My rating: 4 of 5 stars
On the Art of Writing (1916) by Arthur Quiller-Couch contains a set of lectures given at the University of Cambridge from January 29, 1913 to January 28, 1914, and is best summed up when in November 1915 Arthur writes in the preface, “It amounts to this—Literature is not a mere Science, to be studied; but an Art, to be practiced.”
In these lectures Arthur holds one of the earliest quotes often repeated by university writing professors around the world—“murder your darlings” (p 203)—which is also restated in Style: The Art of Writing Well (1955) by F.L. Lucas, who had studied at Cambridge and pays tribute to Arthur in his title.
Now let’s compare the two passages between the Mentor, who was the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the time, and the Pupil:
“I have spent years saying: ‘Your generalization is beautifully epigrammatic,’” writes Lucas, “I understand that you could not bear to leave it unwritten. But consider all these exceptions to it. You knew them. If you could not bear to kill your darling, why not introduce it with the words ‘It might be said’, and then yourself point out the fatal objections? Then you could serve Beauty and Truth at once. At least you could have inserted ‘possibly’ or ‘sometimes’ into this sweeping pronouncement” (Style: The Art of Writing Well p 131).
Now for Arthur to chime in:
“Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings’” (On the Art of Writing p 203).
It’s this sort of advice from the sage that one can find in Arthur’s lectures, which range from differentiating between Verse and Prose, defining Jargon, extrapolating on the lineage of English literature, and later followed by criticisms involving English literature studied at universities in the early 1900s.
In Arthur’s inaugural lecture, however, he offers up some of the deepest comments why the people in general, in direct antagonism to the “ideal State” which would oppose Plato and contain no Literature and in turn no Professors of Literature, should not abandon the fine arts so easily:
“By consent of all, Literature is a nurse of noble natures, and right reading makes a full man in a sense even better than Bacon’s; not replete, but complete rather, to the pattern for which Heaven designed him” (p 4-5).
As it was over a century ago, Arthur’s advice is as relevant today when “complete” men and women are needed in all aspects of society; especially where blind greed for profits fuel higher education in this new millennium, ran by bankers and executives who studied more spreadsheets than they did novels, thereby lacking in “noble natures” as so many artists and readers have acquired over the years of patient deliberation and kind heartedness to the Truth and Beauty rather than to Margin Gains and Sexual Corruption.
As one example, no one need mention (but I will—I must) the UK’s House of Lords’ Chairman and Deputy Speaker Lord Sewel, who was nicknamed “Lord Coke” because the 69-year-old husband was filmed snorting cocaine off the breasts of two prostitutes, and that is where the common man’s taxes go each year: up the nostrils of a fat politician bought by Corporate Greed.
Arthur Quiller-Couch—warning as much in his opening lecture—somehow understood and expected a correlation between a lack of virtue and morals with the lack of studying literature. But for most of my readers, this will come as no surprise.
Much like what is lost in expectation from politicians these days (like having a loyal code to ethics and morality, as an example), words also become twisted over time and sooner or later ideas and fragments of ideas become something new and foreign instead what once used to be the norm. Like a prophet, Arthur warns us of the dangers higher education would face in an ever growing world of change:
“Yet I do maintain that if we go on multiplying Universities we shall not increase the joy,” writes Arthur in his eleventh lecture during a cold Wednesday on December 3, 1913: “that the reign of two-penny saints lies not far off and will soon lie within measurable distance; and that it will be a pestilent reign. As we saw in our last lecture the word ‘University’—Universitas—had, in its origin, nothing to do with Universality: it meant no more than a Society, organised (as it happened) to promote learning. But words, like institutions, often rise above their beginnings, and in time acquire a proud secondary connotation” (p 195).
It is true the original universities were not established to teach Literature but were far different institutions than the ones we find today when students can study Swimming, Fencing, Cinema, Fine Arts and the like. Even Arthur admits as much when he says, “our Universities were not founded for the study of literature,” and he goes on to state that the literatures in Arabic, Sanskrit and Chinese preluded the English form, and Latin arriving before then in 1869 (p 187).
The more popular subjects which gained professorships in Cambridge as early as 1540 included Divinity, Civil Law, Physic, Hebrew, Greek (p 185). In the following years the university would incorporate the following: Moral Philosophy (1683); Music (1684); Chemistry (1702); Astronomy (1704); Anatomy (1707); Geology (1727); and finally in 1910 a Chair of English Literature would be established (p 185-186). No wonder the top industries for some of the highest income earners include corrupted lawyers and bankers which excluded any study in the “noble natures” as discussed previously by Arthur.
Civilization is a corrupted, spoiled toddler who throws tantrums in the scope of global war and genocide, and we should expect that babe to grow and mature. Up until 1900 or so, religion and law dominated scopes of study—and we still wonder why the world is in the state it is in. Because of faith in their religion, Christian and Islamic extremists persecute one another while bankers and lawyers fund wars and cripple economies with their failure to see beyond the scope of profits and gain.
Yet, Arthur is wise enough to know the truth in even the deepest and most subtle of topics pertaining to Literature and Religion when he confesses:
“I would not have you so uncritical as to blame the Church or its clergy for what happened; as I would have you remember that if the Church killed literature, she—one may say, she alone—kept it alive” (p 177).
Arthur does come to elaborate on this enigmatic debate that has existed for centuries between Literature and Religion, the two fully clashing to summon the Dark Ages from the hells of human consciousness:
“If we grasp this, that the old literature as packed with the old religion, and not only packed with it but permeated by it, we have within our ten fingers the secret of the ‘Dark Ages,’ the real reason why the Christian Fathers fought down literature and almost prevailed to the point of stamping it out.
“They hated it, not as literature; or at any rate, not to begin with; nor, to begin with, because it happened to be voluptuous and they austere: but they hated it because it held in its very texture, not to be separated, a religion over which they had hardly triumphed, a religion actively inimical to that of Christ, inimical to truth; so that for the sake of truth and in the name of Christ they had to fight it, accepting no compromise, yielding no quarter, foreseeing no issue save that one of the twain—Jupiter or Christ, Deus Optimus Maximus or the carpenter’s son of Nazareth—must go under” (p 170).
Regardless of his thoughts on the reasons for the Dark Ages, Arthur lists his top three examples of supreme writing which should be studied by every student earnest in literature, and they include the Bible in the Authorised Version, Shakespeare’s works, and Homer, the last ranking first of all three examples (p 166).
Arthur’s lectures are highly enlightening and range over history and politics and examples of literature from Ovid, the Renaissance, Chaucer, Petrarch and Dante to Pliny and Latin and Virgil’s famous apostrophe: “Sed neque Medorum silvae, ditissima terra”; stemming from the translated praise to Mother Italy, “But neither the forests of Media, that richest country, nor the beautiful Ganges, and Hermus, turbid with golden sands, can match the praises of Italy” (p 136).
On every page and in every lecture Arthur expresses his love and admiration for writing and for literature. He finally comes to warn his listeners, then and now, of the importance in considering Literature as a form of art rather than belonging to the modes of science:
“Literature is not an abstract Science, to which exact definitions can be applied,” writes Arthur in his first lecture, echoing his words in the preface, “It is an Art rather, the success of which depends on personal persuasiveness, on the author’s skill to give as on ours to receive” (p 14).
Arthur ends his series of lectures at Cambridge by doing his best to define and summarize his comments on “style”:
“This then is Style. As technically manifested in Literature it is the power to touch with ease, grace, precision, any note in the gamut of human thought or emotion…
“It comes of endeavoring to understand others, of thinking for them rather than for yourself—of thinking, that is, with the heart as well as the head. It gives rather than receives; it is nobly careless of thanks or applause, not being fed by these but rather sustained and continually refreshed by an inward loyalty to the best” (p 214).
That is all anyone can really ask of you: to love what you do and to do what you love well, with little recognition of praise and applause.
Writing well and having great style has nothing to do with competition or being better than others.
Writing well and having style is about dedicating one’s life to the “art” of creating literature and being content with one’s “loyalty to the best”, stemming from the heart and the head.
This is one lesson of many from Arthur Quiller-Couch we should all plan to carry with us out into the world as well: to be loyal to our best and to have no hesitations about doing so.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 440,000+ followers