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How To Write English
by [?]

HOW TO WRITE ENGLISH.[1]

Among world-wide objects of speculation, objects rising to the dignity of a mundane or cosmopolitish value, which challenge at this time more than ever a growing intellectual interest, is the English language. Why particularly at this time? Simply, because the interest in that language rests upon two separate foundations: there are two separate principles concerned in its pretensions; and by accident in part, but in part also through the silent and inevitable march of human progress, there has been steadily gathering for many years an interest of something like sceptical and hostile curiosity about each of these principles, considered as problems open to variable solutions, as problems already viewed from different national centres, and as problems also that press forward to some solution or other with more and more of a clamorous emphasis, in proportion as they tend to consequences no longer merely speculative and scholastic, but which more and more reveal features largely practical and political. The two principles upon which the English language rests the burden of its paramount interest, are these:–first, its powers, the range of its endowments; secondly, its apparent destiny. Some subtle judges in this field of criticism are of opinion, and ever had that opinion, that amongst the modern languages which originally had compass enough of strength and opulence in their structure, or had received culture sufficient to qualify them plausibly for entering the arena of such a competition, the English had certain peculiar and inappreciable aptitudes for the highest offices of interpretation. Twenty-five centuries ago, this beautiful little planet on which we live might be said to have assembled and opened her first parliament for representing the grandeur of the human intellect. That particular assembly, I mean, for celebrating the Olympic Games about four centuries and a half before the era of Christ, when Herodotus opened the gates of morning for the undying career of history, by reading to the congregated children of Hellas, to the whole representative family of civilisation, that loveliest of earthly narratives, which, in nine musical cantos, unfolded the whole luxury of human romance as at the bar of some austere historic Areopagus, and, inversely again, which crowded the total abstract of human records, sealed[2] as with the seal of Delphi in the luxurious pavilions of human romance.

[Footnote 1: This fragment appeared in The Instructor for July, 1853. The subject was not continued in any form.–H. ]

[Footnote 2: Sealed,’ etc.:–I do not believe that, in the sense of holy conscientious loyalty to his own innermost convictions, any writer of history in any period of time can have surpassed Herodotus. And the reader must remember (or, if unlearned, he must be informed) that this judgment has now become the unanimous judgment of all the most competent authorities–that is, of all those who, having first of all the requisite erudition as to Greek, as to classical archaeology, etc., then subsequently applied this appropriate learning to the searching investigation of the several narratives authorised by Herodotus. In the middle of the last century, nothing could rank lower than the historic credibility of this writer. And to parody his title to be regarded as the ‘Father of History,’ by calling him the ‘Father of Lies,’ was an unworthy insult offered to his admirable simplicity and candour by more critics than one. But two points startle the honourable reader, who is loathe to believe of any laborious provider for a great intellectual interest that he can deliberately have meant to deceive: the first point, and, separately by itself, an all-sufficient demur, is this–that, not in proportion to the learning and profundity brought to bear upon Herodotus, did the doubts and scruples upon his fidelity strengthen or multiply. Precisely in the opposite current was the movement of human opinion, as it applied itself to this patriarch of history. Exactly as critics and investigators arose like Larcher–just, reasonable, thoughtful, patient, and combining–or geographers as comprehensive and as accurate as Major Rennel, regularly in that ratio did the reports and the judgments of Herodotus command more and more respect. The other point is this; and, when it is closely considered, it furnishes a most reasonable ground of demur to the ordinary criticisms upon Herodotus. These criticisms build the principle of their objection generally upon the marvellous or romantic element which intermingles with the current of the narrative. But when a writer treats (as to Herodotus it happened that repeatedly he treated) tracts of history far removed in space and in time from the domestic interests of his native land, naturally he misses as any available guide the ordinary utilitarian relations which would else connect persons and events with great outstanding interests of his own contemporary system. The very abstraction which has silently been performed by the mere effect of vast distances, wildernesses that swallow up armies, and mighty rivers that are unbridged, together with the indefinite chronological remoteness, do already of themselves translate such sequestered and insulated chambers of history into the character of moral apologues, where the sole surviving interest lies in the quality of the particular moral illustrated, or in the sudden and tragic change of fortune recorded. Such changes, it is urged, are of rare occurrence; and, recurring too often, they impress a character of suspicious accuracy upon the narrative. Doubtless they do so, and reasonably, where the writer is pursuing the torpid current of circumstantial domestic annals. But, in the rapid abstract of Herodotus, where a century yields but a page or two, and considering that two slender octavos, on the particular scale adopted by Herodotus, embody the total records of the human race down to his own epoch, really it would furnish no legitimate ground of scruple or jealousy, though every paragraph should present us with a character that seems exaggerated, or with an incident approaching to the marvellous, or a catastrophe that is revolting. A writer is bound–he has created it into a duty, having once assumed the office of a national historiographer–to select from the rolls of a nation such events as are the most striking. And a selection conducted on this principle through several centuries, or pursuing the fortunes of a dynasty reigning over vast populations, must end in accumulating a harvest of results such as would startle the sobriety of ordinary historic faith. If a medical writer should elect for himself, of his own free choice, to record such cases only in his hospital experience as terminated fatally, it would be absurd to object the gloomy tenor of his reports as an argument for suspecting their accuracy, since he himself, by introducing this as a condition into the very terms of his original undertaking with the public, has created against himself the painful necessity of continually distressing the sensibilities of his reader. To complain of Herodotus, or any public historian, as drawing too continually upon his reader’s profounder sensibilities, is, in reality, to forget that this belongs as an original element to the very task which he has undertaken. To undertake the exhibition of human life under those aspects which confessedly bring it into unusual conflict with chance and change, is, by a mere self-created necessity, to prepare beforehand the summons to a continued series of agitations: it is to seek the tragic and the wondrous wilfully, and then to complain of it as violating the laws of probability founded on life within the ordinary conditions of experience. ]