Serial: Appletons' journal: a magazine of general literature.
Title: The Use and Abuse of the Adjective [Volume 4, Issue 81, Oct 15, 1870; pp. 473-474]
Author: Proffatt, John
Collection: Making of America Journal Articles
Article URL: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moajrnl/acw8433.1-04.081/514
4F4 APPLETONS' JO 1JRNAL OP POPULAR [OCTOBER 15, hardness is not included in the noun ball, nor roundness in the noun flint. But we may not speak of a "round" ball and a "hard" flint, because roundness is included in the noun ball, and hardness in the noun flint. Least of all, are we to use adjectives for which there is no corresponding characteristic mode in the object sought to be described. So that we are entirely debarred from speaking of "beautiful" rounds of beef, and of "splendid" mutton-chops, because "beauty" is not a characteristic of beef, nor "splendor" of muttonchops. We have now, if I have made myself clear, got at the nature of adjectives. Let us look next at their capabilities. In their primary use they assist nouns in the description of objects. But they are capable of doing more than this; they may be so used as to give character and color, not to nouns alone, but to whole word-pictures. They may be made the foliage of the otherwise bare trees of literature, the rills among its mountains, the flowers that nestle among its undergrowth. For proof thereof, listen: "Now fades the landscape on the sight, And all the air a stillness holds, Save where the beetle wheels his flight, And tinklings lull the distant folds." This is not the stanza as Gray wrote it; I have deprived it of four of its adjectives. See what it grows into when these are added: "Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight, And all the air a solemn stillness holds, Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight, And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds." The adjective ~'glimmering" has thrown twilight upon the picture; the adjective "solemn" has subdued its gayety; while the adjectives "droning" and "drowsy" almost lull one into pleasing slumber. There is a certain power in adjectives, too, which may be called their noun-power-a power, that is, which not only gives tone and color to the picture, but adds distinct ideas to it. Gray, for instance -I take him again, having the book in my hand-sings to us of "The breezy call of incense-breathing morn." Neither "breezy" nor "incense-breathing" are adjectives which it is absolutely necessary to use. They can scarcely be said to express other than very remote characteristics of the objects which they describe. Yet see what they add to the picture. They introduce both the breeze and the perfume of the flowers with all the effect of nouns. See, again, how good old Bishop Hall takes advantage of this nounpower of the adjective. "How sweetly," he says, "doth music sound in the night season! In the daytime it would not, could not, so much affect the ear; all harmonious sounds are advanced by a silent darkness." Here, as we see, the adjective "silent" does not merely qualify the noun" darkness;" it adds to darkness silenceadds, in fact, another noun. Another subtle power which the adjective possesses is that of giving a glimpse of something exceedingly beautiful, entirely apart from the picture it is employed in painting. We have an example in Milton, where he speaks of philosophy as being "a perpetual feast of nectered sweets;" what would otherwise be an ordinary picture is at once suffused with a godlike glow from Olympus, and made luxurious with reminiscences of the dimpled smiles of Hebe. But, to pursue this part of the subject no further let us turn from the nature and characteristics to the employment of the adjective-the proper method of using it in composition. It is very difficult to lay down rules in such a matter; for the use of adjectives, as we have seen, depends very much upon the purrpose we have in employing them. Take the noun violet for instance. We all understand what that means, and there seems to be no need of an adjective. Nor is there, if we are speaking of a violet without relation to any other object or influence. So, when Shakespeare is speaking of the different kinds of flowers that grow in the hedgerows, he uses the noun simply; but when he is describing the effects of a breeze playing across a flowery bank, he speaks of the "nodding" violet; when describing a posy of mingled colors, he speaks of the "blue" violet; when describing the sweet odors of the morn, he speaks of the "perfumed" violet. While, therefore, as a general rule it is improper to describe by an adjective that which is already included in the noun, exquisite effects may sometimes be produced by pursuing the opposite course, as in this instance from " Love's Labour's Lost:" "Daisies pled, and violets blue, And lady-smocks all silver-white, And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue, Do paint the meadows with delight." Or in this, from "Midsummer-Night's Dream:" "You spotted snakes with double tongue, Thorny hedgehogs be not seen; Newts and blind-worms do no wrong, Come not near our Fairy Queen, Weaving spiders come not here; Hence, you long-legged spinners, hence, Beetles black, approach not near; Worm nor snail do no offence." But in neither of these cases was it the poet's intention to limit himself to a description of the objects introduced. His purpose was to paint a given kind of pictures for the mind; and he does so by introducing in brilliant confusion a number of dissimilar objects, whose differential characteristics he hits off with pre-Raphaelite accuracy. But, while adjectives may be thus redundantly used for special kinds of word-painting, they are by no means to be so used in ordinary word-painting. Here the object is terseness-a crowding to gether of the images in as smaall a space as is compatible with clearness. For word-pictures stand at this disadvantage when compared with painted pictures: the one, that is the word-picture, must be built up before the mind piece by piece; the other flashes upon the sight all at once. The building-up, then, should as a rule be done quickly; and, to be done quickly, as few words as possible should be used. Nouns, therefore, which include the characteristics of their corre. spondent objects, should be always chosen in preference to those which require adjectives. In the judicious use of epithets may be discovered the secret power and pointedness of some of the finest writing in the language, just as in their too copious and free use may be traced the dribbling style, and want of effectiveness, of a great deal of what passes for pompous and sensuous style. If epithets are needed to bring out the sense, it is a proof that the nouns they qualify are wanting in definitiveness. If they are not needed to bring out the sense, but are added to express more fully what is stated in the context, or is so implied as to be immediately deducible from it, the style is loaded with verbiage and the mental activity of the reader is repressed. It is generally thought that poetry admits, and even requires, greater license in this respect than prose. And this is true. But even in poetry epithets that add nothing to the completeness of the picture detract from its impressiveness. That there may be the sublimest poetry with few epithets may be shown from the study of the "Inferno" of Dante, or from the "Samson Agonistes" and "Paradise Regained" of Milton; and, to conelude with one selection from Shakespeare, it may be shown how admirable descriptive language may be without a too free use of adjectives: "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, Are of imagination all compact; One sees more devils than vast hell can hold That is the madman: the lover, all as frantic, Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt; The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; And, as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name." My object in giving these final extracts is to show that, while adjectives used redundantly may, in certain eases, beautify the composition, equally adequate description is to be obtained by the skilful use of nouns which do not require adjectives. And my concluding deduction is this: that in commencing a composition the writer should first ask himself the purpose of it. Having ascertained that, he should use his adjectives accordingly. If he desire to suggest more than he has room to say, let him make use of such adjectives as are capable of being endued with the noun-power. If he desire to throw an external light upon his picture, let him edge in an adjective or two which will awaken in the reader a passing memory of some other scene, or land, or age. But if his object be faithful, terse, vivid, powerful description, let him avoid adjectives as he would physic, using them only when there is absolutely no help for it. Let him search diligently for nouns that express his meaning without extraneous aid. I I APPLETO-LVS' JO UR-LVAL OF POPULAR 4'4 [OCTOBEPR 15,