Quintilian, a highly esteemed Latin rhetorician, argues that composition involves learning a skill. He compares composition with the craft of the musician and with the skills of the sportsman. In his larger project, writing is linked with civic participation, with the arts of cultivation, and with the progress from the natural savage to a state of civilization. Writing should aim to flow harmoniously.
Quintilian's Institutes of the Orator, Book 9 (trans. charles Rollin, 1774), 143-146.
I well know, that there are some, who will not allow of any care in composition, contending that our words as they flow by chance, how uncouth soever they may sound, are not only more natural, but likewise more manly. If what first sprung from nature, indebted for nothing to care and industry, be only what they deem natural, I allow that the art of oratory in this respect has no pretensions to that quality.
For it is certain that the first men did not speak according to the exactness of the rules of composition; neither were they acquainted with the art of preparing by an exordium, informing by a narration, proving by arguments, and moving by passions. They were therefore deficient in all these particulars, and not in composition only; and if they were not allowed to make any alterations for the better, of course they should not have exchanged their cottages for houses, nor their coverings of skins for more decent apparel, nor the mountains and forests in which they ranged, for the abode of cities in which they enjoy the comforts of social intercourse. And indeed, what art do we find coeval with the world; and what is it of which the value is not enhanced by improvement? Why do we restrain the luxuriancy of our vines? Why do we dig about them? Why do we grub up the bramble-bushes in our fields? Yet the earth produces them. Why do we tame animals? Yet are they born with untractable dispositions. Rather let us fay, that that is very natural, which nature permits us to meliorate in her handy-work,
Now, how can a jumble of uncouth words be more manly than a manner of expression that is well joined and properly placed? If some authors enervate the things they treat of, by straining them into certain soft and lascivious measures, we must not hence judge that this is the fault of composition. By how much the current of rivers is swift and impetuous in a free and open channel, than amidst the obstruction of rocks breaking and struggling against the flow of their waters; by so much an oration that is properly connected, flows with its whole might, and is far preferable to one that is craggy and desultory by frequent interruptions.
Why then should it be thought that strength and beauty are things-incompatible, when on the contrary, nothing has its just value without art, and embellishment always attends.on it? Do not we observe the javelin that has been cleverly whirled about, dart through the air with the best effect; and in managing a bow and arrow, is not the beauty of the attitude so much the more graceful, as the aim is more unerring? In feats of arms, and in all the exercises of the palæstra, is not his attitude best calculated for defence or offence, who uses a certain art in all his motions, and keeps to a certain position of the feet?
Composition therefore in my opinion, is to thoughts and words, what the dexterous management of a bow or string may be for directing the aim of missive weapons; and I may say the most learned are persuaded, that it is greatly conducive not only to pleasure, but also to make an impression on minds. First, because it is scarce possible that a thing should affect the heart, which begins by grating upon the ear. Secondly, because we are naturally affected by harmony. Otherwise, the sounds of musical instruments, though they express no words, would not excite in us so great a variety of pleasing emotions. In sacred canticles, some airs are for elating the heart into raptures, others to replace the mind in its former tranquility. The sound of a trumpet is not the same, when it is the signal for a general engagement, and when on a defeat, it implores the conqueror's mercy, neither is it the same when an army marches up to give battle, and when it is intent intent on retreating.
It was a common practice with the Pythagoric philosophers, to awake, at uprising, their minds by an air on the lyre, in order to make them more alert for action; and they had recourse to the same musical entertainment for disposing them to sleep, believing it to be a means to allay the relicks of all such tumultuous thoughts as might have any way ruffled them in the course of the day. If then so great a force resides in musical strains and modulations, what must it be with eloquence, the music of which is a speaking harmony?
As much indeed as it is essential for a thought to be expressed in suitable words, so much is it for the fame words to be disposed in a proper order by composition, that they may flow and end harmoniously. Some things of little consequence in their import, and requiring but a moderate degree of elocution, are commendable only by this perfection; and there are others, which appear expressed with so much force, beauty, and sweetness, that if the order they stand in should be changed or disturbed, all force, beauty, and sweetness would vanish from them.
Dr Ian McCormick served as Professor in the Arts at the University of Northampton.
His most recent book is The Art of Connection. [Quibble Academic, 2013]