A reader of one of my posts wrote to me that the essays of Johnson, Addison, and Steele “are well worth reading, … but their style is clearly dated.”
Reading some of Samuel Johnson’s miscellaneous writings today, I was thinking to myself (as I often do) how clearly written they are and how they provide models for good writing.
Yes, there are anachronisms in usage — certainly in spelling (as well as conventions in capitalization and hyphenation) — as well as vocabulary in Johnson’s writings, and in those of Addison and Steele, whose essays provided a model for Johnson’s.
Here is an example from one of Steele’s essays:
An Author, when he first appears in the World, is very apt to believe it has nothing to think of but his Performances. With a good Share of this Vanity in my Heart, I made it my Business these three Days to listen after my own Fame; and, as I have sometimes met with Circumstances which did not displease me, I have been encountered by others which gave me much Mortification. It is incredible to think how empty I have in this time observed some Part of the Species to be, what mere Blanks they are when they first come abroad in the Morning, how utterly they are at a Stand, until they are set a going by some Paragraph in a News-Paper: Such Persons are very acceptable to a young Author, for they desire no more (in anything) but to be new, to be agreeable. If I found Consolation among such, I was as much disquieted by the Incapacity of others. These are Mortals who have a certain Curiosity without Power of Reflection, and perused my Papers like Spectators rather than Readers.
But there is so little Pleasure in Enquiries that so nearly concern our selves (it being the worst Way in the World to Fame, to be too anxious about it), that upon the whole I resolv’d for the future to go on in my ordinary Way; and without too much Fear or Hope about the Business of Reputation, to be very careful of the Design of my Actions, but very negligent of the Consequences of them.
— Richard Steele, The Spectator No. 4, Monday, March 5, 1711
This seems to be a specimen of clear, straightforward, and plain good writing. Does such writing go out of fashion?
In a different vein — but also, to provide a specimen from Johnson — here is a brief passage from a book review by Samuel Johnson from my reading today:
He [Arthur Murphy] mentions, with great regard, [Alexander] Pope’s ode on solitude, written when he was but twelve years old, but omits to mention the poem on silence, composed, I think, as early, with much greater elegance of diction, music of numbers, extent of observation, and force of thought. [italics added]
— Samuel Johnson, review of Arthur Murphy, The Gray’s-Inn Journal, Literary Magazine (1756)
The concluding sequence of four phrases is an example of why Johnson’s writings merit study on stylistic grounds. On account — in this example — of excellence of phrasing, parallelism, and how pleasing to the ear, how euphonious, such wording is.
One phrase follows another, forming an integrated whole. A thought or concept clearly and forcefully expressed. The words strike home.
The mind yearns for completion. In Johnson, this is usually achieved.
It is very much like a cluster of notes in music, when notes follow and build on those before, when they not only fit together, cohere, but provide a sense of resolution.
— Roger W. Smith
February 9, 2020