The plain style says one thing but the ornate style says many things.
“Mr. Boswell being more delicate lay in linen like a gentleman.”
I am travelling to Lichfield, to see the Samuel Johnson Birthplace museum. If you cannot know your subjects, or speak to people who knew them, the next best thing is to be in the places they were in. The biographer Richard Holmes describes his method of literally retracing his subjects’ journeys in Footsteps, a book which influenced Hermione Lee to talk more personally in her biographies, an approach that contributed to her achievement as the most accomplished literary biographer of her generation. Much as I try and describe this as research, it is also just an extension of my reading for pleasure.
I have spent dozens and dozens of hours in Johnson’s London, was kindly and informatively hosted at his Gough Square house—where I held his copy of Herrick! and saw a book with a coffee ring on the cover—finally got inside the always-bloody-closed St Clement Dane church where he worshipped, and have walked the streets he walked, seen the places where he drank and worked and read. But in Lichfield there are things unavailable in London. It was in his father’s bookshop that Johnson likely heard gossip about the seventeenth century poets which was later inspiration and information for his late blooming masterpiece The Lives of the Poets. I have been in the attic where the Dictionary was made, now I will stand in the room where he learnt so many of the words he defined.
As I travel I am reading Johnson’s only travel book, The Journey to the Hebrides. What a model of non-fiction writing. Johnson often writes in the ornate, periodic style making no allowances for his readers—but he also makes sly jokes and swiped asides, such this little joke against Boswell:
We were now to examine our lodging…circumstances of no elegant recital concurred to disgust us. We had been frighted by a lady at Edinburgh, with discouraging representations of Highland lodgings. Sleep, however, was necessary. Our Highlanders had at last found some hay, with which the inn could not supply them. I directed them to bring a bundle into the room, and slept upon it in my riding coat. Mr. Boswell being more delicate, laid himself sheets with hay over and under him, and lay in linen like a gentleman.
Advocates of either plain or ornate (sometimes called rhetorical) English often cite Johnson for or against, but like all good writers Johnson used both styles to equal effect depending on what he was trying to achieve. Most of this passage is in the plain style with no metaphor or rhetoric: that is how he makes the joke work. Look at this rather withering remark about the island of Col:
For natural curiosities, I was shown only two great masses of stone, which lie loose upon the ground; one on the top of a hill, and the other at a small distance from the bottom. They certainly were never put into their present places by human strength or skill; and though an earthquake might have broken off the lower stone, and rolled it into the valley, no account can be given of the other, which lies on the hill, unless, which I forgot to examine, there be still near it some higher rock, from which it might be torn. All nations have a tradition, that their earliest ancestors were giants, and these stones are said to have been thrown up and down by a giant and his mistress. There are so many more important things, of which human knowledge can give no account, that it may be forgiven us, if we speculate no longer on two stones in Col.
Good plain English and well done at that. The idea that this is not plain style merely because it has some subordinate clauses is a basic error I can trust none of you to be deceived into believing. It is easy to imagine this passage in a magazine like the New Yorker with only a few edits.
Supposedly the plain style is the mark of honesty. Believing things like this is how smart people become gullible. As Hugh Kenner said, “What the masters of the plain style demonstrate is how futile is anyone’s hope of subduing humanity to an austere ideal.”
Visiting an old dignitary on Col, Johnson expressed some admiration for a religiously unorthodox writer:
Mr. Maclean has the reputation of great learning: he is seventy-seven years old, but not infirm, with a look of venerable dignity, excelling what I remember in any other man.
His conversation was not unsuitable to his appearance. I lost some of his good-will, by treating a heretical writer with more regard than, in his opinion, a heretick could deserve. I honoured his orthodoxy, and did not much censure his asperity. A man who has settled his opinions, does not love to have the tranquillity of his conviction disturbed; and at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.
Johnson means that with death so close one must be wary of one’s religious observations. We live in an age where such beliefs are rare and often inconceivable and our discussions of prose style are influenced by this. The plain style was associated with political writing in the time of Orwell and Swift; now it is seen as a mere technique for being comprehensible online.
But you will note that as Johnson moralises, his style becomes more ornate, more rhetorical. Shortly before the Maclean episode, Johnson wrote this injunction—“To be ignorant is painful; but it is dangerous to quiet our uneasiness by the delusive opiate of hasty persuasion.” Whoof!—the ornate style and no doubt. All such maxims and mottos today would be in the plain style and would lack the nuance and subtlety Johnson provides. What better way to describe the use of the plain style in so much online writing today than the delusive opiate of hasty persuasion. Plain today, gone tomorrow.
The rhetorical style has another function. It doesn’t just describe in condensed form the psychology behind the moral—the “delusive opiate” being what we would call the “dopamine hit”—it provides a slowness, a burden, so that you must actually think about the different meanings provided. The plain style says one thing but the ornate style says many things. That’s not quite true; as I said above and as Kenner discusses, the plain style can be ambiguous too: but it’s true that moral lessons in the plain style often lack context and offer no insight into how the morals interact with psychology and other considerations. You must infer that a dopamine hit is delusive; Johnson is able to tell you this. And so the ornate style becomes, obliquely, more direct. There is no quick path to the truth.
To end, here is one of Johnson’s more subtle homilies:
All censure of a man’s self is oblique praise. It is in order to shew how much he can spare.
See how Johnson imputes the knowingness rather than plainly states it, thus emphasising the cunning involved in such oblique praise, to the extent that it may be unconscious. But see too how this flips from ornate to plain style in the second sentence. How well this brings out the fundamental superiority of the humble brag, the subtle alpha. When we admonish people for the humble brag, we get close to this, but our plain style is too blunt and starts useless disagreements. Johnson’s balance of plain and ornate creates something more enduring and something that is closer to wisdom.
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Substack won’t let me add hyperlinks on my phone so here is the Hugh Kenner article, recommended: https://www.nytimes.com/1985/09/15/books/the-politics-of-the-plain.html