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Weapons of precision

when in July, 1609, the Iroquois Indians first saw a gun fired, and saw two men fall dead at a distance, because the Sieur de Champlain had raised something to his cheek, they were so utterly frightened that the whole tribe ran away, abandoning their camp and their provisions. Yet the gun was only a short weapon, then called an arquebus, and loaded with four balls. It did not take long for these very Indians to learn the use of the arquebus; and yet, if one of them were to come to life again and look at a modern rifle, it would cause him as much amazement as if he had never seen a firearm. These delicate grooves and spiral curves would strike him as a piece of mere affectation; and he would prefer by all means an honest old-fashioned affair that would send a bullet straight to its mark. He would not be convinced until he again saw a man fall dead, and this time at an incredible distance, by an invisible blow. [193]

Now, style In writing is a weapon far more delicate and more formidable than the latest form of needle-gun. It will not merely kill a man's body at the range of a thousand yards, but his reputation at a distance of centuries. Nay, it will not only kill, but it will keep alive, which may be worse; keep the stained memory in existence beyond the possibility of a happy oblivion—and so also with memories of good. So long as it remains crude and undeveloped, language has not acquired this capability; but every added refinement of touch, every improved note of precision, will expand and perfect this carrying power. The blunt repartee of the mining-camp may furnish as good a prelude as any other for drawing a revolver from the hip pocket; but the effect of the saying dies with the duel and the funeral. It takes the fine rapier of Talleyrand's wit to impale all opponent for a hundred years upon a single delicate phrase, intervening between the smile and the snuff-box.

The French language has doubtless a peculiar capacity in this direction, sharpened by the steady practice of generations; but the English [194] language comes next to it, could we only outgrow the impression that there is no honesty in anything but a knock-down blow, and that all finer touches are significant of sin; that boxing is a manly exercise, in short, while fencing is not. It is a curious fact, however, that as the best American manners incline to the French and not the English model, so the tendency of American literary style is to the finer methods, quicker repartees, and more delicate turns. People complain, and with some justice, of a certain thinness in the material of Mr. Howells's conversations; but his phrases are not so thin as the edge of a Damascus blade, and where the life itself is to be reached, this keenness has a certain advantage. We are constantly told by English critics that in real life people do not talk in this way, to which the answer is, that the scene of his novels is not laid in England. Lightness of touch is the final test of power. Ou il n'y a point de delicatesse, il n'y a point de literature. Joubert goes on to add that where there is shown in literary style only the attribute of strength, the style expresses character alone, not training. There has come lately a [195] certain slovenliness into the vocabulary of Englishmen which is a sign of weakness, not of strength. It may be meant for strength, but, like swearing, it is rather a substitute for it. When Matthew Arnold, at the outset of his paper on Emerson, proposes that we should ‘pull ourselves together’ to examine him, he says crudely what might have been more forcibly conveyed by a finer touch. When Mr. Gosse, in one of his Forum papers, answers an objection with ‘A fiddlestick's end for such a theory!’ it does not give an impression of vigor, or of what he calls, in case of Dryden, ‘a virile tramp,’ but rather suggests that humbler hero of whom Byron records that—

He knew not what to say, and so he swore.

The fact that Mr. Arnold and Mr. Gosse have both made good criticisms on others does not necessarily indicate that they practise as they preach. To come back once more to the incomparable Joubert, we often find a good ear perfectly compatible with a false note. Que de gens, en litterature, ont l'oreille juste, et chantent faux! [196]

It is never worth while to dwell much upon international comparisons; it is enough to say that the oft-criticised want of the art-instinct in English-speaking nations shows itself, though in a less degree, in literature also, and renders constant watchfulness needful lest we revert into brutality. In this respect modern Germany can teach us little, save through the Franco-German Heine. A young American usually comes home from a German university with more knowledge than when he went there, but with less power of felicitous expression. But Greece and Rome have still unexhausted lessons, and so have Persia and Arabia; these last, indeed, wreathe their weapons with too many roses, but they carry true nevertheless. Dante not only created his own conceptions, but almost the very language in which he wrote; and what was his power of expression we can judge best by seeing in how few lines he can put vividly before us some theme which Tennyson or Browning afterward hammers out into a long poem. In English literature there seemed to be developing, in the time of Addison, something of that steady, even, [197] felicitous power which makes French prose so remarkable; but it has passed, since his day, possibly from excess of vigor, into a prolonged series of experiments. Johnson experimentalized in one direction, Coleridge in another; Landor, Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, in other directions still; and the net result is an uncertain type of style, which has almost always vigor and sometimes beauty, but is liable at any moment to relapse into Rider Haggard and ‘a fiddlestick's end.’ It is hard for our modest American speech to hold its own, now that the potent influence of Emerson has passed away; but we are lost unless we keep resolutely in mind that prose style ought not to be merely a bludgeon or a boomerang, but should be a weapon of precision.

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