Subjects: Definition and Meaning in English Composition

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Form and Material:
      If the composition is to be narrative, it should be upon a choice of subject that readily lends itself to narrative form. One can tell a story about “A Day’s Hunt” or “What We did Hallowe’en;” but it would try one’s powers of imagination to write a story of “A Tree” or “A Chair.” The latter subjects do not lend themselves to narration, but they may be described. Josiah P. Cooke has written a brilliant exposition of “Fire” in “The New Chemistry;” yet a young person would be foolish to take “Fire” as a subject for exposition, though he might easily write a good description of “How the Fire looked from My Window,” or narrate “How a Fireman rescued My Sister.” So in all work in composition, select a subject that readily lends itself to the form of discourse demanded; or, conversely, select the form of discourse suitable for presenting most effectively your material.

The form, then, should suit the matter; and it should be the form in which the author can work. There is a third principle that should guide in the choice of a subject.

Author’s Individuality:
      If an author is writing for other purposes than for conscious practice, he should choose the form of discourse in which he can best work, and to which he can best shape his material. Some men tell stories well; others are debaters; while yet others are wonderfully gifted with eloquence. Emerson 9 understood life thoroughly. He knew man’s feelings, his motives, his hopes, his strength, his weakness; yet one cannot imagine Emerson shaping this material into a novel. But just a little way down the road lived a wizard who could transmute the commonest events of this workaday world to the most beautiful shapes; no one wishes that Hawthorne had written essays. The second principle guiding in the choice of a subject is this: Select a subject which is suited to your peculiar ability as an author.

Knowledge of Subject:
      The form, then, should suit the matter; and it should be the form in which the author can work. There is a third principle that should guide in the choice of a subject. It should be a subject of which the author knows something. Pupils often exclaim, “What can I write about!” as if they were expected to find something new to write. An exercise in composition has not for its object the proclaiming of any new and unheard-of thing; it is an exercise in the expression of things already known. Even when the subject is known, the treatment offers difficulties enough. It is not true that what is thoroughly understood is easily explained. Many excellent scholars have written very poor text-books because they had not learned the art of expression. A necessary antecedent of all good composition is a full and accurate knowledge of the subject; and even when one knows all about it, the clear expression of the thought will be difficult enough.

      To demand accurate knowledge of the subject before an author begins work upon it narrows the field from which themes may be drawn. Burroughs is an authority on all the tenants of our groves; “Wake-Robin,” “Pepacton,” and his other books all show a master’s certain hand. So Stedman is an authority in matters relating to literature. But Burroughs and Stedman alike would find difficulty in writing an essay on “Electricity in the Treatment of Nervous Diseases.” They do not know about it. A boy in school probably knows something of fishing; of this he can write. A girl can tell of “The Last Parlor Concert.” Both could write very entertainingly of their “First Algebra Recitation;” neither could write a convincing essay on “The Advantages of Free Trade.”

Common Subjects:
      This will seem to limit the list of subjects to the commonplace. The fact is that in a composition exercise the purpose is not to startle the world with some new thing; it is to learn the art of expression. And here in the region of common things, things thoroughly understood, every bit of effort can be given to the manner of expression. The truth is, it does not require much art to make a book containing new and interesting material popular; the matter in the book carries it in spite of poor composition. Popular it may be, but popularity is not immortality. Columns of poorly written articles upon “Dewey” and “The Philippines” have been eagerly read by thousands of Americans; it would require a literary artist of great power to write a one-column article on “Pigs” so that it would be eagerly read by thousands. Real art in composition is much more manifest when an author takes a common subject and treats it in such a way that it glows with new life. Richard Le Gallienne has written about a drove of pigs so beautifully that one forgets all the traditions about these common animals. Choose common subjects, then,—subjects that allow every particle of your strength to go into the manner of saying what you already know.

      The requirement that the subject shall be common does not mean that the subject shall be trivial. “Sliding to First,” “How Billy won the Game,” with all of this class of subjects, at once put the writer into a trifling, careless attitude toward his work. The subjects themselves seem to call forth a cheap, slangy vocabulary and the vulgar phrases of sporting life. An equally common subject could be selected which would call forth serious, earnest effort. If a boy knew nothing except about ball games, it would be advisable for him to write upon this subject. Such a condition is hardly possible in a high school. Choose common subjects, but subjects that call for earnest thinking and dignified expression.

      Interest is another consideration in the choice of a subject. It applies equally to writer and reader. Choose subjects that are interesting. Not only must an author know about the subject; he must be interested in it. A pupil may have accurate knowledge of the uses of a semicolon; but he would not be likely to succeed in a paragraph about semicolons, largely because he is not much interested in semicolons. This matter of interest is so important that it is well to know what things all persons, authors and readers alike, are interested in. What, then, is generally interesting?

The Familiar:
      First, the familiar is interesting. When reading a newspaper each one instinctively turns to the local column, or glances down the general news columns to see if there is anything from his home town. To a former resident, Jim Benson’s fence in Annandale is more interesting than the bronze doors of the Congressional Library in Washington. For the same reason a physician lights upon “a new cure for consumption,” a lawyer devours Supreme Court decisions, while the dealer in silks is absorbed in the process of making silk without the aid of the silkworm. Each is interested in that which to him is most familiar.

Human Life:
      Second, human life in all its phases is interesting. The account of a fire or of a railroad accident takes on a new interest when, in addition to the loss of property, there has been a loss of life. War is horribly fascinating, not so much because there is a wanton destruction of property, as because it involves the slaughter of men. Stories about trees and animals are usually failures, unless handled by artists who breathe into them the life of man. Andersen’s “Tannenbaum” and Kipling’s “Jungle Books” are intensely interesting because in them trees and animals feel and act just as men do.

The Strange:
      Third, the romantic, the unique, and the impossible are interesting. A new discovery, a new invention, a people of which little is known,—anything new is interesting. The stories of Rider Haggard and Jules Verne have been popular because they deal with things which eye hath not seen. This peculiar trait of man allows him to relish a good fish story, or the latest news from the sea-serpent. Just for the same reason, children love to hear of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. Children and their parents are equally interested in those things which are entirely outside of their own experience.

      These, then, are the general conditions which govern the choice of a subject. It shall easily lend itself to the form of discourse chosen; it shall be suited to the peculiar ability of the author; it shall be thoroughly understood by the author,—common, but not trivial; it shall be interesting to both reader and author.

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