April 21, 2005

Everybody can write and nobody writes well

Arthur Hugh Clough (that's "Cluff", not "Clue" or "Clow" or whatever) was a 19th-century British poet who deserves to be better known than he is. I cited a passage from his poem The Bothie of Tober-Na-Vuolich in an earlier post, and I'll try to find excuses for quoting more of him in the future. His poetry is simultaneously ornate and informal, in a manner that seems characteristic of his times. He was born in 1819 and died in 1861, and many people today view his stretch of the 19th century as a Golden Age of the English Language. Clough himself, however, saw the 19th century as an age of linguistic iron if not lead.

Here's a passage from his (posthumously published) lecture "On the Formation of Classical English":

The English diction of the nineteenth century has no Burke or Chatham to boast of, nor any Hume or Johnson.

There may be some superiority in matter. We have had a good deal of new experience, both in study and in action---new books and new events have come before us. But we have not yet in England, I imagine, had any one to give us a manner suitable to our new matter. There has been a kind of dissolution of English, but no one writer has come to re-unite and re-vivify the escaping components. We have something new to say, but do not know how to say it. The language has been popularized, but has not yet vindicated itself from being vulgarized. A democratic revolution is effecting itself in it, without that aristocratic reconstruction which pertains to every good democratic revolution. Everybody can write and nobody writes well. We can all speak and none of us know how. We have forgotten or rejected the old diction of our grandfathers, and shall leave, it seems likely, no new diction for our grandchildren. With some difficulty we make each other understand what we mean, but, unassisted by personal explanations and comment, it is to be feared our mere words will not go far. Our grandfathers read and wrote books: our fathers reviews: and we newspapers: will our children and grandchildren read our old newspapers?

And from his "Lecture on the Development of English Literature":

They [the writers of the 18th century] constitute our ordinary standard literature, and for models in English writing the tradition, not yet obsolete, of our fathers refers us imperatively hither. We cannot, with any safety, follow examples anterior to them; nor easily find any amongst their successors. Our own age is notorious for slovenly or misdirected habits of composition, while the seventeenth century wasted itself in the excesses of scholastic effort.

The prose writers that he's (apparently) slighting as "notorious for slovenly or misdirected habits of composition" include Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Macauley, J. S. Mill, Benjamin Disraeli, William Thackeray, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, and more. (It's hard for me to place these lectures in time, since they were not published until after Clough died, but from his biography I would guess that they belong to his period as a professor of English at University College around 1850-1852.)

It's clear that Clough was not a stupid or a tasteless man. But there seems to be something about looking backwards that often blinds people to what is happening around them.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 21, 2005 04:19 PM