Letter to a Young Contributor 3

Search form

"The piece, you think, is incorrect; why,
     take it;
I'm all submission; what you'd have it,
     make it."
But to discharge that friendly office no universal genius
is salaried; and for intellect in the rough there is no market.
Rules for style, as for manners, must be chiefly negative:
a positively good style indicates certain natural powers
in the individual, but an unexceptionable style is merely
a matter of culture and good models. Dr. Channing
established in New England a standard of style which
really attained almost the perfection of the pure and
the colorless, and the disciplinary value of such a literary
influence, in a raw and crude nation, has been very great;
but the defect of this standard is that it ends in utterly
renouncing all the great traditions of literature, and
ignoring the magnificent mystery of words. Human
language may be polite and powerless in itself, uplifted
with difficulty into expression by the high thoughts it
utters, or it may in itself become so saturated with
warm life and delicious association that every
sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere
fascination of the syllables. The statue is not more
surely included in a block of marble than is all
conceivable splendor of utterance in "Worcester's
Unabridged." And as Ruskin says of painting that
it is in the perfection and precision of the instantaneous
line that the claim to immortality is made, so it is easy
to see that a phrase may outweigh a library. Keats
heads the catalogue of things real with "sun, moon,
and passages of Shakespeare"; and Keats himself
has left behind him winged wonders of expression
which are not surpassed by Shakespeare, or by any
one else who ever dared touch the English tongue.
There may be phrases which shall be palaces to dwell
in, treasure-houses to explore; a single word may be
a window from which one may perceive all the
kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes
a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have
labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded
passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence.
Such being the majesty of the art you seek to practise,
you can at least take time and deliberation before
dishonoring it. Disabuse yourself especially of the belief
that any grace of flow of style can come from writing
rapidly. Haste can make you slipshod, but it can never
make you graceful. With what dismay one reads of the
wonderful fellows in fashionable novels, who can easily
dash off a brilliant essay in a single night! When I think
how slowly my poor thoughts come in, how tardily they
connect themselves, what a delicious prolonged perplexity
it is to cut and contrive a decent clothing of words for them,
as a little girl does for her doll,--nay, how many new
outfits a single sentence sometimes costs before it is
presentable, till it seems at last, like our army on the
Potomac, as if it never could be thoroughly clothed,--I
certainly should never dare to venture into print, but
for the confirmed suspicion that the greatest writers
have done even so. I can hardly believe that there is
any autograph in the world so precious or instructive
as that scrap of paper, still preserved at Ferrara, on
which Ariosto wrote in sixteen different revisions one
of his most famous stanzas. Do you know, my dear
neophyte, how Balzac used to compose? As a
specimen of the labor that sometimes goes to make
an effective style, the process is worth recording.
When Balzac had a new work in view, he first spent
weeks in studying from real life for it, haunting the
streets of Paris by day and night, note-book in hand.
His materials gained, he shut himself up till the book
was written, perhaps two months, absolutely excluding
everybody but his publisher. He emerged pale and thin,
with the complete manuscript in his hand,--not only
written, but almost rewritten, so thoroughly was the
original copy altered, interlined, and rearranged. This
strange production, almost illegible, was sent to the
unfortunate printers; with infinite difficulty a proof-sheet
was obtained, which, being sent to the author, was presently