Friday, December 13, 2013

The Music of the Sentence

by Sheila Connolly

I love flea markets and farmers markets and junk sales and antiques fairs, because I never know what I’m going to find. That includes Irish markets, where it’s even more likely that I’ll find something unlikely and unexpected. The Skibbereen (West Cork, Ireland) Saturday market is no exception.  This was the second year I’ve been there, and I always come away with something.  Lots of somethings, in fact.

The food products are amazing, but that’s for another blog.  They also sell live poultry there (I don’t have much use for a duck, now, do I?), and there are always a couple of junk stalls.  Oh, and the guy selling hand-carved magic wands.  Yes, I bought one, made of bog oak, which is supposed to be wood a thousand years old, pulled out of a bog.

One of the sort-of antique stalls was run by an English couple.  I first spotted an old book on a pile there and was of course drawn to it, and we started chatting.  Turns out the husband has written a mystery about the discovery of a Viking horde on a beach somewhere, so we had something in common.  And yes, I bought the old book I had first seen:  It’s called:

A Grammar of Rhetoric, and Polite Literature; Comprehending the Principles of Language and Style, the Elements of Taste and Criticism: with Rules for the Study of Composition and Eloquence; Illustrated by Appropriate Examples.

It was written by one Alexander Jamieson, published in London in 1818. There’s a hand-written inscription which I think says (it’s in Latin) it was given as a prize to an outstanding student named David Sherlock in August 1830 (it doesn’t look as though young David used it much). It’s bound in red leather with gold stamping, and the edges of the pages are gilt.
My initial impression, upon opening the book at a random page, was that one would have to have a pretty impressive education simply to read any part of it.  This is not a primer for beginners!

But reading even the index is immensely entertaining (no, I will not claim to have read the book yet). Some chapter headers might come from a modern document on “How to Write,” while others sound absurd.  A few samples:

Under characteristics of style: “The Nervous and the Feeble of the same Import with the Concise and the Diffuse.” Huh? Of course, “An Author may write simply and yet not beautifully.”  On a more reasonable note, “The Foundation of all good Style, is good Sense, accompanied with a lively Imagination.”

There are sections on Historical Writing and Philosophical Writing. There is an entire section devoted to “On the Nature and Structure of Sentences, the General Principles of Perspicuity, and the Harmony of Periods.” Then there’s a chapter on “The Various Species of the Unintelligible,” which begins with “The unintelligible, from want of meaning in the writer, proceeds from vacuity of thought.” The writer seems to be saying, think before you write.  Good idea.

When we arrive at the part about the Harmony of Periods, the writer says,

Those words are most agreeable to the ear which are composed of smooth and liquid sounds, where there is a proper intermixture of vowels and consonants; without too many harsh consonants grating upon each other or too many open vowels in succession, to cause a hiatus or disagreeable aperture of the mouth.

I could happily go on, for the small book is nearly 400 pages long, but I think you get the drift.  Our man Jamieson was a Scotsman, a schoolmaster, a teacher; he went bankrupt and then became an actuary (rhetoric doesn’t pay the bills?).  This little grammar was very successful when published, and there were at least 53 American editions. It would have been used in colleges and was widely quoted (and even used for female education!).

Clearly the methods of teaching writing have changed since 1818, but I’ve always thought that something was lost when we stopped reading the old classics, if only for the sounds of the words. I think it bears thinking about, if we as writers want to reclaim what Jamieson calls “the music of the sentence.”
The second book in the County Cork Mystery Series, coming February 2014



No comments: