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An essay by Charles Kingsley

On English Composition

Title:     On English Composition
Author: Charles Kingsley [More Titles by Kingsley]

Introductory Lectures given at Queen's College, London, 1848.

An introductory lecture on English composition is, I think, as much needed as one on any other subject taught in this College. For in the first place, I am not sure whether we all mean the same thing when we speak of English composition; and in the next place, I believe that pupils themselves are very often best able to tell their teachers what sort of instruction they require. I purpose therefore to-day, not only to explain freely my intentions with regard to this course of lectures, but to ask you to explain freely your own wants.

I must suppose, however, that the ladies who attend here wish to be taught how to write English better. Now the art of writing English is, I should say, the art of speaking English, and speech may be used for any one of three purposes: to conceal thought, as the French diplomatist defined its use; to conceal the want of thought, as the majority of popular writers and orators seem nowadays to employ it; or, again, to express thought, which would seem to have been the original destination of the gift of language. I am therefore, I suppose, in duty bound to take for granted that you come here to be taught to express your thoughts better.

The whole matter then will very much depend on what thoughts you have to express. For the form of the symbol must depend on the form of the thing symbolised, as the medal does upon its die; and thus style and language are the sacraments of thoughts, the outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace, or want of grace, in the writer. And even where language is employed to conceal either thought, or want thereof, it generally tells a truer tale than it was meant to do. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth must speak, and the hollowness or foolishness of the spirit will show itself, in spite of all cunning sleights, in unconscious peculiarities or defects of style.

Hence I say style, as the expression of thought, will depend entirely on what there is within to be expressed, on the character of the writer's mind and heart. We all allow this implicitly in the epithets which we apply to different styles. We talk of a vigorous, a soft, a weak, a frigid, an obscure style, not meaning that the words and sentences in themselves are vigorous, soft, weak, or even obscure (for the words and their arrangement may be simple enough all the while). No, you speak of the quality of the thoughts conveyed in the words; that a style is powerful, because the writer is feeling and thinking strongly and clearly; weak or frigid, because his feelings on the subject have been weak or cold; obscure to you, because his thoughts have been obscure to himself--because, in short, he has not clearly imagined to himself the notion which he wishes to embody. The meaning of the very words "expression" and "composition" prove the truth of my assertion. Expression is literally the pressing out into palpable form that which is already within us, and composition, in the same way, is the composing or putting together of materials already existing--the form and method of the composition depend mainly on the form and quality of the materials. You cannot compose a rope of sand, or a round globe of square stones--and my friend Mr. Strettell will tell you, in his lectures on grammar, that words are just as stubborn and intractable materials as sand or stone, and that we cannot alter their meaning or value a single shade, for they derive that meaning from a higher fountain than the soul of man, from the Word of God, the fount of utterance, who inspires all true and noble thought and speech--who vindicated language as His own gift, and man's invention, in that miracle of the day of Pentecost. And I am bound to follow up Mr. Strettell's teaching by telling you that what holds true of words, and of their grammatic and logical composition, holds true also of their aesthetic and artistic composition, of style, of rhythm, of poetry, and oratory. Every principle of these which is true and good, that is, which produces beauty, is to be taken as an inspiration from above, as depending not on the will of man but of God; not on any abstract rules, of pedant's invention, but on the eternal necessities and harmony, on the being of God Himself.

These may seem lofty words, but I do not think they are likely to make us lofty-minded. I think that the belief of them will tend to make us all more reverent and earnest in examining the utterances of others, more simple and truthful in giving vent to our own, fearing equally all prejudiced and hasty criticism, all self-willed mannerism, all display of fine words, as sins against the divine dignity of language. From these assertions I think we may conclude what is the true method of studying style. The critical examination of good authors, looking at language as an inspiration, and its laws as things independent of us, eternal and divine, we must search into them as we would into any other set of facts, in nature, or the Bible, by patient induction. We must not be content with any traditional maxims, or abstract rules, such as have been put forth in Blair and Lord Kaimes, for these are merely worked out by the head, and can give us no insight into the magic which touches the heart. All abstract rules of criticism, indeed, are very barren. We may read whole folios of them without getting one step farther than we were at first, viz. that what is beautiful is beautiful. Indeed, these abstract rules generally tend to narrow our notions of what is beautiful, in their attempt to explain spiritual things by the carnal understanding. All they do is to explain them away, and so those who depend on them are tempted to deny the beauty of every thing which cannot be thus analysed and explained away, according to the established rule and method. I shall have to point out this again to you, when we come to speak of the Pope and Johnson school of critics, and the way in which they wrote whole folios on Shakespeare, without ever penetrating a single step deeper towards the secret of his sublimity. It was just this idolatry of abstract rules which made Johnson call Bishop Percy's invaluable collection of ancient ballads "stuff and nonsense." It was this which made Voltaire talk of "Hamlet" as the ravings of a drunken savage, because forsooth it could not be crammed into the artificial rules of French tragedy. It is this which, even at this day, makes some men of highly-cultivated taste declare that they can see no poetry in the writings of Mr. Tennyson; the cause, little as they are aware of it, simply being that neither his excellences nor his faults are after the model of the Etonian classical school which reigned in England fifty years ago. When these critics speak of that with which they sympathise they are admirable. They become childish only when they resolve to bind all by maxims which may suit themselves.

We must then, I think, absolutely eschew any abstract rules as starting-points. What rules we may require, we must neither borrow nor invent, but discover, during the course of our reading. We must take passages whose power and beauty is universally acknowledged, and try by reverently and patiently dissecting them to see into the secret of their charm, to see why and how they are the best possible expressions of the author's mind. Then for the wider laws of art, we may proceed to examine whole works, single elegies, essays, and dramas.

In carrying out all this, it will be safest, as always, to follow the course of nature, and begin where God begins with us. For as every one of us is truly a microcosm, a whole miniature world within ourselves, so is the history of each individual more or less the history of the whole human race, and there are few of us but pass through the same course of intellectual growth, through which the whole English nation has passed, with an exactness and perfection proportionate, of course, to the richness and vigour of each person's character. Now as in the nation, so in the individual, poetry springs up before prose. Look at the history of English literature, how completely it is the history of our own childhood and adolescence, in its successive fashions. First, fairy tales--then ballads of adventure, love, and war--then a new tinge of foreign thought and feeling, generally French, as it was with the English nation in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries--then elegiac and reflective poetry--then classic art begins to influence our ripening youth, as it did the youth of our nation in the sixteenth century, and delight in dramatic poetry follows as a natural consequence--and last, but not least, as the fruit of all these changes, a vigorous and matured prose. For indeed, as elocution is the highest melody, so is true prose the highest poetry. Consider how in an air, the melody is limited to a few arbitrary notes, and recurs at arbitrary periods, while the more scientific the melody becomes, the more numerous and nearly allied are the notes employed, and the more complex and uncertain is their recurrence--in short, the nearer does the melody of the air approach to the melody of elocution, in which the notes of the voice ought continually to be passing into each other, by imperceptible gradations, and their recurrence to depend entirely on the emotions conveyed in the subject words. Just so, poetry employs a confined and arbitrary metre, and a periodic recurrence of sounds which disappear gradually in its higher forms of the ode and the drama, till the poetry at last passes into prose, a free and ever-shifting flow of every imaginable rhythm and metre, determined by no arbitrary rules, but only by the spiritual intent of the subject. The same will hold good of whole prose compositions, when compared with whole poems.

Prose then is highest. To write a perfect prose must be your ultimate object in attending these lectures; but we must walk before we can run, and walk with leading-strings before we can walk alone, and such leading-strings are verse and rhyme. Some tradition of this is still kept up in the practice of making boys write Latin and Greek verses at school, which is of real service to the intellect, even when most carelessly employed, and which, when earnestly carried out, is one great cause of the public school and University man's superiority in style to most self-educated authors. And why should women's writings be in any respect inferior to that of men, if they are only willing to follow out the same method of self-education?

Do not fancy, when I say that we must learn poetry before we learn prose, that I am only advancing a paradox; mere talking is no more prose than mere rhyme is poetry. Monsieur Jourdain, in Moliere's comedy, makes, I suspect, a very great mistake, when he tells his master: "If that means prose, I've been talking prose all my life." I fancy the good man had been no more talking prose, than an awkward country boy has been really walking all his life, because he has been contriving somehow to put one leg before the other. To see what walking is, we must look at the perfectly-drilled soldier, or at the perfectly-accomplished lady, who has been taught to dance in order that she may know how to walk. Dancing has been well called the poetry of motion; but the tender grace, the easy dignity in every gesture of daily life which the perfect dancer exhibits answers exactly to that highly-organised prose which ought to be the offspring of a critical acquaintance with poetry. Milton's matchless prose style, for instance, grows naturally from his matchless power over rhyme and metre. Practice in versification might be unnecessary if we were all born world-geniuses; so would practice in dancing, if every lady had the figure of a Venus and the garden of Eden for a playground. But even the ancient Greeks amid every advantage of climate, dress, and physical beauty, considered a thorough instruction in all athletic and graceful exercises as indispensably necessary, not only to a boy's but also to a girl's education, and in like manner, I think the exquisite models of prose with which English literature abounds will not supersede the necessity of a careful training in versification, nay, will rather make such a training all the more requisite for those who wish to imitate such excellence. Pray understand me: by using the word "imitate," I do not mean that I wish you to ape the style of any favourite author. Your aim will not be to write like this man or that woman, but to write like yourselves, being of course responsible for what yourselves are like. Do not be afraid to let the peculiarities of your different characters show yourselves in your styles. Your prose may be the rougher for it, but it will be at least honest; and all mannerism is dishonesty, an attempt to gain beauty at the expense of truthful expression which invariably defeats its own ends, and produces an unpleasing effect, so necessarily one are truth and beauty. So far then from wishing to foster in you any artificial mannerism, mannerism is that foul enchanter from whom, above all others, I am sworn "en preux chevalier" to deliver you. As Professor Maurice warned me when I undertook this lectureship, my object in teaching you about "styles" should be that you may have no style at all. But mannerism can be only avoided by the most thorough practice and knowledge. Half-educated writers are always mannerists; while, as the ancient canon says, "the perfection of art is to conceal art"--to depart from uncultivated and therefore defective nature, to rise again through art to a more organised and therefore more simple naturalness. Just as, to carry on the analogy which I employed just now, it is only the perfect dancer who arrives at that height of art at which her movements seem dictated not by conscious science, but unconscious nature.

I do hope then that the study, and still more the practice of versification, may produce in you the same good effects which they do in young men; that they may give you a habit of portioning out your thoughts distinctly and authentically in a more simple, condensed, and expressive style; that they may teach you what elevation of language, what class of sounds, what flow of words may best suit your tone of thought and feeling, that they may prevent in you that tendency to monotonous repetition, and vain wordiness, which is the bosom sin of most uneducated prose writers, not only of the ladies of the nineteenth century, but of the Middle Age monks, who, having in general no poetry on which to form their taste, except the effeminate and bombastic productions of the dying Roman empire, fell into a certain washy prolixity, which has made monk Latin a byword, and puts one sadly in mind of what is too truly called "young ladies' English."

I should like then to begin with two or three of the early ballads, and carefully analyse them with you. I am convinced that in them we may discover many of the great primary laws of composition, as well as the secrets of sublimity and pathos in their very simplest manifestations. It may be that there are some here to whom the study of old ballads may be a little distasteful, who are in an age when the only poetry which has charms is the subjective and self-conscious "poetry of the heart"--to whom a stanza of "Childe Harolde" may seem worth all the ballads that ever were written: but let me remind them that woman is by her sex an educator, that every one here must expect, ay hope, to be employed at some time or other in training the minds of children; then let me ask them to recall the years in which objective poems, those which dealt with events, ballads, fairy tales, down to nursery rhymes, were their favourite intellectual food, and let me ask them whether it will not be worth while, for the sake of the children whom they may hereafter influence, to bestow a little thought on this earlier form of verse.

I must add too, that without some understanding of these same ballads, we shall never arrive at a critical appreciation of Shakespeare. For the English drama springs from an intermarriage between this same ballad poetry, the poetry of incidents, and that subjective elegiac poetry which deals with the feelings and consciousnesses of man. They are the two poles, by whose union our drama is formed, and some critical knowledge of both of them will be, as I said, necessary before we can study it.

After the ballads, we ought, I think, to know a little about the early Norman poetry, whose fusion with the pure north Saxon ballad school produced Chaucer and the poets previous to the Reformation. We shall proceed to Chaucer himself; then to the rise of the drama; then to the poets of the Elizabethan age. I shall analyse a few of Shakespeare's masterpieces; then speak of Milton and Spenser; thence pass to the prose of Sidney, Hooker, Bacon, Taylor, and our later great authors. Thus our Composition lectures will follow an historical method, parallel with, and I hope illustrative of, the lectures on English History.

But it will not be enough, I am afraid, to study the style of others without attempting something yourselves. No criticism teaches so much as the criticism of our own works. And I hope therefore that you will not think that I ask too much of you when I propose that weekly prose and verse compositions, on set subjects, be sent in by the class. To the examination of these the latter half of each lecture may be devoted, and the first half-hour to the study of various authors: and in order that I may be able to speak my mind freely on them I should propose that they be anonymous. I hope that you will all trust me when I tell you that those who have themselves experienced what labour attends the task of composition, are generally most tender and charitable in judging of the work of others, and that whatever remarks I may make will be such only as a man has a right to make on a woman's composition.

And if I may seem to be asking anything new or troublesome, I beg you to remember, that it is the primary idea of this College to vindicate women's right to an education in all points equal to that of men; the difference between them being determined not by any fancied inferiority of mind, but simply by the distinct offices and character of the sexes. And surely when you recollect the long drudgery at Greek and Latin verses which is required of every highly-educated man, and the high importance which has attached to them for centuries in the opinion of Englishmen, you cannot think that I am too exigeant in asking you for a few sets of English verses. Believe me, that you ought to find their beneficial effect in producing, as I said before, a measured deliberate style of expression, a habit of calling up clear and distinct images on all subjects, a power of condensing and arranging your thoughts, such as no practice in prose themes can ever give. If you are disappointed of these results it will not be the fault of this long-proved method of teaching, but of my own inability to carry it out. Indeed I cannot too strongly confess my own ignorance or fear my own inability. I stand aghast when I compare my means and my idea, but I believe that "by teaching thou shalt learn," is a rule of which I too shall take the benefit, and having begun these lectures in the name of Him who is The Word, and with the firm intention of asserting throughout His claims as the inspirer of all language and of all art, I may perhaps hope for the fulfilment of His own promise: "Be not anxious what you shall speak, for it shall be given you in that day and in that hour what you shall speak."

[The end]
Charles Kingsley's essay: On English Composition