by The Editor Company
No better nor more common-sense guide to the art of descriptive writing is to be found than the following extract from the works of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who, though he died in 1781, is still acknowledged as the foremost critic of German literature. The extract is from "Laocoon," which is a fragmentary work on art criticism, published in 1776. The principle that he here promulgates is sanctioned by the best authors of the present day, and much of the fame of Kipling, Stevenson, Maupassant, and even such recent writers as Owen Wister and Jack London, is undoubtedly due to the strength that they attain by their impressionistic manner of picturing character and situation. Good, broad strokes have force in literature, as well as in art, but it is not to be supposed that the writer can handle his subject thus without a precise knowledge of detail. By no means ! His broad stroke must be so comprehensive of detail that it will expose in a flash a truthful picture to the reader. "Physical beauty," says Lessing, "results from the harmony of a number of parts which can be embraced in one glance. It is, therefore, essential that those parts should be close together; and since things whose parts are close together are the proper subjects of painting, that art alone can represent physical beauty.
"The poet who can only set down one after another the elements of the beautiful object should therefore abstain wholly from the description of physical beauty by itself. He ought to feel that these elements arranged in sequence can not possibly produce the same effect as if in juxtaposition; that the comprehensive glance we try to throw back over them at the end of the enumeration produces no harmonious picture; and that it transcends the power of the human imagination to realize the effect of a given pair of eyes, a given nose, and a given mouth together, unless we can call to mind a like combination in nature or art.
"Here, again, Homer is the model of models. He says: Nireus was handsome; Achilles was very handsome; Helen was of god-like beauty. But he is nowhere enticed into giving a minuter detail of their beauties. Yet the whole poem (the Illiad) is based on Helen's loveliness. How a modern poet would have reveled in specifications of it!
"Even Constantino Manassas tried to adorn his bare Chronicle with a portrait of Helen. I feel grateful to him for the attempt; for really, I should not know where else to turn for so striking an example of the folly of venturing on what Homer's wise judgment refrained from undertaking. When I read in his book—
'She was a woman passing fair, fine-browed, finest complexioned,
Fine-cheeked, fine-featured, full-eyed, snowy-skinned.
Quick-glancing, dainty, a grove full of graces,
White-armed, voluptuous, breathing out frank beauty,
The complexion very fair, the cheeks rosy,
The countenance most charming, the eye blooming;
Beauty unartificial, unrouged, her own skin,
Dyed the brightest rose-color a warmer glow
As if one stained ivory with splendid purple.
Her neck long, passing white, whence in legend
The Swan-born they termed the beautiful Helen,
it is like seeing stones rolled up a mountain, on whose crest they are built into a noble structure, but all of which roll down on the other side. What picture does this huddle of words leave with us? How did Helen look? No two readers in a thousand would have the same mental image of her.
"Virgil, by imitating Homer's self restraint, has achieved a fair success. His Dido is only the very beautiful (pulcher-rima) Dido. All the other details he gives refer to her rich ornaments and superb apparel. ... If, on this account anyone turned against him what the old artist said to one of his pupils who had painted an elaborately dressed Helen,—'You have painted her rich because you could not paint her lovely,'— Virgil would answer: 'I am not to blame that I could not paint her lovely. The fault is with the limitations of my art, and it is to my credit that I have kept within them.' "
In contemplating these words the writer is led to exclaim: "What? Can we not praise beauty by mentioning its attributes ?"Praise? Yes. But praising is not describing, and should not be indulged in for the purpose of portraying character, for the simple reason, as has already been proven, it is useless. The poet has license to rave over golden locks and pearly teeth to his heart's content, and for all that, he may turn out a pretty verse; but the beauty of that verse does not convey any definite idea of his heroine to the reader, and, perhaps, such was not the intention of the poet. He was merely singing, hoping only to charm his hearers by the rhythm of his song. But when an author mentions that the heroine stamped her tiny foot, shook her dainty fist, and tossed her raven locks, the reader gets some idea of the character of the heroine, though not so much from the qualifying adjectives as from the action expressed by the verbs. Still, these adjectives are in place, and aid in elucidating the character; for, in fiction at least, certain features have come to signify certain characteristics. While not infallible, it is a popular conceit that blonde hair signifies fickleness; that red hair signifies passion; that a broad forehead denotes mental strength; a high-arched eyebrow, hauteur; a low, heavy eyebrow, intensity; eyes close together, meanness; eyes large and far apart, frankness; black eyes, treachery; blue eyes, honesty; gray eyes, coldness; a Roman nose, power; a pug nose, good-nature; thin nostrils, sensitiveness; a large mouth, generosity; a small mouth, vanity or prudishness; thick lips, asceticism; round chin, kindliness; sharp chin, acidity; protruding ears, selfishness; heavy neck, brutality, and so on throughout the whole system. It is true, to a limited extent, that every feature of a person is an index to his individuality, but it would be manifestly unjust to judge a person by one or a dozen of these features. In order to read the character of an individual, his features must be summed up, balanced one against another, and besides this, the harmony of his whole structure must be considered. It is evident that the writer can not tax the patience of the reader by systematically dissecting his characters, in order to present them in their true light. A descriptive adjective here and there may sometimes serve to bring the character a little closer to the reader, but the true insight of that character can be had only as it unfolds in the story. Let the character work out its own salvation, or its own damnation, as the case may be.
If the situation is such that a minute description of a character is absolutely necessary, it may often be accomplished effectively by means of comparison with some well-known figure in history or art, and pointing out the differences. To say that a man's face "resembled, at first glance, the face of a Stuart's portrait of Washington, but which, upon a closer inspection, betrayed certain lines of weakness that stamped it as being nothing but a clever counterfeit," gives the reader a more vivid impression of the man's face than would an array of minutely-detailed features. To say that a young man in your story was a "Napoleon of egoism," would be more convincing than a weak delineation of that person's mental attributes. The incongruity of a lofty metaphor serves to depict the ridicule which you wish to attach to him.
Writers continually complain that the illustrators don't illustrate. This is necessarily true; they don't. Such a thing-is impossible unless the artist is supplied with photographs, or is permitted to see and study the character himself. The chances are, however, that the writer himself has no definite idea of the outward appearance of his creations, unless, of course, he has taken them directly from life. The most that the illustrator can be expected to do is to interpret his impressions that he has gained by a careful study of the writer's manuscript.
The real secret of descriptive writing lies in the heart of the writer. If he is saturated with his subject, and is all eagerness to transfer his emotions to paper, somehow he will succeed in imparting a true picture to the reader, even though his words be few and simple.