Collection Spotlight — Style

Style
by F. L. Lucas. (Petersfield, Hampshire, Great Britain: Harriman House, 2012), 263 pages, ISBN 978-0-85719-187-8

Reviewed by Harold Henkel, Associate Librarian

“I would say to [William] Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: ‘Read over your compositions and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’”—Samuel Johnson

In June 2011, the New Criterion published a review by Joseph Epstein of Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.1 Finding not a single thing to commend Professor Fish’s book, Epstein, by way of comparison, turned to a better guide, Style, by F. L. Lucas (1894 – 1967), originally published in 1955 and out of print since 1974. According to Epstein, Lucas “wrote the best book on prose composition for the not-so-simple reason that, in the modern era, he was the smartest, most cultivated man to turn his energies to the task.” Epstein’s accolade apparently awakened considerable interest in Lucas’s book, with the happy result that in 2012, Style was again in print in a high-quality paperback edition.

Style is not a guidebook, and it cannot be perused for writing tips. Written towards the end of his life, Lucas’s book is an aesthetic and even moral testament by one of the most distinguished scholars and men of letters of his generation.

The idea at the center of Style is that character is the foundation of good writing. “Therefore, if you wish your writing to seem good, your character must seem at least partly so. And since in the long run deception is likely to be found out, your character had better not only seem good, but be it … Authors may sell their books, but they give themselves away.” Now for a modern, secular audience, this is a radical, even subversive idea, but Lucas is relentless in defending his thesis, bringing in, among many others, Aristotle (“To carry conviction, a speaker needs three qualities … good sense, good character, and good will towards his hearers”) and Socrates (“As a man is, so is his speech”).2

If character is the foundation of style, what moral qualities of authors are revealed in their writing? Lucas devotes a chapter each to six:

  1. Clarity
  2. Brevity and Variety
  3. Urbanity and Simplicity
  4. Good Humor and Gaiety
  5. Good Sense and Sincerity
  6. Good Health and Vitality

What makes Style so lively and enjoyable is the combination of Lucas’s graceful erudition (in this, he resembles his contemporary, C.S. Lewis) and his examples from literature, culled from a lifetime of reading. Here to give some flavor of his thought are three examples:

  1. On Clarity: “…in the first century of the Roman Empire, Quintilian mocks at the obscurantism fashionable in his day: ‘We think ourselves geniuses if it takes genius to understand us.’”
  2. On Brevity: After giving several examples of classical haiku, including the exquisite “A butterfly sleeps on the village bell,” Lucas muses, “A Japanese writer in this form, contemporary with Milton, Yasuhara Teishitsu, for the sake of posterity destroyed all his poems but three. There was brevity indeed!”
  3. On Humor: Gibbon on Gordian II (c. 192 – c. 238): “His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father. Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested to the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions he left behind him, it appears that both the one and the other were designed for use rather than ostentation.”

Lucas is not a museum curator, dusting marble statues for our admiration. He is a reader, fully engaged with the authors he is reading. When Swift, for example, writes “Proper words in proper places makes the true definition of style,” we lesser readers would consider this an epigram to commit to memory. But Lucas will have none of it: “One might as well define good talk as proper remarks in proper places; or the good life as proper conduct on proper occasions.”

For anyone who takes words seriously and wishes to write (or read) better, I can think of two additional reasons to commend this book. The first is that an occasional scrubbing-down regarding our pretensions to wide-reading and culture is good for all of us. To return to character, Lucas writes, “It is, I believe, personality above all that sets Virgil and Horace higher than Catullus and Ovid: Chaucer than Dryden; Shakespeare than his contemporaries.” As Joseph Epstein remarks about a similar judgment, “Pause a moment to consider the wide reading required to have written that last sentence.” The second reason is that, like C.S. Lewis, Lucas is a most amiable companion who shares hard-won learning lightly and without pretense. Also like Lewis, he is a scholar who views wisdom as the true purpose of learning:

“It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they have inherited from their faiths, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us, and to be forgotten, when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not wholly governed by its ‘stars.’”

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1Joseph Epstein, “Heavy Sentences,” The New Criterion 29, no. 10 (June 2011): 4-8. Available from Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost.

2Cf. Luke 6:45:  “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.”