Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter XXI.


[1]MAN likes to move what is movable; and to vary what is variable; thus every age makes some mark upon language; and the continual influence of that spirit of invention which creates speech ends by corrupting it.

[2]It is always by going beyond, rather than by falling short, that languages become corrupted; by going beyond their accustomed accent, their natural energy, their traditional brilliancy.

[3]In literature it is well for the writer to go back to the sources of a language, because he thus opposes antiquity to fashion, and besides, when a man discovers in his native tongue that touch of unfamiliarity which stimulates and awakens the taste, he speaks it better, and with more pleasure. As for the drawbacks, they are nil. Faults that have grown old and obsolete have lost their power to harm, and there is nothing more to fear from their contagion.

[4]To give an old word freshness of meaning which it had lost through age and decay, is not to change it, but to give it new life. Like the fields, languages are enriched by digging; to make them fruitful, when they are no longer virgin soil, we must dig deep.

[5]All languages are rivers that run gold.

[6]When we restore the natural and primitive meaning to words, we re-furbish, clean, and restore to them their first brilliance; we recast the coin, and return it, with fresh brightness, to circulation; we renew as with a die the defaced stamp.

[7]In the French language, words drawn from the gaming-table, from war, the chase, and the stable are of noble descent.

[8]It is important to fix the language of science, above all the language of metaphysics, and to preserve, as much as possible, the expressions used by great men.

[9]Before employing a fine phrase, make a place for it.

[10]All fine speech is capable of more than one interpretation; when a beautiful phrase suggests a finer meaning than the author intended, it is well to adopt it.

[11]Words should stand out from the paper; that is to say, should attach themselves easily to the attention and to the memory; they should be handy to quote, and to transplant.

[12]If language be considered as a kind of music, then liquid and flowing words are the finest and best; but if it be considered as a painting, then harsh words are often excellent, for they give character.

[13]The man of dull brain and common ideas should make use of the first words that come. Brilliant phrases are the natural expression of an adorned memory, a stirred heart, an enlightened mind, and a keen eye.

[14]For an expression to be fine, it must say more than is necessary, and yet precisely what has to be said; it must combine abundance with economy, the little with the much; in short, its sound must be brief, its meaning infinite. Everything luminous has this character. A lamp, whilst it lights the object on which it is turned, lights also twenty others, for which it was never intended.

[1S]Words, like glass, obscure when they do not aid vision.

[16]We must acknowledge, as masters of language, alike those who know how to misuse it, and those who know how to use it well. But these last are the kings of language; the first are its tyrants.

[17]Phrases and words must agree with the voice, and the voice must be in keeping with the place. Words fit to be heard by all the world, and the phrases that fit these words, are ridiculous at times when we have only to talk to the eye or, so to speak, in the ear of a single reader.

[18]Whatever people may say, it is meaning above all that gives sound and harmony; and as in music the ear charms the mind, so in the music of speech it is the mind that ministers to the charming of the ear. Except for a few very harsh, or a few very sweet words, languages are composed of words of neutral sound, of which the meaning determines the charm, even for the ear. For instance, in the line of Boileau—

  • ‘Traçat ô pas tardifs un pénible sillon’
  • the uncouth combination of all these syllables—‘tra, ça, ta, pas, tar’—is hardly, if at all, noticeable—so true is it that the sense makes the sound!

    [19]‘Moi, j’en étais haïe, et ne puis lui survivre.’ The gentleness of the sound in the word ‘haïe’ tempers its meaning, and softens the violence of it. From this mingling of harshness of meaning with gentleness of sound issues a saying which is only mournful; and mournful words are beautiful.

    [20]In style the introduction of pleasing ambiguities is a great art.

    [21]Sometimes a vague term is preferable to a precise one. To use the phrase of Boileau, some obscurities are elegant; some majestic; some even necessary—for they make the mind imagine what no clearness could make it see.

    [22]The hidden meaning of words in common use—often a meaning of much breadth and importance, but a breadth and importance that we feel, without seeing—is like a light in a mist. It is the lamp of the glowworm which lights a single point, but lights it certainly. It is within the glowworm, but far from its eye, which thus sees all, except the light itself.

    [23]Do not let your phrase hamper your thought; it should be to it like a body that does not cramp the soul. Nothing too exact!—this is the great rule of grace, in literature as in conduct.

    [24]Thoughts never lack words; it is words that lack thoughts. As soon as a thought has reached its full perfection, the word springs into being, offers itself, and clothes the thought.

    [25]He who is content to half-understand, is content to half-express; thence comes your facile writer.

    [26]The best literary periods have always been those in which authors have weighed and counted their words.

    [27]‘Style is a habit of mind,’ said Dussault. Happy are they with whom it is a habit of soul!

    [28]In some cases the thought produces the style; in others the style produces the thought.

    [29]La Bruyère says that judgment should be the source of thought; yes! but temper or imagination may be the sources of expression.

    [30]Keep your mind above your thoughts, and your thoughts above your expressions.

    [31]One likes to make the very sound of the words foretell the relation that exists between the thoughts they express.

    [32]When once the mind has tasted of the sap of words, it can no more do without it; it drinks thought there.

    [33]It seems to be with our thoughts as it is with flowers. Those that are simple in expression bear seed; those that are as it were doubled by their richness and splendour, charm the mind, but produce nothing.

    [34]When the form of a phrase catches our attention more than the matter, we tend to believe that the thought has been invented for the phrase, the story for the telling, the censure for the epigram, the eulogy for the love-poem, the opinion for the good saying.

    [35]There are habits of the brain in writing as there are habits of the hand in painting; the important thing is that they should be good. Too strained a mind, too stiff a finger, are alike unfavourable to ease, grace, or beauty. Skill is a habit of mind; excellence or perfection is a habit of soul.

    [36]There is a kind of style which consumes so much thought, puts so much force into action, makes us expend so much, and, to maintain it, wastes so much tissue, that it ruins the mind.

    [37]There are some turns of phrase so striking that they take possession of the attention, to the point of distracting it from the thought. Their special function is to show the habits and gestures of the mind, which are often as agreeable and important to know as the thoughts themselves.

    [38]All forms of style are good, provided that they are used with taste; there are numberless expressions that are faults in some writers and beauties in others.

    [39]Included in the main stream of language there is a kind of special language, which I should like to call historical, because it only expresses things which have relation to our present manners, our existing governments—in short, to all that state of things which changes day by day and will pass away. Whoever aims at a durable style should use this kind of language extremely sparingly.

    [40]Orators, and the moralists of copious style, should be translated freely; but poets and the gnomic writers strictly: their character demands it.

    [41]In the art of grouping words and thoughts, it is essential that thoughts, phrases, and periods should stand out each in their own proportions, be sustained by their own mass, and balanced by their own weight. ‘La Bruyère,’ said Boileau, ‘saved himself the trouble of transitions.’ Yes, but he had given himself another, the trouble of grouping. For transition, one relation suffices; but for grouping you want a thousand—a harmony complete, natural, inevitable.

    [42]There is a kind of clearness and frankness of style which is the outcome of temper and disposition, like frankness of character. We may like it, but we must not insist upon it. Voltaire possessed it; the ancients did not. The inimitable Greeks had truth, fitness, and friendliness of style, but not frankness. This quality is, besides, incompatible with others which are essential to beauty. It may be combined with power, but not with dignity. There is something courageous and daring in it, but also something rather abrupt and petulant. Drances, in Virgil, has a frank style, and so far he is modern, he is French.

    [43]Sincerity is an indispensable quality in style, and one which is by itself enough to recommend a writer. If, on all sorts of subjects, we tried at the present day to write as they wrote in the time of Louis XIV., we should have no sincerity of style, for we have no longer the same habit of mind, the same opinions, or the same manners. A writer who tried to write verse like Boileau would be right, although he is not Boileau, because there it is only a question of borrowing a mask: he would be playing a part rather than adopting a personality. But a woman who wished to write like Madame de Sévigné would be ridiculous, because she is not Madame de Sévigné. The more the kind of writing you attempt depends on your own character and the manners of your time, the more widely should the style of it differ from that of writers who have only become models because in their works they excelled in painting either the manners of their epoch or their own character. Good taste itself in this case allows a deviation from the best taste; for even good taste changes with manners. In the case of things that only bad taste can express or paint, it were better to abstain entirely from expressing or painting them. There are, however, some styles and some matters that are unchangeable. Ecclesiastical manners and opinions, for example, should always be the same, for there it is not a question of passing moods, and I think a sacred orator would do well to write and think, as Bossuet would have written and thought.

    [44]Literary style consists in giving substance and form to the thought, by means of the phrase.

    [45]The attention is like a narrow-mouthed vessel; pour into it what you have to say cautiously, and, as it were, drop by drop.

    [46]It is great art to know how to make one’s thought fly like an arrow, and bury itself in the attention.

    [47]Some kinds of style are pleasant to the sight, harmonious to the ear, silky to the touch, but scentless and tasteless.

    [48]The most humble style has the savour of beauty, if it expresses a great and beautiful soul.

    [49]Only a temperate style is classical.

    [50]Some literary expressions are like colours: often time must fade them before they can give general pleasure.

    [51]In all solid things, such as architecture, and in all forms of very decided thought, such as maxims or vehement satire, you cannot make your contrasts and your harmonies too strong. But in all that is effusion, abandonment, softness, they are better suggested than completed.

    [52]The pleasure of expectation deceived, but agreeably deceived, may be compared to that of suspension in music. This kind of effect is generally produced by interrupted symmetries, or broken cadences, as you may see in certain rustic airs, and in the style of Fénelon—a practice which gives freshness to the song, and charm to the style.

    [53]To write well, combine strong metaphor with subdued metaphor, strongly marked forms with indefinite forms.

    [54]A concise style is the product of thought. When we have given a thing intense thought, then we can shape it in words. When we ponder but little, or not at all, on what we have to say, then our language is flowing, but without form; thus the spontaneous may have grace, but it lacks precision.

    [55]Brevity adorned—the highest beauty of style.

    [56]Those whose thought never goes beyond their words, nor their vision beyond their thought, have a very decided style.

    [57]A grave urbanity marks the academic style; it is the only style which befits a man of letters speaking to other men of letters.

    [58]There is a ‘bookish’ style which savours rather of paper than of the world, of authorship rather than of the essence of things.

    [59]An oratorical style has often the same drawback as an opera, where the music drowns the words; in this case, the words obscure the thought. The writer is carried away by his style and made to deceive himself, as he also carries away his reader, and inclines him to be deceived.

    [60]Beware of tricks of style.

    [61]The characteristic style of the letter-writer is playful and urbane.

    [62]It is by means of familiar words that style takes hold of the reader and gets possession of him. It is by means of these that great thoughts get currency and pass for true metal, like gold and silver which have had a recognised stamp put upon them. They beget confidence in the man who, in order to make his thoughts more clearly perceived, uses them; for people feel that such an employment of the language of common human life betokens a man who knows that life and its concerns, and who keeps himself in contact with them. Besides, these words make a style frank and easy. They show that an author has long made the thought or the feeling expressed his mental food; that he has so assimilated them and familiarised them that the most common expressions suffice him in order to express ideas which have become every-day ideas to him by the length of time they have been in his mind. And lastly, what one says in such words looks more true; for, of all the words in use, none are so clear as those which we call common words; and clearness is so eminently one of the characteristics of truth, that often it even passes for truth itself.[M.A.]

    [63]Colloquial expressions, by their very familiarity, produce an impression of greater sincerity. They please because they reveal the man even more than the author. But they should be placed in style, like folds in a drapery; broad spaces round them can alone excuse them.

    [64]An inflated style ‘bags’ everywhere; the thoughts in it have little connection with the subject, or the words with the thought. Between them all there is air, vacuum, or too much space. The epithet ‘inflated’ as applied to style is one of the most daring, but one of the most fitting metaphors that has ever been hazarded. So, every one understands it, and no one is surprised by it. A turgid style is another thing. It has more consistency than the other, it is better filled; but its fulness is a deformity, or at least an excess. It is too bulky—too fat—or even too large.

    [65]There is a kind of author who begins by making his style jingle, so that you may say of him, ‘He has gold!’

    [66]There is no good and beautiful style that is not full of subtleties, but of delicate subtleties. Delicacy and subtlety are the only true signs of talent. Everything else can be imitated—force, gravity, vehemence, even ease; but subtlety and delicacy are impossible to counterfeit for long. Without these, your wholesome style expresses only an upright mind.

    [67]Images and comparisons are necessary in order to give ideas a double hold upon the mind. These gain from them at once a physical and an intellectual force.

    [68]When the image takes the place of the object, and the shadow becomes the substance; when the expression is so pleasing that we are no longer inclined to go beyond it, to arrive at the meaning; when the metaphor, in short, absorbs the whole attention, we are stopped on our way, the road is mistaken for the resting-place, because our guide leads us wrong.

    [69]We may grasp and understand, by the help of metaphor; but we cannot judge and prove.

    [70]Polish and finish are to style what varnish is to a picture; they preserve it, give it permanence, and in some sort immortalise it.

    [71]We only become correct by correcting.

    [72]The rare style is good, when you get it; but I prefer the style that one expects.

    [73]Sharpness, fitness, clearness of expression are of the nature of thought. Transparency is its beauty. Therefore, if it is to seem natural, thought must needs use art. Feeling is not under the same necessity; one is heat, the other is light.

    [74]Often thoughts cannot touch the understanding unless pointed with words.

    [75]Ingenious turns of phrase direct and control the mind.

    [76]When we come on something far-fetched in a good style, it is rather a misfortune than a fault; for it means that the author has not had the time nor the good fortune to find what he was looking for. He has not lacked taste, but success.

    [77]The sallies of wit sometimes spring from the fact that the mind, after looking all round a thing, seizes swiftly on that aspect of it which will stimulate curiosity, and leaves the aroused attention to deal with the rest. Witticisms are the resource of those who are impatient to be understood, who wish to convey everything, but not to say everything. They spring from a great desire to be understood in the most rapid way possible. They are the spurs that awaken the intelligence. Extreme sagacity develops the talent for wit, because it makes it a necessity.

    [78]As some poetry comes near to being prose, so some prose may come near to being poetry. Nearly everything that expresses a decided feeling or opinion has some quality of measure and metre. This kind of prose is not so much a matter of art as of the influence and dominion of character over talent.

    [79]If dissonance is to be an element of beauty, it must be employed by some one who is versed in harmony, and remembers it, even whilst avoiding it; in the same way caricature, to be of any value, must be handled by some one who has the model of what is great in his mind, and remembers it even whilst departing from it.

    [80]To finish and complete your thought!—how long it takes, how rare it is, what an immense delight! For finished thought easily makes its way into the mind; to please, it need not even be beautiful; it is enough that it should be finished. The condition of the soul from which it springs communicates itself to other souls; and conveys to them its own repose.