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EARNING to read is said to be the hardest of human acL' quirements. Nothing, indeed, could make us doubt the truth of the saying, except that so many people who succeed in mastering this greatest of difficulties break down in attempting the easier branches of knowledge which follow. To judge by experience, the hardest and rarest of all these later achievements would seem to be that of writing one's mother tongue. In these days, to be sure, everybody writes, and almost everybody has soine part of his writings printed. He who has not written a book has at least written an article,' a 'letter,' or a 'paragraph,' or at all events he has tried the still humbler work of putting together a handbill or an advertisement. It is said to be pleasant to see one's self in print; but it is a pleasure which has ceased to be a distinction; it is a pleasure which hardly anybody is ascetic enough to deny himself. If we are a nation of shopkeepers, we are also a nation of authors. Indeed, the two callings work beautifully together: if, on the one hand, authorship has become something very like a trade, so, on the other, a man can now hardly keep a shop without trying his hand at some measure of authorship. In short, we all write; but when we have got thus far, a very fearful thought comes in, How do we write? To be sure we all write English, but what sort of English? Can our sentences be construed? Do our words really mean what we wish them to? Of the vast mass of English which is written and printed, how much is really clear and straightforward, free alike from pedantry, from affectation, and from vulgarity?
We are going to say some hard things of our neighbours, so we may just as well shelter ourselves as much as we may by saying that we are not going to boast of ourselves. We have no reason to think that we are better than other people. We
* 1. On the Study of Words: Five Lectures. By Richard Chenevix Trench, B.D. London, 1851.
2. English Past and Present: Five Lectures. By Richard Chenevix Trench, B.D. London, 1855.
3. A Select Glossary of English Words used formerly in different senses from their present. By Richard Chenevix Trench, D.D., Dean of Westminster. London, 1859.
4. A Dictionary of Americanisms: a Glossary of Words usually regarded as peculiar to the United States. Bv John Russell Bartlett. Boston, 1859.
are but human, and human nature is weak. It is very likely that some one may find in this Review, in this number, in this article, examples of all the faults which we are going to find in other people. We hope it may not be so; if we sin, we at least do not sin wilfully. But if we should be unluckily caught in preaching what we do not practise, let it be remembered that this will not show our preaching to be any the less true: it will only show the wonderful prevalence of the vice when it is found to reach the preacher himself.
The causes of the corruption of modern English-for our readers will have already seen that we take for granted that it is corrupted-form a very wide subject indeed. It would take a very large book, written by a very wise man, to go to the bottom of all of them. But some of them lie on the surface. The wide spread of literature leads directly to the corruption of literature. Everybody reads, and nearly everybody writes. But it cannot be thought that everybody has the gift of tasteful and critical reading, or that nearly everybody has the gift of tasteful and correct writing. Again, the great mass of readers read almost wholly for amusement: if instruction is not altogether eschewed, it is only taken when it is put in an amusing shape. Now writing for amusement is in itself as good and legitimate a form of writing as any other: a composition written only to amuse may be as perfect a model of pure English as a folio full of the profoundest learning. It is indeed in the higher branches of light literature that the purest models of style may most naturally be looked for. Mere style is of more importance there than in graver works, and there is no need of that sort of technical and quasi-technical language which must always encumber writings on special subjects. Because a man writes to please, or even to raise a laugh, it does not follow that his English may not be of the very best kind. But when everybody writes, and when everybody who writes thinks it his duty to raise a laugh, we may be quite certain that a great deal of what is written will be very bad English. Really humorous writing in all its various kinds requires special and rare powers. A man who does not possess them, and who is still obliged to write humorously, is driven to fall back upon some baser substitute. And hence, too, the taste of readers as well as of writers becomes corrupted. Like Byron, they feed on poisons till they are to them a kind of nutriment. Familiarity with the false humour drives out all taste for the true. People who have filled themselves full of Mr. Dickens will not care to read about Sir Roger de Coverley.
The necessities of periodical writing have done more than
anything else to corrupt the popular taste.
Many people read nothing but newspapers; many others read nothing but newspapers, magazines, and novels. Now how does man read a newspaper? how does he too often read a quarterly review? How is our present reader reading our present article? How do we ourselves read anybody else's article? Even in the case of the review, its reader seldom takes and studies it, line by line and word by word, with his elbows on the table and his eyes never stirring from the book, as if he were intent upon Thucydides or Butler's Analogy. We fear that we all of us are too much given to skimming, and to the offspring of skimming, which is skipping. We look through to see what pleases us, and what does not please us we pass bv. We read perhaps when others are near us; we stop to make remarks and to answer questions. And if the question happens to be about what we are reading, it is sure to be, not, 'Is it wise?' but always, 'Is it interesting?'
What we say of a review applies with tenfold force to a newspaper. of course in a review there will be many articles written with great care, and which ought to be read with great care-articles on matters of permanent importance, and which deserve a place among our permanent literature. Still, except in a few brilliant exceptional cases, these are not the articles which best succeed in fixing the attention of the general reader. They doubtless attract their own special readers, but the review mainly lives at any rate in a commercial sense-by those articles which are attractive to all readers. But how much more forcibly still is this the case with a newspaper. A newspaper, especially a daily paper, is, and must be, hastily written and hastily read; it is skimmed over and thrown aside. Its best portions form the subjects of a single day's conversation. Their utmost permanence is when any one whom they may personally concern cuts them out and pastes them in a book. Of course all this is no fault of newspaper writing. We must have newspapers, and newspapers cannot be written or read in any other way. But it is a sort of reading and writing which is surrounded with very great temptations, and when those temptations are not guarded against, they may do both writers and readers no small mischief.
A composition which is to live only a single day, which is to be read at an idle hour, to be put down and never taken up again, naturally possesses a style of its own. The style of a philosophical folio, even that of an article' of the longer and graver class, would clearly be out of place. It must be of a nature at once to attract and to arrest attention: it must be
interesting, and something more than interesting: it must be lively, sparkling, forcible, saying a great deal in a few words. Now this is surely the description of no very easy kind of composition. A man may do all this, and yet may sin against none of the higher laws either of style or matter. But so to do requires very peculiar, and we should think rather rare gifts; it is certainly not within the compass of every writer even in our firstclass newspapers. The temptations which beset the newspaper writer, whether correspondent or leading-article maker, are truly manifold. There is first of all the great question of matter. The newspaper writer, like the preacher, must say something, while very likely he may really have nothing to say. To make your nothing attractive is yet harder than to make your something equally so. Far-fetched anecdotes
and allusions, artificial modes of expression, needless and sometimes false antitheses, a general style of false brilliancy and false vivacity, are the natural result. It is but seldom that a newspaper article can be the straightforward utterance of a man's heart. Even when he honestly means what he says, when there is no conscious mis-statement, no conscious fallacy, the thing still takes an artificial form. A man may write what he thinks, but he hardly ever writes it as he thinks it. But how much more when there is simply something to be said, and some particular side to be taken, at all hazards. Some practised writers may in such a case reach such a height of ingenious sophistry as to make art really counterfeit nature, and the worse side really appear the better. Less skilful hands may take refuge in mere falsehood, blustering, and name-calling. Or, perhaps more commonly than either, the inherent nothingness or inherent error may be wrapped up in such a blaze of false brilliancy and decked out with such a profusion of jest and anecdote, that the reader at least thinks the article very clever, even if he does not exactly know what it has taught him.
Now this vice, in different shapes, infects nearly all our periodical literature. Doubtless we may find some among the best articles in the best papers which are wholly free from it. There are some writers who can treat ludicrous subjects in a ludicrous style, and grave subjects in a grave style, and can produce in either case a composition at once popular and really well written. There are others, on the other hand, with more of matter than manner, with more earnestness than brilliancy, who, instead of the vice of false glitter, fall into the opposite vice of respectable heaviness. But, as a rule, false brilliancy has it all its own way over the whole range stretching from the Times' to the Daily Telegraph.' Of course the vice takes
very different shapes according to the capacity of different classes of writers and readers. The false lights put out different colours, but they are all false lights just the same. In the inferior papers the false glitter is often mixed up with much of mere ignorance and vulgarity. The words are not always English and the sentences cannot always be parsed. The higher class of daily papers are of course not open to this kind of charge. But, high and low, there is essentially the same false glitter about both, the same odd periphrases for common things, the same false antitheses, the same forced jokes, the same jerking and straining after effect. One does it better than another; one counterfeit is more like the truth than another; but the thing is essentially the same in all. The provincial penny-a-liner tells you a story of a cock and a bull, in which cock and bull are alike spoken of by some queer and would-be facetious circumlocution. The vice is essentially the same when the metropolitan journalist practises his favourite trick of be ginning an article with some smartly-told anecdote, old or new, true or false, and then suddenly hurling the unsuspecting reader into some other subject a thousand years or a thousand miles off from that with which the article began.
But if the evil of which we complain were confined to news papers, the thing might be just bearable, but unluckily from newspapers it has made its way into nearly the whole of our literature except the very highest class. As a general rule now-a-days, something smart, something facetious, is required of everybody. A book of travels is now for the most part little more than a book of jokes. We doubt if anybody would now read such a book as that of Sir John Chardin. something interesting,' something 'exciting,' and what is understood by interesting and exciting is generally something in the vivacious style of the newspapers. The very title must be something sparkling, something jingling or alliterative— May Fair to Marathon,' Leith to Lapland,' There and Back,' 'The Bridal and the Bridle.' But not only voyages and travels, even history itself has to be written in the same style if it is to attract popularity. We do not mean that Bishop Thirlwall and Dean Milman write in this fashion. But there is another writer, Mr. Macknight, who has given us two volumes of the Life of Burke,' in the very worst newspaper style, clearly because it had become quite natural to him and he could not write in any any other way. Lord Macaulay is indeed a happy exception. He writes good English and yet all the world reads him. It is ungracious to ask whether Lord Macaulay has won his position with the general public by reason of his virtues or of his faults.