The Indian Express – Jan 17, 1941
As Happy As A Lotus Eater In The World Of Pen & Ink
E. F. Benson has given us in his last book, “Final Edition,” a rather terrifying picture of a man who wrote too easily. This was his brother. A. C. Benson, whose essays were perhaps the most popular soothing syrup in the literature of our century. From A. C . Benson essays, novels, and diaries flowed in a smooth and steady stream. After his death four still unpublished novels were found among his manuscripts. “As far as I could judge from the dates attached to some of these manuscripts,” says E. F. Benson, “they had been put aside till a few months had elapsed since his latest publication, but meantime the incessant outpouring went on, and it was the book on which he had last been engaged that went to his publisher first.”
“Though one could imagine,” he adds, “how an author whose mind was saturated with a theme long meditated over could gush forth in this abundance under strong emotional pressure, it was impossible to find signs of such in any of his novels. The pressure with him had been his own intense pleasure in writing. They had been an effortless pastime, an inexhaustible improvisation.”
It will be gathered from this that A. C. Benson was a victim of that luxurious disease ‘cacoethes scribendi.’ In the world of pen and ink he was happy as a lotus-eater. It might be said of him that he drowsed into literature.
Writers have differed to an extraordinary degree in their attitude to the act of writing. Carlyle, is is said, hated it. E. V. Lucas, on the other hand, confessed that the mere movement of a pen on paper gave him physical pleasure.
Apart from the act of writing, however, writers have differed widely as regards the amount of pains they were willing to expend on what they wrote. Plato was so careful a stylist that he is said to have rewritten one sentence seventy times: I speak from memory, but I think that was the number. It was this habit of rewriting that made Samuel Butler decide that Plato was “no good.” He would have condemned Flaubert for the same reason on the ground that a man who subjected himself to such torture over the way of saying a thing could not have very much to say.
Butler, however, lived in a period when “style” was in fashion, and that was enough to set him against it. Meredith was twisting the English language into strange shapes in order to achieve individuality of expression. All the literary young were playing the sedulous ape to that sedulous ex-ape of other men’s styles, Robert Louis Stevenson. Even Rudyard Kipling was held up to our admiration as a writer who toiled over the phrasing of his short stories till they had reached perfection.
We came to think, indeed, of a man who wrote easily almost as a traitor to his art. We were told of Sir Walter Scott’s “fatal facility,” not as a mark of his genius, but as a distressing flaw in it.
DANGEROUS TO YOUNG WRITERS
Whether facility is always fatal, I for one, doubt. I believe it to be immensely dangerous to a young writer, who should take as much pains with his work as a young painter or a young musician. To write well, as a rule, involves as much hard practice as to play golf well. Practice does not ensure perfection in either case; but without it perfection is seldom approached.
It may be argued in reply to this that painting and playing golf do not come so naturally to human beings as the use of language—that, indeed, we are all practising the use of language from the time when we learn to speak. This is an argument worth considering, but writing a language is a different matter from speaking it. And, even in speaking, practice is an aid to perfection. Johnson laboured as hard to become a good talker as Stevenson laboured to become a good writer.
Some people say, however, that a man, having learned to write, need no longer trouble about style. I know an excellent writer who maintains that by the time an author has reached thirty he should be able to write without being conscious of the style in which he is writing. He believes that care about style leads to self-consciousness, and that self-consciousness deadens inspiration. I agree that self-consciousness is in many writers a vice. I have read books in which the author writhed with self-consciousness as he turned out his beauteous sentences. As a rule, however, he was an author who, instead of finding style of his own, dressed out his thoughts in an imitation of the style of some other author such as Pater or Meredith. This gave his style an air of insincerity of at least of borrow robes that sat uneasily on him.
Some people who deprecate labour after style quote the example of Shakespeare, who is said never to have blotted a line. We know very little about Shakespeare’s methods of work, however. That other reference to his ‘well-filled line’ suggests that he may have revised some of his verse as carefully as W. B. Yeats revised his.
HOLDING UP NARRATIVE
Let it be admitted at once, however, that the writers who have consciously laboured after style have seldom been among the greatest. This is certainly true of novelists. I think Sir Hugh Walpole once said that a novelist should not have too good a style. When I read this I took it to mean that too good a style might act as a drag on the energy of the narrative—that over-consciousness of it might hold up the reader as he read. We do not want a story-teller to halt in his stride to hunt for a perfect adjective or to insist on our over-admiring it.
This only means, however, that the best narrative style is not a good style of the laboured sort. A David Copperfield written in the style of Walter Pater is inconceivable. Written in such a style, it would have the movement of life frozen out of it. I should not say, however, that because Dickens was not a stylist in the common sense of the word, he was not a great stylist. I always think of the opening of Great Expectations as one finest passages in English literature and one of the best written. Style like this is better than a “good style.” It is the very genius of style.
MARK OF FERTILIY
That Dickens wrote with great facility is obvious—almost with as great facility as A. C. Benson. No one who did not write with great facility would have given the world such a sequence of long novels. Facility, with him, however, was the mark of fertility, not of busy indolence. It did not mean that he was expending only half or perhaps a quarter of his energy; it meant that this energy flowed with the natural force of a mountain torrent. In other words, Dickens was taking it out of himself as he wrote: Benson was not.
Hence, I think, we may conclude that there are two kinds of facility in writing—facility allied to indolence and facility allied to energy. Perhaps it is unfair to accuse a writer with such an output of books as A. C. Benson of indolence; but unquestionably he wrote without that intensity which ’emotional pressure’ gives and which is indispensable to the greatness of the great facile writers. It is as though he pottered at writing all his life long instead of writing.
Browning probably wrote as facilely as he; he is said to have written Childe Roland in a single day. But consider the intensity with which Browning wrote—the fury of energy, with which he put his imagination into words. Browning, perhaps, had the worst style to be found among the great English poets; but in Childe Roland, as sometimes elsewhere in his work, his style achieve greatness.
KEATS’S SECOND THOUGHTS
It may be that most great poems emerge from the poet’s mind with the easy delivery of an improvisation. I once read an article in which a critic described Keats’s Nightingale as an improvisation, as though Keats had suddenly thought of the theme and hastily scribbled the verses on sheets of paper which he flung on the ground as he wrote. Even if the Nightingale was ultimately born with speed and triumphant ease, however, I expect that it had long been maturing in Keats’s mind and we know that, when he had written it, he revised it like any young stylist rewriting his sentences.
Not to rewrite, or at least, not to revise, seems to me to be an error in any writer but a man of the highest genius. I admit that one of the worst writers I ever knew was a man who rewrote and revised his work until the original was almost blotted out by the ink of his corrections. But, on the whole, the writers who have rewritten and revised—who have refused to rely on immediate inspiration and facility of expression—have been justified by results.
William Watson was not a great poet, but he made himself a good poet by approaching the task of writing as a difficult thing, not an easy one. W. B. Yeats, again, who lauded ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’ would devote an entire day to labouring over half a dozen lines. I do not think that all the changes he made in his poems in his quest for perfection were improvements but they were characteristic of a poet who had found in difficulty not an obstacle but an inspiration. Difficulty was probably necessary in his early life to call forth the full expenditure of his energy, as a mountain is necessary to call forth the full expenditure of the energy of a mountaineer.
And that full expenditure is, as I have said, all that we can ask of a writer. Let him write either laboriously or with all facility and haste of which he is capable. But, however he writes, let it be at the full stretch of his talents. That is what all the good writers have done their best.