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80 ...... Style S tevenson’s contemporaries in the literary world agreed that he had a striking literary style, but there wasn’t always consensus on how to characterize it. Reviewers looked up and down for apt comparisons, veering from “over smart, well-­ dressed, shall I say, like a young man walking in the Burlington Arcade” to “the heaviness and sententiousness of John Knox’s prelections” to “one among the many products of the Queen Anne revival.” This last critic said, not without admiration, “Mr. Stevenson is a stylist who lays himself out for the mastery of style.”1 Some people thought he was a little show-­ offy, as though writing trimly and resonantly was part of his pose, like his long hair. Stevenson never got around to publishing a book on style for writers, as he said he wanted to, but he did publish an essay on the subject, of which he was modestly proud. “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” attempted to define what makes a good style and to direct authors, both in prose and verse, toward practical applications. Stevenson saw style as the interweaving of sound and sense, form and meaning. “The web, then, or the pattern: a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style, that is the foundation of the art of literature.” He wrote a formal conclusion to the essay, in which he briefly enumerated “the elements of style.” The author has “the task of keeping his phrases large, rhythmical, and pleasing to the ear, without ever allowing them to fall into the strictly metrical ” and “the task of artfully combining the prime elements of language into phrases that shall be musical in the mouth.” 81 ...... Also, “the task of weaving their argument into a texture of committed phrases and of rounded periods,” as well as “the task of choosing apt, explicit, and communicative words.” It’s a very difficult game, all of this weaving of textures and juggling of tasks. It’s no wonder, he said, “if perfect sentences are rare, and perfect pages rarer.” Yet he believed that with “industry and intellectual courage” any committed author could learn the basics of good style.2 “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” would seem to be the place to start in a chapter on style. But it’s a rather heavy-­footed essay. One commentator asked drily, “How comes it, one would like to know, that the act of writing about style tends to play havoc with the style of the writer? Mr. Stevenson’s essay on style . . . was probably the worst piece of writing he ever put his name to.”3 I could almost agree with him. It’s not my favorite. There’s a little too much of the professorial “we,” as in “[w]e do not, indeed, find verses in six groups, because there is not room for six in the ten syllables.” To get a feel for good style, it might be better to carefully read “The Lantern-­ Bearers” or “An Apology for Idlers” rather than “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” (even the title is clunky). And yet this essay, more than anyother, testifies to Stevenson ’s almost wonky interest in language and its refinements, his expert’s appreciation for good writing, and his keen eye and ear for inferior work. He often felt that the great stylists were all in the past—uncommon men, who could write novels and poetry while also working as magistrates (Fielding ), booksellers (Richardson), and lawyers (Scott). “The little, artificial popularity of style in England tends, I think, to die out,” Stevenson complained to Richard Le Gallienne. The British reader returns “to his true love, the love of the style-­ less, of the shapeless, of the slap-­ dash and the disorderly .” Stevenson didn’t like to see a writer’s gifts being thrown away on popular trends or turned into journalism: in the letter to Le Gallienne, he went on to observe that 82 ...... “Kipling, with all his genius . . . is a move in that direction, and it is the wrong one.”4 To develop a style required intelligence and perseverance. The writer is a ringmaster who must make the animals—words, rhymes, images—dance to a pipe or jump through hoops. The animals are often unruly or lethargic. Words, especially, have an annoying habit of wandering off and generating meanings in all directions. They are like intractable building blocks manhandled every day...


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