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On Polish
by [?]

[Footnote: 1865]

By Polish I mean a certain well-known and immediately recognizable condition of surface. But I must request my reader to consider well what this condition really is. For the definition of it appears to us to be, that condition of surface which allows the inner structure of the material to manifest itself. Polish is, as it were, a translucent skin, in which the life of the inorganic comes to the surface, as in the animal skin the animal life. Once clothed in this, the inner glories of the marble rock, of the jasper, of the porphyry, leave the darkness behind, and glow into the day. From the heart of the agate the mossy landscape comes dreaming out. From the depth of the green chrysolite looks up the eye of its gold. The “goings on of life” hidden for ages under the rough bark of the patient forest-trees, are brought to light; the rings of lovely shadow which the creature went on making in the dark, as the oyster its opaline laminations, and its tree-pearls of beautiful knots, where a beneficent disease has broken the geometrical perfection of its structure, gloom out in their infinite variousness.

Nor are the revelations of polish confined to things having variety in their internal construction; they operate equally in things of homogeneous structure. It is the polished ebony or jet which gives the true blank, the material darkness. It is the polished steel that shines keen and remorseless and cold, like that human justice whose symbol it is. And in the polished diamond the distinctive purity is most evident; while from it, I presume, will the light absorbed from the sun gleam forth on the dark most plentifully.

But the mere fact that the end of polish is revelation, can hardly be worth setting forth except for some ulterior object, some further revelation in the fact itself.–I wish to show that in the symbolic use of the word the same truth is involved, or, if not involved, at least suggested. But let me first make another remark on the preceding definition of the word.

There is no denying that the first notion suggested by the word polish is that of smoothness, which will indeed be the sole idea associated with it before we begin to contemplate the matter. But when we consider what things are chosen to be “clothed upon” with this smoothness, then we find that the smoothness is scarcely desired for its own sake, and remember besides that in many materials and situations it is elaborately avoided. We find that here it is sought because of its faculty of enabling other things to show themselves–to come to the surface.

I proceed then to examine how far my pregnant interpretation of the word will apply to its figurative use in two cases–Polish of Style, and Polish of Manners. The two might be treated together, seeing that Style may be called the manners of intellectual utterance, and Manners the style of social utterance; but it is more convenient to treat them separately.

I will begin with the Polish of Style.

It will be seen at once that if the notion of polish be limited to that of smoothness, there can be little to say on the matter, and nothing worthy of being said. For mere smoothness is no more a desirable quality in a style than it is in a country or a countenance; and its pursuit will result at length in the gain of the monotonous and the loss of the melodious and harmonious. But it is only upon worthless material that polish can be mere smoothness; and where the material is not valuable, polish can be nothing but smoothness. No amount of polish in a style can render the production of value, except there be in it embodied thought thereby revealed; and the labour of the polish is lost. Let us then take the fuller meaning of polish, and see how it will apply to style.