Ciceronian English

Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (Chapter 3):

Style is a relation between form and content. Where the content is less than the form, where the author pretends to emotion which he does not feel, the language will seem flamboyant. The more ignorant a writer feels, the more artificial becomes his style. A writer who thinks himself cleverer than his readers writes simply (often too simply) , while one who fears they may be cleverer than he will make use of mystification: an author arrives at a good style when his language performs what is required of it without shyness.

The Mandarin style at its best yields the richest and most complex expression of the English language. It is the diction of Donne, Browne, Addison, Johnson, Gibbon, de Quincey, Landor, Carlyle and Ruskin as opposed to that of Bunyan, Dryden, Locke, Defoe, Cowper, Cobbett, Hazlitt, Southey and Newman. It is characterised by long sentences with many dependent clauses, by the use of the subjunctive and conditional, by exclamations and interjections, quotations, allusions, metaphors, long images, Latin terminology, subtlety and conceits. Its cardinal assumption is that neither the writer nor the reader is in a hurry, that both are in possession of a classical education and a private income. It is Ciceronian English.

The last great exponents of the Mandarin style were Walter Pater and Henry James, who, although they wrote sentences which were able to express the subtlest inflexions of sensibility and meaning, at the worst grew prisoners of their style, committed to a tyranny of euphonious nothings. Such writers, the devotees of the long sentence, end by having to force everything into its frame- work, because habit has made it impossible for them to express themselves in any other way. They are like those birds that weave intricate nests in which they are as content to hatch out a pebble as an egg. But the case of Henry James is sadder still, for his best writing, that found in his later books, charged with all the wisdom and feeling of his long life, went unappreciated. As he reminded Gosse, he remained “insurmountably unsaleable”, and of his collected edition of 1908 he could say, like Ozymandias, “Look on my works ye mortals and despair”.

Cyril Connolly and the literature of depression - British ...

One thought on “Ciceronian English

  1. Gibbon is too orotund for my taste. His style reminds me, all too vividly, of Shaw’s anecdote about the man who went into a bookshop and requested the works of “the celebrated Buffoon”, meaning (as Shaw explained) the Comte de Buffon. Too Latinate a style can easily sound precious and affected, and therefore, insincere.
    I’m surprised that neither Shakespeare nor Milton is named in that quotation. Their eminence surely justifies a mention of at least one of them. The absence of so great a name as Lord Macaulay is very striking. He certainly lacked neither “a classical education” nor “a private income”.
    It would have been enlightening if Connolly had enlarged on the style or styles he detected in Bunyan, Newman, and those others in the second group.

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