monkey read, monkey write

In my last post I talked about my self-designed study program to learn the classical liberal arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and mentioned my work with the text Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P. J. Corbett. Now I want to give more of an idea of what that study entails.

Corbett arranges the material in four sections:

  • Introduction, with a brief description of what classical rhetoric is and some examples of ancient and modern rhetoric
  • Discovery of Arguments, or how to find what you want to say
  • Arrangement of Material, or how to organize what you want to say
  • Style, or how to choose your words

He also has a concluding section called Survey of Rhetoric in which he looks at the development of the art of rhetoric over time. I haven’t got that far yet so I can’t comment on it. I’m still in the Style section, doing exercises in imitation.

That’s right: imitation. In this, you read a piece of good writing and then imitate it, either by trying to mimic the writer’s style in the writing of an individual sentence, or by out-and-out copying of one of his paragraphs in longhand. Apart from the early grades in elementary school, I had first come across the pedagogical technique of copying in an art book given to me by my artist brother-in-law Fred Douglas back in 1988. The book was devoted to expanding your drawing technique, and the author advocated that the student simply copy excellent drawings in order to discover the master’s way of seeing and rendering. I remember the first one I tried: a Rembrandt self-portrait in black conté crayon. I did a pretty good job, and it was indeed illuminating. The author said that only by copying Rembrandt’s own drawing would you learn such things as just how big his nose was, and sure enough, I would never have been so bold as to allocate that much real estate on the paper to the subject’s nose!

Fast-forward to 2012: I’m back at it, but this time with prose. For the past 10 or 12 days I’ve been copying out, longhand, a specimen paragraph or two by exemplary writers. Corbett has arranged the extracts chronologically, starting with two from the Bible (one from Ecclesiastes, one from the Gospel of Luke). Last night I copied a paragraph by William Hazlitt from “On Familiar Style” (1821), in which he criticizes Samuel Johnson’s elevated writing style and praises the use of plain English. My favorites so far have been extracts from John Bunyan (1688), John Dryden (1693), and Edward Gibbon (1796), most famous for his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which now occupies two of the 54 volumes of the Britannica Great Books series. To give a sense of these exercises, here is the extract from Gibbon’s Memoirs of My Life and Writings:

The renewal, or perhaps the improvement, of my English life was embittered by the alteration of my own feelings. At the age of twenty-one I was, in my proper station of a youth, delivered from the yoke of education, and delighted with the comparative state of liberty and affluence. My filial obedience was natural and easy; and in the gay prospect of futurity, my ambition did not extend beyond the enjoyment of my books, my leisure, and my patrimonial estate, undisturbed by the cares of a family and the duties of a profession. But in the militia I was armed with power; in my travels, I was exempt from control; and as I approached, as I gradually passed, by thirtieth year, I began to feel the desire of being master in my own house. The most gentle authority will sometimes frown without reason, the most cheerful submission will sometimes murmur without cause; and such is the law of our imperfect nature that we must either command or obey; that our personal liberty is supported by the obsequiousness of our own dependents. While so many of my acquaintances were married or in parliament, or advancing with a rapid step in the various roads of honor and fortune, I stood alone, immovable and insignificant; for after the monthly meeting of 1770, I had even withdrawn myself from the militia, by the resignation of an empty and barren commission. My temper is not susceptible of envy, and the view of successful merit has always excited my warmest applause. The miseries of a vacant life were never known to a man whose hours were insufficient for the inexhaustible pleasures of study. But I lamented that at the proper age I had not embraced the lucrative pursuits of the law or of trade, the chances of civil office or India adventure, or even the fat slumbers of the church; and my repentance became more lively as the loss of time was more irretrievable.

Corbett advises the student not to write too quickly, rather to write in a legible hand as though one is going to send the document to someone. My hand is not what could fairly be called legible, but I do take more time with these samples than I do when jotting notes to myself. As for whether it’s improving or expanding my own writing style, so far I will have to trust to Corbett’s assurance that sustained effort at this will pay dividends.

The second imitation task, that of mimicking individual sentences, is much more challenging. For this is an effort at copying, not someone’s actual words, but his writing style as manifested in one sentence. For one thing, it requires an accurate breakdown of the structure of the sentence, which in turn requires grammatical knowledge. As mentioned in my previous post, my knowledge here was lacking, so I got out an old university textbook to refresh my memory or, let’s face it, to encode for the first time in some cases, the necessary knowledge of sentence structure.

My first attempt was to analyze this sentence by John Dryden:

No Government has ever been, or ever can be, wherein time-servers and blockheads will not be uppermost.

Great sentence, huh? I cannot falsify his statement from my own observations of contemporary politics. But that by the way. I attempted a grammatical breakdown of the sentence, and then struggled to come up with an imitation of my own. But I found myself unable, and in the end I put it down to a lack of certainty about my parsing of the sentence. Solution: try an easier sentence.

I picked another one from the same Dryden extract:

Blood and money will be lavished in all ages, only for the preferment of new faces, with old consciences.

Using my newly refurbished grammatical nous, I parsed the sentence: a compound subject, intransitive verb phrase, prepositional adverb phrase modifying the verb lavished, and so on. It took me a while, with quite a bit of rechecking. But when I was done I felt confident that I had parsed it accurately, and so could essay my own effort.

I jumped in and just let some image come to mind, some experience. I didn’t want to think about it too much, or I would be paralyzed. Here’s what I came up with:

Camels and horses rested among the rubble, hard by the blocks of the pyramid, under ageless skies.

Not bad. As I worked on this and a couple of other efforts at imitation of the same sentence, I came to recognize what, for me, made it stylistically significant; what made it something out of the routine or anyway unfamiliar to my own style. The biggest single element was Dryden’s use and placement of the adverb only. As far as I can tell, it modifies the following prepositional phrase for the preferment, and to me its placement here is unusual. In my imitation I came up with the adverbial use of hard before the prepositional phrase by the blocks—a use that I think is quite clever and fitting.

Imitation at the sentence level is demanding work. I’ve only drafted a few sentences, so I can’t speak of progress in enriching my own style. But I am learning a lot about grammar, and since that is another of the arts of the trivium, I’m well pleased.

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