Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

66

still on a combination of some or all of these. Last winter a superannuated fisherman died in a little Yankee village. He was rough enough in aspect to delight a painter; if he could read and write it was all he could do. But there was about the man a certain dignity of self-respect which made him at ease with whoever spoke to him, which made whoever spoke to him at ease with him. I have heard few more fitting epitaphs than a phrase used by a college friend of mine who knew the old fellow as well as I: “What a gentleman he was!” But one who heard this alone would never have guessed that it applied to an uncouth old figure, not over clean, that until a few months ago was visibly trudging about the paths of our New England coast. Just such misunderstanding as any of us can see would arise here, underlies by far the greater part of what disputes come to my knowledge.

I have said enough, I take it, to emphasize the enormous, inevitable discrepancy between our ideas and the few outward and visible signs by which common consent - good use - agrees that style must express them. It follows from this, I think, that the agreement of good use, the consent which makes

any

word mean anything, must be far from exact; at best it is approximate. For every-day purposes it answers fairly well; for the finer purposes of the higher literature it often proves almost hopelessly inadequate.

In this matter I have found very suggestive the line of thought started in my head a few years ago by

a

some questions circulated by certain English psycho logists. What ideas, they asked, do we attach to certain extremely familiar words and signs, — to the letters of the alphabet, for example, or such a word as man? The answers to their questions revealed certain facts that I should never have thought of. A considerable number of sane human beings, it appears, attach to each letter of the alphabet a distinct color, probably an unconscious reminiscence of the illuminated alphabets of infancy. For my own part, I found that the word man suggested pretty distinctly a figure with a clumsy hat and a chin-beard, poising himself rather unsteadily on his left leg. I subsequently discovered the original of the image in a copy of Mother Goose, familiar to me at the age of two or three. To take another word, which we considered a little while ago, what does choir mean? Usage, to be sure, gives it two distinct significations : in architecture it means the part of a church where the singers stand; hereabouts it generally means the singers themselves. In the phrase from Shakspere that we considered, “ Bare, ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang," - the second meaning is excluded; but the very comment I made on the line - that the eastern sky gleamed through the empty tracery — showed that to me the word suggested a Gothic structure viewed from the interior. To another it might with equal propriety suggest the exterior of the same structure ; to still another the whole structure, visible from no particular point of view. And turning to the other meaning of

the word, does choir when applied to singers suggest a company of surpliced boys such as make so impressive some of the services of the Episcopal Church, or one of those more social bodies from which, the newspapers tell us, sopranos occasionally elope with tenors ?

We have come, in fact, to a point where we can begin to appreciate pretty distinctly the actual relation that exists between words and ideas. Our words are at most so few, our ideas at the very least so many, that almost every word we possess must be pressed into service for very various ideas; and what is more, that no idea can ever be called up in our minds by a word, without the suggestion of a considerable number of others along with it. Every word we use in defining our ideas for ourselves must not only name an idea, but along with it must suggest, consciously or unconsciously, a very curiously complex set of others. Every word we use in imparting our ideas to other people must likewise arouse in their minds a similar curious complexity of conscious or sub-conscious associations. Here is a fact that we can no more escape than we can escape the absolute authority of good use itself.

We are now, I think, in a position to appreciate more fully than before the precise problem before one who, within the limits of good use, would choose for his compositions the kinds and the number of words which shall best produce the effect he has in mind. It is not what it seemed at first, - simply to pitch

а

upon a word by which good use has agreed with reasonable approximation to name the idea he wishes to arouse. It is equally, if not more, to make sure that the word he chooses shall not only name the idea distinctly enough to identify it, but also name it by a name if such a name is to be found which shall arouse in the minds of whoever read or hear it a set of suggestions as nearly as possible akin to those which it arouses in his own. Otherwise it must, in all probability, fail to produce the effect he has in mind.

How hard this is we can see by thinking for a moment of the various associations which in various companies cluster about those most definitely specific of words, — proper names. Every school-boy, I will assume, has known who Brutus was, any time these fifteen hundred years. He was the Roman gentleman who had been a close personal friend of Julius Cæsar, but whose devotion to the old constitution of the Roman republic led him to join in the conspiracy which put Cæsar to death. Shakspere's tragedy makes Brutus, to English-speaking people, something of a hero, - a man not to be imitated, perhaps, but surely to be admired for whole-hearted devotion to the highest ideals he knows. In the “ Divine Comedy' of Dante, on the other hand, Brutus appears in a very different light. If I am not in error, Dante believed passionately in the divine right of the Roman empire; to him Brutus was the first and chiefest of the sinners who had raised their hands against it. In

as

the very lowest depth of hell he found him suffering the penalty of the gravest but one of human crimes; the worst torture of all — only a shade worse than his- was reserved for Judas Iscariot. Now, if there be school-boys trained in the “ Divine Comedy most of us have been trained in Shakspere, the name “ Brutus” would suggest to them anything but our heroic ideal. Each set would know who Brutus was; but the one set would think of him as a hero, the other as one who deserved worse execration than ever Yankee vented on Benedict Arnold.

After all, the analogy of such proper names as I have just mentioned is perhaps the most instructive to which I can now call your attention. If we understand a proper name at all, we know to what human being it applies. In general, his outward and visible form, lovely or unlovely, rises before our eyes when we hear the arbitrary syllables by which men have agreed to name him. But what set of emotions rises in our minds along with this imaginary figure varies almost as much as we ourselves vary from one another. In private life it is often hard to guess what these emotions will be. With public figures the case is a little different: it is safe to assume, I think, that the name of Mr. Jefferson Davis, calling up a slim figure with a slight beard under the chin, would arouse one set of emotions in a citizen of Massachusetts, and quite another in a citizen of Mississippi. Sensible people, wishing to produce distinct rhetorical effects, should govern their use of the name Jefferson Davis

« ZurückWeiter »