Monday, February 19, 2007

Emerson's Bacon and some talk of figs

Yesterday afternoon I plucked from my shelves Arthur Quinn's Figures of speech : 60 ways to turn a phrase. Last time I opened it I was put off by the arcane terminology: enallage, asyndeton, paradiastole, hendiadys, and the like. This time I took at face value Quinn's determination to avoid prissiness and the dangers of classification for its own sake, and came to enjoy, as he recommends, the many examples he gives of well-turned language. He says, and I'm coming to agree, that watching a writer "play with, turn away from, twist, figure ordinary usage" can be wonderful. In showing zeugma, making a verb serve in a number of clauses, one after another, he quotes Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Exodus, Herododus, Sallust, Pope, and others, including, one after the other, Francis Bacon and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

These last two belong together. They were both passionate about clear expression and both turned phrases powerfully. Emerson's respect for Bacon's prose shows in his own.

The Bacon quote:
Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.
One leaf she lays down, a floor of granite; then a thousand ages, and a bed of slate; a thousand ages, and a measure of coal; a thousand ages, and a layer of marl and mud: vegetable forms appear; her first misshapen animals, zoophyte, trilobium.
Bacon's comes from his essay Of Studies, in his Essays, Civil and Moral, first published posthumously in 1663. The Emerson quote comes from his essay Fate, in The Conduct of Life (1860, rev. 1876).

Both essays are worth your time. Yes they are.

Here's what the 17-year-old Waldo wrote to himself (on a sheet that he later bound up into the first of his many journals):
Aug. 8, 1820

I have been reading the Novum Organum. Lord Bacon is indeed a wonderful writer; he condenses an unrivaled degree of matter in one paragraph. He never suffers himself "to swerve from the direct forthwright," or to babble or speak unguardedly on his proper topic, and withal writes with more melody and rich cadence than any writer (I had almost said, of England) on a similar subject. Although I have quoted in my "Universe" of composition (by which presumptuous term I beg leave to remind myself that nothing was meant but to express wideness and variety of range), yet I will add here a fine little sentence from the thirtieth section of the second volume of Novum Organum. Speaking of bodies composed of two different species of things, he says, "but these instances may be rekoned of the singular or heteroclite kind, as being rare and extraordinary in the universe; yet for their dignity they ought to be separately placed and treated. For they excellently indicate the composition and structure of things; and suggest the cause of the number of the ordinary species of the universe; and lead the understanding from that which is, to that which may be." There is nothing in this sentence which should cause it to be quoted more than another. It does not stand out from the rest; but it struck me accidentally as a very different sentence from those similarly constructed in ordinary writers. For instance, in the last three clauses (beginning "For they excellently") it is common to see an author construct a fine sentence in this way, with idle repetitions of the same idea, embellished a little for the sake of shrouding the deception. In this, they all convey ideas determinate, but widely differnt and all beautiful and intelligent. -- But, says Sterne, "the cant of criticism is the most provoking."
Source: Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson By Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edward Waldo Emerson, Waldo Emerson Forbes, Published 1909, Houghton Mifflin. I typed this so there are sure to be errors in it.

Note: "swerve from the direct forthwright" is an illusion to Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (act3).

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