Friday, February 08, 2013

`Pure and Neat Language I Love'

“Many writers perplex their readers and hearers with mere nonsense. Their writings need sunshine. Pure and neat language I love, yet plain and customary.”

I was feeling sorry for myself because the Fondren Library has acquired the recently published seven-volume Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (retail price: £650.00) and there is no one on campus who might share my excitement. On the way to the library to borrow Vol. VII, which includes Discoveries (1641), Jonson’s “provocative and mysterious text” (in the words of its editor, Lorna Hutson) on poetry and language (and the source of the passage quoted above), I met a friend who asked if I had ever read Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967) by Peter Brown. I have, and we talked about St. Augustine as a man on a cusp, straddling two worlds, and how some of us feel that way today. What did Augustine’s baker (John Q. Public), we wondered, along with the saint himself, think of the late fourth and early fifth centuries, early in the so-called Dark Ages?

“Their writings need sunshine”: Jonson’s image is memorable and true. In a note, Hutson refers us to a passage six pages earlier in Discoveries, in which Jonson seems to discount what we would call “home-schooling”: “To breed them [children] at home is to breed them in a shade, where in a school they have the light and heat of the sun.” The allusion, Hutson says, is to Quintilian’s twelve-volume text on rhetoric, Institutio Oratoria, in which he contrasts “the broad daylight of public life” with the “solitary, or as it were, shady, life.”

Hutson also glosses the sentence beginning “Pure and neat…” with reference to Quintilian, who is alluding to Cicero’s “De oratore.” In her paraphrase, Hutson writes: “the worst fault an orator can commit is to depart from the ordinary language used by the community.”

My friend’s mention of Brown’s biography moved me to borrow the revised edition he published in 2000. In a discussion of Augustine’s preaching style, Brown quotes a work written around 403 A.D., Instructing the Unlearned (De Catechizandis Rudibus):

“For my own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me. I am anxious for the best possible, as I feel it in me before I start bringing it into the open in plain words: and when I see that it is less impressive than I had felt it to be, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.”

1 comment:

Jonathan Chant said...

Intriguing, and informative. Thanks for posting.