Thursday, August 11, 2016

`He Betook Himself Somewhat the Oftener'

Like the Einsteinian universe, the number of ways to write badly is unbounded but finite. Let me count the ways, or a few of them: carelessly, dishonestly, ignorantly, pompously, avant-gardely, dully, anemically, incoherently. It takes a special gift to combine several of these approaches into a single misbegotten flair for bad prose. Charles Whibley (1859-1930) was such a practitioner. He was a well-connected English journalist. He knew MallarmĂ©, ValĂ©ry and T.S. Eliot, and was brother-in-law to James McNeill Whistler. In 1904 he published Literary Portraits, a collection of brief lives of such figures as Rabelais and Robert Burton. Somewhere online I found a reference to his portrait of Montaigne that sounded interesting, so I decided to borrow the book. Here’s how Whibley begins “Montaigne”:

“When Montaigne was at home he betook himself somewhat the oftener to his library. Thence he could survey at a glance his whole household—his garden, his base-court, and his yard. There he could read or write as his fancy led him; or, better still, he could dream undisturbed.”

Have archaism and high-school prose ever so memorably mingled? “Betook”? “Somewhat the oftener”? “Thence”? Don’t blame it on the era. Ford and Conrad were already at work. Note the creaky architecture of his sentences: “He wished to be wise with his own wisdom, and not to go a-begging, even to Plutarch or Seneca, for intelligence. With which purpose, when the melancholy engendered by solitude drove him first to read and then to write, he found his argument in himself.”   

Whibley lived by his pen, and with that I sympathize, but no one had the decency to suggest he go into investment banking or retire to a vicarage. In Max Beerbohm’s 1907 caricature of him and Augustine Birrell, Whibley is a Charles Laughton-like dwarf in need of a haircut. One wonders if Whibley’s prose was ever the object of parody in his day. Of course, one of the virtues of bad writing is that on rare occasions it inspires memorable writing. Here is Mencken in 1921 on “Gamalielese,” the prose of President Warren Gamaliel Harding:

“He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”


The Sanity Inspector said...


Art is not the same thing as cerebration. I imagine that by any test that could be devised, Carlyle would be found to be a more intelligent man than Trollope. Yet Trollope has remained readable and Carlyle has not: with all his cleverness he had not even the wit to write in plain straightforward English.
-- George Orwell, in _Tribune_, 2 November 1945

Mudpuddle said...

Mencken was a card... i'd like to read some Whibley, just in the interests of anti-establishmentarianism...