Originally I wanted to write about how plain and simple language is able sometimes, when well thought out, to move a person as deeply as any strong experience in life is able to. Then I heard a news bulletin – much to my disturbance, as usual, – and it was about the current French National Government Elections now going on over the Channel from me.
This news bulletin turned my thoughts to sophistication in language and in dealings with others; and I then decided I wanted to write something on this topic also. I could write them separately; one essay to each topic; that would be easier and more plain; but a little self-indulgently I’ve gone for an option which combines these two polarisations of style of approach, in a hope of being able to write something which clashes its themes together and so fires off some enlightening sparks for us all.
There are literary precedents for this type of ‘good guy; bad guy’ juxtaposition; in the drama and in poetry especially; and also in some famous essays such as in George Orwell’s essays about English language, essays such as ‘ Politics and the English Language; and ‘Boys’ Weeklies’.
My admired poet John Milton wrote a famous pair of twin poems ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’; the first a pean to joyfulness and the second a complementary ode to the gravity of seriousness. Opposites, the poems can be seen as rhetorical exercises of a sort of scholastic kind; or else as Milton’s understanding of the place in life available to both outlooks – in the same person even – he means himself I am pretty sure.
Shakespeare in the drama has given us studies of character juxtaposed such as Iago’s and Othello’s; the former a dissembler whose hidden burning jealousy and rage at his Master Othello; an Othello who is always ‘what you see it what you get’; thus upright honest, plain-speaking; in his anger as much as in his admiration and praise of things; and these two characters of very opposite dispositions clash and the heavens themselves are horrified at the consequence.
So, with these historic illustrious models of opposing themes to bear in mind let you and I go on and take a look in the first place at some of those pieces of writing which I have found to radiate a penetrating warmth of feeling so strongly; and in large part they do so because they express themselves so simply and so forthrightly in their style and composition.
The following song-verses written by Robert Burns, a notoriously great womaniser who eventually met his match – literally, he married her – in a young country girl named Jean Armour – even her name is something close to the Latin French ‘amour’ – romantic love. I believe that Jean lived to a great age, and that there exists at least one photograph of her in her final years. Her paramour ‘Rabbie’ – Rab Mossgiel to his friends – died early in his thirties and probably from a consequence of a heart problem brought on by a bout of glandular fever he suffered, when as a youth he had been driving his father’s plough team in rough weathers. Robert Burns however left the world in his short lifetime a wealth of beauty and fine art; his poems are the pride of the Scots and he is considered by them to be their National Poet.
The song-verses are titled after their first line: ‘Of A’ the Airts’:
Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I love best:
Where wild-woods grow, and rivers row,
And mony a hill between:
Both day and night my fancy’s flight
Is ever wi’ my Jean.
I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair:
I hear her in the tunefu’ birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There’s not a bonie flower that springs,
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There’s not a bonnie bird that sings,
But minds me o’ my Jean.
The song-verses just run off the lips of the mind when read. They’re not only conversational, they are also most straighforwardly and simply put. There’s no obvious art in them. The rhythms of the lines when read help a lot to get the effect of a moving fluent simplicity; because they allow the words to just flow as if a person were just speaking them out loud with a proud and pleased confidence to a friend over a drink at an alehouse.
All the images and things which Robert Burns’ love is likened to are very simple, very natural, birds, rivers, winds, directions (airts), hills, the west, flowers; everything is taken by Burns from his immediate environment in the Scottish Lowland dales and countryside. The song verses verge on sounding as if written for children in their almost naive plainness; yet it is this very plainness which acts so powerfuly on a reader to raise in that reader a strong feeling that here is a man writing, on his heart, about the love of his life.
Another poet, an Englishman and a Londoner; thought by his contemporaries to be a madman; and a person who saw, actually saw, not merely imagined in his mind’s eye, visions and esoteric narrative events being played out before his senses. The author of the renowned words known as ‘Jerusalem’ and set to unforgettable music by Hubert Parry; and a pictorial artist and engraver whose works have a dedicated separate room for their display in the British Royal Academy of Art , near Trafalgar Square in London; this madman was William Blake.
Try this piece of verse of his in which so much is said so simply and so powerfully:
A Poison Tree
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree
We are moving into narrative now; Burns having been almost sheer lyric; and here Blake has captivated us; telling us his story like a children’s story is told; and using simple words as symbols to make his meaning and to get his points across. The efect of the simplicity is to convince us that yes, this is like it actually is, no fancy footwork, plain and clear for all to see, like the end of one’s nose.
It’s almost like a lesson; saying something we probably know already in our hearts is true but revealing it to us in such blatant terms that we are unable to sweep its ‘reprimand’ for our acceptance under our mental carpets and let it go as something we’d rather not admit to having enjoyed and/or suffered in our lives.
We have been moving towards religion as a theme in the progression fron Burns to Blake. Here are four lines; gems which I discovered yesterday in a little book of old verse I opened to browse. The four lines are taken from a poem titled ‘The Works of God’ by a man called George Sandys – born 1577 – died 1643.
‘I all my life will my creator praise
And to his service dedicate my days
May he accept the music of my voice
While I with sacred harmony rejoice’
These lines are not conversational. The syntax of the words is poetic and not ordered as in ordinary speech. This makes them I think declamatory; makes them sound like a vow or a pledge; one which the poet is pledging, speaking out loud, from his heart in the inspiration of the moment during their composition. They seem to me to bear a freshness about them, because they go so deep so simply into George Sandys inner heart and will. Nothing falsely pledged, nothing fancily said, his lines have a similar texture to the voice of say a female contralto whom one hears and one feels is singing praise to her Maker from the very bowels of her being; when say singing such an aria as Handel’s ‘He was despised’ or else Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’.
Enough of poems and poetry, which by their essence, as being what one commentator called ‘elevated speech’, are inexorably artefacts and thus are always crafted. Let’s look at simplicity in prose; in what people have said or have written to one another; sometimes without any idea that their words were going to be treasured up and remembered with fondness by future ages.
Here’s another religious writer, a dissenter from Anglicanism who ‘did stir’ for his dissent in Bedford jail. In jail he wrote a book which became the single book most likely to be found placed next to The Bible in every commonplace homestead in 18th century England. Of all his many works The Pilgrim’s Progress is the item that almost everyone knows or once knew; and the man is John Bunyan. Once again, and like many deep and profound books of this type, which speak to people simply and enter their hearts deeply, such books have had the bad fortune to have become relegated to the children’s shelves in many bookshops.
I believe the reasons for this relegation are several. Firstly The Victorians had a great mission to inculcate religion early into their children; the middle classes at least. Suitable children’s reading material was produced abundantly during the 19th century and The Pilgrim’s Progress, already two hundred years old in Victorian times, just got batched up with this tranche of children’s material.
I do think also that there is also a class of person, possibly not socio-economically classifiable, who considers that learning, and for the most part this includes reading, is for children and subsists as a supplement to school education. This class of person believes that once a person has left school and quitted education to go into ‘the real world’ of work and money and so on; then a person has also quitted learning, education and reading. Hence written stories, especially classics, as opposed to easy digestion items like TV and movies, are relegated out of their horizon to the toyshop.
Further, since over the years the gradual sophistication of our populations here in UK,we now have a population grown up which feels it has ‘’moved on’ from the thrilling adventure novels and stories of the great Victorian boom in novel-writing for family entertainment. Writers so obviously not children’s writers; like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen; and others less illustrious like Robert Louis Stevenson and RM Ballantyne, even Arthur Conan-Doyle creator of Sherlock Holmes; have all become associated with youngsters’ and children’s tastes in reading.
Similarly as a consequence adult books like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels can be found only on children’s shelves in many shops.
Our CGI and our Thrillers and Detective movies have superseded these classic books which now appear to our sophistications to be ‘tame pet rabbit’ stuffs, and pretty dull.
Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress has then met the fate of so many other books edifying to read and so become available in children’s corner only. Yet it has a great and beautiful simplicity of style and narrative, one which captivates the mind’s range and eye instantly and carries one along buoyantly throughout its journey to the Celestial City. Here is the opening paragraph of Bunyan’s book:
“As I walk'd through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a Dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a Man cloathed with Rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a Book in his hand, and a great Burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the Book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying What shall I do?”
In so few choice words the whole scene and theme of the story to be told is set and laid out; what the book is to be about is laid open to a reader. It is a first person narrative, the teller of the tale being the ‘I’ of the story, and this fact gives the words a striking immediacy upon a reader’s feelings. A reader feels her/himself there with the narrator and feels that same desperation in her/himself when the narrator bursts out agonisingly with’; ‘What shall I do?’ One is moved. One is engaged immediately and hooked up deeply, keen to see a resolution to this harrowing situation. This rawness of its edge is of course softened by the fact of the story being related as being a dream. Thus the hard fact of reality and the comfortablness of unreality are invoked simultaneously; the latter softening the former, and of course dreams since antiquity have been felt to carry arcane and deep meanings; and felt to be items which are interpretable. Again Bunyan’s vocabulary is household and commonplace; nothing that would be unfamiliar to a maid or a husbandman who is dipping into the book.
The language and narrative is straightforward and runs linearly timewise, no flashbacks, no scene shifts etc; but yet it weaves a magic which spellbinds us and so urges us to keep on turning the page. Now before I get to the greatest of all of the users of simple and straightforward language to most powerful effect I want to bring in here and speak some few paragraphs about the powerful and detrimental effects of sophistication in language and outlook. The field in which today we see most often such uses and approaches to language is undoubtedly in politics. Hence my mention of French National Elections and in particular of a leading candidate Marine le Penne. Yet I want to write beforehand something about the UK Prime Minister Theresa May also, and about her use of words and argument too. Mrs May in her speech announcing on the steps of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s London residence, that a General Election is to be run in the UK on June 8th, used that occasion, and do note that it was a governmental occasion and not a Conservative party occasion, to make a Party Political Broadcast to the nation. (Mrs May belongs to The Conservative Party).
Mrs May without a blink of an eye and with some artful sophistication conflated the governmental anouncement with her political Party’s specific rationale for calling an Election at this time. No transition, no apology, no signal even that she was doing so given to the nation. This eliding of themes and topics, emphases and argument, is typical of our modern and degenerate sophistication. Mrs May criticised adversely every other Political Party in Parliament who sit alongside her Conservative Members there. The function of these other Parties is to form an effective Official Opposition to the majority Party governing. These other Parties are in fact part of the wider Government; placed therein so as to be a force to temper and to bring to acount the majority party of government, The Conservatives.
The basis of Mrs May’s adverse criticism of them was solely and wholly to say that this Official Opposition was ‘getting in her way’; stopping her doing things and hindering her government. But yet, are these things not the very things which an Opposition exists to be doing?! One minority party was labelled by another Conservative politician to be made up of ‘hooligans’ because this minority party is opposing the governing party. The leader of another minority party was labelled ‘a communist’ and said to be ‘fighting the wrong election’; all these insults being aimed at destroying reputations and at doing so by attacking the integrity and the discretion of individuals on the Opposition benches. There was no policy content as such in Mrs May’s partisan speech, nor in any of her colleagues’ untoward comments. Mud-slinging all round.
This is our sophistication.
The term ‘Sophistication’ as a concept derives from the word ‘sophist’; an Ancient Greek term and used in ancient times to label a certain kind of teacher in the ancient world. One of the greatest teachers and thinkers of that age, Plato of Athens, grew to become fiercely antagonistic towards and distrustful of sophists and their teachings. Sophists took a view that in the main truth is secondary to convincement; as Plato puts it sophists taught people ways in which ‘the weaker argument is able to defeat the stronger argument’. The ancient study of rhetoric, was a form of speaking which its users applied so as to convince listeners of the necessity for a policy or an action, regardless of the policy or the action’s true value.
Thus our present everyday obsession with appearances; and our placing appearances above actualities; all this derive from these arts of sophism and rhetoric; of ‘making the weaker argument defeat the stronger’. Worst of all, when confronted with such an accusation of distortion of the truth, a modern day sophist, say any common or garden run of the mill politician, will be likely to think and to say in so many words the same infamous reply that Pontius Pilate gave to The Saviour of the World: as Francis Bacon had it:
“What is truth? said jesting Pilate: and did not stay for an answer”
Like Pilate our modern day sophists, our politicians, believe that they have given us this witty retort and that it is invincible, irrefutable; that truth like beauty is ever in the eye of the beholder; so that truth is reduced to opinion and opinion is ever challengable and malleable; thus there is no such thing as truth – they think, say, and believe. Thus for these types of person all is open, all territoies of the mind are up for grabs, to be made use of so as to marshal them as ‘facts’ or ‘arguments’ on any occasion they might serve.
We see this distortion in action with the Trump administration’s ‘alternative facts’ and with the description of our age as belonging to ‘a post-truth’ society.
Hence words like ‘discretion’; and ‘integrity’ are up for demolition or for biased promotion regardless of any ‘discretion’ or ‘integrity’ being actually present or not. Hence Theresa May’s opportunist Party Political Broadcast on the steps of Downing Street in the role of Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s Government; of all of Her Majesty’s Government, the whole chabanc. Now let us look across the Channel at Marine le Penne of France. She is daughter to a notorious extremist fascist who led a National Front Party in France when I was a young man. The Le Penne family thus has form on these occasions; and history tells me that she cannot be trusted to be a moderate in any government she might possibly get to form.
Like other extremist right of centre parties her party receives its support almost entirely from bigots; because these neo-fascist kinds of party always aim to demonise foreigners and immigrants; and at their very worst they penalise every person who in any way is visibly different from what the Fascists like to think themselves; e.g. true blue British or through and through French. And so when you’re black; or transgender; or disabled; or a traveller; or a Muslim; you become a target for the wrathful hatred of such bigots. Marine Le Penne was described on TV this evening as a ‘shrewd’ and ‘astute’ campaigner and politician. Note the adjectives ‘shrewd’ and ‘astute’. Beware such adjectives! They are words political commentators use so as to make seem legitimate those behaviours and thoughts which are in truth beyond the pale of civilised life.
Marine Le Penne has stepped down from her role as leader of her Far Right Party. Temporarily. She smelt an opportunity and has taken it – astute, shrewd, – unscrupulous? – audaciously outrageous? Sly? Cunning? Disingenuous? All of these call the spade the spade. Her motivation for stepping down temporarily has been that her doing so has allowed her to run for election to office as Premier of France, but without her being required to associate herself with her far right political party in her literature and her advertising, canvassing and rallying etc. Her astute shrewd plan has been to appear less committed to her avowed rightist policies than she actually is; thus in this disguise as being a woman for France wholly and of no political party, she might fool a few marginal persons, or less aware persons, and/or some other groups of voters whose discretion is compromised in some way, into voting for her, as if they were voting for all France and to the general good outright.
Once she is elected, a big IF she is elected, she will take up again the mantle of her being Leader of her party. How low and obnoxious is that? Yet I have it on good authority from the BBC and other news vendors here in the UK that hers is a mere ‘shrewdness’ and an ‘astuteness’, and not what used to be called here in UK downright false pretences. This is our sophistication. This our fascinated attention to what seems rather than to what is. These are the shenanigans we get up to so as to try to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger. It is an insidious corruption, and works so stealthily and appears so glozed over that many, perhaps most of us, do not see its corruption, and so we accept it as all’s fair in love and war etc. That we too are compromised, and are compromising ourselves, is not accepted in general. Bob Dylan sang: “Your corrupt ways have finally made you blind”.
Now for the greatest of the speakers of simple truth, and spoken in simple words – Jesus the Christ. The Bible is a book which by its own admission carries the Word of God; a Word which is
“the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”
The words of Jesus, sometimes in some Bibles are printed in red text, and they are very often to be found mirrored and reflected in the words of the scriptures written into the Hebrew canon before His birth. Jesus at various times cites the book of Isaiah and the other prophets; the Psalms; and many other books of the Old Testament parts of the Bible in his teachings.
He is said by one of his followers to have in conversation opened
beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself
Jesus too used simple and household, farming and pastoral imagery; nothing which lay outside the common experience of his hearers; no high and mighty allusions or convolutions of thought; none of that which Ben Jonson calls; ‘loads of learned lumber in his head’. In his simplicity Jesus was approachable and able quickly and firmly to make human contact. He said quite plainly at one time:
“Nor should you swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ be ‘No.’ Anything more comes from the evil one.”
There is nothing plainer than this to be said. He is advocating to you that you use no exaggeration; no rhetoric; no attemtpts to ‘make the weaker argument defeat the stronger’; no sophism; no sophistications; that such things as these things come from ‘The Evil One’. Jesus says in another place and with great power:
“..out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things”
This is plain teaching. It is truth. It is profoundly true. It is a guide to us, a signpost to help us when we are being swayed or worked upon by weasel words to make us take up pernicious outlooks and attitudes; ones which are unchristian and politically expedient and convenient; it is a saying which is able to bring us back to sanity and to sanctity to peace and to right conduct and right conscience. The gospels are filled with of such uttered gems from Jesus’s lips; go there and admire them and His holy beauty. To end this long harangue of mine against falsehood and false speaking I want to offer you a Psalm. A Simple, Plain, Moving Psalm. In Truth. Psalm 131:
My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and for evermore.