What is Style? Definition & Explanation

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      In every composition we have two elements, distinct but not separate :viz., matter and style. Matter is the thought content; and style, the manner in which it is expressed.

      Now, when a certain composition is said to have matter and no style, we seem to imply that style is something external, something that can be put on, like a cake. But ‘style’, in this sense, is only the rhetorician’s idea of it. He views the excellence of language as apart from the matter. For him, style is synonymous with fine writing—it is applied ornament. He regards style as a matter of tricks and devices, of beautiful words appropriate in themselves — which can be superadded to matter of any kind so that a mechanical perfection in the technique of expression is achieved. He believes that, whatever the thought content, high or low, meager or abundant, it can still be couched in beautiful or signified style. This view leads us to think of style only as the dress of thought and not as something organically related to it. Such a misconception, equating style with external graces which can, with some perseverance, be acquired and may become part of the texture of one’s writing, has been countenanced by that admission of R. L. Stevenson, who said that he learned to write (or write well) by ‘playing the sedulous ape’ to many a noted writer.

      But it is a mistake to think that gaudiness of dress can conceal the poverty of thought. Style and matter are intimately related to each other. “Matter and expression are pails of one”, said Newman. “Style is a thinking out into language”. (Cp. Murry: “Style is not an isolable quality of language. It is writing itself). Style, then, is ‘the incarnation of thought’. If the thought is muddled, the expression will be muddled; if the thought is sharp and clear, the expression too will be sharp and clear.

      Having thus established the concordance between thought and style, it will be easy for us to see the intimate and organic relationship of style to the personality of the author. Just as the thought and feelings are personal to the artist, so will expression be personal to him. ‘A man’s style is his mind’s voice’, declared Emerson. ‘A wooden mind, a wooden voice’. As a man thinks and feels, so will he write. You can judge of a man’s thought and temper from the way he expresses himself. Napoleon, when asked to appoint a person to a post, is said to have replied, “Has he written anything 9 Let me see his style”.

      Style is not merely words, or words arranged in a certain order, but the whole ordering of thought, the juxtaposition of ideas, the playing up or down of any of them, the deliberate choosing between one word and another, the incidence of emphasis, the balance, the nicety and grace of expression—all taken together. And therein you see laid bare the sinews of the man’s thought and feeling. There you have the man, the whole of him indeed. It will now be clear why style is said to be the image of character. A truly individual style could be no more, nor less. It is the mirror, the surest index, of the author’s personality, Therein are reflected the force of his character, the temper of his thought and the fiber of his feeling. The choice of words and their ordering will indicate the precise texture of his thought, his attitude, the tone of his emotional response or reaction, the vigor of his mind and heart.

      This is so because literature is a personal use or exercise of language, as Newman rightly pointed out. The good writer does not use language as it comes to his hands, or as the majority of people use it. He fashions it into an instrument that truly reflects his personality. He makes it obey his will and echo his thought and feelings. It is in this personal use of language precisely that a great author’s writing belongs to none but himself. You cannot mistake the style of Dr. Johnson or of Carlyle for any others. Of course, some writers, even great ones, have tried to model their style on that of recognized masters. But this was so only during their apprenticeship or formative stage. In so far as they had any individual self to express, they did gradually evolve a personal style. Original thought will need, and fashion for itself, an original mode of expression.

      An undistinguished style means an undistinguished personality. And a personality that is full of idiosyncrasies and individual traits must find its own characteristic expression. A Dr. Johnson would not talk anybody else’s language. His style is the measure of his personality. The language of his letter to Lord Chesterfield truly reflects the strength and independence of his mind and spirit. Of course, there was little flexibility in him. He would, as Goldsmith quipped, make even fishes talk like whales, but that also is a measure of his weakness as well as strength. So every great author necessarily writes himself down for what he is.

      The style is so sure an index to the mind and spirit of an author that you could gauge the changes in his thought, temper and feeling by corresponding changes in his style. This is nowhere so well illustrated as in Shakespeare. The language of his middle and last plays differs so markedly from that of his early ones. The maturation and discipline that his mind went through are reflected in the growth and perfection of his style.

      So style is a personal instrument. It is a personal use of language. It bears unmistakably the imprint of one’s mind and heart. It belongs to one’s thought as intimately as the grain in a piece of wood belongs to it. It is not a veneer. It goes all the way through. It is not a thing added on from outside. It is not the coat of an author, it is his skin. Nay, it is the man himself, as Buffon said. “Style is organic—not the clothes a man wears, but the flesh, blood and bone of his body” (Murry).


      J. Middleton Murry (The Problem of Style) distinguished three senses in which we use the word ‘style’: (1) Style as the characteristically personal or individual expression by which we recognize a writer; (2) Style as a matter of composition which consists in lucidity of exposition (esp. of intellectual ideas. In this sense, a philosopher or essayist may have good ideas, but a bad style. But the word in this sense is not applicable to a novelist or poet, for poets and novelists do not have ideas; they have only perceptions, intuitions and emotional convictions. A poem or novel that is well-conceived, i.e. which has exquisite perceptions, cannot be badly written. Style in this sense is a matter of composition — an art that can be taught, as was done in the old schools of Rhetoric); and (3) Style used in the absolute sense (‘We do not know precisely what it means’ - Muny) represents the highest achievement of creative literature.

      When we recognize the authorship of a piece of writing and express it in these words: “I can tell who wrote it - it is Mr. Saintsbury / Dr. Johnson / Charles Lamb / Henry James. There is no mistaking the style”, we mean a personal idiosyncrasy of writing which is easily identifiable, and which is the direct expression of the author’s individual mode of feeling or his individual emotional or intellectual make-up. Such a style is true as long as it reflects the author’s sincerity of feelings or a valid experience. But when the informing spirit is spent or no longer present, the mere cultivation of style which was once a live mode of individual expression degenerates into an artifice (as is said to have happened in the case of Henry James). Style is used, says Murry, in the sense of a gift for lucid exposition, when we say, “Mr. So-and-So has interesting ideas’, but he lacks ‘style’.” But in such a usage, something more is meant (which Murry fails to note) than just the power of lucid expression. What we expect is a standard of elevated composition, which is a matter of literary flourishes and beauty and effectiveness of expression. There is included here not only the idea of clarity, freedom from turbidity, but also a touch of refinement, of polish, of beauty which, however, may consist in choice diction, more or less stock devices of rhetoric and literary cliches or ticks.

      Now, style as the highest achievement of imaginative expression—which we find in either Marlowe or Shakespeare —is best conveyed by the words: “You may find fault with the man’s grammar. There may be occasional lapses — sinkings into bald patches or atrocities like bombast. But the writing has the true stamp of great literature”. Such style is a combination of the maximum of personality with the maximum of impersonality- a fusion of the personal and the universal. It is, what Murry calls, the Absolute Style, which is the complete realization of something of universal significance in a personal and unique expression.

      Style, except in the second sense, which is a flat and unaccented way of writing, is unique. The first kind may be unique either because the experience conveyed is outside the range of ordinary human experience or because the personal way of expressing it is remote from the normal. Yet, the writer may have deliberately, from an impure motive, chosen a bizarre mode of expression in order to compel attention. In this last case, the idiosyncrasy is a false one. The originality aimed at is spurious.

      As for the third kind, the Absolute style, it is at once the supreme achievement and the vital element in all that is enduring in literature. As illustrative of this highest style, Murry instances the final soliloquy of Cleopatra in Shakespeare and Faustus’ address to his vision of Helen in Marlowe’s drama. None but a Shakespeare or a Marlowe could have written those lines. Yet there is nothing characteristically bizarre about them. The poet’s individual stamp is there about those lines, yet it is a superb impersonal expression of universal feeling or experience.

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