Sunday, March 16, 2014

Agnes Repplier - Word Choice and Placement - AKA Writing

Agnes Repplier was born in 1855 and she died, at age 95, when I was eight years old.

Agnes was a writer, primarily an essayist.  At age twenty, her first work was published.  I didn't read it.  In fact, I  heard of Agnes only because Neil Gaiman knows her work and published an excerpt from her book, Time and Tendencies, at the beginning of Chapter 12 of American Gods.

While I'm confessing, I might as well come clean about me and Neil Gaiman, then I'll do a dozen Hail Hemmingways, and move on to the point.  I only found Gaiman because he showed up on TWSBI's Facebook page.  I knew he was an author, so I followed him to the 10th anniversary edition of American Gods, bought it, and now I'm hooked on the classic that I missed when it was published fourteen years ago.

Here's the Agnes Repplier quote that Gaiman inserted at the beginning of Chapter 12:

"America has invested her religion as well as her morality in sound income-paying securities.  She has adopted the unassailable position of a nation blessed because it deserves to blessed; and her sons, whatever other theologies they may affect or disregard, subscribe unreservedly to this national creed."   from Times and Tendencies

I Googled Agnes, discovered she was self-educated, primarily because she was expelled from two schools for her " independent and rebellious nature."  I reread the quote, loved it even more the second time, which confirmed she was indeed independent and rebellious. From my point of view, those are lovely traits when they are guided by the heart.

My next stop was to find Times and Tendencies, which is long out of print.  However, I located a copy at a bookstore in Rhode Island, thanks to Abebooks, and now its mine.  Then I searched some more and found her essay, Words.  Agnes wrote it in 1939.  It's twelve pages long, so I didn't figure many people would be interested in reading it unless they knew it would be worthwhile - a condition imposed by the sheer weight of the data we have to wade through daily.  So I highlighted the parts I figured would get your attention and pasted them below, along with a link to the full essay.  Enjoy Agnes Repplier, an independent rebellious author from another time, with a message that is timeless.

My highlights from: WORDS
an essay by Agnes Repplier
   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.”
   An appreciation of words is so rare that everybody 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.
   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.
   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 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.
   “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.
   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] 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 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.
   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.
   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.”