Menu Close


Concerning Preciosity

By John M. Robertson


IT is permitted in these days to have doubts on all matters ; and
as French critics (following the German) have set us the
example of doubting the artistic infallibility of Molière, a Briton
may make bold to confess to one more misgiving in regard to
that great artist. It was in witnessing recently a performance of
Les Précieuses Ridicules at the Théâtre Français that there forced
itselr upon me, across the slight boredom of a third seeing, a new
question as to the subject-matter of that classic farce. First it
took shape as a certain wonderment at the brutality of the argu-
ment, still complacently followed twenty times a year by audiences
for whom, in real life or modern drama, the classic exploit of the
young seigneurs and their valets would have been an enormity,
supposing anything on the same scale of feeling and taste to have
been done or imagined in this generation. It distantly recalled
the mediaeval argument in Much Ado About Nothing, in which
the more serious scheme or masculine vengeance might be sup-
posed to suggest to Shakspere himself the reflection of Touchstone
on some of the things devised as sport for ladies. It also recalled
the recent episode of the killing of a French usher by a gang of


                        80 Concerning Preciosity

young collegians who seized him in bed, bound him, and forced
him to swallow a litre of rum, whereof he died. One cannot
imagine that proceeding handled as a farce for the amusement of
gentlemen in these days, even without the tragic finish. But
there is a distinct savour of its spirit in the farce of Molière.
What M. Stapfer gently avows of the satire in Les Femmes
Savantes must be avowed here : “Let us confess it : this is not
fine. Infatuation pushed to this degree and parading itself with
this effrontery is too invraisemblable.” And we accept M. Stapfer’s
untranslatable phrase : “Molière à le comique insolent” Evidently
there is a gulf fixed—except in the theatre—between the taste of
the seventeenth and that of the nineteenth century.

Of course we must allow for the fact that Moliere was farcing,
as he generally did, as the usages and atmosphere and “optic” of
the theatre forced him to do. We need hardly look there, in any
age, for life-size portraits and scrupulous colour. It is with the
characters as with the actors’ faces : they must needs be “made-
up.” But if we ought to make this allowance in our criticising
of Molière, we ought also to make it in our estimating of the types
he criticised. And this his complacent audiences have never
done. In the matter of les précieuses they have always been
unquestioningly on the side of the laughers, of the farce-maker,
of the young seigneurs, of the valets ; and even though the whole
episode be consciously set by the onlooker in the Watteau-land
of last-century comedy, there always subsists a distinct impression
that the préciosité which Molière satirised was just some such
imbecility as it appears in the talk of those poor preposterous
provincial young ladies of the farce. That is evidently the
impression left on the complacent reader as well as on the com-
placent theatre-goer. It is avowed in the literary histories. Some
have noticed that by adding the term “ridicules” Molière implied


                        By John M. Robertson 81

that all précieuses were not ridiculous ; but the prevailing assump-
tion is that what he showed up was the current preciosity. Yet
the fact clearly could not have been so. Supposing any one to
have ever talked the jargon we hear in the farce, it could not have
been such types as these. It was not perked-up middle-class
Audreys, gullible by valets, blunderingly bewraying themselves,
who arrived at the fine frenzy of “Voiturez-nous les commodités de
la conversation.” No ; preciosity was not quite what the judicious
Molière supposed it to be; and the précieuses—and this he must
have known—were not at all what he represented them.* He
had merely used the immemorial stratagem of satirising the
practice by fictitiously degrading the practitioners. He convicted
it of gross and vulgar absurdity by first masking them in gross
and vulgar absurdity. As a matter of fact, preciosity is the last
fault to which gross and vulgar absurdity can attain.


What then is it, in essence and origin ? We can take it from
two points of view. Scientifically speaking, it is an attempt to
deviate widely and wilfully, waywardly, from the normal forms of

* It may easily have happened that Molière had some drawing-
room impertinences to avenge. “Born of the people,” as M. Lanson
remarks in his excellent history, “absent from Paris for twelve years,
he had been aloof from the work carried on by the upper class society
in regard to the language ; and when he returned, in 1658, he
retained his free and firm style, nourished on archaisms, on Italian and
Spanish locutions, popular or provincial metaphors and forms of
phrase. . . .” At such a style fine folks would sneer ; and Molière
might not unfairly seek some dramatic revenge.


                        82 Concerning Preciosity

phrase in a given language. Now, as normal diction is as it were
common property, and as every flagrant innovation in words or
phrases is thus apt to be a trespass on the comfort of neighbours,
or to seem a parade of superior intellectual wealth, it is likely to
provoke more or less objection, which often rises to resentment.
Ethically, then, preciosity is an assertion of individual or special
personality as against the common usage of talk ; in other words,
it is an expression either of egoism or of cliqueism in conversation
or literature. But to call it egoism and cliqueism does not settle
the matter, though both words are apt to signify decisive
censure. Even when used censoriously, they point, sociologically
speaking, only to some excess of tendencies which up to a certain
point are quite salutary. Every step in progress, in civilisation,
is won by some departure from use and wont ; and to make that
departure there always needs a certain egoism, often a great deal
of cliqueism. And as the expansion of language is a most
important part in intellectual progress, it follows that to set up
and secure that there must come into play much self-assertion,
and not a little cliqueism. The new word is frowned upon by
the average man as “new-fangled” whether it be good or bad :
the more complex and discriminated phrase is apt to be voted
pretentious, whether it be imaginative or merely priggish. And
between the extreme of wooden conservatism, which is the arrest
of all development, and the extreme of fantastic licence, which is
unstable and unhealthy development, the only standard of whole-
some innovation is that set up by the strife of the opposing forces,
which amounts to a rough measure of the common literary good
of the society concerned. The most extravagant forms of pre-
ciosity are sure to die, whether of ridicule or of exhaustion. The
less extravagant forms are likely to have a wider vogue ; and
even in disappearing may leave normal style a little brighter and


                        By John M. Robertson 83

freer, or a little subtler, for their spell of life ; though on the
other hand all preciosity tends to set up a reaction towards
commonplace. But in any case, all forms alike represent a
certain ungoverned energy, an extravagance and exorbitance of
mental activity, an exorbitance which is of course faulty as such,
but which has nothing in common with mere vulgar absurdity.
Molière’s provincial pecques, once more, are impossible. The
victims of Mascarille and his master might have committed mala-
propisms, affectations, and absurdities innumerable ; but they are
glaringly incapable of preciosity.


If we trace the thing historically, this will become more and
more clear. For it is much older, even in France, than the Hotel
de Rambouillet or even the Pléiade. It would be safe to say that
it rises periodically in all literatures. There is something of it in
Euripides ; and it is this element in the later Roman poets, as in
the prose of Apuleius, that has brought on the whole post- Augustan
literature the reproach of decadence. And this sets us questioning
what it is that underlies alike the prevailing “false” style of an
age later seen to have been decadent, and some of the “false”
styles of an age later seen to have been vigorously progressive.
We have the pedantic preciosity that is caricatured in Rabelais ;
the fanciful preciosity of the English and other Euphuists of the
latter half of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth
century ; the aristocratic French preciosity of the seventeenth
century—all affectations of vigorous periods ; all more or less
akin to the style of Claudian and Statius and Apuleius. Lastly,
we have the self-willed preciosity of Mr. Meredith, who may or
may not belong to an age of decadence, but who certainly writes


                        84 Concerning Preciosity

viciously alongside of many good writers. What is the common
element or symptom in all these cases ?

Clearly, as we said before, the explanation is never that of
vulgar absurdity ; in all, we are dealing, it may be, with egoism,
with unbalanced judgment, with juvenility of intelligence, with
lopsidedness, with certain faults of character ; but in none with
raw fatuity. Rather we are struck everywhere with a special sort
of sensibility, a curious cleverness, an incapacity for commonplace
—to say nothing of higher qualities in any one instance. Preciosity,
in fact, is a misdirection of capacity, not at all a proof of incapacity
for better things. And we have to look, finally, for the special
conditions under which the misdirection tends most to take place.
In terms of our previous conclusion, they will amount in general
to some defect of regulative influence, some overbalance of the
forces of individual self-will and literary sectarianism. Such defect
and overbalance, it is easy to see, may arise either in a time of
novelty and enterprise or in a time of dissolution, since in both
there are likely to be movements of thought and fancy ill-related
to the general development of judgment and knowledge. Of all
the social forces which regulate the play of speech and literature,
the healthiest are those of a vigorous all-round culture ; and an
all-round culture is just what is lacking, in the terms of the case,
alike in an epoch of decadence and in an epoch of novelty.
Decadence means a lack of healthy relation among the social
forces, an elevation or excessive enrichment of some elements and
a degradation of others. In imperial Rome certain prior forms of
intellectual and civic energy were absolutely interdicted : hence
an overplus or overbalance in other forms, of which factitious
literature was one. Energies repressed and regulated in one sphere
could play lawlessly in another, where formerly the force of
regulation had been a general discipline of common sense, now


                        By John M. Robertson 85

lacking. The former rule of old and middle-age over youth was
dissolved under a régime which put age and youth equally in
tutelage ; and the faults of youth, of which injudicious and
overstrained style is one, would have a new freedom of scope. A
factitious literature, an art for art’s sake, would tend to flourish
just as superstition flourished ; only, inasmuch as bad intellectual
conditions tend ultimately to kill literature altogether, that soon
passed from morbid luxuriance to inanition, while superstition
in the same soil grew from strength to strength.

The preciosity of the Renascence, again, is also in large part
a matter of the unrestrained exuberance of youth—in this case
exercising itself one-sidedly in a new world of literature, living the
life of words much more than the life of things and the knowledge
of things. Not only the weak heads but the headstrong would
tend to be turned by that intoxication. What ultimately came
about, however, was the ripening of the general taste by the
persistence of conditions of free strife, which nourish common
sense and make the common interest in speech prevail over the
perversities of pedants. The latinising Limousin student of
Rabelais’s caricature * suggests in the Rabelaisian manner what
the actual latinists did. He speaks of Paris as the “inclyte et
celebre academie que l’on vocite Lutece,” and tells how “‘nous
transfretons la Sequane [= Seine] au dilucule et crepuscule ; nous
déambulons par les compiteset quadrivies de l’urbe.’ . . . A quoy,
Pantagruel dist, ‘Quel diable de langaige est cecy ? Par Dieu,
tu es quelque heretique'”—the spontaneous comment of the
robust Philistine of all ages. “Segnor no, dist 1’escolier, car
libentissement des ce qu il illucesce quelque minutule lesche du
jour, . . . me irrorant de belle eau lustrale, grignotte d un transon


* Liv. ii. ch. 6.

                        86 Concerning Preciosity

de quelque missique precation de nos sacrificules. . . . Je revere
des olympicoles. Je venere patrialement le supernel astripotens.
Je dilige et redame mes proximes.” After which Pantagruel
comments again, “‘Je croy qu’il nous forge ici quelque langaige
diabolique et qu’il nous charme comme enchanteur.’ A quoy dist
un de ses gens : ‘Seigneur, sans nulle doubte ce gallant veult
contrefaire la langue des Parisiens, mais il ne fait que escorcher le
latin, et cuide ainsi Pindariser ; et il lui semble bien qu’il est
quelque grand orateur en francois, parce qu’il dedaigne 1’usance
commun de parler.'” And when Pantagruel, anticipating Molière,
has proceeded to “escorcher” the offender, Rabelais tells how the
latter after a few years died in a certain manner, “ce que faisant
la vengeance divine, et nous demonstrant ceque dist le philosophe,
et Aulu Gelle, qu’il nous convient parler selon le langaige usité,
et, comme disoit Octavian Auguste, qu’il fault éviter les motz
espaves, en pareille diligence que les patrons de navires evitent les
rochiers de la mer.” It was Caius and not Octavian ; but no
matter. Rabelais’s own book, with its rich store of “motz usités”
and “espaves,” gave the French people a sufficiency of “langaige”
to live by ; and the vainer pedantries passed, as they needs must,
leaving their memory not only in Rabelais’s caricature but, after
all, in his own exuberant vocabulary,* as in that of Montaigne,
whose French speech was inevitably enriched by that other which
his father had made for him equally a mother tongue.


A far subtler preciosity is that which we find flourishing as
Euphuism in England under Elizabeth, and as a more grotesque


*This is duly noted by M. Lanson.

                        By John M. Robertson 87

perversion of fancy in the later “metaphysical” poets down till
the Restoration, and even after that. The development through-
out is perfectly intelligible. In its beginnings, Euphuism is
evidently for England the tumultuous awakening of a modern
nation to the sense of the possession of a living and growing
modern speech, such as had taken place in Italy some genera
tions before, and in France but recently. In all three nations
successively we see the same comparison of the new language
with the dead tongues, the same claim to compete with the
Greeks and Romans, even while imitating them. And Lyly
represents once more the exuberance of youth and strength
playing one-sidedly on a newly-gained world of words and books,
unsobered by experience and hard thinking. It is a world with
more words than knowledge, with a vocabulary constantly widen-
ing itself from the stores of other tongues, and an imagination
constantly kept on the stretch by the impact of other litera-
tures. Artistic judgment could not quite keep pace with the
accumulation of literature, even in the greatest brain of the time.
For Shakspere is not only euphuistic in his youth, even when
bantering Euphuism ; he retains to the last some of the daring
exorbitance of speech which is the essential quality of Euphuism ;
only with the difference that the later style is strengthened by a
background of past passion and vital experience, as well as chast-
ened by intellectual discipline. Here beyond question preciosity
can be seen to be a creative and liberating force, and far from a
mere riot of incompetence. Even where the Elizabethan drama
escapes the direct charge of preciosity, it is visibly warmed and
tinted by that tropic neighbourhood ; its very freedom of poetic
phrase is made wider by the modish licence of the surrounding
aristocratic world, in which Euphuism is as it were a many-
coloured fashion of speech on a par with the parade of splendid


                        88 Concerning Preciosity

costume. M. Taine has well seen, in the case of the Elizabethan
Euphuism, what Moliere has prevented us from seeing in the case
of the later French preciosity, that it is the foppery of power and
pride, not of folly.

“A new, strange, and overcharged style has been formed, and is to
prevail until the Revolution, not only in poetry but also in prose, even
in sermons and ceremonial addresses ; a style so conformable to the
spirit of the time that we meet it at the same period throughout
Europe, in Ronsard and D’Aubigné, in Calderon, Gongora, and
Marini. In 1580 appeared Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, by Lyly,
which was the manual, the masterpiece, and the caricature of the new
style, and which was received with a universal admiration. . . . The
ladies knew by heart all the phrases of Euphues, singular phrases, far-
fetched and sophisticated, which are as enigmas for which the author
seems determinedly to seek the least natural and the most remote
expressions, full of exaggerations and antitheses, where mythological
allusions, reminiscences of alchemy, metaphors from botany and
astronomy, all the medley, all the pell-mell of erudition, travel, man-
nerism, rolls in a deluge of comparisons and conceits. Do not judge
it from the grostesque painting made of it by Sir Walter Scott. His
Sir Piercy Shafton is but a pedant, a cold and dry imitator; and it is
warmth and originality that give to this language an accent and a
living movement : it must be conceived not dead and inert, as we
have it to-day in the old books, but springing from the lips of ladies
and young lords in doublets broidered with pearls, vivified by their
vibrating voices, their laughter, the light of their eyes, and the gesture
of the hands that play with the hilt of the sword or twist the mantle
of satin. . . . They amuse themselves as do to-day nervous and ardent
artists in a studio. They do not speak to convince or comprehend,
but to content their high-strung imagination. . . . They play with
words, they twist and deform them, they cast up sudden perspectives,
sharp contrasts, which leap out, stroke upon stroke, one after the


                        By John M. Robertson 89

other, to infinity. They throw flower on flower, tinsel on tinsel ;
everything that glitters gives them pleasure ; they gild and embroider
and plume their language as they do their clothes. Of clearness, of
order, of good sense, they have no thought ; it is a festival and it is a
riot : absurdity pleases them.” *

Allowing for differences of time and culture and class, this holds
more or less true of preciosity always. It is a wilful play of bias.
In an age in which culture is mainly scholarly and imaginative,
and science and criticism are only nascent, the tendency will go
far to colour all literature ; and, as innovation goes on in form with
little or no deepening of thought, the licence of expression goes
from bad to worse, poetry giving place to pedantry and techni-
cality and verbal metaphysic, till the test of skill has come to be
strangeness of expression, and polite literature in general is become
a masquerade, remote from all actuality of feeling and conduct.
This occurred in England during the seventeenth century, in
which we pass from Shakspere and Spenser to Donne and Cowley ;
and in which the admirable new art of the young Milton, a brain
of supreme artistic faculty nourished on a long study of antiquity
and vitalised by new and intense living interests, is still neighboured
by the perfectly vicious art of the young Dryden, whose culture is
so much slighter and whose interests are so much shallower, and
whose first verses are masterpieces of bad taste. Milton shows
us the long sway of the fantastic verbalist ideal in scattered
phrases which partly mar his strong art—though not more
than do some of his plunges into a crude simplicity, such as
the famous “No fear lest dinner cool.” The weaker Dryden
shows it at his outset, in his complete acceptance of the fan-
tastic ideal.


* Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise, i. 276-279.

The Yellow Book—Vol. XIII. F

                        90 Concerning Preciosity

What had happened in the interval between Shakspere and
Milton was the diversion of the mass of mental energy from
imaginative to ratiocinative literature, from questions of aesthetics
and poetry to questions of life and conduct ; so that the drama
passed to ineptitude in the hands of weak imitators, and poetry
became essentially a pastime, though one pursued by some intelli-
gences of remarkable eccentric power. The great work of Milton
marks the reaction that might have been made under a continued
Puritan régime could that have escaped the freezing influence or
judaising fanaticism in this any more than in the other arts ; the
concrete literature of the Restoration and the next century was
the reaction possible in the political circumstances. Dryden’s
early verses on the death of a young lord from the small-pox mark
the limit of endurance. As M. Taine puts it, “the excess of folly
in poetry, like the excess of injustice in politics, prepares and
predicts revolutions.”* And from the preciosity of literary
specialists we pass rapidly to the language and the sentiment of
the new man of the world, coloured only by the reminiscence of
the preciosities of the past. Literature becomes the interest, if not
of all, at least of all men and women of any education ; and lan-
guage conforms of necessity to common sense and common
thought. The reign of preciosity, which is wayward one-sided-
ness and strenuous limitation, is over. It may be that the new
literary commonweal is relatively commonplace, charmless, and
unsubtle in its speech and thinking ; but none the less it has the
strength which comes of standing on Mother Earth. Its tongue
is the tongue of a new philosophy, a new science, a new criticism,
and a new prose fiction ; and in these exercises lies the gymnastic
which will later redeem the new-fashioned poetry itself from the


    * iii. 164.

                        By John M. Robertson 91

new preciosity that is to overtake it when it in turn becomes but
a pastime and a technique.


The common-sense literature of the “age of prose and reason”
in England, however, represents not merely the reaction against
the previous preciosity of extravagance; it connects with the
movement of regulation in France, with the campaign of Molière
and Boileau against the preciosity of their time—that which
Molière burlesqued and degraded in his farce. Here we come to
a preciosity that seems in a manner the contrary of that of the
Euphuists, seeing that it is consciously rather a fastidious process
of purification and limitation than one of audacious adventure in
language. But the essential characteristic remains the same ; it
is still an innovation, a manifestation of egoism and clique-ism in
taste ; only the egoism is that of a very select and exclusive type,
a taste which has passed through times of commotion, and calls
with its unemployed nervous energy for elegance and finesse ; the
cliqueism is that of certain fastidious members and hangers-on of
a formal and aristocratic court or upper four hundred. The new
preciosity has the period of vigorous euphuism behind it, in the
earlier energetic andexpansive literature of Ronsard and Montaigne.
In the euphuism of the sixteenth century the intellectual limita-
tion or one-sidedness was that involved in a lop-sided culture, in a
cultivation of language and fancy without a proportional knowledge
of things or analysis of thinking. Limited on those sides, the
mind played the more energetically and extravagantly in the
phrasing of what ideas it had. In the Hotel Rambouillet the
limiting principle is seen to be an ideal of bon ton. The new
preciosity is thus indirect and fantastic with a difference. Seeking


                        92 Concerning Preciosity

to refine even on the habit of elaborate and artificial expression
which had never ceased to prevail since the outburst of modern
poetic literature in the previous century, it is not creative but
restrictive, save in so far as the rejection of common speech
involves a resort to the fantastic. It expresses, in fine, mainly the
effort of a new upper class—formed since the close of the wars of
religion—to make for itself a fitting literary atmosphere, free of
the associations of the despised common life outside. It further
partly represents, just as the expansive preciosity of the previous
century had done, the influence of Italian models ; the superior
refinement of Italy being now as much felt by a class craving for
elegance as the greater literateness of the south had been formerly
felt by a generation thirsting for letters. And as seventeenth-
century Italy represented above all things fanciful dilettantism,
the native energy of Italian literature being destroyed, the
French dilettantists could draw thence only a limitary inspiration.
Thus, in so far as they swayed the new academy and the new
literature, they undoubtedly impoverished the French language in
point of colour and force, while giving it elegance and precision.
But then, as we saw, the same thing was done in England later
by the Restoration writers and the Popean school, who represented
at once the reaction against Elizabethan and later preciosity and
the final French reaction against the preciosity of the salon. The
English reactionists were limitary in a less degree, because it
chanced that England did not become aristocratised and royalised
nearly so fully as France ; and a constant upcrop of middle-class
intelligence kept the language more robust and informal. Yet in
England also, under the rule of a sophisticated common sense, as
in Boileau’s France under the same rule, there was limitation of
the intellectual life, with the old result. Poetry and drama fell
into, and for two generations adhered to, new stereotyped and


                        By John M. Robertson 93

factitious forms, which again fostered preciosity of a kind, the
preciosity of artificial and falsetto style. So much is there in
common between an apparent contraction and an apparent expan-
sion in human progress.

For, to come back to our starting-point, even the restrictive
preciosity in both countries represented after all a play of intelli-
gence, a new exercise of thought. In rejecting parts of the
irregular vocabulary of the preceding age, it rejected also the vague-
ness of its thought and the frequent puerility of its fancy. Its
own formative preciosity, arising by way of the exclusion of the
common, was of course a new puerility : and when “voiturez-
nous les commodités de la conversation” or anything near it, became
a way of asking a servant to bring chairs, the preciosity of the
salon had reached the point where common sense must needs
protect and avenge itself, in the manner of Pamagruel if need be.
After all, there may have been an obscure justice in Molière’s mode
of vengeance, suggesting as it did that this self-conscious torturing
of a language was a fitter occupation for conceited and ignorant pro-
vincials than for noble ladies in a great capital. But the fact
remains that Molière and Boileau, in their vindication of good
sense against finikin absurdity, were really standing at the point
of departure from which that absurdity had been reached. They
stood in the main with Malherbe ; and Malherbe’s purism had
been a judicious restrictive preciosity to begin with. The line
of heredity is clear. All of the first generation of the French
classicists, as M. Bourgoin rightly insists, were touched with
preciosity ; and Corneille stands out not as rejecting it but as
bringing it to bear on new notions, new themes, a new dramatic
inspiration. And the best prose writers of the time before Pascal,
as M. Brunetière again reminds us, were chronically precious in
their elaborate indirectness and sophistication of phrasing.


Concerning Preciosity

Molière and Boileau, bourgeois both, though with a great difference
in their culture, represented the wholesome intrusion, even in that
undemocratic age, of the larger world, of the more general interest,
on the mincing cliques of the court, who had now ceased to repre-
sent any fresh intellectual force ; and they were keeping the
language sound, in its modern form, for the coming generations
who were to use it to such manifold new purpose. But when we
reflect that the language of Montesquieu and Voltaire and
Rousseau remains substantially the sonorous and sinewy language
of Bossuet and Pascal, and that that is the language as formed in
an age of restrictive preciosity ; when further we recollect that
the language restricted by the English writers of the Restoration
and of the reign of Anne is substantially the language of Hume
and Goldsmith and Sterne ; we are forced to recognise once more
how far is Molière’s vivacious farce from letting us see what pre-
ciosity originally and essentially is ; how tar the thing is from
being a mere vulgar silliness. It indeed needs the faculty of the
Bossuets and Pascals, the Humes and Voltaires, the Sternes and
Rousseaus, to save the corrected tongue from sinking to triviality ;
and, once more, it is only by turning finally to the common good
of national speech the results of their creative revolt that individual
energy and the specialism of clique justify their audacious dealings
with language.

But we see that such gain has accrued to the common stock or
language from preciosity again and again ; and the knowledge
should make us considerate, not only in our estimate of the pre-
ciosities of the past but in our reception of what looks like
preciosity in the present. First, it may only be necessary neology.
But even downright constructive preciosity, albeit it stands for
self-will, or an excess of innovating zeal and of appetite for change,
is not blank absurdity. It comes from the young, the headstrong,


                        By John M. Robertson 95

the self-absorbed, the revolutionary, the whimsical, the one-sided,
the imperfectly developed ; but it never comes from mere fools—
unless we are to fall back on the definition (which sometimes
seems a truth) according to which fools in all ages have done a
great deal for civilisation by their habit of preparing the way for
the angels.


It is not difficult to look with patience into the preciosities of
the past, of which we have had the good and are now spared the
vexation. But it is not so easy to be dispassionate before an
energetic preciosity of our own day, when it is carried on by a
writer whom we feel in a manner constrained to read, while
recognising his preciosity for what it is. Hence many explosions
of irritation over the preciosity of Carlyle, over that of Mr. Brown-
ing, over that of Mr. Swinburne, and above all over that of Mr.
Meredith. There may, however, be some little compensation to
be had even now from the process of classifying these forms in
relation to preciosity in general, especially as they all seem to be
brief if not abortive variations, not destined to dominate periods.
In each of the four cases mentioned, preciosity is simply an ex-
pression of the defiant idiosyncrasy of one man, which only to a
slight extent creates a school or clique. Each one had been
snapped at by the critics and disregarded by the public for his
idiosyncrasy at the start ; and each one—here we come to the
moral lesson—has persisted and worsened in his idiosyncrasy
instead of correcting it. Carlyle reached his on two lines—
partly by way of reproducing the manner of talk of his strong-
headed and dogmatic old father, partly by way of imitating the
declamatory French writers of his youth and of the previous age,
as well as the German humoristic style which alone is usually


                        96 Concerning Preciosity

specified as having influenced him. The French influence on
his style has apparently passed unnoticed ; but it will probably not
be denied by those who will turn over the literature out of which
he composed his History of the French Revolution. The
essential thing is, however, that he constructed for himself a pre-
ciosity of a kind, a preciosity of dramatic manner, of dramatic
pitch, of archaic style, of factitious concision, of Puritan colour,
of “thees and thous,” of prophetic airs and cynic humours. A
few serious writers partly caught his manner—Mr. Forster and Mr.
Masson, for instance ; and to some extent Kingsley and Dickens—
but it says something for the independence of our age that despite
the great reputation which Carlyle gradually attained, the
manner never became a fashion. Even by those who admired
the doctrine, it was generally recognised that such a manner could
be sincere only at first hand. As for its indirect effects, we can
say to-day, when it is recognisable as a preciosity of a sort, a dis-
play of wayward egoism in matters of language, that in its earlier
phases it has no little artistic force, and that the sense of this has
given later serious writers the courage to be more vari-coloured,
more emotional, more individual in their writing than they other-
wise would have been. Even such an unCarlylean book as Mill’s
Liberty probably owes something to Carlyle’s example ; and perhaps
Green’s Short History owes no less, though neither exhibits any
direct imitation whatever. On the other hand, the growing exag-
geration of Carlyle’s special preciosity with his years, showing as it
did how far mere temperamental self-assertion was its motive, un-
doubtedly repelled part of the rising generation, and undermined his
influence in advance. The “extraordinary arrogance” which
Mr. Froude * confesses him to have shown in private had thus its


* Life of Carlyle; first forty Years, ii. 394.

                        By John M. Robertson 97

With Mr. Browning the case is somewhat similar. His is the
preciosity of a genius formed in semi-isolation, an original mind
communing much with itself, and too little with vigorous and ex-
pert contemporary minds at the time when the friction of freee
comradeship has most disciplinary value. Such an elliptic style as
his could not well have been formed at Oxford or Cambridge :
even Carlyle did not write Carlylese till he went to dwell in the
wilderness at Craigenputtock. Browning’s style was substantially
formed or hardened abroad, where the society of Mrs. Browning,
herself magnetised by it and so on the way to a preciosity of her
own, had no corrective influence. The poet in his prime was
aloof from present-day Engli>h problems as well as from present-
day English life ; his poems, whether written at home or abroad,
deal for the most part with either foreign or unlocalised and ideal
life ; and he finally impresses a reader as writing rather for himself
than for any public. Public indifference and critical disrespect
had for a time the effect of making him consciously antagonistic
to his public—witness the apostrophes in The Ring and the Book
and in Pacchiarotto he has put on record how he felt towards some of
his critics. His preciosity is thus that of an energetic, self-poised,
self-absorbed, self-exiled artist, defiant of the general verdict even
while obscurely craving it, and able to be so defiant by reason or
financial independence ; and it followed the usual course of
becoming exaggerated with age. It thus falls readily in its place
as a form among others. And here as usual we can trace good
indirect results, while, as in the case of Carlyle, the activity of
modern criticism and the modern prevalence of the common
interest in speech over egoisms and cliqueisms have prevented any
direct contagion of the faults. While preparing for himself the
penalty of future neglect, as regards not a little of his over-abund-
ant output, Browning has pushed contemporary English poetry


                        98 Concerning Preciosity

towards vivacity, towards variety, towards intellectuality, without
setting up a Browning school even in the Browning Society. It
is somewhat grievous to think of the coming neglect, after the
preliminary contemporary penalty of indifference. But by such
quasi-martyrdoms is progress made in the age of tolerance ; and
after all Browning found life abundantly sweet, and is sure of
immortality for a score of things.

Of Mr. Swinburne, little need be said. His preciosity too is that
of a marked idiosyncrasy of utterance—this time a superfcetation
of phrase, a plethora of vocabulary. His vice of style, too, was hotly
persisted in when the matter of his first volume was denounced;
and a life of semi-seclusion, in uncritically sympathetic company,
has excluded whatever chance there may be supposed to have been
of a corrective action of normal literary intercourse or outside
criticism. Thus, though we notice in his case the usual tendency
of the press to pay tribute to the aging writer when his faults are
no longer novel, Mr. Swinburne has partly outlived his early in-
fluence as well as the early antagonism to his work ; and of him
too it may be said that what was new and strong in his perform-
ance, his enlargement and special tillage of the field of rhythm, has
counted for good in English poetry ; while his preciosity, consist-
ing in his tautology and his archaism, has been but slightly con-
tagious. It was not really a new way of speaking, not really a
widening of expression, so much as a congestion of it, a heaping
up of words for lack of valid ideas ; differing here from the other
modern preciosities just mentioned, which visibly come of a sense
of something special to say. Hence Mr. Swinburne has not been
the main influence even in the return to archaism. The other
archaistic poets of the day are so independently of his influence.

Contrasted with the exaggerated egoisms of such writers as
Carlyle, Browning, and Mr. Swinburne, some recent styles that


                        By John M. Robertson 99

have been called precious are hardly perceptible as such. That of
the late Mr. Pater, for instance, has been so blamed ; and pro-
bably some who so criticise it will contend that in his case the
word is rightly applied, and that in the three other cases above dis-
cussed it is not. Carlyle and Browning and Mr. Swinburne, it
may be said, are mannerists, not précieux. Mr. Pater’s style, it
may be said, is really precious. But this, I would answer, is a
misconception arising from a one-sided idea of the nature of pre-
ciosity. There is no constant radical difference betweeen manner-
ism and preciosity ; but a writer may be mannered without being
precious. Normal speech is tolerant of mere manner ; it is either
the apparent consciousness of a need to speak abnormally, or a self-
absorption too complete to realise how far its utterance varies
from the normal—it is one or other of these aberrations that
constitutes preciosity. And it is finally true that on the one hand
all special self-absorption, and on the other hand all anxiety to
write in a noticeable and unusual way, tend in the direction
of preciosity. Dickens’s manner often approaches it ; and
perhaps there is a faint suspicion of it even in the delicate con-
cern of Thackeray to be exquisitely simple, to avoid Dickens’s
over-ambitious way. A certain unconsciousness is the last grace
of a good style. And this being so, there may be just an
occasional savour of preciosity in the extreme preoccupation of
Mr. Pater with his. This had the surprising result of making
him commit oversights which a less anxious craftsman could
hardly have fallen into—for instance, his way of running a favourite
epithet to death, as when he introduces the adjective “comely,”
in one or other secondary or metaphorical sense, some five or six
times in a few dozen pages ; and the syntax of some of the more
elaborate sentences in one of his last volumes gave openings to
fault-finding. But Mr. Pater’s style is in the main so fastidiously


                        100 Concerning Preciosity

unexaggerated, so guarded against all violence and all pedantry,
that he must be finally cleared of the charge of either constructive
or restrictive preciosity in his writing as a whole. He sought
excellence in style, not singularity or self-indulgence. He was
really an admirable workman in whom the need for utterance, the
burden and impulse of ideas, though not small, were apt to fall
short of his exceptional craving for beauty of statement.


Whatever dispute there may be over the foregoing criticisms,
there can be none, I think, over the judgment that Mr. Meredith’s
style is the most pronounced outbreak of preciosity in modern
English literature. I here, if ever, we may allow ourselves a
quasi-Pantagruelian protest. It is indeed impossible for a reader
who respects Mr. Meredith’s genius to read him—or at least his
later works—without irritation at his extraordinary ill-usage or
language. Old admirers, going back to his earlier works, never
free from the sin of preciosity, recognise that there has been an
almost continuous deterioration—the fatal law or all purposive
preciosity. In the earlier novels there were at times signal beauties
of phrase, sentences in which the strain towards utterance was
transmuted into fire and radiance, sentences of the fine poet who
underlay and even now underlies that ever-thickening crust or
preciosity and verbal affectation. Even in One of Our Conquerors
there seemed, to the tolerant sense, to be still some gleams of the
old flame, flashing at long intervals through the scoriae or
unsmelted speech. But in Lord Ormont and his Aminta neither
patience nor despair can discover in whole chapters aught but the
lava and cinders of language. In mere tortuosity the writing is


                        By John M. Robertson 101

not worse ; it could not well be ; but now, after the first few
chapters, one has given up hope, and instead of desperately con-
struing endless paragraphs of gritty perversity one lightly skips
every mound in the path, content to follow the movement of a
striking story behind a style that in itself has become a mere
affliction. With the exception of Zola’s La Terre—hard reading
for a different reason—One of Our Conquerors was the hardest
novel to read that I ever met with ; but I have found Lord Ormont
and his Aminta easy enough. After a few chapters I no longer
sought to read Mr. Meredith. I made a hand-to-mouth précis of
nearly every page, and soon got over the ground, only pausing at
times to reassure myself that all was ill.

Hardly once, so far as I have read, do we find an important
sentence really well written ; never a paragraph ; for the perpetual
grimace of expression, twisting the face of speech into every
shape but those of beauty and repose, is in no sense admirable.
Simple statements, normal reflections, are packed into the
semblance of inspired fancies and brilliant aphorisms. As thus :

“That great couchant dragon of the devouring jaws and the
withering breath, known as our London world, was in expectation of
an excitement above yawns on the subject of a beautiful Lady Doubt-
ful proposing herself, through a group of infatuated influential friends,
to a decorous Court, as one among the ladies acceptable. The
popular version of it sharpened the sauce by mingling romance and
cynicism very happily ; for the numerous cooks, when out of the
kitchen, will furnish a piquant dish.”

The violent metaphor, thrust into the fore-front of the sentence
to impress us in advance, remains a grinning mask which moves
no more ; the dragon becomes “the numerous cooks.” And the
satire baulks no less than the poetry ; for when society’s problems


                        l02 Concerning Preciosity

are thus admittedly contemptible, what becomes of the satirist’s
story based upon one of them ? A few paragraphs further on we
set out similarly with “the livid cloud-bank over a flowery field,”
which at once lapses to “the terrible aggregate social woman . . .
a mark of civilisation on to which our society must hold.” It is after
a grievous tirade of this sort that we have the avowal : “The
vexatious thing in speaking of her is, that she compels to the use
of the rhetorician’s brass instrument.” Well, we have really heard
no note concerning her that does not belong to Mr. Meredith’s
own orchestra ; and yet when we attempt, as we are so often
moved to do, a translation of the passage into sane English, it is
hardly possible to save it from the air of platitude. So little security
does strangeness of style give for freshness of thought.

The case is past arguing. Short of the systematic counterfeit-
ing of the Limousin student, nearly every element that men have
agreed to vituperate in preciosity is found in this insupportable
idiom. And all the while we recognise it as the writing of an
artist of unusual insight and originality ; a novelist, if not of the
very first rank, yet so powerful and so independent that to apply
to him the term second-rate is not allowable. He must be classed
by himself, as a master with not worse limitary prejudices than
those of Balzac ; with more poetic elevation than any novelist of
his day ; a true modern in many things, despite a fundamental
unrealism in his characters and an almost puerile proclivity to
old-world devices of circumstantial plot. How, then, is the
egregious vice of style to be accounted for ?

Why, by one or other of the antecedents which we have seen
to be involved in all preciosity ; and as there is and can be no
Meredithian school or clique, we go at once to the solution of
individual self-will, defiance of censure, persistence in eccentricity,
and self-absorption in isolation. It is all sequent. His first


                        By John M. Robertson 103

novels, with their already eccentric style, were given to a genera-
tion unable in the main to appreciate the originality and import
ance of their problems and the subtlety of their treatment ; and
the denunciations of dull critic snettled him. In a letter to the
late James Thomson, published some years ago, he spoke with
due causticity of the usual spectacle of the author hailed up, with
his hands tied behind his back, before the self-elected and en-
throned critic, who tries and scourges him for the offence of
writing his own book in his own way. Contemning those who
contemned him, Mr. Meredith peisi.stcd in being cryptic,
eccentric, fantastic, elliptic. As if it were not enough to be
artistically too subtle for his generation, he must needs persist in
being gratuitously difficult and repellent as a writer, perverting a
fine faculty to the bad ambition of being extraordinary, nay, to
that of seeming superior. The prompt appreciation of the few
good readers did not teach him to look on the reading-publi
what it is, a loose mass of ever-varying units, in which even the
dullards have no solidarity : he entrenched himself in the Carlylean
and Browningesque manner, personifying the multitude as one
lumpish hostile entity, or organised body of similar entities.
Thus when, after an interval of silence, he produced the Egoist,
and the accumulating units of the new generation, the newer
minds, appreciated the novelty of the problem and the solution so
generally as to make the book the success of its year, he was
understood to be cynical over the praise given to a work which
was in his opinion inferior to its predecessors. The new genera-
tion has since proceeded to read those earlier works ; but Mr.
Meredith had fixed his psychological habits, and no sense of com-
munity with his generation could now avail to make him treat
language as a common possession, which any one may rightly
improve, but which no one may fitly seek to turn into impene-


                        104 Concerning Preciosity

trable jungle for his own pleasure. Ill health may have had some-
thing to do with Mr. Meredith’s aesthetic deviation from “the
general deed of man” ; and his contemporaries have their share of
responsibility ; but we must recognise in him what we have
recognised behind all forms of preciosity—a specific limitation or
one-sidedness, a failure to develop equably and in healthy relation
to all the forces of the intellectual life. It cannot indeed be said
of him that he has not grown. In his last book, despite the
visible survival, in part, of the commonplace Jingoism of which
he gave such surprising evidence in some violent verses eight or
ten years ago, he has touched a position that is much better ;
and he has ventured on one solution of a sex problem which in
former years he shunned. But the very lateness of these advances
is a proof that he lost much by his isolation. Lesser people had
got as far long ago. It has been recently told of him that he now
reads in few books save the Bible and a few Greek classics—a
regimen which would ill nourish even smaller m nds. What he
long ago confessed of himself in Beauchamp’s Career—that he had
acquired the habit of listening too much to his own voice—is
now too obvious to need confessing. It all goes to produce, not
only that defect of relation to current life which we see in his
unhappy style, but that further defect which consists in his lapses
into unreality as a novelist. For many of us there is such un-
reality in those devices of plot complication to which he so
inveterately clings, and which so vexatiously trip up at once our
illusion and our sense of his insight into the dynamic forces of
character. A recent illustration is the episode of the concealment
of Weyburri and Aminta in the wayside inn while their pursuers
ride past—an episode which belongs to the art of Fielding and
Smollett. While, however, some readers may still see no harm in
these venerable expedients, every reader who knows enough to be


                        By John M. Robertson 105

entitled to form a judgment must be startled by the amazing
episode of the swimming-encounter of Weyburn and Aminta
when the former is on his way to the Continent. That is the
imagination of a man who either never knew what swimming is
or has forgotten what he knew. The occurrence, as related in
the novel, is an impossible dream. Mr. Meredith may be in
touch with the developments of fencing—an old hobby of his—
but his conception of what people do or can do in the water is
pure fantasy. In this, indeed, there is pathos ; and perhaps the
ideal reader would see only pathos—or literary picturesque—in
the kindred aberration of the novelist’s prose. But when writers
are still so imperfect, there can be few perfect readers.

We end by deploring, as contemporary criticism always must,
a particular case of excessive preciosity, after setting out to find
the soul of goodness in the thing in general. As it was in bygone
instances that we could best see the element of compensation, the
saving grace, it may be that the difficulty in seeing it in contem-
porary cases, and above all in Mr. Meredith’s, is one which will
lessen for posterity ; though it is hard to believe that posterity,
with its ever enlarging library, will have the time to ponder all of
that tormented prose, supposing it to have the patience. A mis-
giving arises as to whether much of Mr. Meredith must not
inevitably go the way of Donne. But whether or not, his case
clinches for us the lesson that is to be learned from more ancient
instances ; and that lesson may be summed up as consisting or
ending in a new view of the meaning of democracy. It is in the
democratic age that we seem to find, after all, at once the freest
scope for individual literary idiosyncrasy and the least amount of
harmful contagion from it—the maximum of the individual
freedom compatible with a minimum of the harm. It would

The Yellow Book—Vol. XIII. G


                        106 Concerning Preciosity

thus seem that language, at least, is becoming effectively social-
ised. And here, let us hope, lies the security against that mild
form of the malady of preciosity which is apt to follow the wide
diffusion of an imperfect culture. The preciosity of democratic
half-culture, in an age of knowledge, is at the worst a much less
extravagant thing than the preciosities of the upper-class culture
of ages in which all culture was narrow. So that the so-called
process of “levelling-down,” here as in other matters, turns out to
give the best securities for a general levelling-up.

MLA citation:

Robertson, John M. “Concerning Preciosity.” The Yellow Book, vol. 13, April 1897, pp. 79-106. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.