Personal Style

by John Addington Symonds (1840-93)


A SURVEY of language, however superficial, makes it evident that when we speak of style, we have to take into account those qualities of national character which are embodied in national speech. If two men could be born of precisely the same physical, mental, and moral nature, at precisely the same moment of history, and under precisely the same social conditions; and if these men learned different languages in the cradle, and used those languages in after life, they would be unable to deliver exactly the same message to the world through literature. The dominant qualities of each mother-tongue would impose definite limitations on their power of expressing thoughts, however similar or identical those thoughts might be.
++++We cannot conceive two men born with the same physical, mental, and moral nature, at the same moment, under precisely the same conditions, and using the same language. They would be identical; and everything they uttered would be clothed with exactly the same words. The absurdity of this conception brings home to us the second aspect of style. Style is not merely a sign of those national qualities which are generic to established languages, and which constitute the so-called genius of a race. It is also the sign of personal qualities, specific to individuals, which constitute the genius of a man. Whatever a man utters from his heart and head is the index of his character. The more remarkable a person is, the more strongly he is differentiated, from the average of human beings, the more salient will be the characteristic notes of his expression. But even the commonest people have, each of them, a specific style. The marks of difference become microscopical as we descend from Dante or Shakespeare to the drudges of the clerk’s desk in one of our great cities. Yet these marks exist, and are no less significant of individuality than the variations between leaf and leaf upon the lime-trees of an avenue.
++++It may be asked whether the manner of expression peculiar to any person is a complete index to his character—whether, in other words, there is “an art to find the mind’s construction” in the style. Not altogether and exhaustively. Not all the actions and the utterances of an individual betray the secret of his personality. You may live with men and women through years, by day, by night, yet you will never know the whole about them. No human being knows the whole about himself.
++++The deliberate attitude adopted by a literary writer implies circumspection; invites suppression, reservation, selection; is compatible with affectation, dissimulation, hypocrisy. So much cannot be claimed for critical analysis as that we should pretend to reproduce a man’s soul after close examination of his work. What we may assert with confidence is that the qualities of style are intimately connected with the qualities and limitations of the writer, and teach us much about him. He wrote thus and thus, because he was this or this. In the exercise of style it is impossible for any one to transcend his inborn and acquired faculties of ideation, imagination, sense-perception, verbal expression—just as it is impossible in the exercise of strength for an athlete to transcend the limits of his physical structure, powers of innervation, dexterity and courage.1 The work of art produced by a writer is therefore, of necessity, complexioned and determined by the inborn and acquired faculties of the individual. This is what we mean by the hackneyed epigram : “Le style c’est l’homme.”


++++Certain broad distinctions of moral and emotional temperament may undoubtedly be detected in literary style. A tendency toward exaggeration, toward self-revelation, toward emphasis upon the one side; a tendency to reserve, to diminished tone in colouring, to parsimony of rhetorical resource upon the other; these indicate expansiveness or reticence in the writer. Victor Hugo differs by the breadth of the whole heavens from Leopardi. One man is ironical by nature, another sentimental. Sterne and Heine have a common gift of humour; but the quality of humour in each case is conditioned by sympathetic or by caustic under-currents of emotion. Sincerity and affectation, gaiety and melancholy, piety and scepticism, austerity and sensuality penetrate style so subtly and unmistakably that a candid person cannot pose as the mere slave of convention, a boon companion cannot pass muster for an anchorite, the founder of a religious sect cannot play the part of an agnostic. In dramatic work the artist creates characters alien from his own personality, and exhibits people widely different from himself acting and talking as they ought to do. This he achieves by sympathy and intuition. Yet all except the very greatest fail to render adequately what they have not felt and been. In playwrights of the second order, like our Fletcher, or of the third order, like our Byron, the individual who writes the tragedy and shapes the characters is always apparent under every mask he chooses to assume. And even the style of the greatest, their manner of presenting the varieties of human nature, betrays individual peculiarities. Æschylus sees men and women differently from Sophocles, Corneille from Racine, Shakespeare from Goethe.
++++In like manner the broad distinctions of mental temperament may be traced in style. The abstract thinker differs from the concrete thinker in his choice of terms; the analytical from the synthetic; the ratiocinative from the intuitive; the logical from the imaginative; the scientific from the poetical. One man thinks in images, another in formal propositions. One is diffuse, and gets his thought out by reiterated statement. Another makes epigrams, and finds some difficulty in expanding their sense or throwing light upon them by illustrations. One arrives at conclusions by the way of argument. Another clothes assertion with the tropes and metaphors of rhetoric.
++++The same is true of physical and æsthetical qualities. They are felt inevitably in style. The sedentary student does not use the same figures of speech as come naturally to the muscular and active lover of field sports. According as the sense for colour, or for sound, or for light, or for form shall preponderate in a writer’s constitution, his language will abound in references to the world, viewed under conditions of colour, sound, light, or form. He will insensibly dwell upon those aspects of things which stimulate his sensibility and haunt his memory. Thus, too, predilections for sea or mountains, for city-life or rural occupations, for flowers, precious stones, scents, birds, animals, insects, different kinds of food, torrid or temperate climates, leave their mark on literary style.
++++Acquired faculties and habits find their expression in style no less than inborn qualities. Education, based upon humanism or scientific studies; contact with powerful personalities at an impressible period of youth; enthusiasm aroused for this or that great masterpiece of literature; social environment; high or low birth; professional training for the bar, the church, medicine, or commerce; life in the army, at sea, upon a farm, and so forth, tinge the mind and give a more or less perceptible colour to language.
++++The use of words itself yields, upon analysis, valuable results illustrative of the various temperaments of authors. A man’s vocabulary marks him out as of this sort or that sort—his preference for certain syntactical forms, for short sentences or for periods, for direct or inverted propositions, for plain or figurative statement, for brief or amplified illustrations. Some compose sentences, but do not build paragraphs—like Emerson; some write chapters, but cannot construct a book. Nor is punctuation to be disregarded, inasmuch as stops enable us to measure a writer’s sense of time-values, and the importance he attaches to several degrees of rest and pause.


++++It is impossible to do more than indicate some of the leading points which illustrate the meaning of the saying that style is the man; any one can test them and apply them for himself. We not only feel that Walter Scott did not write like Thackeray, but we also know that he could not write like Thackeray, and vice versâ. This impossibility of one man producing work in exactly the same manner as another makes all deliberate attempts at imitation assume the form of parody or caricature. The sacrifice of individuality involved in scrupulous addiction to one great master of Latin prose, Cicero, condemned the best stylists of the Renaissance—men like Muretus—to lifeless and eventually worthless production. Meanwhile the exact psychology is wanting which would render our intuition regarding the indissoluble link between style and personal character irrefutable.2
++++Literary style is more a matter of sentiment, emotion, involuntary habits of feeling and observing, constitutional sympathy with the world and men, tendencies of curiosity and liking, than of the pure intellect. The style of scientific works, affording little scope for the exercise of these psychological elements, throws less light upon their authors’ temperament than does the style of poems, novels, essays, books of travel, descriptive criticism. In the former case all that need be aimed at is lucid exposition of fact and vigorous reasoning. In the latter, the fact to be stated, the truth to be arrived at, being of a more complex nature, involves a process akin to that of the figurative arts. The stylist has here to produce the desired effect by suggestions of infinite subtlety, and to present impressions made upon his sensibility.
++++Autobiographies, epistolary correspondence, notes of table-talk, are of the highest value in determining the correlation between a writer’s self and his style. We not only derive a mass of information about Goethe’s life from Eckermann, but we also discover from those conversations in how true a sense the style of Goethe’s works grew out of his temperament and experience. Gibbon and Rousseau, Alfieri and Goldoni, Samuel Johnson in his “Life” by Boswell, John Stuart Mill in his autobiographical essay, Petrarch in his “Secretum” and fragment of personal confessions, have placed similar keys within our reach for unlocking the secret of their several manners.
++++The rare cases in which men of genius have excelled in more than one branch of art are no less instructive. Michel Angelo the sonnet-writer helps us to understand Michel Angelo the sculptor. Rossetti the painter throws light on Rossetti the poet; William Blake the lyrist upon William Blake the draughtsman. We find, on comparing the double series of work offered by such eminent and exceptionally gifted individuals, that their styles in literature and plastic art possess common qualities, which mark the men and issue from their personalities. Michel Angelo in the sonnets is as abstract, as ideal, as form-loving, as indifferent to the charm of brilliant colour, as neglectful of external nature as Michel Angelo in his statues and the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. Rossetti’s pictures, with their wealth of colour, their elaborate execution, their sharp incisive vision, their deep imaginative mysticism and powerful perfume of intellectual sensuousness, present a close analogue to his ballads, sonnets, and descriptive poems. With these and similar instances in our mind, we are prepared to hear that Victor Hugo designed pictures in the style of Gustave Doré; nor would it surprise us to discover that Gustave Doré had left odes or fiction in the manner of Victor Hugo.
++++The problems suggested by style as a sign and index of personality may be approached from many points of view. I have not aimed at exhaustiveness even of suggestion in my treatment of the topic; and while saying much which will appear perhaps trivial and obvious, have omitted some of the subtler and more interesting aspects of the matter. A systematic criticism of personal style would require a volume, and would demand physiological and psychological knowledge which is rarely found in combination with an extensive study of literatures and arts.

1. See Émile Hennequin, “La Critique Scientifique,” pp. 64-67, for a full and luminous exposition of these points.
2. While I was engaged in writing this essay, a young French author, now, alas! dead, sent me a book which may be considered as an important contribution to the psychology of style. It is entitled, “La Critique Scientifique,” par Émile Hennequin. Paris: Perrin et Cie., 1888.

[Hennequin died at 29 in 1888, only weeks after the publication of the book. Symonds died in 1893.]




++Théorie de l’analyse psychologique. — Dans le chapitre précédent, nous avons considéré l’œuvre d’art dans ses effets sur un appréciateur idéal, et dans la cause prochaine de ces effets. Dans celui-ci nous l’étudierons en tant que signe de l’homme qui l’a produite. En effet, un livre, par exemple, est d’abord ce qu’il est ; mais il est ensuite l’œuvre d’un homme et la lecture de plusieurs ; c’est à remonter du livre à son auteur, à ses admirateurs, que consiste proprement [64] la critique scientifique. Une œuvre d’art peut donner des renseignements sur son producteur, des facultés de qui elle est l’image, sur ses admirateurs, du goût desquels elle est encore indicatrice. Les premiers renseignements affèrent à la psychologie individuelle; les seconds à la psychologie sociale. Nous nous occuperons d’abord des premiers.
++On a vu par l’exposé historique du début que la plupart des critiques n’ont essayé de montrer la nature des écrivains dont ils s’occupaient que pour mieux apprécier leurs œuvres. M. Taine, seul, s’est à peu près dispensé de cette tâche secondaire et s’est applique dans ses études, soit par la biographie de ses auteurs, soit par des indications induites de leurs écrits, à définir leur organisation mentale, en des termes encore bien vagues. On en est là, et l’on peut reprocher aux meilleurs travaux actuels des critiques biographes, deux défauts : les indications psychologiques qu’ils extraient de l’examen [65] superficiel d’oeuvres littéraires sont trop générales et trop peu précises pour être considérées comme scientifiques; d’autre part, ils ont tor d’employer simultanément dans leurs essais et en vue de déterminer l’individualité d’un artiste, l’histoire de sa carrière, l’ethnologie, les notions de l’hérédité et de l’influence des milieux, avec l’analyse directe de ses œuvres. Des deux méthodes, c’est la première qui doit céder le pas, basée, comme elle l’est, et comme nous la montrerons au chapitre suivant, sur des lois incertaines et présomptives dont la critique scientifique ne pourra tirer parti qu’après avoir vérifié, par ses propres travaux, la mesure dans laquelle elles s’appliquent aux hommes supérieurs. C’est donc de l’examen seul de l’œuvre que l’analyste devra tirer les indications nécessaires pour étudier l’esprit de l’auteur ou de l’artiste qu’il veut connaître, et le problème qu’il devra poser est celui-ci : Etant donnée l’œuvre d’un artiste, résumée en toutes ses particularités esthétiques de [66] forme et de contenu, définir en termes de science, c’est-à-dire exacts, les particularités de l’organisation mentale de cet homme.
++Le raisonnement, par lequel on peut résoudre cette question, conclure d’une particularité esthétique d’une œuvre à une particularité morale de son auteur, est fort simple. L’emploi d’une forme de style, l’expression d’une conception particulière quelconque, que cet emploi soit original ou qu’il puisse paraître entaché d’imitation, est un fait ayant pour cause prochaine, comme tout le livre, la toile, la partition dont il s’agit, un acte physique de leur auteur, poussé par quelque besoin de gloire, d’argent, par un mobile, instinctif, n’importe, de faire une de ces œuvres. Cette détermination prise, l’artiste l’exécute d’une certaine manière. Il s’adonne à un certain art, à un certain genre, à un certain procédé, en un mot, il fait une œuvre se distinguant de celles d’autrui par certains caractères, ceux-là mêmes que nous avons appris à dégager [67] dans le précédent chapitre. Il écrira, il peindra, il composera, comme le lui permettront ses facultés acquises et naturelles, comme le lui commanderont ses désirs, son idéal; c’est-à-dire que les caractères particuliers de son œuvre résulteront de certaines propriétés de son esprit. Ces caractères seront à l’égard de ces propriétés dans une relation d’effet à cause, et l’on peut concevoir une science qui remontera des uns aux autres, comme on remonte d’un signe à la chose signifiée, d’une expression à la chose exprimée, d’une manifestation quelconque à son origine.
++Or le mot faculté indique une aptitude et présuppose les conditions de cette aptitude. Si un homme peut soulever un certain poids à bras tendu, c’est qu’il a les os, les muscles, la force d’innervation, le motif, nécessaires pour cela. De même, si certaines propriétés d’une œuvre d’art existent, si un auteur a pu les produire, c’est qu’il possède le mode d’organisation mentale requis. Par conséquent, [68] un ensemble de données esthétiques permettra de conclure à la présence d’une certaine organisation psychologique, c’est-à-dire, en dernière analyse, aune activité particulière, à une nature particulière des gros organes de l’esprit, des sens, de l’imagination, de l’idéation, de l’expression, de la volonté, etc. Il ne reste donc plus qu’à déterminer par le raisonnement et l’observation quels sont les détails intimes de pensée que présuppose tel ou tel ensemble de signes esthétiques.

[I don’t speak French, but I’ve done a rough translation (corrected google translation) which is enough to make me wonder what Symonds had on his page, if anything, before Hennequin’s book arrived]

Theory of psychological analysis. In the preceding chapter, we have considered the work of art in its effects on an ideal appreciator, and in the immediate cause of these effects. In the present one, we will study it as a sign of the man who produced it. A book, for example, is first what it is; but it is also the production of a man, and the reading material of many. It is the tracing back from the book to its author, to its admirers, that properly comprises scientific criticism. A work of art can give information about its producer, of whose abilities it is the image, and about its admirers, of whose taste it is indicative. The former information relates to individual psychology; the latter to social psychology. We will deal first with the former.
++We have seen, in the historical account above, that most critics have tried to describe the nature of the writers they dealt with only in order to better appreciate their works. Mr Taine alone has practically dispensed with this secondary task, and has applied himself in his studies, either by the biography of his authors, or by indications induced by their writings, to define their mental organization, though still in vague terms. We can reproach the best current works of the biographical critics with two defects: that the psychological indications they extract from the superficial examination of literary works are too general and too vague to be considered as scientific; and on the other hand, that they have to use—simultaneously in their essays and in order to determine the individuality of an artist—the history of his career, ethnology, the notions of heredity and environmental influence, in the direct analysis of his works. Of the two methods, it is the first that must give way, based as it is, as we will show in the next chapter, on uncertain and presumptive laws that scientific criticism can not take advantage of, until the extent to which they apply to superior men is verified by his own work. It is thus from the examination of the work alone that the analyst must draw the necessary indications of how to study the spirit of the author or the artist he wants to know. The problem he will have to pose is this: Given the work of an artist, summed up in all its aesthetic peculiarities of form and content, define in scientific—that is, exact—terms the peculiarities of the mental organization of that man.
++The reasoning by which one can solve this question—to deduce, from an aesthetic particularity of a work, a moral peculiarity of its author—is very simple. The use of a form of style, the expression of any particular conception whatsoever, whether this use is original or, as it may appear, tainted by imitation, is a fact whose immediate cause—like the whole book, the canvas, the score in question—is a physical act of their author, driven by some need for glory, money, by a motive, instinctive, whatever, to make one of these works. This determination made, the artist executes it in a certain way. He devotes himself to a certain art, to a certain genre, to a certain procedure; in a word, he makes a work distinguished from those of others by certain characters, the same ones that we have learned to clarify in the previous chapter. He will write, he will paint, he will compose, as his acquired and natural faculties will allow him; as his desires, his ideal will command him; that is, the particular characters of his work will result from certain properties of his mind. These characters will be in regard to these properties in a relation of effect to cause, and we can conceive of a science which will trace back from one to the other, as we trace back from a sign to the thing signified, from an expression to the thing expressed, from any manifestation to its origin.
++Now the word “faculty” indicates an aptitude and presupposes the conditions of this aptitude. If a man can lift a certain weight with outstretched arms, it is because he has the bones, the muscles, the nerves, the motive, necessary for that. In the same way, if certain properties of a work of art exist, if an author could produce them, it is because he possesses the mode of mental organization required. Thus a set of aesthetic data will make it possible to conclude that there is a certain psychological organization—in the last analysis, a particular activity, a particular nature of the large organs of the mind, sense, imagination, ideation, expression, will, etc. It remains only to determine, by reasoning and observation, the intimate details of thought that presuppose a particular set of aesthetic signs.