Morning Meditation by Terry Marotta
Harvard University's Appleton Chapel
Spring 2003

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

Simple words, on their surface. Yet this verse from "The Pasture" opens North of Boston, by Robert Frost, who as most of you know was never simple, as a poet or a human being.

In this season of looming midterms and perennial paper-writing, I thought to strike a blow for simple speaking.

I was taught to write by nuns living a semi-cloistered sleepover kind of life in a 19th century convent that once perched on a pudding-stone-dotted hill over in Roxbury. "They love adjectives!" my big sister told me as an entering first grader, and it seemed to be true, at least in those primary grades when we attended that school (before our mom remembered that really what she believed in was PUBLIC school education and snatched us on out of there.) By that time though, it was too late as far as adjectives went. I’d learned to pour them on. As Mark Twain used to say, I just emptied the dictionary on every childish composition on "The Beauties of Spring," or "Truth," or "The Dawning Day."

And nobody stopped me, not in high school, when my purple prose turned dense, pretentious, polysyllabic, not even through much of my time in college – not until Senior year, when I was halted dead in my tracks by Dan Aaron, my honors thesis adviser, then head of the American Studies Department at Smith, later the Victor S Thomas Professor of English and American Literature here at Harvard.

He used the word ‘highfalutin’ a lot, and it wasn’t a compliment. He invoked that When-in-Doubt-Cut-it-Out commandment from William Strunk & E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. I went to his office every Friday to show him the new chapter-section I had produced, and every Friday from inside his cloud of pipe-smoke, he looked down at my turgid paragraphs, took on an expression of pained perplexity and asked, "What are you trying to say here?" and, when I told him, "Why don’t you just SAY that?"

We should all have mercy, teacher and student, specialist and layperson alike, on our audience; on those who must read or attend our words. (And as an aside here, let me recommend George Orwell’s 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" to anyone interested in further considering the connection between clarity of thought and clarity of expression, as well the darker connection between intentionally muddied speech and the ideas they seek to disguise.)

In any case, I learned to ‘just say it’; purged my writing of the highfalutin and the pretentious, and a good thing it was, because I went direct from Smith to teaching high school for seven years over in Somerville, where what those kids needed most was straight plain talk; and then to my current life’s work producing a syndicated column for the American newspaper-reading public.

Now copy editors occasionally use something called the Flesch-Kincaid Index, which measures the readability of a piece of prose based on the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word; and I’m proud to tell you that according to this index my column comes in most weeks at a 7th grade reading level.

I say ‘proud’ because that puts me in very good company.

As Ronald White points out in his new book Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, the deeply stirring talk the 16th President delivered on that occasion consists of just 703 words, 505 of which have… just one syllable! And the Gettysburg Address, perhaps the most oft-quoted piece of American public utterance, consists of ten short sentences, a mere 376 syllables in its 266 words.

But there’s more to my message here: Yes, language persuades us when it is concise and unadorned - think of Henry Thoreau who studied here, and of his call to "Simplify! simplify!"- but language’s meaning stays with us longest when it carries a certain music.

Listen just to the sound in this observation by Thoreau’s older Harvard brother Ralph Emerson, who wryly said of some blusterer "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted the spoons." (Hear it? Hear that cadence?)

Or the music in this old chestnut by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who taught here for 20 years:

Life is real, life is earnest
and the grave is not its goal.
‘Dust thou art, to dust returnest’
was not spoken of the soul.

Once, every schoolchild in America knew this verse and I don’t doubt it comforted many a one in the darker adult times that followed.

Emily Dickinson brought music to her every utterance, as this sentence from a mere letter testifies: "To multiply the harbors does not reduce the sea," she wrote to a friend. She was talking about love, but listen to the sentence again just as sound: "To multiply the harbors does not reduce the sea."

Or listen to the start of Shakespeare’s famous 28th sonnet:

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
upon those boughs which shake against the cold
bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Or to the closing couplet of the lovely 18th:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

Lines like these we remember because of their iams: "pa-pum, pa-pum, pa-pum, pa-pum, pa-pum," they go. Put five together and you have iambic pentameter. Put 40 per minute and you have – what? The sound of the human heart of course. (They called it "lub-dub" in your old school textbooks.)

That sound is everywhere. That music is in us. We are, you might say, endowed with it. Endowed are we too with the capacity to speak simply and humbly and dare we say it? – even to live that way.

It seem appropriate to close here with the words of the old Shaker Hymn:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
to bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
to turn, turn, will be our delight
‘till by turning, turning we come round right.

From George Orwell’s "Politics and the English Language," 1946

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers….

©Copyright 2002-2012 Terry Marotta, All Rights Reserved.