Tuesday, 21 May 2013

How to write English prose, with John Donne and George Orwell

This post is about writing prose. It exists partly to advertise my own writings, so let us get that bit over first. You can find my “A-grade History Lectures” here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_8?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+grade+history+lectures&sprefix=a+grade+%2Caps%2C1583

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I was lucky at school to have an outstanding English teacher. He told us that the finest sentence ever written in the English language comes in one of the sermons of John Donne. I see no reason, forty-seven years later, to disagree with him. Here is the sentence:

“The dust of great persons graves is speechless too, it says nothing, it distinguishes nothing: as soon the dust of a wretch whom thou wouldest not, as of a Prince thou couldest not look upon will trouble thine eyes, if the wind bloweth thither; and when a whirlwind hath blown the dust of the Churchyard into the Church, and the man sweeps out the dust of the Church into the Churchyard, who will undertake to sift those dusts again, and to pronounce, This is the Patrician, this is the noble flower, and this the yeomanly, this the Plebeian bran.”

(It is pleasing to find that the grammar-checker on my computer has no objection to this sentence, despite the lack of an apostrophe and of a pair of inverted commas, where one might expect them)

Later on, as a young adult, I began to read the writings of George Orwell for pleasure, rather than as set texts. I can remember thinking, after I had finished “Homage to Catalonia” that the use of words had been so good, so luminously clear, that it was almost as though they did not exist. The black squiggles on the paper provided no barrier at all between Orwell’s mind and my own.

Around about the time I retired I stumbled upon the writings of Clive James, whose work had rather passed my by as I was growing old a few years behind him. (It really is true that class-room teaching can be very time-consuming.) Not only did I enjoy his prose style hugely, I was also struck by his judgement that it is harder to write good prose than to write good poetry; and note that he is an accomplished poet as well as a writer of prose.

It is universally acknowledged, and self-evidently true, that the best training is to study the great masters. This applies to art, teaching, music, sport and, I suppose, cookery. Young persons seeking to improve their own prose cannot do better than read lots and lots of the good prose that has accumulated over the centuries on library shelves and, in the twenty-first century, free on-line. I have mentioned three authors worth reading. There are countless others. One of the turning points for the growing reader is the discovery that books called “classics” have achieved this status not because they are boring but because they are read and re-read with pleasure by every generation.

However, in this blog I will concentrate on Donne and Orwell, though with frequent references to others.

There is a great deal of discussion just now in the press, by people involved with education, and (if my circle of acquaintance is anything to go by) amongst the wider public, about the extent to which the rules of grammar ought to be taught in schools. There is a widespread anecdotal feeling that they are not taught enough.

Of course some rules ought to be taught. I work as a history examiner, and the work of otherwise quite good candidates frequently includes sentences where the meaning is not clear, or where the words as written mean the exact opposite of what the candidate must have meant. Common faults include the use of a plural verb after a singular subject, so that the reader’s mind casts about for a plural noun somewhere that could be the subject. Or adjectival clauses, containing present participles, float freely so that the reader may or may not attach them to the intended phenomenon.

My father (another fine English teacher; not the one mentioned above) used to write on the blackboard: He did not go to school because he was ill and then ask “Well? Did he go to school or not?” the correct answer was “Yes. He did go to school, not because he was ill but for some other reason.” One missing comma can reverse the whole meaning.

When I became a teacher I was occasionally roped in by the English department to assist with characters who were re-sitting after poor results the previous year. My greatest compliment came from the First Fifteen coach. “What have you been up to? Half my team was discussing the use of the semi-colon all the way to Durham.”

However, these rules need to be kept in their place; they are servants not masters. The two things that make the difference between good and bad prose do not include the accuracy with which specific rules are applied. The two things are meaning and rhythm. Write with your brain perpetually alert for meaning and your ear perpetually alert for rhythm.

As far as clarity of meaning is concerned there can be no better model than George Orwell. Read as much of his journalism as you can get hold of, and do read his magnificent essay “Politics and the English Language”, which is freely available on line: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm Learn from Orwell, if you do not know it already, that words are weapons and that obscurity in prose is the enemy of freedom.

As far as rhythm is concerned, study the sentence from John Donne’s sermons with which this post begins and see how the words are used to make a piece of prose that is a subtly rhythmical as any piece of music. Notice how short phrases are juxtaposed with long ones, how there are runs and linking passages and cadences. Hear how the sound of the words is used to evoke the whisper of dust. Enjoy the way the definite rather than the indefinite article is used; we do not imagine a man sweeping a church but the man sweeping the church. And so on.

I am not suggesting you should imitate Donne’s style, but you can learn from it. Another of my good English teachers – when I was about ten years old – used to read to us often. As he read “Kidnapped” he pointed out how easy and pleasurable it was to read, because Robert Louis Stevenson took so much trouble over the structure of his prose – word choice, rhythm and punctuation. It is said that RLS would lie awake worrying about a comma, and get out of bed to make adjustments. Good prose matters.

This post has gone on quite long enough. Perhaps my next post will be specifically about the writing of history. We shall see.

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Post Script: One of the genuine pleasures of being a history examiner is to be reminded every year how many young people do write excellent prose, even when they are scribbling under extreme pressure.

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