these terms: “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.” I am conscious, myself, of having given some such advice, a score of times, in my own lecture-room. Perhaps, for the honor of all dispensers of marginal criticism, I may be allowed to speak briefly in defense of the verb.

In the first place, let me say that, to the practiced ear, the counsel quoted has the unmistakable ring of counsel addressed to the student, to the amateur, to the young writer eager to create. Practical advice is never the last word of theory, scientific or æsthetic. The superior importance of the verb to the adjective, in the sum of aesthetic effects, might perhaps be successfully defended; but this is not the place for an essay toward the psychology of style. Nor, save in rare instances, can one put — even to a group of embryonic novelists — the question, “Which is the most important part of speech ?” One’s aim is to get all the parts of speech wisely and effectively used. But there are times when the eager creator of literary effects himself puts the pathetic plain query, “How can I make this conventional stuff of mine convincing?” To such it is usually necessary to say, “Leave your friend the adjective, and cultivate the acquaintance of the verb.”

The advocate of adjectives has, I am inclined to think, taken our practical advice too literally. Both verbs and adjectives, in any printed page, there must be. The only question sanely at issue is not of the mere presence, but of the preponderance, of the particular part of speech. Further, he confuses his literary genres as the detested “rhetorician” may not. One might fancy, from his quotations, that prose and poetry were subject to the same laws, and that literature, whether prose or poetry, consisted most legitimately of pure description. Prose and poetry are not subject to the same laws, as the weary lecturer knows. The critic admits satirically that the “ New Narrative ” may perhaps be the place of the verb. We grant that the tasks of description and narrative are originally different. But no description, save of dead things, can do without some of the vocabulary of change — and even after death there is decay. One has only to read Blair’s Grave. πάντɑ ῥϵῖ. A great deal of description, even, is done in the narrative spirit: the English Mail-Coach, for example, or the Fall of the House of Usher. Indeed, it is often difficult to say whether a page is preponderatingly descriptive or narrative. The critic has rested his argument, so far as possible, on passages so short that the narrative element is barely evident. Is it, indeed, quite fair to go to Shakespeare and Milton for consummate adjectives, and to invent a piece of fustian to illustrate the misuse of the verb ?

Moreover — and it is here, perhaps, that one most feels the frivolity of the comment — the champion of adjectives has not seen that the fundamental distinction is not between adjective and verb, but between substantive-idea and verbidea. It is a distinction that I think no “ rhetorician,” in uttering the quoted caution, would fail to point out as the real one. The adjective, like the noun, generalizes about the thing discussed. The verb and its adverb satellites particularize an aspect thereof. The noun names for you one definite thing; the pure adjective gives you of that thing one essential attribute. The verb and its attendant adverbs give you one incidental feat performed by the object named in the noun; there are a hundred verbs to the life of one noun, each selecting, separating, distinguishing, its moment from other moments. It is to be conscienceless again, as the rhetorician may not be, to refuse to see half our adjectives as verbal in derivation and idea; or even to consider, in this sense, a participle an adjective at all.

Of the authentic quotations made, let me take the only one really long enough to be considered in the nature of proof, — that from Walter Pater’s Leonardo da Vinci. Let me requote it, italicizing, for the nonce, the words that are one form or another of the verb: —

“ 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 trap-rock 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 wand 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.”

I will ask any reader to tell whether the italicized words, rather than the adjectives, are not, on the whole, the words that give the picture. “ Examine the works of the writers who move you,” the “ sophisticated literati” are accused of saying; “ you will find that they write in words of motion, in verbs.” Does the critic, then, seriously not consider that the effect which Pater has here produced, he has produced rather by his reefs that “ cut ” the water, by the way in which he makes one “ follow" ” the “ moving ” water, “springing,” “passing,” “washing,” “ stealing,” “ divided,” than by his “ bituminous ” rocks, the “ distant ” source, the “ little ” fall, the “ treacherous ” calm ? “ Those adjectives,” he exclaims, “ cannot have been left there by mistake.” Agreed: but they seem at the least as fortuitous as the verbs. One half wonders if the critic, moved by the passage in question, did not assume, quite without analysis, that his pleasure in it was induced by the adjectives it contains. It is certain that if I had been recommending the passage to a student of style, I should, in all innocence, have noted especially for him Pater’s use of verbs.

To retort to Shakespeare with Shakespeare is, in any cause, only too easy. But listen to Keats, who surely cannot be said to have any grudge against adjectives: —

Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core ;
To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shells.”

Does it appear that this quintessentially “ descriptive ” poet undervalues the descriptive power of the verb ?

I could almost wish that I had under my hand, and might insert here, any piece of “ creative ” literature from the pen of almost any clever undergraduate. It would instantly be made evident that the advice against adjectives is founded on necessity. The history of each human vocabulary begins with the noun: the object pointed at, and correctly denominated, by the precocious infant, to the wonder and applause of parents. Then come the verbs-of-all-work, — “is,” “seems,” “ becomes,” “ grows,” — with such variety alone as mood and tense can give. The youth first begins to “ write ” seriously on the day when he discovers the adjective. Second-rate literature is full of good adjectives; third-rate literature, of bad ones. But the verbs-of-all-work are kept. I should like to offer my own exercise in satire — but it would inherit too richly from generations of actual manuscripts. A mere shred of example, I might give. Mr. Kipling may be called one of those modern writers who are “our true models in technique ” (as the critic says), because “ we never doubt that they, like us, are men — men whom we may try to equal, not without hope of success.” He is undoubtedly more imitable than Shakespeare. I chance to remember, at this moment, two sentences of his in The Naulahka, which illustrate the way in which the adjective-intoxicated amateur does not write: —

“ The thing lay on the boy’s shoulders, a yoke of flame. It outshone the silent Indian stars above, turned the tossing torches to smears of dull yellow, and sucked the glitter from the cloth of gold on which it lay.”

There can be no doubt that under the pen of the average undergraduate, male or female, the impression would have been recorded thus: —

“ The thing was like a yoke of flame on the boy’s shoulders. It was brighter even than the silent Indian stars above; it made the tossing torches look like smears of dull yellow, and the cloth of gold, on which it lay, seem less glittering.” And I have done the hypothetical student the preposterous grace of leaving him Mr. Kipling’s own adjectives.

The critic says, finally, “ It is well to advise the schoolboy to use fewer adjectives (for he generally dumps them on his page by the barrow-load); it is well to tell him to use more verbs (for that is where he is sure to be weak).” It is the concession of a diplomat; and almost leads us to think, for a moment, that we are quarreling about nothing. But we are not quarreling about nothing; and if the critic had had only such things to say as no one could disagree with, he would not have taken the trouble to write his interesting little article at all. If it were all a question of mere verbal temperance, both of us would have, for reason’s sake, to be at one. No one takes the trouble to prove an axiom. The point is that, even though we grant the two parts of speech to be equally important, — and frankly, I do not; and obviously, he does not, — there can be no question as to where help is most needed. The adjective already has the unwavering allegiance of millions.

Still, we must remember that it is not merely a question of practical advice — not even of the ultimate psychology of style; least of all, of individual preferences and conceptions in the vexed matter of words. In a more important battle than any of these, the defender of adjectives and the defender of verbs are fighting on the same side. Ours is not unlike the secret free-masonry of alchemists, who might, none the less, passionately differ as to the composition of the great elixir. So, against the vast hordes for whom language exists only as a cheap signal-service between demand and supply, we are at one. Those have never exclaimed, —

Créer: sentir les mots palpiter sur la page,
Les entendre frémir d’amour, pleurer de rage,
Et moi-meme avec eux souffrir, vibrer, crier ;
Etre en eux comme Dieu dans le monde — créer!

Those might believe with the apocryphal prophet Enoch concerning the damnation of the angel Pênêmnê, of whom he says,

“ He instructed mankind in writing with ink and paper, and thereby many sinned from eternity to eternity and until this day. For it was not intended, when man was created, that he should give confirmation to his good faith with pen and ink in such wise.”

As against them, I may hope, we are heart and soul together.