All I Survey/Essay XXX

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Essay XXIX All I Survey
Essay XXX
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXXI



Essay XXX: On Brevity and Wit

SOMEBODY once said that brevity is the soul of wit, when he obviously meant to say that wit is the soul of brevity. It is obvious that the brevity is only the body, and the wit the spirit. And mere brevity, as in the statement "Cats eat rats," when left to itself, seems still to await some awakening visit of the divine fire. The proverb, however, like many other widely quoted maxims, is really as true as is consistent with meaning nearly the opposite of what it says. Economy of every kind has a great deal to do with effect of every kind. And it has often been more to the advantage of a man to say one good thing in one sentence than to say twenty good things in two thousand sentences. For the rest, the general statement of the principles of brevity would itself be brief. There would certainly be no need to discuss at length the rather obvious disadvantages of being lengthy. Most people would agree that even good writers can write too much, and that bad writers cannot write too little. Nevertheless, a particular problem has arisen in our own epoch, apart from the obvious practical complications that may arise in any epoch. Those who earn their living by writing, as I do, always write too much; on the other hand, there are writers at once more leisured and more laborious who write the same poem a hundred times, or even bring out three or four entirely different editions of the same book. Mr. George Moore has been an example of this paradox, and such writers may not unfairly be said to write at once too little and too much. But the practical problem I mean is more recent than the realism of Mr. George Moore. It is the question whether we more unduly increase the mass of literature by making it difficult to stop, or by making it easy to stop--and to begin again.

The mere forms of the older literature committed a man to carry on for a considerable time, like a man enlisting for the duration of the war. The modest youth who proposed to write an epic in twelve books may have felt epical, but hardly epigrammatical. The simple poet who produced a tragedy in five acts could not at the last moment turn the five-act tragedy into a three-act farce. But now that poetry, and literature in general, is free to appear in any form, it may naturally run to any length or stop at any point. This may lead to brevity in the poem, but it does not necessarily lead to brevity in the poet. Two hundred years ago, let us say, an English poet would sit down with the laudable intention of writing a long didactic poem on the correct cultivation of onions, or the most advisable construction of pig-sties; all set forth in beautiful rhymed decasyllabics, brightened by entirely original selections from the Georgics and decorated by many fine flights of mythological fancy, about Ceres spreading her maternal mantle over the first onion, or Circe standing amid her pig-sties of ivory and gold. Everybody knows that the very latest poetical style has gone to the other extreme, and is not only brief, but abrupt. It is sometimes almost tactless in its introduction of the onion into the drawing-room, or the pig into the parlour. The modern poet goes straight to the point, in some short and simple lyric that runs--

   The hair of a hundred women chokes me
   With a gluttonous smell of garlic ...

and there you are; a simple human emotion described in two spontaneous lines. Or he will write of the pig question--

   The world wobbles sickeningly,
   Like the old grey sow in the greasy morning light.

And if brevity is really the soul of wit, this must be much wittier than the long eighteenth-century poem with its classical analogies. But, considering the problem in a practical way, I should hesitate about whether the new method will be really more brief than the old. Supposing that it is our simple, manly, and public-spirited purpose to stop both the poets from producing such a vast amount of poetry, I have a notion that, in the long run, the new poet will outstrip even the old poet in giving the world whole libraries of poetry to burn. After all, when the eighteenth-century poet was producing his interminable Georgic about pigs or onions, it kept him busy; but it also kept him quiet. Quite a long and restful period would elapse before it would even be finished, let alone printed; there would be plenty of time for his friends to rest and recuperate and get up their strength to read it, or their moral strength to pretend to have read it. He did not rush about in the interval hurling isolated onions in the faces of individual strangers. He did not bring the great grey sow with him into society, like a lap-dog, or let loose wild herds of Gadarene swine in the public streets. But the modern poet's assaults on his inoffensive fellow-creatures, being more brief and disjointed, can also be more numerous and continuous. If he is so much intoxicated by an onion, he may be similarly maddened by a turnip; and if pigs for him so easily take to themselves wings and fly, the sky they populate may soon be raining cats and dogs. I mean that this modern habit of taking a detached image, with or without the elucidation of its indwelling idea, is to supersede the old reasoned arrangement of themes and thoughts. There is nothing to be said against it, except that there seems to be no end to it. And the epic of the mythological origin of onions did at least, somehow and somewhere, come at last to an end.

Granted that the old formal folios of epic and tragedy were too formal, it sometimes looks nowadays as if there would be no books except note-books or sketch-books. The notes may be short, but the note-book may be fairly long. The sketches may be smaller, but the sketch-book may be larger. Above all, the very smallness of the sketches establishes a standard which makes them more facile and therefore more frequent. I was looking the other day through a large anthology, or collection, of the most modern and advanced American poems. Most of them consisted of short impressions, with one or two arbitrary details in irregular verse; and that was all. I do not mean that they were worthless; a thousand things of the sort are worth seeing and may be worth saying. A brown trickle from a gutter makes a pool in the street, reflecting half a window and a scrap of sky; a black cluster of lamp-posts and top-hats is relieved against a strip of cold green sunset; the passing lights of a tram paint one side of a grey horse in a field a golden colour; a splash of green slime on a wall looks like sprawling fingers; and so on. Now, whether it sound egotistical or no, it is a fact that if I began to write little paragraphs in free verse on such things, I should never stop writing them. I should write thousands and thousands of them. I do not deny the truth of such sights; I am always seeing them. I do not deny the suggestiveness of such sights; I am often moved by them. I only say that if the mere recording of them constitutes poetry, there ought to be a vast amount more poetry and a great many more poets. But whether that prospect be a glorious or an alarming one, I will not venture, on my own isolated example, to decide.