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What better proof of this than in our novels? Take the moon, for example. Surely, the reading public would rise up against the way novelists treat the noon if it were not equally careless of her goings and comings. She is the most familiar thing to us in all nature - much more so than the sun, for we can rarely ever look at him at all. Her abits throughout the ages are so exact that astronomers can calculate eclipses closely years in advance of hem. Yet the simplest and most manfest of these habits seem to be about as comprehensively grasped by the general run of novelists as the idiotic fourth dimension.
Here are a few examples, from among those I have found in my more recent reading, of this violence to the moon -to her reputation in the matter of sane and steady habits:
Stevenson, that master of romance, has a scene in Prince Otto in which the time being somewhere between midnight and two o'clock -‘a thin shaving of new moon had lately risen.'
It was only on my second reading of Prince Otto that I noticed anything wrong with the arrangement, for the first time I was both ignorant and careless of the moon's ways. Stevenson's attention, I have heard, was called to this impossible performance of a new moon and he was a good deal plagued about it. For a new moon always rises after the sun, and is invisible in the glare. And even an old moon, rising so early, would be far too big to be described as a thin shaving.
A popular French author, in a comparatively recent book, has a 'new moon' rise at exactly three o'clock, when his hero is awakened to resume his perilous (and foolish) chase through the Alps after his runaway wife. As this latter author belongs to that large school of French writers who do not. seem to be able to think of anything
to write about except the infidelities of the married, I was not greatly distressed. But my feelings were lacerated when I read in a late book by a talented English author - a woman who stands in the very front rank of living novelists, and this her masterpiece and one of the most absorbing stories I ever read the following (the time was the dusk of evening): 'Low in the east, entangled in a clump of hawthorn, a thin moon hung blurred as if seen through tears.'
In the east! Of all places for a thin moon to hang at dusk! If she had put it right in the north she would have been nearer to nature, for it would not have been so far away from where it ought to have been. In the east, and in the evening, any moon that is behaving itself is always pretty full.
In A Bewitched Ship, an old sea story that I recently chanced to take up, written by the late W. Clark Russell, who himself had been a sailor (and sailors are supposed to be obliged to know some astronomy), I ran across this: "There was a nice wind, smooth sea, and a red moon crowding up over our starboard beam.' The ship was bound for South Africa; so the moon was rising straight up in the west.
In a recent story by a very popular American author one who enjoys a deserved fame for her attainments in nature studies occurs the following: "The sun went down and a half moon appeared above the woods across the lake.' And a little later: "The moon was high above the trees now.'
It is a painful thing, in view of the well-earned reputation of this author as an authority, to upset so graceful a word-picture of nature. It would all have been unassailable if she had omitted the size of the moon. But, as can be proved by any almanac, or by the poor, maligned moon herself, when she is half full she always is on the merid
ian at sunset. So she could not get earth. Both Mars and Venus canc
up any higher.
Another gifted American novelist, in a much older book, as cheerfully mishandles the moon in a similar way. This truly fascinating story created a sensation some years ago, and also, I understand, a New England libel suit, so faithful and trenchant was her portrayal of people — not moons. This is what she says: "The red sunset had not gone out of the west when we started, and a pale young moon was already getting up in the heavens; but we could see neither fading sky nor rising moon.' Oh, dear! With all her delightful wit, and her insight into the human heart, she never cared enough to notice that a moon which can be called young
no matter how pale is never rising nor 'getting up in the heavens' after sunset, but always going down.
Branching out a little from the moon, I will cut short the evidence with what seems to me a most remarkable exhibit of the astronomy of fiction. It is from The Sowers, by Henry Seton Merriman. The scene was Russia, the time late October (this is important), and 'Evening was drawing on . . . The moon was just rising.. Jupiter very near the earth at the time shone intense and brilliant, like a lamp. It was an evening such as only Russia and the great North lands ever see, where the sunset is almost in the north and the sunrise holds it by the hand. Over the whole scene there hung a clear transparent night, green and shimmering, which would never be darker than an English twilight.' Later: 'It was now dark as dark as it ever would be.'
It would indeed be a task to find description couched in more beautiful terms, but it also would be difficult to find more error crowded into so few words. For one thing, Jupiter is never very near, or comparatively near, the
times be said to be near the earthnot at all because they always are ver much nearer the earth than Jupite ever comes, but because, when at the greatest distance, they are some five six times farther away than when near est. (I speak only in off-hand term for, as I have already confessed, I am more than a smatterer in astronomy Jupiter, when most remote from the earth, is not much farther off, comparatively, than when nearest the diffe ence, I should say, being rather les than one third his maximum distance And Jupiter always shines steady and serene, never with an 'intense' light, such as that of the great stars.
But those are the least important the errors. The phenomenon of the sunrise holding the sunset by the han is true enough in Russia — but only summer, when the sun is north of th equator. The time the author selecte for it is not more than two months of from the arctic midnight, and wher the opposite condition prevails. In lar October the night would be very lon: and very dark — except for his moon about which he apparently forgot be fore he reached the end of his par graph. As the moon was just risir when evening was drawing on, it woul have to be nearly, if not quite full, an: would be shining all night-though i is plain that he was attributing a night that 'would never be darker than a English twilight' to a closeness of evening to dawn.
Now, in venting verbal criticisms or such slipshod handling of nature by novelists, I have encountered no litt cold water. The sole province of story, I am told, is entertainment Moons and such things are merely the trivial scenery and minor strokes the fill out the human interest and are no real consequence at all. Not so, I contend at least, not altogether so
Art that is not true to nature is not art, but the artificial. Imagination, it is true, has a large place in art; but when imagination transcends the bounds of the possible it must take on the guise either of fantasy or absurdity. And it is faithful minuteness in detail that makes for perfection. A single small calf with its tail on the wrong end would work riotous bathos in an otherwise faultless and charming picture. If I should read in a novel that the heroine, pale and trembling with anger, rode rapidly south in a taxicab on Twenty-third Street in New York City, or that a couple of boa constrictors lay sunning themselves on the shores of Baffin Bay, I should feel no more pained than in meeting with any one of the statements I have quoted —and not at all because of any faddishness on my part for the things of space.
While I read for entertainment, I get a good deal of it in learning a little something as I go along through life. And, as I am a simple and credulous soul, I am apt to accept anything I read as a fact until something obtrudes to stir my doubts. When I see in a book a reckless juggling with some subject upon which I chance to know a little, my confidence in that author is weakened, at least. If he takes such liberties with one subject, may he not ignore facts on matters in which I am totally unversed and fill me full of information that is not so at all?
THE ILLUSTRIOUS ILLITERATE
THERE is an enviable independence about the illiterate — those people of mettle who say, 'If grammar gets in my way, so much the worse for grammar'; those simple philological rationalists for whom syntax is a sort of supernaturalism, and the pursuit of rhetorical propriety the observance of a hollow ritual.
Professor Bradley, in his Making of English, tells of illiterate Englishmen who, having settled in Germany, lived there for years speaking German as if it were English - that is, without observing any of the rules of German grammar. Declensions and conjugations they simply ignored. Der Mann remained for them der Mann, whether he was nominative, genitive, or dative, and in the plural he became die Männ, the die being a slight but not a weak concession to national differences.
What superb rationality, what unostentatious courage this is, to sweep away as with a wave of the hand, the barbarous paraphernalia from which not even Kultur, with all its efficiency, could snip a shred. Surely, these were the same Britons who in moments of exaltation were accustomed to sing that they never, never, never, never, never would be slaves. For it should be remembered that these English clerks and counter-jumpers were readily understood, and that, while their German customers might be as pusillanimous in the presence of Grammatik as they chose, they themselves would concede not a single -er or -en of their liberty.
The English were formerly greatly our superiors in this regard, but like us, because of the spread of compulsory schooling, have latterly lost their fine independence. There are no Sairy Gamps nowadays, or Mrs. Jupps, or Tony Wellers, or Christopher Vances, who knew how to keep grammar in its place; nor are there any Dogberrys, or Mrs. Malaprops, or Miss Bateses, or Mrs. Nicklebys, who displayed a noble originality, a truly benevolent despotism, in their use of words. They, and not we, were truly the masters of English. Refusing to be bullied by it, they thoroughly subdued it to their wills, and made it fetch and carry and do tricks and come to heel. As for us,
if by any chance we say, 'Every one take their places,' or 'They gave it to he and I,' we are overcome with chagrin; and yet these syntactical liberties are mere bagatelles in comparison with the bland disregard of syntax and usage of these English immortals. It is their utter obliviousness of the existence of syntax and usage which makes them great. Our best efforts have a touch of consciousness, due to the fact that illiteracy is no longer a matter of self-gratulation in this country. A remark that I overheard in the street the other day is a case in point. 'He laid,' one woman was telling another, "in a comose condition.' I wished to congratulate her on having achieved a double liberty in one short sentence, 'bad grammar' and a kind of malapropism; but she was too obviously proud of her refinement.
Our colored Uncles and Mammies, however, have not yet been contaminated by culture, and we could learn freedom from them if we would. When our Annie says, 'I ain't never goin' to trade with no niggers no mo',' I can only admire, but cannot imitate except jocularly, for I am a teacher of English. When she asks me whether I 'ever done et one of these yere Smifsonian hams,' I listen with delight, for the idea of the Smithsonian Institution smoking hams is a true flight of unconscious fancy. When she says, 'Dat chile's Gran'pap suttenly do analyze her,' - meaning, as some bright spirit guesses a week later, 'idolize,' I recognize a dusky sister-in-spirit to Dogberry.
Little Dot, aged five, offers daily to teach Annie to speak 'creckly,' but Annie values her freedom and replies, 'Law, honey, 't ain't no use tryin' to break in a ole mule'; and yet little Dot herself does very well, even if she is the daughter of a teacher of English. I
heard her singing to-day that the bir were flewing over the trees; a moment ago she reminded me that I had at gave her her cake, and told me that the kitten was climbing up on Anne and I's table. It is, however, a sad refer tion that in a year or two the languag will have asserted its tyranny over her. and she will have become as servile her father.
The 'bad grammar' that one hear on the street and in the cars is usually a poor thing; it is only when a humorous genius seizes upon it and raises it to a higher power that its full beauty is disclosed. Sairy Gamp and Mrs. Jupp (in the Way of All Flesh) want only style to be great stylists. There are still places, nevertheless, even in this country, in which perfect mastery of English is to be found. A friend ha discovered one such in Iowa, and quotes the miniature masterpiece of an old lady, declaring it to be representative of the usual diction of the locality. 'If I'd knowed I could have rode,' said she, 'I would have went.' In its com pendiousness, conciseness, and quiet air of complete autonomy this sentence seems to me a classic.
I have observed that most very lit erate people, and English teachers more than all, have a sneaking liking for bad English, and indulge in it in private whenever they feel that they can safely do so. Bad English is evidently natural English, and to use it is as much of a test as to put on one's old clothes. To say, 'I done it,' 'I seen it. 'Ain't it,' and 'I have saw,' to one's wife, is a great relief. The trouble is that one is always liable to say such things in the presence of a guest who one supposes, is a sympathetic spirit: only to spend the following week won dering whether the guest really did understand that one knew better. Thus culture doth make cowards of us all.