The active eye of the imagination

I've been enjoying excerpts from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, a collection of the late Oxford historian's correspondence.

They exhibit all the learning one would might expect of such a celebrated scholar, and are spiked with acerbic observations of many academic colleagues, no doubt unfair but amusing nonetheless.

But I have appreciated the letters primarily because they are so well written, demonstrating Trevor-Roper's reputation as one of the finest literary craftsmen of the past century. One of the letters lists 'Ten Commandants' for good writing, which I thought worth quoting in full. I particularly like points eight and nine, stressing the importance of making the effort to try to see and hear what one is trying to write. It's so easy to mix metaphors, to fall back on platitude, and so difficult to, as Trevor-Roper puts it, develop 'a true metaphor, created by the active eye of the imagination'. Here it is (and no I'm not familiar with all the literary references - I'm willing to take Trevor-Roper's word for it):

  1. Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shall not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is made clear to him as he goeth.
  2. Thou shalt respect the autonomy of the paragraph, as commended by the authority and example of the prophet Edward Gibbon; for it is the essential unit in the chain of argument. Therefore thou shall keep it pure and self-contained, each paragraph having within it a single central point to which all other observations in it shall be exactly subordinated by the proper use of the particles and inflexions given to us for this purpose.
  3. Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated, remembering the words of the prophet commandant Black, 'claret prime, longueur secondary.' To this end thou shalt strive that no sentence be syntactically capable of any unintended meaning, and that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning. To this end also thou shalt not fear to repeat thyself, if clarity require it, not to state facts which thou thinkest as well known to others as to thyself; for it is better to remind the learned than to leave the unlearned in perplexity.
  4. Thou shalt keep the structure of thy sentences clear, preferring short sentences to long and simple structures to complex, lest the reader lost his way in labyrinth of subordinate clauses; and, in particular, thou shalt not enclose one relative clause in another, for this both betrays crudity of expression and is a fertile source of ambiguity.
  5. Thou shalt preserve the unities of time and place, as commended by the High Priest Nicolas Boileau, placing thyself, in imagination, in one time and in one place, and distinguishing all others to which thou mayest refer by a proper use of tenses and other forms of speech devised for this purpose; for unless we exploit the distinction between past and pluperfect tenses, and between imperfect and future conditional, we cannot attain perfect limpidity of style and argument.
  6. Thou shalt not despise the subjunctive mood, a useful, subtle and graceful mood, blessed by Erasmus and venerated by George Moore, though cursed and anathematised by the Holy Inquisition, Pravda, and the late Lord Beaverbrook.
  7. Thou shalt always proceed in an orderly fashion, according to the rules of right reason: as, from the general to the particular when a generality is to be illustrated, but from the particular to the general when a generality is to be proved.
  8. Thou shalt see what thou writes; and therefore thou shalt not mix thy metaphors. For a mixed metaphor is proof that the image therein contained has not been seen with the inner eye, and therefore such a metaphor is not a true metaphor, created by the active eye of imagination, but stale jargon drawn up from the stagnant stump of commonplace.
  9. Thou shalt also hear what thy writest, with thine inner ear, so that no outer ear may be offended by jarring syllables or unmelodious rhythm; remembering here in with piety, though not striving to imitate, the rotundities of Sir Thomas Browne and the 'clausulae' of Cicero.
  10. Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame ye in thine old age.

Rigorous advice then. I can't resist adding a quote from another letter, a perfect little note on the consoling power of well chosen words:

Let my last words (for the time being) be these: don't be frightened. If in doubt, if in depression, if in anxiety, say so without fear. We have invented language, refined it so that it can express even the subtlest thought, even the obscurest sensations; why then should we not use it, and dissolve difficulties by articulating them?

(Here's a fine review of the book by the author John Banville if you're interested.)

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