Dragging Words Along

Monday, Nov 05, 2012

Provided [we are] well equipped with substance, words will follow only too readily; if they won't follow willingly, [we] will drag them. I hear some making excuses for not being able to express themselves, and pretending to have their heads full of many fine things, but to be unable to express them for lack of eloquence. That is all bluff. Do you know what I think those things are? They are shadows that come to them of some shapeless conceptions, which they cannot untangle and clear up within, and consequently cannot set forth without: they do not understand themselves yet.

For my part I hold, and Socrates makes it a rule, that whoever has a vivid and clear idea in his mind will express it, if necessary in Bergamask dialect, or, if he is dumb, by signs.

... ablatives, conjunctives, substantives, or grammar... all this fine painting is easily eclipsed by the luster of a simple natural truth.

I am not one of those who think that good rhythm makes a good poem. Let him make a short syllable long if he wants, that doesn't matter; if the inventions are pleasant, if wit and judgment have done their work well, I shall say: There is a good poet, but a bad versifier.

True, but what will he do if someone presses him with the sophistic subtlety of some syllogism? "Ham makes us drink; drinking quenches thirst; therefore ham quenches thirst." Let him laugh at it; it is subtler to laugh at it than to answer it.

There are some so stupid that they go a mile out of their way to chase after a fine word, or who do not fit words to things, but seek irrelevant things which their words may fit [Quintilian]. And as another says, there are some who are led by the charm of some attractive word to write something they had not intended [Seneca]... On the contrary, it is for words to serve and follow; and let Gascon get there if French cannot. I want the substance to stand out, and so to fill the imagination of the listener that he will have no memory of the words. The speech I love is a simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in the mouth; a speech succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed, not so much dainty and well-combed as vehement and brusque... rather difficult than boring, remote from affectation, irregular, disconnected and bold; each bit making a body in itself; not pedantic, not monkish, not lawyer-like.

As in dress it is pettiness to seek attention by some peculiar and unusual fashion, so in language the search for novel phrases and little-known words comes from a childish and pedantic ambition... The imitation of speech, because of its facility, may be quickly picked up by a whole people; the imitation of judgment and invention does not come so fast. Most readers, because they have found a similar robe, think very wrongly that they have hold of a similar body.

This is not to say that it is not a fine and excellent thing to speak well, but it is not as fine as they make it out; and I am vexed that we keep busy all our life at that.

Michel De Montaigne, Essays, 1580, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1400040213.

Words that came very willingly:

Let us seize pleasures; life is ours to claim; Too soon we shall be ashes, ghosts, a name.

Persius