Finishing sentences

I have been reading G. K. C.’s autobiography, and here and there having flashes of fellow-feeling where I least expected them. It is common enough with me to feel that I understand something that Chesterton understands, but an entire surprise to find that one of those things, even in small part, should be William Butler Yeats.

Here one master of English rhetoric remarks upon another, with, I believe, exquisite and approving justice:

I can still remember old Yeats, that graceful greybeard, saying in an offhand way about the South African War, ‘Mr. Joseph Chamberlain has the character, as he has the face, of the shrewish woman who ruins her husband by her extravagance; and Lord Salisbury has the character, as he has the face, of the man who is so ruined.’ That style, or swift construction of a complicated sentence, was the sign of a lucidity now largely lost. You will find it in the most spontaneous explosions of Dr. Johnson. Since then some muddled notion has arisen that talking in that complete style is artificial; merely because the man knows what he means and means to say it. I know not from what nonsense world the notion first came; that there is some connection between being sincere and being semi-articulate. But it seems to be a notion that a man must mean what he says, because he breaks down even in trying to say it; or that he must be a marvel of power and decision, because he discovers in the middle of a sentence that he does not know what he was going to say. Hence the conversation of current comedy; and the pathetic belief that talk may be endless, so long as no statement is allowed to come to an end.

—G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography


  1. I remember reading, from the Nun Study, about nuns who developed Alzheimer’s Disease and those who didn’t.

    IIRC, the nuns who as postulants wrote complex sentences and complex ideas in their required writing, even as young girls committing to a life in the convent, were far more likely to NOT get dementia when they were old, versus the young ladies with the simple writing style and content.

    If that’s even remotely true of civilians, I have it made.

    And I wonder if watching someone’s writing (for which there has to BE abundant writing to watch) is a way to measure when they are losing it, and go for early intervention. You cannot fake writing: if you can’t organize your thinking (my brain on some mornings), you can’t get out anything coherent to the page. Complex, yes – I think I may have written a few blog posts in that category when I felt the urge to write, but couldn’t get the words to cooperate – but not coherent.

    Something to think about.

    I love the quote you picked. ‘he discovers in the middle of a sentence that he does not know what he was going to say’ is priceless observation. But conversation, with its natural wanderings, is not the test: writing is. And the ability and willingness to edit it into shape afterward. And Chesterton didn’t even have to use big words.

    • If conversation is not the test, it is chiefly because it is too difficult a test. Johnson and Yeats, as Chesterton observes, were two men who could pass that test in conversation; and they were pre-eminently able to pass it in writing, too.

      This all puts me in mind of Van Dyke Parks, who is probably best known for writing the lyrics on the Beach Boys’ infamously unfinished Smile project. Legend has it that Brian Wilson wrote the music for ‘Heroes and Villains’ first. When he played the first few bars for Parks on the piano, the poet pursed his lips and thought for a moment, and then spat out the first line exactly as it stands:

      ‘I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city, I’ve been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time.’

      I shall be surprised (and saddened) if Van Dyke Parks is ever afflicted with dementia.

      • Conversation can be good – but I lack the ability any more to do it in a sustained fashion.

        Writing, on the other hand, can be done in pieces, connected, revised, polished. At least in these days of computers, it is even easy. I can’t imagine doing it in Dr. Johnson’s time; he probably did a quick draft in his head before putting quill to parchment.

        • “he probably did a quick draft in his head before putting quill to parchment.”

          I imagine this had a good deal to do with the skill to compose such things on the fly. His much writing made him exact, his much conversation made him ready, and we know he was full of at least an entire dictionary. He was a Bacon triple threat (which sounds like something you pick up at your local fast-food joint).

  2. *smile* Seeing as how I’m one of those folks who types approximately the same way that I talk, and then must go back and add commas, simicolons, parenthetical remarks and such to make it easy to read….
    Love the quote.

  3. Stephen J. says

    “I know not from what nonsense world the notion first came; that there is some connection between being sincere and being semi-articulate.”

    I can see two lines of thought that suggest this:

    1) The observation that those who have great command of language and vocabulary are often very good at deception, by implication or careful omission, in ways that slip past those with lesser command, an observation regrettably borne out by many a politician and intellectual. Thus a correlation is established between high articulacy and high likelihood of in-sincerity, which naturally implies the opposite.

    2) The observation that the more passionately a person feels something the less time and craft he is likely to take in composing and uttering sentences expressing it, and indeed that if his state of mind is truly impassioned the less time and craft he can take, if he takes any at all; likewise, the observation that it is when a person is not paying attention to saying exactly what he means to say that he will sometimes inadvertently let slip a truthful revelation.

    More generally it’s the belief that the raw passion of impulse and the dispassionate technique of craft cannot simultaneously coexist (Gustave Flaubert once pointed out that no drinking song was ever written while its writer was drunk).

  4. Chesterton’s Autobiography is the funniest book I have ever read. There is a belly laugh on just about every page!

  5. UnfortunatePedant says

    Just a note: Chesterton is there referring not to William Butler, but to John Butler his father.

    (What I really want to know is why we don’t refer to people by their initials anymore)

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