style (in literature)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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style (in literature)

style, in literature, the mysterious yet recognizable result of a successful blending of form with content. Generally speaking, all the arts reflect one of two stylistic tendencies: the classical or the romantic. When applied to literature the first term suggests objective presentation, formal structure, and clear yet ceremonious language, and the second indicates subjective presentation, organic structure, and obscure, effusive, or everyday language. Stylistically, Milton's Paradise Lost is classical, whereas Shakespeare's King Lear tends toward the romantic (see classicism; romanticism). But style is also the badge of individuality that distinguishes a good writer from a poor or mediocre writer. A good poet's sense of style will ensure that the words and lines of his verse cannot be deleted or rearranged without ruining, or at least weakening, the poem as a whole. Keats's sense of style made him change Stanza 30 of "The Eve of St. Agnes" from "she slept" to "she slept an azure-lidded sleep." At the same time, a style that is overblown attracts the attention of parodists. In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer mimics the medieval romances in "The Tale of Sir Thopas" ; Shakespeare parodies tragic diction in the "Pyramus and Thisbe" passage in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Robert Benchley's version of Dickens's Christmas Carol ends with a revised utterance from Tiny Tim, "God help us, every one." Commentaries on style abound. The most famous are themselves models of what they instruct. Among these are Horace's Ars Poetica (c.13 BC); Quintilian's Institutio oratoria; Boileau's Art poétique (1674) and Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711), both verse imitations of Horace; Buffon's Discours sur le style (1753), a work all the more remarkable for being written by a naturalist; and William Strunk and E. B. White's Elements of Style (3d ed. 1979), a charming yet practical primer for the would-be writer.

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