Saturday, February 18, 2012

`Ought Him Selfe to Bee a True Poem'

For the first time in six years I have reread Brand Blanshard’s On Philosophical Style (1953), one of the first books I wrote about at Anecdotal Evidence. In memory, Blanshard’s essay retained a skeptical optimism about the possibility of communicating ideas clearly and invitingly in prose. What I had forgotten was just how skeptical some of his conclusions are. For instance, he describes Macaulay as “the most unfailingly lucid writer in the history of English literature,” then goes on:

“…you cannot tell the truth in Macaulay’s style. In satisfying his passion for clarity, he allows himself to omit shades and qualifications that are there in the facts, but would smudge his sharply edged lines if he were to put them into his picture. His style is the embodiment of his mind, and his mind, with all its learning, its delight in learning, and its extraordinary gift of communicating both, is a mind that moves on the surface of things and shies away instinctively whenever it perceives a depth or feels a mystery.”

In other words, even clarity can be a flaw. While I still believe muddled obscurantism driven by politics, narcissism or simple incompetence is a more common fault among writers than too much clarity, Blanshard’s conclusion stings a little. He pushes me to recognize my occasional unwillingness to smudge the “sharply edged lines” I’ve drawn. Decades of newspaper writing should have purged me of cutting corners and showing off with verbal filigree, but a writer can’t be too critical. Self-indulgence is an occupational hazard. Blanshard goes even further:

“The defects in Macaulay’s mind forced themselves into his manner, and showed that the only way to amend that remarkable style was to be a better mind and a better man.”

A flawed style is a moral failing. In the tug-of-war between beauty and truth, the former can never be permitted to trump the latter. Prettiness at the expense of truth is a form of self-seduction, like a Siren singing to a Siren. Discipline is daunting. Blanshard writes:

“The more perfectly one’s style fits the inner man and reveals its strength and defect, the clearer it becomes that the problem of style is not a problem of words and sentences merely, but of being the right kind of mind.”

Blanshard then quotes part of a sentence from Milton’s great 1642 pamphlet “Apology for Smectymnuus:

“…he who would not be frustrated of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought him selfe to bee a true Poem…”

Here is the rest of the sentence, not quoted by Blanshard:

“…that is, a composition, and patterne of the best and honourable things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroick men, or famous Cities, unlesse he have in himselfe the experience and the practice of all that which is praise-worthy.”

1 comment:

George said...

Matthew Arnold, who had different flaws, was clear enough about Macaulay's.