Tuesday, May 16, 2017

`And Still Singing'

“On the other hand, among a hundred ways of saying a thing, there are more than ninety that a care for euphony may reasonably forbid.”

Not once have I heard a critic or writing instructor plump for euphony in prose. The conventional definition of that quality is “pleasing to the ear,” and I don’t take that to mean syrupy, purple or extravagantly lush or “poetic.” If you want to be read and understood, you write with care for the sound of your words, as well as their sense, and the only reliable test is to read the passage aloud, under your breath if others are in the room. (I learned this lesson in noisy newsrooms.)  If you’ve repeated a word too soon after the prior use, for instance, you’ll hear it. It and other blunders will sound like what jazz musicians refer to as a “clam,” a wrong note.

Normally I avoid style guides as too theoretical, arbitrary or simply boring. This one is a little different. Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh (1861-1922) taught English Literature at Oxford and wrote such books as Milton (1900) and Six Essays on Johnson (1910). The passage above is from Style, a long essay first published in 1897. I borrowed the library’s copy of the twelfth impression, from 1916. Raleigh continues:

“All who have consciously practised the art of writing know what endless and painful vigilance is needed for the avoidance of the unfit or untuneful phrase, how the meaning must be tossed from expression to expression, mutilated and deceived, ere it can find rest in words.”

Raleigh wrote in a day when writers were only beginning to aspire to write in a “mutilated and deceived” manner. Soon, in some quarters, incoherence was elevated to a virtue. There’s a lesson here too. From memory I can recite two passages from Finnegans Wake. One is the famous first (and last) sentence. The other consists of two sentences, each of three words, all in everyday English: “First we feel. Then we fall.”  This is euphony. Joyce gives us two dactyls with a hinge in the middle. The full stop lends the second sentence a Q.E.D. quality. I’ve contemplated that passage since first reading it almost half a century ago. Raleigh next gets specific:   

“The stupid accidental recurrence of a single broad vowel; the cumbrous repetition of a particle; the emphatic phrase for which no emphatic place can be found without disorganising the structure of the period; the pert intrusion on a solemn thought of a flight of short syllables, twittering like a flock of sparrows; or that vicious trick of sentences whereby each, unmindful of its position and duties, tends to imitate the deformities of its predecessor;—these are a select few of the difficulties that the nature of language and of man conspire to put upon the writer.”

All of us have committed such gaffes, especially when young. We learn to avoid them only by listening critically to the sound our own words and the words of the best writers. Raleigh concludes the passage with another musical metaphor:   

“He is well served by his mind and ear if he can win past all such traps and ambuscades, robbed of only a little of his treasure, indemnified by the careless generosity of his spoilers, and still singing.”

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