lectual existence, and it would seem that no successful journalist could ever get the newspaper out of his blood, or achieve any high literary success.
For purposes of illustration and elucidation, and even for amplitude of vocabulary, wealth of accumulated materials is essential; and whether this wealth be won by reading or by experience makes no great difference. Coleridge attended Davy's chemical lectures to acquire new metaphors, and it is of no consequence whether one comes to literature from a library, a machine-shop, or a forecastle, provided he has learned to work with thoroughness the soil he knows. After all is said and done, however, books remain the chief quarries. Johnson declared, putting the thing perhaps too mechanically, "The greater part of an author's time is spent in reading in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book." Addison collected three folios of materials before publishing the first number of the "Spectator." Remember, however, that copious preparation has its perils also, in the crude display to which it tempts. The object of high culture is not to exhibit culture, but its results. You do not put guano on your garden that your garden may blossom guano. Indeed, even for the proper subordination of one's own thoughts the same self-control is needed; and there is no severer test of literary training than in the power to prune out one's most cherished sentence, when it grows obvious that the sacrifice will help the symmetry or vigor of the whole.
Be noble both in the affluence and the economy of your diction; spare no wealth that you can put in, and tolerate no superfluity that can be struck out. Remember the Lacedemonian who was fined for saying that in three words which might as well have been expressed in two. Do not throw a dozen vague epithets at a thing, in the hope that some of them will fit; but study each phrase so carefully that the most ingenious critic cannot alter it without spoiling the whole passage for everybody but himself. For the same reason do not take refuge, as was the practice a few years since, in German combinations, heart-utterances, soul-sentiments, and hyphenized phrases generally; but roll your thought into one good English word. There is no fault which seems so hopeless as commonplaceness, but it is really easier to elevate the commonplace than to reduce the turgid. How few men in all the pride of culture can emulate the easy grace of a bright woman's letter!
Have faith enough in your own individuality to keep it resolutely down for a year or two. A man has not much intellectual capital who cannot treat himself to a brief interval of modesty. Premature individualism commonly ends either in a reaction against the original whims, or in a mannerism which perpetuates them. For mannerism no one is great enough, because, though in the hands of a strong man it imprisons us in novel fascination, yet we soon grow weary, and then hate our prison forever. How sparking was Reade's crisp brilliancy in "Peg Woffington"!--but into what disagreeable affectations it has since degenerated! Carlyle was a boon to the human race, amid the tameness into which English style was declining; but who is not tired of him and his catchwords now? He was the Jenner of our modern style, inoculating and saving us all by his quaint frank Germanism, then dying of his own disease. Now the age has outgrown him, and is approaching a mode of writing which unites the smoothness of the eighteenth century with the vital vigor of the seventeenth, so that Sir Thomas Browne and Andrew Marvell seem quite as near to us as Pope or Addison,--a style penetrated with the best spirit of Carlyle, without a trace of Carlylism.
Be neither too lax nor too precise in your use of language: the one fault ends in stiffness, the other in slang. Some one told the Emperor Tiberius that he might give citizenship to men, but not to words. To be sure, Louis XIV. in childhood, wishing for a carriage, called for mon carrosse, and made the former feminine a masculine to all future Frenchmen. But do not
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Transcription and commentary copyright 1997 by Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved