The line above is from Little Gidding, the last of the four long poems TS Eliot called Four Quartets.
Here is the full quotation:
“Where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together.”
Eliot is concerned in these lines with style, and style is concerned with how something is said, and not simply with what is said. There are many different styles of writing, many different ways of saying something, of conveying meaning, or telling a story, or reporting an event, from the short, staccato sentences of Ernest Hemingway to the rich and sumptuous prose of Edgar Allen Poe and the limpid clarity of Colm Toibin. All styles for all seasons and ways of saying.
Styles, we are inclined to think, evolve of themselves, through the practice of different kinds of writers. And this has certainly been the case in recent times. But it was not always like that.
Towards the end of the 17th century, a group of Englishmen – including Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Christopher Wren - came together to establish the Royal Society for the Advancement of Scientific Knowledge. And in the 18th century Thomas Sprat, an Anglican bishop but also a man imbued with the new scientific spirit, undertook to write a history of the Royal Society.
When the Society was set up, the founders declared themselves in favour of “a close, naked, natural style, according to the mathematical plainness”, and when Thomas Sprat came to discuss style – the ‘modern’ style he believed was required for the ‘modern’ age – he launched an attack on ‘poetic’ language, by which he meant not merely the language used by poets but figurative language of any kind – language that employed metaphor and symbol.
Poetic language, he wrote, “is in open defiance against reason, professing not to hold much correspondence with that, but with its slave, the Passions”, and he asked indignantly, “Who can behold without indignation, how many mists and uncertainties, these absurd metaphors and deceiving symbols have brought on our knowledge and our understanding of truth?”
Not only did Sprat attack the language of Shakespeare, of Donne, of Milton, but he denied altogether that language so used had any claims to represent truth or give us an insight into the nature of reality. The only legitimate approach to truth was by way of science, and the only appropriate style of expressing such truth was one in which plainness and literal meaning was foremost.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed that this ‘scientific’ approach to language and meaning had replaced subtlety with a crude bluntness. Taking some of the great writers of 16th and 17th centuries – Shakespeare, Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, and Bishop Jeremy Taylor – he argued that “their purpose was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking. They knew that an idea separated from the act of experiencing it is not the idea that is experienced. The passion of its conception in the mind is a necessary part of its truth, and unless it can be conveyed to another mind in something of the form of its original occurrence, it has ceased to have any existence whatever except a verbal one.”
And to return to Eliot, and what he had to say about style, in a famous and very controversial essay he wrote about the poetry of John Donne and other writers of the late 16th and early 17th century, he said something very similar to what Coleridge maintained. “Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility … The poets of the 17th century, the successors of the dramatists of the 16th, possessed a kind of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience … In the 17th century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered … while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude.” Eliot argues that this led directly to the language of sentimentality, in which thought and feeling have fallen apart – Mills and Boon, kitsch, and tabloid mawkishness, and too much of contemporary poetry
Style, if looked at this way, has to do not only with a way of saying something but with what is said, that is, with the truth of what is expressed. If that is so, then how we say something – the words we use to say it – may turn out to be as important as what we have to say.