Agnes Repplier


“Do you read the dictionary?” asked M. Theophile Gautier of a young and ardent disciple who had come to him for counsel. “It is the most fruitful and interesting of books. Words have an individual and a relative value. They should be chosen before being placed in position. This word is a mere pebble; that a fine pearl or an amethyst. In art the handicraft is everything, and the absolute distinction of the artist lies, not so much in his capacity to feel nature, as in his power to render it.”

We are always pleased to have a wholesome truth presented to us with such genial vivacity, so that we may feel ourselves less edified than diverted, and learn our lesson without the mortifying consciousness of ignorance. He is a wise preceptor who conceals from us his awful rod of office, and grafts his knowledge dexterously upon our self-esteem.

Men must be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.

An appreciation of words is so rare that every body naturally thinks he possesses it, and this universal sentiment results in the misuse of a material whose beauty enriches the loving student beyond the dreams of avarice. Musicians know the value of chords; painters know the value of colors; writers are often so blind to the value of words that they are content with a bare expression of their thoughts, disdaining the “labor of the file,” and confident that the phrase first seized is for them the phrase of inspiration. They exaggerate the importance of what they have to say, lacking which we should be none the poorer, and underrate the importance of saying it in such fashion that we may welcome its very moderate significance. It is in the habitual and summary recognition of the laws of language that scholarship delights, says Mr. Pater; and while the impatient thinker, eager only to impart his views, regards these laws as a restriction, the true artist finds in them an opportunity, and rejoices, as Goethe rejoiced, to work within conditions and limits.

For every sentence that may be penned or spoken the right words exist. They lie concealed in the inexhaustible wealth of a vocabulary enriched by centuries of noble thought and delicate manipulation. He who does not find them and fit them into place, who accepts the first term which presents itself rather than search for the expression which accurately and beautifully embodies his meaning, aspires to mediocrity, and is content with failure. The exquisite adjustment of a word to its significance, which was the instrument of Flaubert’s daily martyrdom and daily triumph; the generous sympathy of a word with its surroundings, which was the secret wrung by Sir Thomas Browne from the mysteries of language, these are the twin perfections which constitute style, and substantiate genius. Cardinal Newman also possesses in an extraordinary degree Flaubert’s art of fitting his words to the exact thoughts they are designed to convey. Such a brief sentence as “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt” reveals with pregnant simplicity the mental attitude of the writer. Sir Thomas Browne, working under fewer restraints, and without the severity of intellectual discipline, harmonizes each musical syllable into a prose of leisurely sweetness and sonorous strength. “Court not felicity too far, and weary not the favorable hand of fortune.” “Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave.” “The race of delight is short, and pleasures have mutable faces.” Such sentences, woven with curious skill from the rich fabric of seventeenth-century English, defy the wreckage of time. In them a gentle dignity of thought finds its appropriate expression, and the restfulness of an unvexed mind breathes its quiet beauty into each cadenced line. Here are no “boisterous metaphors,” such as Dryden scorned, to give undue emphasis at every turn, and amaze the careless reader with the cheap delights of turbulence. Here is no trace of that “full habit of speech,” hateful to Mr. Arnold’s soul, and which, in the years to come, was to be the gift of journalism to literature.

The felicitous choice of words, which with most writers is the result of severe study and unswerving vigilance, seems with a favored few who should be envied and not imitated to be the genuine fruit of inspiration, as though caprice itself could not lead them far astray. Shelley’s letters and prose papers teem with sentences in which the beautiful words are sufficient satisfaction in themselves, and of more value than the conclusions they reveal. They have a haunting sweetness, a pure perfection, which makes the act of reading them a sustained and dulcet pleasure. Sometimes this effect is produced by a few simple terms reiterated into lingering music. “We are born, and our birth is unremembered, and our infancy remembered but in fragments; we live on, and in living we lose the apprehension of life.” Sometimes a clearer note is struck with the sure and delicate touch which is the excellence of art. “For the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.” The substitution of the word “glow” for “brightness” would, I think, make this sentence extremely beautiful. If it lacks the fullness and melody of those incomparable passages in which Burke, the great master of words, rivets our admiration forever, it has the same peculiar and lasting hold upon our imaginations and our memories. Once read, we can no more forget its charm than we can forget “that chastity of honor which felt a stain like a wound,” or the mournful cadence of regret over virtues deemed superfluous in an age of strictly iconoclastic progress. “Never more shall we be hold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.” It is the fashion at present to subtly depreciate Burke’s power by some patronizing allusion to the “grand style,”—a phrase which, except when applied to Milton, appears to hold in solution an undefined and undefinable reproach. But until we can produce something better, or some thing as good, those “long savorsome Latin words,” checked and vivified by “racy Saxon monosyllables,” must still represent an excellence which it is easier to belittle than to emulate.

It is strange that our chilling disapprobation of what we are prone to call “fine writing ” melts into genial applause over the freakish perversity so dear to modern unrest. We look askance upon such an old-time master of his craft as the Opium-Eater, and require to be told by a clear-headed, unenthusiastic critic like Mr. George Saintsbury that the balanced harmony of De Quincey’s style is obtained often by the use of extremely simple words, couched in the clearest imaginable form. Place by the side of Mr. Pater’s picture of Mona Lisa too well known to need quotation De Quincey’s equally famous description of Our Lady of Darkness. Both passages are as beautiful as words can make them, but the gift of simplicity is in the hands of the older writer. Or take the single sentence which describes for us the mystery of Our Lady of Sighs: “And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium.” Here, as Mr. Saintsbury justly points out, are no needless adjectives, no unusual or extravagant words. The sense is adequate to the sound, and the sound is only what is required as accompaniment to the sense. We are not perplexed and startled, as when Browning introduces us to—

the Tyrrhene whelk’s pearl-sheeted lip,

or to a woman’s

morbid, olive, faultless shoulder-blades.

We are not irritated and confused, as when Carlyle whose misdeeds, like those of Browning, are matters of pure volition is pleased, for our sharper discipline, to write “like a comet inscribing with its tail.” No man uses words more admirably, or abuses them more shamefully, than Carlyle. That he should delight in seeing his pages studded all over with such spikes as “mammonism,” “flunkeyhood,” “nonentity,” and “simulacrum,” that he should repeat them again and again with unwearying self-content, is an enigma that defies solution, save on the simple presumption that they are designed, like other instruments of torture, to test the fortitude of the sufferer. It is best to scramble over them as bravely as we can, and forget our scars in the enjoyment of those vivid and matchless pictures in which each word plays its part, and supplies its share of outline and emphasis to the scene. The art that can dictate such a brief bit of description as “little red-colored pulpy infants” is the art of a Dutch master who, on five inches of canvas, depicts for us with subdued vehemence the absolute realities of life.

“All freaks,” remarks Mr. Arnold, “tend to impair the beauty and power of language;” yet so prone are we to confuse the bizarre with the picturesque that at present a great deal of English literature resembles a linguistic museum, where every type of monstrosity is cheerfully exhibited and admired. Writers of splendid capacity, of undeniable originality and force, are not ashamed to add their curios to the group, either from sheer impatience of restraint, or, as I sometimes think, from a grim and perverted sense of humor, which is enlivened by noting how far they can venture beyond bounds. When Mr. George Meredith is pleased to tell us that one of his characters “neighed a laugh,” that another “tolled her naughty head,” that a third “stamped; her aspect spat,” and that a fourth was discovered “pluming a smile upon his succulent mouth,” we cannot smother a dawning suspicion that he is diverting himself at our expense, and pluming a smile of his own, more sapless than succulent, over the naive simplicity of the public. Perhaps it is a yearning after subtlety rather than a spirit of uncurbed humor which prompts Vernon Lee to describe for us Carlos “dark Renaissance face perplexed with an incipient laugh;” but really a very interesting and improving little paper might be written on the extraordinary laughs and smiles which cheer the somewhat saturnine pages of modern analytic fiction. “Correctness, that humble merit of prose,” has been snubbed into a recognition of her insignificance. She is as tame as a woman with only one head and two arms amid her more striking and richly endowed sisters in the museum.

“A language long employed by a delicate and critical society,” says Mr. Walter Bagehot, “is a treasure of dexterous felicities;” and to awaken the literary conscience to its forgotten duty of guarding this treasure is the avowed vocation of Mr. Pater, and of another stylist, less understood and less appreciated, Mr. Oscar Wilde. Their labors are scantily rewarded in an age which has but little instinct for form, and which habitually allows itself the utmost license of phraseology. That “unblessed freedom from restraint,” which to the clear-eyed Greeks appeared diametrically opposed to a wise and well-ordered liberty, and which finds its amplest expression in the poems of Walt Whitman, has dazzled us only to betray. The emancipation of the savage is sufficiently comprehensive, but his privileges are not always as valuable as they may at first sight appear. Mr. Brownell, in his admirable volume “French Traits,” unhesitatingly defines Whitman’s slang as “the riotous medium of the under-languaged;” and there approach is not too harsh nor too severe. Even Mr. G. C. Macaiday, one of the most acute and enthusiastic of his English critics, admits sadly that it is “gutter slang,” equally purposeless and indefensible. That a man who held within himself the elements of greatness should have deliberately lessened the force of his life’s work by a willful misuse of his material is one of those bitter and irremediable errors which sanity forever deplores. We are inevitably repelled by the employment of trivial or vulgar words in serious poetry, and they become doubly offensive when brought into relation with the beauty and majesty of nature. It is neither pleasant nor profitable to hear the sun’s rays described as

scooting obliquely high and low.

It is still less satisfactory to have the universe addressed in this convivial and burlesque fashion:

Earth, you seem to look for something at my hands;
Say, old Topknot, what do you want?

There is a kind of humorousness which a true sense of humor would render impossible; there is a species of originality from which the artist shrinks aghast; and worse than mere vulgarity is the constant employment of words indecorous in themselves, and irreverent in their application, the smirching of clean and noble things with adjectives grossly unfitted for such use, and repellent to all the canons of good taste. This is not the “gentle pressure” which Sophocles put upon common words to wring from them a fresh significance; it is a deliberate abuse of terms, and betrays a lack of that fine quality of self-repression which embraces the power of selection, and is the best characteristic of literary morality. “Oh, for the style of honest men!” sighs Sainte-Beuve, sick of such unreserved disclosures; “of men who have revered everything worthy of respect, whose innate feelings have ever been governed by the principles of good taste. Oh, for the polished, pure, and moderate writers! ”

There is a pitiless French maxim, less popular with English and Americans than with our Gallic neighbors, Le secret d ennuyer est de tout dire. [The secret of being a bore … is to tell everything] Mr. Pater indeed expresses the same thought in ampler English fashion (which but emphasizes the superiority of the French) when he says, “For in truth all art does but consist in the removal of surplusage, from the last finish of the gem-engraver blowing away the last particle of invisible dust, back to the earliest divination of the finished work to be, lying somewhere, according to Michelangelo’s fancy, in the rough-hewn block of stone.” That the literary artist tests his skill by a masterly omission of all that is better left unsaid is a truth widely admitted and scantily utilized. Authors who have not taken the trouble de faire leur toilette admit us with painful frankness into their dressing-rooms, and suffer us to gaze more intimately than is agreeable to us upon the dubious mysteries of their deshabille. Authors who have the gift of continuity disregard with insistent generosity the limits of time and patience. What a noble poem was lost to myriads of readers when “The Ring and the Book” reached its twenty thousandth line! How inexorable is the tyranny of a great and powerful poet who will spare his readers no thing! Authors who are indifferent to the beauties of reserve charge down upon us with a dreadful impetuosity from which there is no escape. The strength that lies in delicacy, the chasteness of style which does not abandon itself to every impulse, are qualities ill-understood by men who subordinate taste to fervor, and whose words, coarse, rank, or unctuous, betray the undisciplined intellect that mistakes passion for power. “The language of poets,” says Shelley, “has always affected a certain uniform and harmonious recurrence of sound, without which it were not poetry;” and it is the sustained effort to secure this balanced harmony, this magnificent work within limits, which constitutes the achievement of the poet, and gives beauty and dignity to his art.

“Where is the man who can flatter himself that he knows the language of prose, if he has not assiduously practiced the language of poetry?” asks M. Francisque Sarcey, whose requirements are needlessly exacting, but whose views would have been cordially endorsed by at least one great master of English. Dryden always maintained that the admirable quality of his prose was due to his long training in a somewhat mechanical verse. A more modern and diverting approximation of M. Sarcey’s views may be found in the robust statement of Benjamin Franklin: “I approved, for my part, the amusing one’s self now and then with poetry, so far as to improve one’s language, but no farther.” It is a pity that people cannot always be born in the right generation! What a delicious picture is presented to our fancy of a nineteenth-century Franklin amusing himself and improving his language by an occasional study of “Bordello”!

The absolute mastery of words, which is the prerogative of genius, can never be acquired by painstaking, or revealed to criticism. Mr. Lowell, pondering deeply on the subject, has devoted whole pages to a scholarly analysis of the causes which assisted Shakespeare to his unapproached and unapproachable vocabulary. The English language was then, Mr. Lowell reminds us, a living thing, “hot from the hearts and brains of a people; not hardened yet, but moltenly ductile to new shapes of sharp and clear relief in the moulds of new thought. Shakespeare found words ready to his use, original and untarnished, types of thought whose edges were unworn by repeated impressions … No arbitrary line had been drawn between high words and low; vulgar then meant simply what was common; poetry had not been aliened from the people by the establishment of an Upper House of vocables. The conception of the poet had no time to cool while he was debating the comparative respectability of this phrase or that; but he snatched what word his instinct prompted, and saw no indiscretion in making a king speak as his country nurse might have taught him.”

It is a curious thing, however, that the more we try to account for the miracles of genius, the more miraculous they grow. We can never hope to understand the secret of Homer’s style. It is best to agree simply with Mr. Pater: “Homer was always saying things in this manner.” We can never know how Keats came to write,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

or those other lines, perhaps the most beautiful in our language,

Magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn.

It is all a mystery, hidden from the uninspired, and Mr. Lowell’s clean-built scaffolding, while it helps us to a comprehensive enjoyment of Shakespeare, leaves us dumb and amazed as ever before the concentrated splendor of a single line,

In cradle of the rude, imperious surge.

There is only one way to fathom its conception. The great waves reared their foamy heads, and whispered him the words.

The richness of Elizabethan English, the freedom and delight with which men sounded and explored the charming intricacies of a tongue that was expanding daily into fresh majesty and beauty, must have given to literature some of the allurements of navigation. Mariners sailed away upon stormy seas, on strange, half-hinted errands; haunted by the shadow of glory, dazzled by the lustre of wealth. Scholars ventured far upon the unknown ocean of letters; haunted by the seductions of prose, dazzled by the fairness of verse. They brought back curious spoils, gaudy, subtle, sumptuous, according to the taste or potency of the discoverer. Their words have often a mingled weight and sweetness, whether conveying briefly a single thought, like Burton’s “touched with the loadstone of love,” or adding strength and lustre to the ample delineations of Ben Jonson. “Give me that wit whom praise excites, glory puts on, or disgrace grieves; he is to be nourished with ambition, pricked for ward with honors, checked with reprehension, and never to be suspected of sloth.” Bacon’s admirable conciseness, in which nothing is disregarded, but where every word carries its proper value and expresses its exact significance, is equaled only by Cardinal Newman. “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and study an exact man,” says Bacon; and this simple accuracy of definition reminds us inevitably of the lucid terseness with which every sentence of the “Apologia” reveals the thought it holds. “The truest expedience is to answer right out when you are asked; the wisest economy is to have no management; the best prudence is not to be a coward.” As for the naiveté and the picturesqueness which lend such inexpressible charm to the earlier writers and atone for so many of their misdeeds, what can be more agreeable than to hear Sir Walter Raleigh remark with cheerful ingenuousness, “Some of our captaines garoused of wine till they were reasonable pleasant”!—A most engaging way of narrating a not altogether uncommon occurrence. And what can be more winning to the ear than the simple grace with which Roger Ascham writes of familiar things: “In the whole year, Springtime, Summer, Fall of the Leaf, and Winter; and in one day, Morning, Noontime, Afternoon, and Eventide, altereth the course of the weather, the pith of the bow, the strength of the man”! It seems an easy thing to say “fall of the leaf ” for fall, and “eventide” for evening, but in such easy things lies the subtle beauty of language; in the rejection of such nice distinctions lies the barrenness of common speech. We can hardly spare the time, in these hurried days, to speak of the fall of the leaf, to use four words where one would suffice, merely because the four words have a graceful significance, and the one word has none; and so, even in composition, this finely colored phrase, with its hint of russet, wind-swept woods, is lost to us forever. Yet compare with it the line which Lord Tennyson, that great master of beautiful words, puts into Marian’s song:

Have you still any honey, my dear? She said, It’s the fall of the year; But come, come!

How tame and gray is the idiom which conveys a fact, which defines a season, but suggests nothing to our imaginations, by the side of the idiom which brings swiftly before our eyes the brilliant desolation of autumn!

The narrow vocabulary, which is the conversational freehold of people whose education should have provided them a broader field, admits of little that is picturesque or forcible, and of less that is finely graded or delicately conceived. Ordinary conversation appears to consist mainly of “ands,” “buts,” and “thes,” with an occasional “well” to give a flavor of nationality, a “yes” or “no” to stand for individual sentiment, and a few widely exaggerated terms to destroy value and perspective. Is this, one wonders, the ” treasure of dexterous felicities ” which Mr. Bagehot contemplated with such delight, and which a critical society is destined to preserve flawless and uncontaminated? Is this the “heroic utter ance,” the great “mother tongue,” possessing which we all become or so Mr. Sydney Dobell assures us—

Lords of an empire wide as Shakespeare’s soul,
Sublime as Milton’s immemorial theme,
And rich as Chaucer’s speech and fair as Spenser’s dream”?

Is this the element whose beauty excites Mr. Oscar Wilde to such rapturous and finely worded praise, praise which awakens in us a noble emulation to prove what we can accomplish with a medium at once so sumptuous and so flexible? “For the material that painter or sculptor uses is meager in comparison with language,” says Mr. Wilde. “Words have not merely music as sweet as that of viol and lute, color as rich and vivid as any that makes lovely for us the canvas of the Venetian or the Spaniard, and plastic form no less sure and certain than that which reveals itself in marble or in bronze; but thought and passion and spirituality are theirs also, are theirs indeed alone. If the Greeks had criticized nothing but language, they would still have been the great art critics of the world. To know the principles of the highest art is to know the principles of all the arts.”

This is not claiming too much, for in truth Mr. Wilde is sufficiently well equipped to illustrate his claim. If his sentences are sometimes overloaded with ornament, the decorations are gold, not tinsel; if his vocabulary is gorgeous, it is never glaring; if his allusions are fanciful, they are controlled and subdued into moderation. Even the inevitable and swiftly uttered reproach of “fine writing” cannot altogether blind us to the fact that his are beautiful words, pearls and amethysts M. Gautier would call them, aptly chosen, and fitted into place with the careful skill of a goldsmith. They are free, moreover, from that vice of unexpectedness which is part of fine writing, and which Mr. Saintsbury finds so prevalent among the literary workers of today; the desire to surprise us by some new and profoundly irrelevant application of a familiar word. The “veracity” of a bar of music, the finely executed “passage” of a marble chimney-piece, the “andante” of a sonnet, and the curious statement, commonly applied to Mr. Gladstone, that he is “part of the conscience of a nation,” these are the vagaries which to Mr. Saintsbury, and to every other student of words, appear so manifestly discouraging. Mr. James Payn tells a pleasant story of an aesthetic sideboard which was described to him as having a Chippendale feeling about it, before which touching conceit the ever famous “fringes of the north star” pale into insignificance. A recent editor of Shelley’s letters and essays says with seeming seriousness in his preface that the “Witch of Atlas” is a “characteristic outcome,” an “exquisite mouse of fancy brought forth by what mountain of Shelleyan imagination.” Now, when a careful student and an appreciative reader can bring himself to speak of a poem as a “mouse of fancy,” merely for the sake of forcing a conceit, and confronting us with the perils of the unexpected, it is time we turned soberly back to first principles and to our dictionaries; it is time we listened anew to M. Gautier’s advice, and studied the value of words.


MLA Citation

Repplier, Agnes. “Words.” 1893. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 10 Apr 2007. 18 Jul 2024 <>.

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