Last year, while thumbing through books in my local thrift shop, I stumbled upon an intriguing book called “On the Art of Writing” by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. It’s a simple paperback published in 1946. (The book was first published in 1916.)
The book is a series of lectures that Quiller-Couch presented to students at Cambridge University between 1913 and 1914, when he was the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature.
It is one in a series of 20 Guild Books published in 1946 by The British Publishers Guild, as stated on the book’s back cover. The Guild comprised 26 of the UK’s leading publishers who, for the Guild Book series, chose outstanding books for the public to purchase at a low price.
Published just after the war when printers were short-staffed and paper rationing was still in force, the book felt ever the more precious to me.
I was looking forward to discovering what treasures my Quiller-Couch thrift-shop find would reveal. Often, when I research an art article, I’ll look at old books from the 18th and 19th centuries to understand a subject. For me, the almost romantic language in those books seems to hold a certain reverence for the arts, and they are untainted by Marxist doctrines that are too often found hidden in art literature from the 1960s on.
A Gentleman’s Love of Great Literature
“Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch of Fowey who as author, critic, and anthologist kindled in others a lively and discriminating love of English literature,” states Quiller-Couch’s memorial in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, in Southwest England.
Quiller-Couch’s lectures in the book “On the Art of Writing” certainly evoke that sentiment. He lectures on the lineage of English literature, the importance of verse and prose, and the literary greats from the Greeks to Milton, and more. Greek, Latin, and English literary quotes in his lectures all extol English literature’s tradition.
What I found were not only gems for great writing but, as with all great literature, I also found some guidelines for good living. This makes sense when you read Quiller-Couch’s description of great literature:
“They are great because they are alive, and traffic not with cold celestial certainties, but with men’s hopes, aspirations, doubts, loves, hates, breakings of the heart; the glory and vanity of human endeavour, the transience of beauty, the capricious uncertain lease on which you and I hold life, the dark coast to which we inevitably steer; all that amuses or vexes, all that gladdens, saddens, maddens us men and women on this brief and mutable traject which yet must be home for a while.”
Great literature seems to be the lifeblood of humanity. Here are some of the life lessons from Quiller-Couch’s lectures.
To Grow, Honor Your Ancestral Peers
“‘Antiquam exquirite matrem.’ Seek back to the ancient mother; always it has recreated itself, has kept itself pure and strong, by harking back to bathe in those native—yes, native—Mediterranean springs.”
Quiller-Couch believed that all literature, whether consciously or not, harked back to the original great artists, the ancient Greeks and Romans. And that literature could only grow by honoring the past masters: “I think for example, that if we studied to write verse that could really be sung, or if we were more studious to write prose that could be read aloud with pleasure to the ear, we should be opening the pores to the ancient sap; since the roots are always the roots, and we can only reinvigorate our growth through them.”
Great Art Breeds New Great Art
To illustrate why his students needed to study great artists, Quiller-Couch quotes the Royal Academy of Art president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. “The more extensive, therefore, your acquaintance is with the works of those who have excelled, the more extensive will be your powers of invention.”
Our creativity is sparked when we study and familiarize ourselves with the best of any given field. The three best texts for teaching English literature, according to Quiller-Couch, are the Bible (Cambridge’s authorized version), and those of Homer and Shakespeare. He says that Homer stands above them all.
Understand Your Purpose
“For while the ways of art are hard at the best, they will break you if you go unsustained by belief in what you are trying to do,” Quiller-Couch said.
This applies to all our endeavors. Although wandering around may be exciting at first, it’s hard to continue on any journey if you’re unaware of your destination. If you don’t know where you are heading to and why, you’ll soon lose faith.
In the book, Quiller-Couch invites his students to question everything they read, and he invites them to learn only what fits into certain rigorous criteria. “We should lay our minds open to what he wishes to tell, and if what he has to tell be noble and high and beautiful, we should surrender and let soak our minds in it.”
In one of his last lectures he reiterates this point, but on a different matter, to question his teachings: “Do not presume me to be right on this. Rather, if you will, presume me to be wrong until the evidence is laid out for your judgement.”
Quiller-Couch valued this commonsense approach—over any certification or award of knowledge—crediting it with shaping a man whose judgment could be trusted.
Contemplation is key. If you want to accurately convey your thought “upon the wax of other men’s minds,” Quiller-Couch suggests to his writing students: “You must first be your own reader, chiseling out the thought definitely for yourself.”
He also said in an earlier lecture: “The more clearly you write the more clearly you will understand yourself.”
When you are convinced, your communication will naturally be convincing. This applies not just to writing but also when speaking, and even to our thoughts.
Value Honest Over Embellished Communication
Effective communication, in writing or speech, is succinct and conveyed in earnest. As Quiller-Couch says: “In literature as in life he makes himself felt who not only calls a spade a spade but has the pluck to double spades and re-double.”
He also emphasizes the connection between a man’s character and the way he communicates. “If your language be Jargon, your intellect, if not your whole character, will almost certainly correspond,” he said.
Simply put: “We are what we eat” could easily extend to “We are what we speak.”
Quiller-Couch explains that the best practice in writing is to use the “active verb and the concrete noun.” He cites Shakespeare as an exemplar: “I wager you that no writer of English so constantly chooses the concrete word, in phrase after phrase forcing you to touch and see.”
If, in any of your communication you see extra ornamentation, here’s Quiller-Couch’s famous writing advice: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
When Quiller-Couch lectured on Feb. 12, 1913, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team were courageously conquering the South Pole. A newswire on the day of the lecture announced Captain Lawrence Edward Grace “Titus” Oates’s death.
“From the records found in the tent where the bodies were discovered it appeared that Captain Oates’s feet and hands were badly frost-bitten, and although he struggled on heroically, his comrades knew on March 16 that his end was approaching. He had borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and he did not give up hope until the very end.
“He was a brave soul. He slept through the night hoping not to wake; but he awoke in the morning.
“It was blowing a blizzard. Oates said: ‘I am just going outside, and I may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard, and we have not seen him since.
“We knew that Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.”
The news acted as a solemn reminder.
When a writer commits someone’s story to paper, there’s a real responsibility to honor both the subject and the reader. Quiller-Couch said: “Gentlemen, let us keep our language noble: for we still have heroes to commemorate!”
To read “On the Art of Writing” by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, visit Gutenberg.org