On Polish by George MacDonald

Story type: Essay

[Footnote: 1865]

By Polish I mean a certain well-known and immediately recognizable condition of surface. But I must request my reader to consider well what this condition really is. For the definition of it appears to us to be, that condition of surface which allows the inner structure of the material to manifest itself. Polish is, as it were, a translucent skin, in which the life of the inorganic comes to the surface, as in the animal skin the animal life. Once clothed in this, the inner glories of the marble rock, of the jasper, of the porphyry, leave the darkness behind, and glow into the day. From the heart of the agate the mossy landscape comes dreaming out. From the depth of the green chrysolite looks up the eye of its gold. The “goings on of life” hidden for ages under the rough bark of the patient forest-trees, are brought to light; the rings of lovely shadow which the creature went on making in the dark, as the oyster its opaline laminations, and its tree-pearls of beautiful knots, where a beneficent disease has broken the geometrical perfection of its structure, gloom out in their infinite variousness.

Nor are the revelations of polish confined to things having variety in their internal construction; they operate equally in things of homogeneous structure. It is the polished ebony or jet which gives the true blank, the material darkness. It is the polished steel that shines keen and remorseless and cold, like that human justice whose symbol it is. And in the polished diamond the distinctive purity is most evident; while from it, I presume, will the light absorbed from the sun gleam forth on the dark most plentifully.

But the mere fact that the end of polish is revelation, can hardly be worth setting forth except for some ulterior object, some further revelation in the fact itself.–I wish to show that in the symbolic use of the word the same truth is involved, or, if not involved, at least suggested. But let me first make another remark on the preceding definition of the word.

There is no denying that the first notion suggested by the word polish is that of smoothness, which will indeed be the sole idea associated with it before we begin to contemplate the matter. But when we consider what things are chosen to be “clothed upon” with this smoothness, then we find that the smoothness is scarcely desired for its own sake, and remember besides that in many materials and situations it is elaborately avoided. We find that here it is sought because of its faculty of enabling other things to show themselves–to come to the surface.

I proceed then to examine how far my pregnant interpretation of the word will apply to its figurative use in two cases–Polish of Style, and Polish of Manners. The two might be treated together, seeing that Style may be called the manners of intellectual utterance, and Manners the style of social utterance; but it is more convenient to treat them separately.

I will begin with the Polish of Style.

It will be seen at once that if the notion of polish be limited to that of smoothness, there can be little to say on the matter, and nothing worthy of being said. For mere smoothness is no more a desirable quality in a style than it is in a country or a countenance; and its pursuit will result at length in the gain of the monotonous and the loss of the melodious and harmonious. But it is only upon worthless material that polish can be mere smoothness; and where the material is not valuable, polish can be nothing but smoothness. No amount of polish in a style can render the production of value, except there be in it embodied thought thereby revealed; and the labour of the polish is lost. Let us then take the fuller meaning of polish, and see how it will apply to style.

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If it applies, then Polish of Style will imply the approximately complete revelation of the thought. It will be the removal of everything that can interfere between the thought of the speaker and the mind of the hearer. True polish in marble or in speech reveals inlying realities, and, in the latter at least, mere smoothness, either of sound or of meaning, is not worthy of the name. The most polished style will be that which most immediately and most truly flashes the meaning embodied in the utterance upon the mind of the listener or reader.

“Will you then,” I imagine a reader objecting, “admit of no ornament in style?”

“Assuredly,” I answer, “I would admit of no ornament whatever.”

But let me explain what I mean by ornament. I mean anything stuck in or on, like a spangle, because it is pretty in itself, although it reveals nothing. Not one such ornament can belong to a polished style. It is paint, not polish. And if this is not what my questioner means by ornament, my answer must then be read according to the differences in his definition of the word. What I have said has not the least application to the natural forms of beauty which thought assumes in speech. Between such beauty and such ornament there lies the same difference as between the overflow of life in the hair, and the dressing of that loveliest of utterances in grease and gold.

For, when I say that polish is the removal of everything that comes between thought and thinking, it must not be supposed that in my idea thought is only of the intellect, and therefore that all forms but bare intellectual forms are of the nature of ornament. As well might one say that the only essential portion of the human form is the bones. And every human thought is in a sense a human being, has as necessarily its muscles of motion, its skin of beauty, its blood of feeling, as its skeleton of logic. For complete utterance, music itself in its right proportions, sometimes clear and strong, as in rhymed harmonies, sometimes veiled and dim, as in the prose compositions of the masters of speech, is as necessary as correctness of logic, and common sense in construction. I should have said conveyance rather than utterance; for there may be utterance such as to relieve the mind of the speaker with more or less of fancied communication, while the conveyance of thought may be little or none; as in the speaking with tongues of the infant Church, to which the lovely babblement of our children has probably more than a figurative resemblance, relieving their own minds, but, the interpreter not yet at his post, neither instructing nor misleading any one. But as the object of grown-up speech must in the main be the conveyance of thought, and not the mere utterance, everything in the style of that speech which interposes between the mental eyes and the thought embodied in the speech, must be polished away, that the indwelling life may manifest itself.

What, then (for now we must come to the practical), is the kind of thing to be polished away in order that the hidden may be revealed?

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All words that can be dismissed without loss; for all such more or less obscure the meaning upon which they gather. The first step towards the polishing of most styles is to strike out–polish off–the useless words and phrases. It is wonderful with how many fewer words most things could be said that are said; while the degree of certainty and rapidity with which an idea is conveyed would generally be found to be in an inverse ratio to the number of words employed.

All ornaments so called–the nose and lip jewels of style–the tattooing of the speech; all similes that, although true, give no additional insight into the meaning; everything that is only pretty and not beautiful; all mere sparkle as of jewels that lose their own beauty by being set in the grandeur of statues or the dignity of monumental stone, must be ruthlessly polished away.

All utterances which, however they may add to the amount of thought, distract the mind, and confuse its observation of the main idea, the essence or life of the book or paper, must be diligently refused. In the manuscript of Comus there exists, cancelled but legible, a passage of which I have the best authority for saying that it would have made the poetic fame of any writer. But the grand old self-denier struck it out of the opening speech because that would be more polished without it–because the Attendant Spirit would say more immediately and exclusively, and therefore more completely, what he had to say, without it.–All this applies much more widely and deeply in the region of art; but I am at present dealing with the surface of style, not with the round of result.

I have one instance at hand, however, belonging to this region, than which I could scarcely produce a more apt illustration of my thesis. One of the greatest of living painters, walking with a friend through the late Exhibition of Art-Treasures at Manchester, came upon Albert Duerer’s Melancholia. After looking at it for a moment, he told his friend that now for the first time he understood it, and proceeded to set forth what he saw in it. It was a very early impression, and the delicacy of the lines was so much the greater. He had never seen such a perfect impression before, and had never perceived the intent and scope of the engraving. The mere removal of accidental thickness and furriness in the lines of the drawing enabled him to see into the meaning of that wonderful production. The polish brought it to the surface. Or, what amounts to the same thing for my argument, the dulling of the surface had concealed it even from his experienced eyes.

In fine, and more generally, all cause whatever of obscurity must be polished away. There may lie in the matter itself a darkness of colour and texture which no amount of polishing can render clear or even vivid; the thoughts themselves may be hard to think, and difficulty must not be confounded with obscurity. The former belongs to the thoughts themselves; the latter to the mode of their embodiment. All cause of obscurity in this must, I say, be removed. Such may lie even in the region of grammar, or in the mere arrangement of a sentence. And while, as I have said, no ornament is to be allowed, so all roughnesses, which irritate the mental ear, and so far incapacitate it for receiving a true impression of the meaning from the words, must be carefully reduced. For the true music of a sentence, belonging as it does to the essence of the thought itself, is the herald which goes before to prepare the mind for the following thought, calming the surface of the intellect to a mirror-like reflection of the image about to fall upon it. But syllables that hang heavy on the tongue and grate harsh upon the ear are the trumpet of discord rousing to unconscious opposition and conscious rejection.

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And now the consideration of the Polish of Manners will lead us to some yet more important reflections. Here again I must admit that the ordinary use of the phrase is analogous to that of the preceding; but its relations lead us deep into realities. For as diamond alone can polish diamond, so men alone can polish men; and hence it is that it was first by living in a city ([Greek: polis], polis) that men–

“rubbed each other’s angles down,”

and became polished. And while a certain amount of ease with regard to ourselves and of consideration with regard to others is everywhere necessary to a man’s passing as a gentleman–all unevenness of behaviour resulting either from shyness or self-consciousness (in the shape of awkwardness), or from overweening or selfishness (in the shape of rudeness), having to be polished away–true human polish must go further than this. Its respects are not confined to the manners of the ball-room or the dinner-table, of the club or the exchange, but wherever a man may rejoice with them that rejoice or weep with them that weep, he must remain one and the same, as polished to the tiller of the soil as to the leader of the fashion.

But how will the figure of material polish aid us any further? How can it be said that Polish of Manners is a revelation of that which is within, a calling up to the surface of the hidden loveliness of the material? For do we not know that courtesy may cover contempt; that smiles themselves may hide hate; that one who will place you at his right hand when in want of your inferior aid, may scarce acknowledge your presence when his necessity has gone by? And how then can polished manners be a revelation of what is within? Are they not the result of putting on rather than of taking off? Are they not paint and varnish rather than polish?

I must yield the answer to each of these questions; protesting, however, that with such polish I have nothing to do; for these manners are confessedly false. But even where least able to mislead, they are, with corresponding courtesy, accepted as outward signs of an inward grace. Hence even such, by the nature of their falsehood, support my position. For in what forms are the colours of the paint laid upon the surface of the material? Is it not in as near imitations of the real right human feelings about oneself and others as the necessarily imperfect knowledge of such an artist can produce? He will not encounter the labour of polishing, for he does not believe in the divine depths of his own nature: he paints, and calls the varnish polish.

“But why talk of polish with reference to such a character, seeing that no amount of polishing can bring to the surface what is not there? No polishing of sandstone will reveal the mottling of marble. For it is sandstone, crumbling and gritty–not noble in any way.”

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Is it so then? Can such be the real nature of the man? And can polish reach nothing deeper in him than such? May not this selfishness be polished away, revealing true colour and harmony beneath? Was not the man made in the image of God? Or, if you say that man lost that image, did not a new process of creation begin from the point of that loss, a process of re-creation in him in whom all shall be made alive, which, although so far from being completed yet, can never be checked? If we cut away deep enough at the rough block of our nature, shall we not arrive at some likeness of that true man who, the apostle says, dwells in us–the hope of glory? He informs us–that is, forms us from within.

Dr. Donne (who knew less than any other writer in the English language what Polish of Style means) recognizes this divine polishing to the full. He says in a poem called “The Cross:”–

As perchance carvers do not faces make,
But that away, which hid them there, do take,
Let Crosses so take what hid Christ in thee,
And be his Image, or not his, but He.

This is no doubt a higher figure than that of polish, but it is of the same kind, revealing the same truth. It recognizes the fact that the divine nature lies at the root of the human nature, and that the polish which lets that spiritual nature shine out in the simplicity of heavenly childhood, is the true Polish of Manners of which all merely social refinements are a poor imitation.–Whence Coleridge says that nothing but religion can make a man a gentleman.–And when these harmonies of our nature come to the surface, we shall be indeed “lively stones,” fit for building into the great temple of the universe, and echoing the music of creation. Dr. Donne recognizes, besides, the notable fact that crosses or afflictions are the polishing powers by means of which the beautiful realities of human nature are brought to the surface. One can tell at once by the peculiar loveliness of certain persons that they have suffered.

But, to look for a moment less profoundly into the matter, have we not known those whose best never could get to the surface just from the lack of polish?–persons who, if they could only reveal the kindness of their nature, would make men believe in human nature, but in whom some roughness of awkwardness or of shyness prevents the true self from appearing? Even the dread of seeming to claim a good deed or to patronize a fellow-man will sometimes spoil the last touch of tenderness which would have been the final polish of the act of giving, and would have revealed infinite depths of human devotion. For let the truth out, and it will be seen to be true.

Simplicity is the end of all Polish, as of all Art, Culture, Morals, Religion, and Life. The Lord our God is one Lord, and we and our brothers and sisters are one Humanity, one Body of the Head.

Now to the practical: what are we to do for the polish of our manners?

Just what I have said we must do for the polish of our style. Take off; do not put on. Polish away this rudeness, that awkwardness. Correct everything self-assertive, which includes nine tenths of all vulgarity. Imitate no one’s behaviour; that is to paint. Do not think about yourself; that is to varnish. Put what is wrong right, and what is in you will show itself in harmonious behaviour.

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But no one can go far in this track without discovering that true polish reaches much deeper; that the outward exists but for the sake of the inward; and that the manners, as they depend on the morals, must be forgotten in the morals of which they are but the revelation. Look at the high-shouldered, ungainly child in the corner: his mother tells him to go to his book, and he wants to go to his play. Regard the swollen lips, the skin tightened over the nose, the distortion of his shape, the angularity of his whole appearance. Yet he is not an awkward child by nature. Look at him again the moment after he has given in and kissed his mother. His shoulders have dropped to their place; his limbs are free from the fetters that bound them; his motions are graceful, and the one blends harmoniously with the other. He is no longer thinking of himself. He has given up his own way. The true childhood comes to the surface, and you see what the boy is meant to be always. Look at the jerkiness of the conceited man. Look at the quiet fluency of motion in the modest man. Look how anger itself which forgets self, which is unhating and righteous, will elevate the carriage and ennoble the movements.

But how far can the same rule of omission or rejection be applied with safety to this deeper character–the manners of the spirit?

It seems to me that in morals too the main thing is to avoid doing wrong; for then the active spirit of life in us will drive us on to the right. But on such a momentous question I would not be dogmatic. Only as far as regards the feelings I would say: it is of no use to try to make ourselves feel thus or thus. Let us fight with our wrong feelings; let us polish away the rough ugly distortions of feeling. Then the real and the good will come of themselves. Or rather, to keep to my figure, they will then show themselves of themselves as the natural home-produce, the indwelling facts of our deepest–that is, our divine nature.

Here I find that I am sinking through my subject into another and deeper–a truth, namely, which should, however, be the foundation of all our building, the background of all our representations: that Life is at work in us–the sacred Spirit of God travailing in us. That Spirit has gained one end of his labour–at which he can begin to do yet more for us–when he has brought us to beg for the help which he has been giving us all the time.

I have been regarding infinite things through the medium of one limited figure, knowing that figures with all their suggestions and relations could not reveal them utterly. But so far as they go, these thoughts raised by the word Polish and its figurative uses appear to me to be most true.

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