A choice chapter in Kenneth Clark’s Moments of Vision on Mandarin English and its decline. Here’s how to write it, courtesy of Robert Louis Stevenson:
In every properly constructed sentence there should be observed this knot or hitch; so that (however delicately) we are led to foresee, to expect, and then to welcome the successive phrases. The pleasure may be heightened by an element of surprise, as, very grossly, in the common figure of the antithesis, or, with much greater subtlety, where an antithesis is first suggested and then deftly evaded. Each phrase, besides, is to be comely in itself; and between the implication and the evolution of the sentence there should be a satisfying equipoise of sound. Nor should the balance be too striking and exact, for the one rule is to be infinitely various; to interest, to disappoint, to surprise, and yet still to gratify.
Here’s an example of Mandarin English at its zenith, courtesy of Edward Gibbon, pictured above:
it was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page, in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on recovering my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatsoever might be the future fate of my History, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.’
According to Clark, the primary reason cited for Mandarin’s decline is that it belongs to a privileged class, and is thus unsuitable for a democratic society. In all but the hands of ‘masters,’ it sounds pompous, didactic, contrived and empty. How to escape this? By coming closer to the rhythms of ordinary speech. The problem here is prolixity – lengthiness – a disease common to those who use the spoken word as the basis of their style. Solution: Carlylese: it took Thomas Carlyle five years of struggle, but he stylised the sound of the living voice, which enabled him to speak with ‘accents of sympathy.’ Here he is on Coleridge:
"The good man–he was now getting old, towards sixty perhaps, and gave you the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings; a life heavy-laden, half-vanquished, still swimming painfully in seas of manifold physical and other bewilderment. Brow and head were round and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute. The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration, confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise, might be called flabby and irresolute, expressive of weakness under possibility of strength . . . a heavy-laden, high-aspiring, and surely much suffering man. His voice, naturally soft and good, had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and singsong; he spoke as if preaching,–you would have said, preaching earnestly and also hopelessly the weightiest things."
Carlyle recognized a major fault in the Mandarin style: It sometimes compels a writer to avoid or gloss over the truth. "Evenness of texture, symmetry, and sonority can be disturbed by an inconvenient fact. In criticism Mathew Arnold is the chief offender," says Clark.
Despite its rejection, Mandarin does have merit. In arguing this, Clark quotes Sir Henry Wotton’s Elements of Architecture: "Well building hath three conditions: commodity, firmness, delight." Applying these to well writing, Clark translates commodity for ease – ease of access, ease of movement, ease of communication. Firmness is achieved by the structure of the whole, by logic, and by the precision of detail. "Delight of course," he says "will always remain a more arguable proposition. But let us say that in architecture it is achieved by proportion, ornament, and texture."
Good Mandarin, according to Clark, achieves commodity and firmness – clarity, ease of transition, an orderly structure, and, – despite its decline into meaningless abstraction – at its best, precision. Gibbon and other Mandarin masters show balance, proportion, perfect control of rhythm, and with ‘the use of an unexpected but inevitable word’ that frisson of pleasure which we call the aesthetic sensation.’
Clark blames critic F.R. Leavis’ ‘austere mistrust of delight’ throwing dirt on the coffin, and doesn’t foresee the return of Gibbonian cadence. ‘It has been the parent of too much bad writing, and however well concealed, it will strike on our ears as pompous and contrived,’ he says.
Stevenson, one of the great masters of Mandarin, described his aim as follows: "That style is therefore perfect…which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication unobtrusively."
Pretty good target if you ask me.