On English Composition and Other Matters by Samuel Butler


This essay is believed to be the first composition by Samuel Butler that appeared in print. It was published in the first number of the EAGLE, a magazine written and edited by members of St. John's College, Cambridge, in the Lent Term, 1858, when Butler was in his fourth and last year of residence.

[From the Eagle, Vol. 1, No. 1, Lent Term, 1858, p. 41.]

I sit down scarcely knowing how to grasp my own meaning, and give it a tangible shape in words; and yet it is concerning this very expression of our thoughts in words that I wish to speak. As I muse things fall more into their proper places, and, little fit for the task as my confession pronounces me to be, I will try to make clear that which is in my mind.

I think, then, that the style of our authors of a couple of hundred years ago was more terse and masculine than that of those of the present day, possessing both more of the graphic element, and more vigour, straightforwardness, and conciseness. Most readers will have anticipated me in admitting that a man should be clear of his meaning before he endeavours to give to it any kind of utterance, and that having made up his mind what to say, the less thought he takes how to say it, more than briefly, pointedly, and plainly, the better; for instance, Bacon tells us, "Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark"; he does not say, what I can imagine a last century writer to have said, "A feeling somewhat analogous to the dread with which children are affected upon entering a dark room, is that which most men entertain at the contemplation of death." Jeremy Taylor says, "Tell them it is as much intemperance to weep too much as to laugh too much"; he does not say, "All men will acknowledge that laughing admits of intemperance, but some men may at first sight hesitate to allow that a similar imputation may be at times attached to weeping."

I incline to believe that as irons support the rickety child, whilst they impede the healthy one, so rules, for the most part, are but useful to the weaker among us. Our greatest masters in language, whether prose or verse, in painting, music, architecture, or the like, have been those who preceded the rule and whose excellence gave rise thereto; men who preceded, I should rather say, not the rule, but the discovery of the rule, men whose intuitive perception led them to the right practice. We cannot imagine Homer to have studied rules, and the infant genius of those giants of their art, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven, who composed at the ages of seven, five, and ten, must certainly have been unfettered by them: to the less brilliantly endowed, however, they have a use as being compendious safeguards against error. Let me then lay down as the best of all rules for writing, "forgetfulness of self, and carefulness of the matter in hand." No simile is out of place that illustrates the subject; in fact a simile as showing the symmetry of this world's arrangement, is always, if a fair one, interesting; every simile is amiss that leads the mind from the contemplation of its object to the contemplation of its author. This will apply equally to the heaping up of unnecessary illustrations: it is as great a fault to supply the reader with too many as with too few; having given him at most two, it is better to let him read slowly and think out the rest for himself than to surfeit him with an abundance of explanation. Hood says well,

And thus upon the public mind intrude it;

As if I thought, like Otaheitan cooks,

No food was fit to eat till I had chewed it.

A book that is worth reading will be worth reading thoughtfully, and there are but few good books, save certain novels, that it is well to read in an arm-chair. Most will bear standing to. At the present time we seem to lack the impassiveness and impartiality which was so marked among the writings of our forefathers, we are seldom content with the simple narration of fact, but must rush off into an almost declamatory description of them; my meaning will be plain to all who have studied Thucydides. The dignity of his simplicity is, I think, marred by those who put in the accessories which seem thought necessary in all present histories. How few writers of the present day would not, instead of [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] rather write, "Night fell upon this horrid scene of bloodshed." {1} This is somewhat a matter of taste, but I think I shall find some to agree with me in preferring for plain narration (of course I exclude oratory) the unadorned gravity of Thucydides. There are, indeed, some writers of the present day who seem returning to the statement of facts rather than their adornment, but these are not the most generally admired. This simplicity, however, to be truly effective must be unstudied; it will not do to write with affected terseness, a charge which, I think, may be fairly preferred against Tacitus; such a style if ever effective must be so from excess of artifice and not from that artlessness of simplicity which I should wish to see prevalent among us.


{1} This was called to my attention by a distinguished Greek scholar of this University.]

Neither again is it well to write and go over the ground again with the pruning knife, though this fault is better than the other; to take care of the matter, and let the words take care of themselves, is the best safeguard.

To this I shall be answered, "Yes, but is not a diamond cut and polished a more beautiful object than when rough?" I grant it, and more valuable, inasmuch as it has run chance of spoliation in the cutting, but I maintain that the thinking man, the man whose thoughts are great and worth the consideration of others, will "deal in proprieties," and will from the mine of his thoughts produce ready-cut diamonds, or rather will cut them there spontaneously, ere ever they see the light of day.

There are a few points still which it were well we should consider. We are all too apt when we sit down to study a subject to have already formed our opinion, and to weave all matter to the warp of our preconceived judgment, to fall in with the received idea, and, with biassed minds, unconsciously to follow in the wake of public opinion, while professing to lead it. To the best of my belief half the dogmatism of those we daily meet is in consequence of the unwitting practices of this self-deception. Simply let us not talk about what we do not understand, save as learners, and we shall not by writing mislead others.

There is no shame in being obliged to others for opinions, the shame is not being honest enough to acknowledge it: I would have no one omit to put down a useful thought because it was not his own, provided it tended to the better expression of his matter, and he did not conceal its source; let him, however, set out the borrowed capital to interest. One word more and I have done. With regard to our subject, the best rule is not to write concerning that about which we cannot at our present age know anything save by a process which is commonly called cram: on all such matters there are abler writers than ourselves; the men, in fact, from whom we cram. Never let us hunt after a subject, unless we have something which we feel urged on to say, it is better to say nothing; who are so ridiculous as those who talk for the sake of talking, save only those who write for the sake of writing? But there are subjects which all young men think about. Who can take a walk in our streets and not think? The most trivial incident has ramifications, to whose guidance if we surrender our thoughts, we are oft-times led upon a gold mine unawares, and no man whether old or young is worse for reading the ingenuous and unaffected statement of a young man's thoughts. There are some things in which experience blunts the mental vision, as well as others in which it sharpens it. The former are best described by younger men, our province is not to lead public opinion, is not in fact to ape our seniors, and transport ourselves from our proper sphere, it is rather to show ourselves as we are, to throw our thoughts before the public as they rise, without requiring it to imagine that we are right and others wrong, but hoping for the forbearance which I must beg the reader to concede to myself, and trusting to the genuineness and vigour of our design to attract it may be more than a passing attention.

I am aware that I have digressed from the original purpose of my essay, but I hope for pardon, if, believing the digression to be of more value than the original matter, I have not checked my pen, but let it run on even as my heart directed it.