Demetrius: On Style

    - CHAPTER 4

Translated by W. Rhys Roberts (1902).

See the key to translations for an explanation of the format.   Click on the G symbols to go to the Greek text for each section.

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[190] G   In the case of the plain style, we can no doubt point to subject-matter which is homely and appropriate to the style itself, e.g. the passage in Lysias, `I have a cottage with two storeys, the one above corresponding exactly to that below' (Murder of Eratosthenes 9). The diction throughout should be current and familiar. An expression is homelier the more familiar it is, while the unusual and metaphorical is elevated.

[191] G   Compound words should not be admitted (since they are appropriate to the opposite variety of style), nor yet newly-coined words, nor any other words which contribute to elevation. Above all, the style should be lucid. Now lucidity involves a number of things.

[192] G   First of all it involves the employment of current words, and next of words bound together. Writing which is wholly disjointed and unconnected is entirely lacking in clearness. It is impossible to discern the beginning of each member owing to the looseness of the structure. This is illustrated by the writings of Heracleitus, the obscurity of which is due mainly to their loose structure.

[193] G   No doubt the disjointed style lends itself better to debate. It likewise bears the name of `histrionic,' since a broken structure stimulates acting. On the other hand, the best `literary' style is that which is pleasant to read; and this is the style which is compacted and (as it were) consolidated by the conjunctions. This is the reason why, while Menander (whose style is for the most part broken) is popular with the actor, Philemon is the reader's favourite.

[194] G   To show that the broken style suits the stage, take the following line as an instance:

Thee I received, I bare, I nurse, O dear one.
          (Menander, Fragm. 230: Meineke iv. pp. 284, 285.)

Thus disjointed, the words will of themselves force a man to be dramatic even in his own despite. But if you employ conjunctions and say `I received and bare and nurse,' you will at the same time make the line quite lifeless. And what is unemotional is essentially undramatic.

[195] G   Other aspects of the actor's art deserve attention. Take, for instance, the case of Ion in Euripides, who seizes his bow and threatens the swan which is letting fall its droppings upon the statues (Ion, 161 seqq.). Many opportunities of movement are offered to the actor by Ion's rush for his bow and arrows, by his face upturned to the sky as he addresses the swan, and by the rest of the detail contrived to aid the actor. Still, the subject of stage-craft is not at present before us.

[196] G   Clear writing should also shun ambiguities and make use of the figure termed `epanalepsis.' `Epanalepsis' is the repetition of the same particle in the course of a long-sustained outburst: e.g. `all Philip's achievements indeed - how he subjugated Thrace, and seized the Chersonese, and besieged Byzantium, and neglected to restore Amphipolis, - these things, indeed, I shall pass over' (Scr. Inc.). It may be said that the repetition of the particle `indeed' reminds us of the prelude and sets us again at the beginning of the sentence.

[197] G   For the sake of clearness the same thing must often be said twice over. There is somehow more charm than clearness in conciseness. For as men who race past us are sometimes indistinctly seen, so also the meaning of a sentence may, owing to its hurried movement, be only imperfectly caught.

[198] G   The use of dependent cases must also be avoided, since this leads to obscurity, as Philistus' style shows. A short example of clearness sacrificed to dependent constructions is to be found in Xenophon: `He was informed that triremes belonging to the Lacedaemonians and to Cyrus himself were coasting round with Tamos on board from Ionia to Cilicia' (Anab. 1. 2. 21). This sentence might be written in a straightforward construction somewhat as follows: `In Cilicia there were expected many Lacedaemonian, and many Persian ships, the latter built for Cyrus with this very purpose. They were sailing from Ionia, and the admiral in command of them was the Egyptian Tamos.' The sentence might thus have been longer: it would certainly have been clearer.

[199] G   In general, the natural order of the words should be followed, as in the sentence `Epidamnus is a town on your right hand as you sail into the Ionian gulf' (Thucyd. 1. 24. 1). First of all is mentioned the subject, which is then defined to be a town, and next come the other words in due succession.

[200] G   No doubt the order might be reversed, as in the words `There is a town Ephyra' (Homer, Iliad 6. 152). We do not absolutely approve the one order nor condemn the other, when simply setting forth the natural method of arranging the words.

[201] G   In narrative passages we should begin with the nominative case, as in `Epidamnus (Epidamnos) is a town'; or with the accusative, as in `it is said of the town of Epidamnus (Epidomnon).' The other cases will cause some obscurity and will put both speaker and hearer on tenter-hooks.

[202] G   An attempt must be made to keep the amplifications within due bounds. Take this sentence: `For the Achelous flowing from Mount Pindus, near the inland city Stratus discharges itself into the sea' (Thucyd. 2. 102. 2. Cp. 45 supra). We ought to break off and give the hearer a rest thus: `For the Achelous flows from Mount Pindus, and discharges itself into the sea.' This is far clearer than the other. It is with sentences as with roads. Some roads have many resting-places and many sign-posts; and the sign-posts may be compared to guides. But a dreary road with never a sign-post seems hard to track, however short it may be.

[203] G   These are a few remarks, out of a possible many, on the subject of clearness. Clearness must be studied most of all in the plain style.

[204] G   Long members must be particularly avoided in composition of this type. Length always tends to elevation. Thus, among metres, the hexameter is called `heroic' owing to its amplitude which fits it for heroes. The New Comedy, on the other hand, is compressed into the trimeter.

[205] G   Accordingly we shall for the most part employ trimeter members and sometimes phrases, as when Plato says: `I went down yesterday to the Peiraeus together with Glaucon' (Republic 327a). Here the rests and cadences are many. So with a sentence of Aeschines: `We sat upon the benches in the Lyceum, where the stewards of the games order the contests' (Aeschines Socr. fragm.)

[206] G   In the plain style the members should end with precision, and rest on a sure foundation, as in the examples just quoted. Prolonged endings belong rather to the elevated style, as in the words of Thucydides: `the river Achelous flowing from Mount Pindus, etc.' (cp. 45, 202).

[207] G   In this style we must also shun the concurrence of long vowel-sounds and of diphthongs, since lengthening invariably suggests elaboration. If concurrence be admitted, let it be of short letters with short (as in panta men ta nea kala estin', cp. 70.); or of short with long (as in `the orb of day: hêelios'); or of short vowels in some shape or form. In general, this variety of style has little dignity or distinction, being in fact fashioned with that very end in view.

[208] G   Peculiar figures should also be avoided, since all eccentricity is unfamiliar and extraordinary. As, however, the plain style will welcome vivid representation and persuasiveness in an especial degree, we must next speak of these two qualities.

[209] G   We shall treat first of vividness, which arises from an exact narration overlooking no detail and cutting out nothing. An instance is the Homeric simile which begins `As when a man draws off water by a runnel' (Iliad 21. 257). The comparison owes its vividness to the fact that all the accompanying circumstances are mentioned and nothing is omitted.

[210] G   Another example is the horse-race in honour of Patroclus, as described by Homer:

For ever they seemed as though they would mount the chariot-floor
Of Eumêlus, and hot on his back did the breath of their nostrils pour,
And his shoulders broad, for their heads overhung him as onward they flew.
          (Iliad 23. 379)

The entire description is vivid owing to the fact that no detail which usually occurs and then occurred is omitted.

[211] G   From this it follows that repetition often gives the effect of vividness more than a single statement: e.g. `You are the man who, when he was alive, spoke to his discredit, and now that he is dead write to his discredit' (cp. 26.) The repeated use of the words ` to his discredit' adds to the vividness of the invective.

[212] G   The charge of garrulity often brought against Ctesias on the ground of his repetitions can perhaps in many passages be established, but in many instances it is his critics who fail to appreciate the writer's vividness. The same word is repeated because this often makes a greater impression.

[213] G   Here is an example: "Stryangaeus, a Mede, having unhorsed a Sacian woman (for the women of the Sacae join in battle like Amazons), was struck with the youth and beauty of the Sacian and allowed her to escape. Afterwards, when peace was declared, he became enamoured of her and failed in his suit. He resolved to starve himself to death. But first he wrote a letter upbraiding the woman thus: `I saved you, ay you were saved through me; and now I have perished through you' (Ctesias, Fragmm. 20, 21; Ctesiae Persica, ed. J. Gilmore).

[214] G   Here a critic who prided himself on his brevity might say that there is a useless repetition in `I saved you' and `you were saved through me,' the two statements conveying the same idea. But if you take away one of the two, you will also take away the vividness and the emotional effect of vividness. Furthermore, the expression which follows (`I have perished' in place of `I perish') is more vivid just because the past tense is used. There is something more impressive in the suggestion that all is over, than in the intimation that it is about to happen or is still happening.

[215] G   Altogether this poet (for a poet Ctesias may well be called) is an artist in vividness throughout his writings.

[216] G   An example may be added here. When a misfortune has happened, we should not state the fact at once, but unfold it gradually, thus keeping the reader in suspense and forcing him to share our distress. This is what Ctesias does in his narrative of the death of Cyrus. The messenger, out of consideration for Parysatis, does not immediately on his arrival announce that Cyrus is dead, for such a proceeding would be (to use the common expression) a brutal one. First of all he reports the victory of Cyrus. Parysatis is all joy and excitement. Then she asks, `And how fares the king?' The reply is, `He is fled.' She rejoins: `Yes, he owes this to Tissaphernes.' And she asks further, `But where is Cyrus now?' The messenger replies, `In the bivouac of the brave.' Thus warily does Ctesias advance little by little, step by step, till at last he `breaks the news,' as the phrase goes, and indicates very naturally and vividly the messenger's reluctance to announce the calamity, while he himself causes the reader to join in the mother's grief (Ctesias Fragm. 36; ed. Gilmore).

[217] G   Vividness may also be produced by mentioning the accompanying circumstances of any action. It was, for instance, once said of a countryman's walk that `the noise of his feet had been heard from afar as he approached'(Scr. Inc.), the suggestion being that he was not walking at all, but stamping the ground, so to say.

[218] G   Plato also provides an example when referring to Hippocrates: `He was blushing, for the first glimmer of dawn now came to betray him' (Protagoras 312a). The extreme vividness of this description is clear to everybody. It is the result of the care shown in the narrative, which brings to mind the fact that it was night when Hippocrates visited Socrates.

[219] G   Cacophony is often vivid, as in the lines:

And together laid hold on twain, and dashed them against the ground
Like whelps: down gushed the brain, and bespattered the rock-flour round'.
          (Homer, Odyssey 9. 289)


And upward and downward and thwartward and slantward they tramped evermore.
          (Homer, Iliad 23. 116)

Homer intends the cacophony to suggest the broken ground, all imitation having an element of vividness.

[220] G   Onomatopoeic words produce a vivid effect, because their formation is imitative. The participle `lapping' is an instance in points (Homer, Iliad 16. 161). If Homer had said `drinking,' he would not have imitated the sound of dogs drinking, nor would there have been any vividness. The word `tongues' (glôssêsi) added to the word `lapping' makes the narrative still more vivid. - But on the subject of vividness this outline sketch must suffice.

[221] G   The power of convincing depends on two things, lucidity and naturalness. In other words, what is not lucid nor natural is not convincing. Accordingly exuberant and inflated language must not be sought after in a style meant to carry conviction. The composition, likewise, in such a style, must be steady-going and void of formal rhythm.

[222] G   These, then, are the main essentials of persuasiveness; to which may be added that indicated by Theophrastus when he says that all possible points should not be punctiliously and tediously elaborated, but some should be left to the comprehension and inference of the hearer (Theophrastus Peri Lexeôs), who when he perceives what you have omitted becomes not only your hearer but your witness, and a very friendly witness too. For he thinks himself intelligent because you have afforded him the means of showing his intelligence. It seems like a slur on your hearer to tell him everything as though he were a simpleton.

[223] G   We will next treat of the epistolary style, since it too should be plain. Artemon, the editor of Aristotle's Letters, says that a letter ought to be written in the same manner as a dialogue, a letter being regarded by him as one of the two sides of a dialogue (cp. n. 3 infra.).

[224] G   There is perhaps some truth in what he says, but not the whole truth. The letter should be a little more studied than the dialogue, since the latter reproduces an extemporary utterance, while the former is committed to writing and is (in a way) sent as a gift.

[225] G   Who (one may ask) would, in conversation with a friend, so express himself as does Aristotle when writing to Antipater on the subject of the aged exile? ` If he is doomed to wander to the uttermost parts of the earth, an exile hopeless of return, it is clear that we cannot blame such men should they wish to descend to Hades' hall' (Aristot. Fragm. 615; ed. Berol. v. pp. 1581, 1582). A man who conversed in that fashion would seem not to be talking but to be making a display.

[226] G   Frequent breaks in a sentence such as ............... are not appropriate in letters. Such breaks cause obscurity in writing, and the gift of imitating conversation is a better aid to debate than to writing. Consider the opening of the Euthydemus: `Who was it, Socrates, with whom you were conversing yesterday in the Lyceum? Quite a large crowd was surrounding your party' (Plato, Euthydemus 271a). And a little further on Plato adds: `Nay, he seems to me to be some stranger, the man with whom you were conversing. Who was he, pray?' (Ibid.). All such imitative style better suits an actor; it does not suit written letters.

[227] G   The letter, like the dialogue, should abound in glimpses of character. It may be said that everybody reveals his own soul in his letters. In every other form of composition it is possible to discern the writer's character, but in none so clearly as in the epistolary.

[228] G   The length of a letter, no less than its style, must be carefully regulated. Those that are too long, and further are rather stilted in expression, are not in sober truth letters but treatises with the heading `My dear So-and-So.' This is true of many of Plato's, and of that of Thucydides.

[229] G   There should be a certain degree of freedom in the structure of a letter. It is absurd to build up periods, as if you were writing not a letter but a speech for the law-courts. And such laboured letter-writing is not merely absurd; it does not even obey the laws of friendship, which demand that we should 'call a spade a spade,' as the proverb has it.

[230] G   We must also remember that there are epistolary topics, as well as an epistolary style. Aristotle, who is thought to have been exceptionally successful in attaining the epistolary manner, says: `I have not written to you on this subject, since it was not fitted for a letter' (Aristot. Fragm. 620; ed. Berol.).

[231] G   If anybody should write of logical subtleties or questions of natural history in a letter, he writes indeed, but not a letter. A letter is designed to be the heart's good wishes in brief; it is the exposition of a simple subject in simple terms.

[232] G   Its beauty consists in the expressions of friendship and the many proverbs which it contains. This last is the only philosophy admissible in it, the proverb being common property and popular in character. But the man who utters sententious maxims and exhortations seems to be no longer talking familiarly in a letter but to be speaking `ex cathedra'.

[233] G   Aristotle, however, sometimes uses certain forms of demonstration fitly in a letter. For instance, wishing to show that large towns and small have an equal claim to be well treated, he says: `The gods are as great in one as in the other; and since the Graces are gods, they will be placed by you in one no less than in the other' (Aristot. Fragm. 609; ed. Berol.). The point he wishes to prove is fitted for a letter, and so is the proof itself.

[234] G   Since occasionally we write to States or royal personages, such letters must be composed in a slightly heightened tone. It is right to have regard to the person to whom the letter is addressed. The heightening should not, however, be carried so far that we have a treatise in place of a letter, as is the case with those of Aristotle to Alexander and with that of Plato to Dion's friends.

[235] G   In general it may be remarked that, from the point of view of expression, the letter should be a compound of two styles, viz. the graceful and the plain. - So much with regard to letter-writing and the plain style.

[236] G   Side by side with the plain style is found a defective counterpart, the so-called 'arid' style. This, again, has three sources, the first of which is the thought, as when someone says of Xerxes that `he was coming down to the coast with all his following.' He has quite belittled the event by saying `with all his following' in place of `with the whole of Asia.'

[237] G   In expression aridity is found when a writer describes a great event in terms as trivial as those applied by the Gadarene to the battle of Salamis. And someone said of the despot Phalaris that `Phalaris inflicted certain annoyances on the people of Acragas' (Scr. Inc.). So momentous a sea-fight and so cruel a despot ought not to have been described by the word 'certain' nor by the word `annoyances,' but in impressive terms appropriate to the subject.

[238] G   Aridity may also be due to composition. This is so when the detached clauses are many, as in the Aphorisms: `Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive' (Hippocr. Aphor. cp. 4 supra.). It is so, again, when in dealing with an important matter, the member is broken and not completed. Someone, for example, when accusing Aristeides for not being present at the battle of Salamis, said: `Why, Demeter came unbidden and fought on our side; but Aristeides, no.' Here the abrupt ending is inappropriate and ill-timed. Abrupt endings of this kind should be reserved for other occasions.

[239] G   Often the thought is in itself frigid, or what we now term `tasteless,' while the composition is abrupt and tries to disguise the licence of the thought. Someone says of a man who embraced his wife when dead: 'he does not embrace the creature again.' The meaning even a blind man can see, as the saying goes; but the compression of the phrasing hides to some extent the licence of the thing, and produces what is now called by the name of `tasteless aridity,' being made up of two defects, tastelessness of subject-matter and aridity of style.

Chapter 5

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