Description: Definition and Explain in English Composition

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Difficulties of Language for making Pictures:
      Description has been defined as the form of literature which presents a picture by means of language. The sequence of language is perfectly adapted to detail the sequence of action in a narrative. For the purpose of constructing a picture, the means has serious drawbacks. The picture has to be presented in pieces; and the difficulties are much as would be experienced if “dissected maps and animals” used for children’s amusement were to be put together in the head. It would not be easy to arrange the map of the United States from blocks, each containing a small part of it, taken one at a time from a box. Yet this closely resembles the method language forces us to adopt in constructing a picture. Each phrase is like one of the blocks, and introduces a new element into the picture; from these phrases the reader must reconstruct the whole. This means not alone that he shall remember them all, but there is a more serious trouble: he must often rearrange them. For example, a description by Ruskin begins, “Nine years old.” Either a boy or a girl, the reader thinks, as it may be in his own home. In the case of this reader it is a boy, rather tall of his age, with brown hair and dark eyes. But the next phrase reads, “Neither tall nor short for her age.” Now the reader knows it is a girl of common stature. Later on he learns that her eyes are “deep blue;” her lips “perfectly lovely in profile;” and so on through the details of the whole sketch. Many times in the course of the description the reader makes up a new picture; he is continually reconstructing. Any one who will observe his own mind while reading a new description can prove that the picture is arranged and rearranged many times. This is due to the means by which it is presented. Language presents only a phrase at a time,—a fragment, not a whole,—and so fails in the instantaneous presentation of a complete picture.

The painter cannot put sounds upon a canvas, nor can the sculptor carve from marble an odor or a taste. We use the other senses in determining qualities of objects; and words which describe effects produced by other senses beside sight are valuable in description. As Lowell says, “we may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowing” a large number of beautiful things. Moreover, language suggests hidden ideas that the representative arts cannot so well do. The following from a “Song” by Lowell has in it suggestions which the picture could not present.

Painting and Sculpture:
      The painter or sculptor who upon canvas or in stone flashes the whole composition before us at the same instant of time, has great advantages over the worker in words. In these methods there is needed no reconstruction of previous images, no piecing together of a number of fragments. Without any danger of mistakes which will have to be corrected later, the spectator can take in the whole picture at once,—every relation, every color, every difference in values.

      It is because pictures are the surest and quickest means of representing objects to the mind that books, especially text-books, and magazines are so profusely illustrated. No magazine can claim popularity to-day that does not use illustrations where possible; no text-book in science or history sells unless it contains pictures. And this is because all persons accurately and quickly get the idea from a picture.

Advantages of Language:
      Whatever be the disadvantages of language, there are some advantages. Who could paint this from Hawthorne? “Soon the smoke ascended among the trees, impregnated with savory incense, not heavy, dull, and surfeiting, like 51 the steam of cookery indoors, but sprightly and piquant. The smell of our feast was akin to the woodland odors with which it mingled.” (“Mosses from an Old Manse.”) Or this from Lowell?—

 “Under the yaller-pines I house,
 When sunshine makes ’em all sweet-scented,
 An’ hear among their furry boughs
 The baskin’ west wind purr contented,
 While ’way o’erhead, ez sweet an’ low
 Ez distant bells thet ring for meetin’,
 The wedged wil’ geese their bugles blow,
 Further an’ further South retreatin’.”
 Or cut this from marble?—
 “O mother Ida, many-fountained Ida,
 Dear mother Ida, hearken ere I die.
 For now the noonday quiet holds the hill;
 The grasshopper is silent in the grass;
 The lizard, with his shadow on the stone,
 Rests like a shadow, and the winds are dead.
 The purple flower droops; the golden bee
 Is lily-cradled; I alone awake.
 My eyes are full of tears, my heart of love,
 My heart is breaking, and my eyes are dim,
 And I am all aweary of my life.”

      The painter cannot put sounds upon a canvas, nor can the sculptor carve from marble an odor or a taste. We use the other senses in determining qualities of objects; and words which describe effects produced by other senses beside sight are valuable in description. As Lowell says, “we may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowing” a large number of beautiful things. Moreover, language suggests hidden ideas that the representative arts cannot so well do. The following from a “Song” by Lowell has in it suggestions which the picture could not present.

 “Violet! sweet violet!
 Thine eyes are full of tears;
 Are they wet
 Even yet
 With the thought of other years?
 Or with gladness are they full,
 For the night so beautiful,
 And longing for those far-off spheres?
 “Thy little heart, that hath with love
 Grown colored like the sky above,
 On which thou lookest ever,—
 Can it know All the woe
 Of hope for what returneth never,
 All the sorrow and the longing
 To these hearts of ours belonging?”

Enumeration and Suggestion:
      Description, like narration, has two large divisions: one simply to give information or instruction; the other to present a vivid picture. One is representative or enumerative; the other, suggestive. One may be illustrated by guide-books; the other by the descriptions of Stevenson or Ruskin. And in the most artistic fashion the two have been made to supplement each other in the following picture of “bright and beautiful Athens” by Cardinal Newman. From the first, to the sentence beginning “But what he would not think of,” there is simply an enumeration of features which a commercial agent might see; the rest is what the artistic soul of the lover of beauty saw there.

Enumerative Description:
      Enumerative description has one point of great difference from suggestive description. In the former everything is told; in the latter the description is as fortunate in what it omits as in what it includes. Were an architect to give specifications for the building of a house, every detail would have to be included; but after all the pages of careful enumeration the reader would know less of how it looked than after these few words from Irving. “A large, rickety wooden building stood in its place, with great gaping windows, some of them broken and mended with old hats and petticoats, and over the door was painted ‘The Union Hotel, by Jonathan Doolittle.’” So the manual training student uses five hundred words to describe in detail a box which would be thrown off with but a few words in a piece of literature. In enumerative description, one element is of as much importance as another; no special feature is made primary by the omission or subdual of other qualities. It has value in giving exact details of objects, as if for their construction, and in including an object in a class.

Suggestive Description:
      Suggestive description, description the aim of which is not information, but the reproduction of a picture, is the kind most employed in literature. To present a picture, not all the details should be given. The mind cannot carry them all, and, much worse, it cannot arrange them. Nor is there any need for a detailed enumeration. A room has walls, floor, and ceiling; a man naturally has ears, arms, and feet. These things may be taken for granted. It is not what is common to a class that describes; it is what is individual, what takes one object out of a class.

Value of Observation:
      This leads to the suggestion that good description depends largely on accurate observation. A selection frequently quoted, but none the less valuable because often seen, is in point here. It is the last word on the value of observation.

The Point of View:
      With the closest observation, an author gets into his own mind what he wishes to present to another; but with this essential step taken, he is only ready to begin the work of communication. For the successful communication of a picture there are some considerations of value. And first is the point of view. It has much the same relation to description as the main incident has to narration. In large measure it determines what to exclude and what to include. When a writer has assumed his point of view, he must stay there, and tell not a thing more than he can see from there. It would hardly be possible for a man, telling only so much as he saw while gazing from Eiffel Tower into the streets below, to say that the people looked like Lilliputians and that their hands were dirty. To one lying on the bank of a stream, it does not look like “a silver thread running through the landscape.” Things do not look the same when they are near as when at a distance. This fact has been acted upon more by the modern school of painting than ever before in art. Verboeckhoven painted sheep in a marvelous way. The drawing is perfect, giving the animal to the life. Still, no matter how far away the artist was standing, there are the same marvelously painted tufts of wool, showing almost the individual fibres. Tufts of wool were on the sheep, and made of fibres; but no artist at twenty rods could see them. The new school gives only what actually can be seen. Its first law is that each “shall draw the thing as he sees it for the God of Things as They Are.” Make no additions to what you can actually see because, as a result of experience, you know that there are some things not yet mentioned in your description; the hands may be dirty, but the man on the tower cannot see the dirt. Neither make an addition simply because it sounds well; the “silver thread through the landscape” is beautiful, but, unfortunately, it is not always true.

      Not only does distance cut out details from a picture; the fact that man sees in a straight line and not around a corner eliminates some features. In describing a house, remember that as you stand across the street from it, the back porch cannot be seen, neither can the shrubbery in the back yard. A writer would not be justified in speaking of a man’s necktie, if the man he was describing were walking in front of him. In enumerative description the inside of a box may be told of; a man may be turned around, as it were; but to present a picture, only one side can be described, just as it would be shown in a photograph. Any addition to what can actually be known from the point of view assumed by the author is a fault and a source of confusion. Choose your point of view; stay there; and tell only what is seen from that point.

Moving Point of View:
      It has been said that the point of view should not be changed. This requires one modification. It may be changed, if the reader is kept informed of the changes. If a person wished to describe an interior, he would be unable to see the whole from any one point of view. As he passed from room to room he should inform his reader of his change of position. Then the description, though a unit, is a combination of several descriptions; just as the house is one, though made of dining-room, sitting-rooms, bedrooms, and attic. This kind of description is very common in books of travel, in which the author tells what he sees in passing. The thing to be remembered in writing this kind of description is to inform the reader where the author is when he writes the different parts of the description,—to give the points of view.

The Point of View should be stated:
      The point of view, whether fixed or moving, should be made clear. Either it should be definitely stated, or it should be suggested by some phrase in the description. In the many examples which are quoted in this chapter, it would be well to see what it is that gives the point of view. The picture gains in distinctness when the point of view is known.

Mental Point of View:
      Closely connected with the physical point of view is the mood or purpose of the writer; this might be called the mental point of view. Not everything should be told which the author could know from his position, but only those things which at the time serve his purpose. In the description already quoted from Newman, the mercantile gentleman notes a large number of features which are the commercial advantages of Attica; of these but three are worthy of mention by “yon pilgrim student” in giving his impression of Athens as “a shrine where he might take his fill of gazing on those emblems and coruscations of invisible unoriginate perfection.” The others—the soil, the streams, the climate, the limestone, the fisheries, and the silver mines—do not serve his purpose. Hawthorne in the long description already mentioned has retained those features which suggest quiet and peace. Such a profusion of “quiet,” “half asleep,” “peaceful,” “unruffled,” “unexcitable” words and phrases never “loitered” through forty pages of “dreamy” and “whispering” description.

      At the risk of over-emphasizing this point that the purpose of the author, the mental point of view of the writer, the feeling which the object gives him and which he wishes to convey to the reader, the central thought in the description, is primary, and an element that cannot be overlooked in successful description, I give another example. This point really cannot be over-emphasized: a writer cannot be too careful in selecting materials. Careless grouping of incongruous matters cannot make a picture. Nor does the artistic author leave the reader in doubt as to the purpose of the description; its central thought is usually suggested in the first sentence. In the quotations from Shakespeare and Kipling, the opening sentences are the germ of what follows. Each detail seems to grow out of this sentence, and serves to emphasize it. In the following by Stevenson, the paragraphs spring from the opening sentence; they explain it, they elaborate it, and they accent it.

Length of Descriptions:
      There is one more step in the exclusion of details. This considers neither the point of view nor the purpose of the writer, but it is what is due the reader. Stevenson says in one of his essays that a description which lasts longer than two minutes is never attempted in conversation. The listener cannot hold the details enumerated. The clearest statement regarding this comes from Jules Lemaître in a criticism upon some descriptions by Emile Zola which the critic says are praised by persons who have never read them.

      These, then, are the principles that guide in the choice of materials for a description. First, the point of view, whether fixed or movable, should be made clear to the reader; it should be retained throughout the description, or the change should be announced. By regard for it the writer will be guided to the exclusion of matters that could not be observed, and to the inclusion of such details as can be seen and are essential. Second, the writer will keep out matters that do not contribute to his purpose, and will select only those details which assist in producing the desired impression. Third, the limitations of the reader’s powers advise a writer to be brief: five hundred words should be the outside; two hundred are enough for most writers. These principles will give to the whole that unity of materials and of structure which is the first requisite of an effective description.

      The next matter for consideration is the arrangement of the materials. The arrangement depends on the principles that guided in narration, Mass and Coherence.

Arrangement of Details in Description:
      After we have looked at any object long enough to be able to write about it, one feature comes to assume an importance that sets it far above all others. To a writer who has looked long at a man, he may shrink to a cringing piece of weakness, or he may grow to a strong, self-centred power whose presence alone inspires serenest trust. Hawthorne, standing in St. Peter’s, saw only the gorgeous coloring; proportions, immensity, and sacredness were as nothing to the harmonious brilliancy of this expanded “jewel casket.” Stevenson, thinking of the beast of burden best suited to carry his great sleeping sack, discarded the horse, for, as he says, “she is a fine lady among animals.” The description of a horse which follows this statement emphasizes the fact that a horse is not intended for carrying burdens. From the germinal impression of a description, all the details grow; to this primary impression they all contribute. In the case of buildings, or other things material, this impression is generally one of form, sometimes of the height of the object; if striking, it may be color. The strongest impression of persons is a quality of character which shows itself either in the face or in the pose of a man.

      And one may see from looking back at the illustrations given that the dominant impression which gives the character to the whole description, this leading quality which is the essence of the whole, usually stands at the very beginning, and to it all the succeeding details cling.

The End of a Description:
      The end of a description is equally as important as the opening. In most descriptions, whether short or long, the most important detail, the detail that emphasizes most the general feeling of the whole, stands at the end. If the description be short, the necessity of a comprehensive opening statement is not imperative,—indeed, it may be made so formal and ostentatious when compared with the rest of the description as to be ridiculous; yet even in the short description some important detail should close it. In a long description the repetition of the opening statement in a new form sometimes stands at the end. If the description be of movement or change, the end will be the climax of the movement, the result of the change.

      One thing further should be said regarding Mass. Not everything can stand first or last; some important details must be placed in the midst of a description. These particulars will not be of equal importance. The more important details may be given their proportionate emphasis by relatively increasing the length of their treatment. If one detail is more important than another, it requires more to be said about it; unimportant matters should be passed over with a word. Proportion in the length of treatment is a guide to the relative importance of the matters introduced into a description.

      In the description of “The House of Usher,” position emphasizes the barely perceptible fissure. Proportion singles out the crumbling condition of the individual stones and makes this detail more emphatic than either the discoloration or the fungi. And in Newman’s description, the olive-tree, the brilliant atmosphere, the thyme, the bees, all add to the charms of bright and beautiful Athens; but most of all the Ægean, with its chain of islands, its dark violet billows, its jets of silver, the heaving and panting of its long waves,—the restless living element fascinates and enraptures “yon pilgrim student.” Position and proportion are the means of emphasis in a paragraph of description.

      Arrangement must be natural. Having settled the massing of the description, the next matter for consideration is the arrangement. In order that the parts of a description may be coherent, hold together, they should be arranged in the order in which they would naturally be perceived. What strikes the eye of the beholder as most important, often the general characteristic of the whole, should be mentioned first; and the details should follow as they are seen. In a building, the usual way of observing and describing is from foundation to turret stone. A landscape may be described by beginning with what is near and extending the view; this is common. Sometimes the very opposite plan is pursued; or one may begin on either hand and advance toward the other. Of a person near by, the face is the first thing observed; for it is there that his character can be best discovered. Afterward details of clothing follow as they would naturally be noticed. If a person be at a distance his pose and carriage would be about all that could be seen; as he approaches, the other details would be mentioned as they came into view. To arrange details in the order in which they are naturally observed will result in an association in the description of the details that are contiguous in the objects. Jumping about in a description is a source of confusion. How entirely it may ruin a paragraph can be estimated by the effect upon this single sentence, “He was tall, with feet that might have served for shovels, narrow shoulders, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, long arms and legs, and his whole frame most loosely hung together.” This rearrangement makes but a disjointed and feeble impression; and the reason is entirely that an order in which no person ever observed a man has been substituted for the commonest order,—from head to foot. Arrange details so that the parts which are contiguous shall be associated in the description, and proceed in the order in which the details are naturally observed.

Use Familiar Images:
      When the materials have been selected and arranged, the hardest part of the work has been done. It now remains to express in language the picture. A few suggestions regarding the kind of language will be helpful. The writer must always bear in mind the fact that in constructing a mental picture each reader does it from the images he already possesses. “Quaint arabesques” is without meaning to many persons; and until the word has been looked up in the dictionary, and the picture seen there, the beautiful line of “Sir Launfal” suggests no image whatever. So when Stevenson speaks of the birds in the “clerestories of the wood cathedral,” the image is not distinct in the mind of a young American. Supposing a pupil in California were asked to describe an orange to an Esquimau. He might say that it is a spheroid about the size of an apple, and the color of one of Lorraine’s sunsets. This would be absolutely worthless to a child of the frigid zone. Had he been told that an orange was about the size of a snowball, much the color of the flame of a candle, that the peeling came off like the skin from a seal, and that the inside was good to eat, he would have known more of this fruit. The images which lie in our minds and from which we construct new pictures are much like the blocks that a child-builder rearranges in many different forms; but the blocks do not change. From them he may build a castle or a mill; yet the only difference is a difference in arrangement. So it is with the pictures we build up in imagination: our castle in Spain we have never seen, but the individual elements which we associate to lift up this happy dwelling-place are the things we know and have seen. A reader creates nothing new; all he does is to rearrange in his own mind the images already familiar. Only so may he pass from the known to the unknown.

      The fact that we construct pictures of what we read from those images already in our minds warns the writer against using materials which those for whom he writes could not understand. It compels him to select definite images, and it urges him to use the common and the concrete. It frequently drives him to use comparisons.

Use of Comparisons:
      To represent the extremely bare and unornamented appearance of a building, one might write, “It looked like a great barn,” or “It was a great barn.” In either case the image would be definite, common, and concrete. In both cases there is a comparison. In the first, where the comparison is expressed, there is a simile; in the second, where the comparison is only implied, there is a metaphor. These two figures of speech are very common in description, and it is because they are of great value. One other is sometimes used,—personification, which ascribes to inanimate things the attributes of life which are the property of animate nature. What could be happier than this by Stevenson: “All night long he can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely; even as she takes her rest she turns and smiles”? or this, “A faint sound, more like a moving coolness than a stream of air”? And at the end of the chapter which describes his “night under the pines,” he speaks of the “tapestries” and “the inimitable ceiling” and “the view which I command from the windows.” In this one chapter are personification, simile, metaphor,—all comparisons, and doing what could hardly be done without them. Common, distinct, concrete images are surest.

Choice of Words. Adjectives and Nouns:
      To body forth these common, distinct, concrete images calls for a discriminating choice of words; for in the choice of words lies a large part of the vividness of description. If the thing described be unknown to the reader, it requires the right word to place it before him; if it be common, still must the right word be found to set it apart from the thousand other objects of the same class. The words that may justly be called describing words are adjectives and nouns; and of these the adjective is the first descriptive word. The rule that a writer should never use two adjectives where one will do, and that he should not use one if a noun can be found that completely expresses the thought, is a good one to follow. One certain stroke of the crayon is worth a hundred lines, each approaching the right one. One word, the only one, will tell the truth more vividly than ten that approach its expression. For it must be remembered that a description must be done quickly; every word that is used and does nothing is not only a waste of time, but is actually in the way. In a description every word must count. It may be a comparison, an epithet, personification, or what not, but whatever method is adopted, the right word must do it quickly.

      How much depends on the nice choice of words may be seen by a study of the selections already quoted; and especially by a careful reading of those by Stevenson and Everett.

      Yet in the choice of words, one may search for the bizarre and unusual rather than for the truly picturesque. Stevenson at times seems to have lapsed. When he says that Modestine would feel a switch “more tenderly than my cane;” that he “must instantly maltreat this uncomplaining animal,” meaning constantly; and at another place that he “had to labor so consistently with” his stick that the sweat ran into his eyes, there is a suspicion of a desire for the sensational rather than the direct truth. On the other hand, the beginner finds himself using words that have lost, their meaning through indiscriminate usage. “Awful good,” “awful pretty,” and “awful sweet” mean something less than good, pretty, and sweet. “Lovely,” “dear,” “splendid,” “unique,” and a large number of good words have been much dulled by the ignorant use of babblers. Superlatives and all words denoting comparison should be used with stinginess. One cannot afford to part with this kind of coin frequently; the cheaper coins should be used, else he will find an empty purse when need arises. Thackeray has this: “Her voice was the sweetest, low song.” How much better this, Her voice was a sweet, low song. All the world is shut out from this, while in the former he challenges the world by the comparison. Shakespeare was wiser when he made Lear say,—

 “Her voice was ever soft,
 Gentle, and low,—an excellent thing in woman.”

      Avoid words which have lost their meaning by indiscriminate use; shun the sensational and the bizarre; use superlatives with economy; but in all you do, whether in unadorned or figurative language, choose the word that is quick and sure and vivid—the one word that exactly suggests the picture.

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