Barry Menikoff (University of Hawaii)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘A Note — “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature”’

The style is the man, goes the old Gallic saying, and when the man is Robert Louis Stevenson the quip has both sting and resonance. No writer was more praised, and none more disdained, simply for his prose style. Either his aim in art was to write good English (as Goethe’s was to write German), or he was merely a dilettante whose sentences made an emblem of his velvet coat. In either case, Stevenson’s style defined him in his lifetime and ever after. Yet despite the French witticism there is little knowledge and less understanding as to what constitutes Stevenson’s style, or styles, if we consider the variety of forms he penned in. But the writer addresses the matter himself in a formal, detailed discourse written at the time of Jekyll and Hyde. The language is figurative and analytical, the argument dense and logical, and the application formal and technical. As criticism, it is a counterpoint to the Romanticism of Wordsworth’s “Preface,” and strikes a distinctly modernist note. It might even be read as a precursor of I. A. Richards’ technical studies of poetry and T. S. Eliot’s theoretical essays on the nature of the poetic process. While Stevenson’s essay ostensibly is a general comment on style in prose and poetry, the argument has applicability to his own writing, and may possibly open the door to a more exacting study of a prose manner that seems never to age.

Categorized as Abstracts

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