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Craftsmanship
  Craftsmanship ** A broadcast on April 20th, 1937The title of this series is “Words Fail Me,” and this particular talk is called “Craftsmanship.” We must suppose, therefore, that the talker is meant to discuss the craft of words — the craftsmanship of the writer. But there is something incongruous, unfitting, about the term “craftsmanship” when applied to words. The English dictionary, to which we always turn in moments of dilemma, confirms us in our doubts. It says that the word “craft” has two meanings; it means in the first place making useful objects out of solid matter — for example, a pot, a chair, a table. In the second place, the word “craft” means cajolery, cunning, deceit. Now we know little that is certain about words, but this we do know — words never make anything that is useful; and words are the only things that tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Therefore, to talk of craft in connection with words is to bring together two incongruous ideas, which if they mate can only give birth to some monster fit for a glass case in a museum. Instantly, therefore, the title of the talk must be changed, and for it substituted another — A Ramble round Words, perhaps. For when you cut off the head of a talk it behaves like a hen that has been decapitated. It runs round in a circle till it drops dead — so people say who have killed hens. And that must be the course, or circle, of this decapitated talk. Let us then take for our starting point the statement that words are not useful. This happily needs little proving, for we are all aware of it. When we travel on the Tube, for example, when we wait on the platform for a train, there, hung up in front of us, on an illuminated signboard, are the words “Passing Russell Square.” We look at those words; we repeat them; we try to impress that useful fact upon our minds; the next train will pass Russell Square. We say over and over again as we pace, “Passing Russell Square, passing Russell Square.” And then as we say them, the words shuffle and change, and we find ourselves saying, “Passing away saith the world, passing away. . . . The leaves decay and fall, the vapours weep their burthen to the ground. Man comes. . . .” And then we wake up and find ourselves at King’s Cross.

Take another example. Written up opposite us in the railway carriage are the words: “Do not lean out of the window.” At the first reading the useful meaning, the surface meaning, is conveyed; but soon, as we sit looking at the words, they shuffle, they change; and we begin saying, “Windows, yes windows — casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.” And before we know what we are doing, we have leant out of the window; we are looking for Ruth in tears amid the alien corn. The penalty for that is twenty pounds or a broken neck.

This proves, if it needs proving, how very little natural gift words have for being useful. If we insist on forcing them against their nature to be useful, we see to our cost how they mislead us, how they fool us, how they land us a crack on the head. We have been so often fooled in this way by words, they have so often proved that they hate being useful, that it is their nature not to express one simple statement but a thousand possibilities — they have done this so often that at last, happily, we are beginning to face the fact. We are beginning to invent another language — a language perfectly and beautifully adapted to express useful statements, a language of signs. There is one great living master of this language to whom we are all indebted, that anonymous writer — whether man, woman or disembodied spirit nobody knows — who describes hotels in the Michelin Guide. He wants to tell us that one hotel is moderate, another good, and a third the best in the place. How does he do it? Not with words; words would at once bring into being shrubberies and billiard tables, men and women, the moon rising and the long splash of the summer sea — all good things, but all here beside the point. He sticks to signs; one gable; two gables; three gables. That is all he says and all he needs to say. Baedeker carries the sign language still further into the sublime realms of art. When he wishes to say that a picture is good, he uses one star; if very good, two stars; when, in his opinion, it is a work of transcendent genius, three black stars shine on the page, and that is all. So with a handful of stars and daggers the whole of art criticism, the whole of literary criticism could be reduced to the size of a sixpenny bit — there are moments when one could wish it. But this suggests that in time to come writers will have two languages at their service; one for fact, one for fiction. When the biographer has to convey a useful and necessary fact, as, for example, that Oliver Smith went to college and took a third in the year 1892, he will say so with a hollow 0 on top of the figure five. When the novelist is forced to inform us that John rang the bell after a pause the door was opened by a parlourmaid who said, “Mrs. Jones is not at home,” he will to our great gain and his own comfort convey that repulsive statement not in words, but in signs — say, a capital H on top of the figure three. Thus we may look forward to the day when our biographies and novels will be slim and muscular; and a railway company that says: “Do not lean out of the window” in words will be fined a penalty not exceeding five pounds for the improper use of language.

Words, then, are not useful. Let us now enquire into their other quality, their positive quality, that is, their power to tell the truth. According once more to the dictionary there are at least three kinds of truth God’s or gospel truth; literary truth; and home truth (generally. unflattering). But to consider each separately would take too long. Let us then simplify and assert that since the only test of truth is length of life, and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest. Buildings fall; even the earth perishes. What was yesterday a cornfield is to-day a bungalow. But words, if properly used, seem able to live for ever. What, then, we may ask next, is the proper use of words? Not, so we have said, to make a useful statement; for a useful statement is a statement that can mean only one thing. And it is the nature of words to mean many things. Take the simple sentence “Passing Russell Square.” That proved useless because besides the surface meaning it contained so many sunken meanings. The word “passing” suggested the transiency of things, the passing of time and the changes of human life. Then the word “Russell” suggested the rustling of leaves and the skirt on a polished floor also the ducal house of Bedford and half the history of England. Finally the word “Square” brings in the sight, the shape of an actual square combined with some visual suggestion of the stark angularity of stucco. Thus one sentence of the simplest kind rouses the imagination, the memory, the eye and the ear — all combine in reading it.

But they combine — they combine unconsciously together. The moment we single out and emphasize the suggestions as we have done here they become unreal; and we, too, become unreal — specialists, word mongers, phrase finders, not readers. In reading we have to allow the sunken meanings to remain sunken, suggested, not stated; lapsing and flowing into each other like reeds on the bed of a river. But the words in that sentence Passing Russell Square-are of course very rudimentary words. They show no trace of the strange, of the diabolical power which words possess when they are not tapped out by a typewriter but come fresh from a human brain — the power that is to suggest the writer; his character, his appearance, his wife, his family, his house — even the cat on the hearthrug. Why words do this, how they do ............
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