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Sources of Taste

Taste is a part of good oratory, and is no mean equipment of a great speaker. No man goes far in a speech without betraying to the auditor his coarseness or refinement. A man may be an orator without taste and command applause, but he never commands respect without it. An orator may ruin a cause by a single phrase. A secretary of a great political party in Manchester lost the election of its candidates by a single expression which wounded the self-respect of the city. When Mr. Blaine was presidential candidate in America his election was lost by one of his advocates, the Rev. Dr. Burchard, who had coined an alliterative phrase, which he thought much of, but had never thought how it would be regarded by the great assembly to whom it was addressed. The publicans, the Catholics, and the southern party had been won over in sufficient numbers to give Blaine a majority, when Dr. Burchard must say that Blaine would be victorious over 'Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.' This rendered the publicans furious, the Catholics indignant, the south vindictive; and so Blaine's majority was dissolved by this odious and high-sounding phrase. The phrase cited was said to be ' bad taste.' But bad taste means bad judgment, bad knowledge, and disregard for the feelings of others. To assail the self-respect of adversaries is not an act of taste—it is an outrage. Taste is preference and selection in personal things, of that which neither annoys nor harms others. Persons who seek to excuse or escape the responsibility of the preferences of themselves or others, will say 'there is no accounting for tastes.' Yes, there is. Taste has its roots in habit, in education, and has its laws and standards. Town Councilors who put and keep up hideousness in the town they are appointed to improve, no sooner visit the Continent than they acquire taste in streets and picturesque open spaces. Space is the first condition of a fine street. If dignity cannot be given to a town, gleams of brightness may be let into it, and it need not have monotonousness perpetuated in it. Bad taste in towns can be accounted for. It is owing to the ignorance of its chief inhabitants.

Taste in writing has its laws. There must be distinctness. There is writing so elegant that it cannot be read. The first law of writing is that every letter is distinct in form from every other letter. One form of letter should be decided on and not departed from. Neatness and plainness follow. Taste in writing is founded on the standard that it can be read easily without trouble or effort, and no single letter in it can be mistaken for any other letter.

Taste in truth depends on accuracy, clearness, vitalnessthat is its usefulness and relevance.

Taste in books is determined by width of margin, clearness of type, strength and durability of paper, apart from the binding and contents.

Taste in mind has conditions of vividness, perspicacity, force, the sense of proportion, veracity and integrity.

Taste in manliness has reference to symmetry, grace of movement, resilience and health.

Taste, therefore, is not wantonness of choice, but depends on knowledge; and there would be better taste were it understood that the quality of taste is the outward and visible sign by which a person betrays his attainments.

Taste in oratory has also its laws and conditions. One is that no illustration should be used without reference to the subject. If the object is to lower the pretension of a person or thing, the illustration should do it. If the purpose is to exalt, the illustration should elevate it. I knew an agitator of no mean qualities of mind defend himself before a judge, by quoting the simile of Bishop Warburton, who compared critics of his way of thinking, to swine, which, though not popular animals, were yet useful in routing up acorns and fertilizing trees. For the defendant to compare himself to unsavory swine was to confirm the court in its unpleasant impression of him; whereas his interest was to exalt the character and services of the agitator, whom he might have compared to the explorer, who risks his reputation, and not unfrequently life or liberty, to discover new advantages or opportunities for his countrymen, who may never know him, and if they do neither regard him nor requite him. Such an illustration would be in good taste, having regard to the defendant's purpose. The first illustration was in bad taste, and he who used it, who was an orator by nature, would have seen it to be so had he reflected; by which I want the student to see that one of the conditions of good taste is reflection.

Proportion is also a form of taste. To those who have that sense in art or eloquence, disproportion is an outrage, and he who is guilty of it loses the power of being impressive. Measured and relevant words intensify rather than decrease vividness and imagination. We are told of Dante that, great and various as his power of creating pictures in a few lines unquestionably was, he owed that power to the directness, simplicity and intensity of his language. In him 'the invisible becomes visible,' as Leigh Hunt said,—'darkness becomes palpable, silence describes a character, a word acts as a flash of lightning, which displays some gloomy neighborhood where a tower is standing, with dreadful faces at the window.'

'In good prose' (says Frederic Schlegel) 'every word should be underlined'—that is, every word should be the right word; and then no word would be lighter than another. It comes to the same thing, where all words are italics, one may as well use roman. There are no italics in Plato, because there are no unnecessary or unimportant words. It is a sign of taste in writing or speaking that it needs few italicized or emphatic words.

Taste is also part of the art of commendation. Most persons carry a stock of hate on hand. Censure is always ready-made. But praise is a different thing. It only proceeds from generosity or gratitude, and those are deliberate sentiments. A man may rage without art, but he cannot applaud sensibly without it. This is why the quality of a man's mind is more easily seen in his praise than in his censure. Defamation shows his feeling, praise his understanding; and, if he wishes to give an idea of his strong sense of a service rendered him, he can best do it by showing that he accurately estimates it, and this is the only praise anyone, not vain, cares to receive, or which is an actual tribute to him who receives it. Taste in praise is rare. Its principle is that there can be no praise except from equals or superiors who can measure the difficulties overcome in the attainment of excellence. Inferiors may admire. Mrs. Barbauld recognized this in her admirable line in reference to the inadequacy of the creature professing to praise the Creator. She, as Hooker had suggested before her, wrote—
Silence is our least injurious praise.
Taste in manners is no mean attainment, and goes for much in the public estimation of the orator. 'Do manners matter?' ask some who have not thought much upon the subject. There is reason to think manners do matter. The proverb says, 'Manners make the man.' No careful speaking man would say this. There are persons whose manners are coarse or brutal at times, quick, hasty, abrupt and inconsiderate, who are yet tender, full of feeling for others and generous. There are others who are all suavity and courtesy, whose souls are base and selfish. Men must be judged by what they do, as well as by what they seem. Nevertheless, good manners are good as far as they go. Everybody knows this; even those who affect to despise courtesy as servility or mealy-mouthedness, are quickly stung themselves and irritated and implacable, if they find themselves treated with discourtesy. Bad manners give a bad impression of a good heart, and a bad presentment gives a bad impression of a good cause.

A definition should not only help you to find a thing, but help you to know it when you do find it. How many definitions of politeness and good breeding have been given, but who has defined it in such words of light and guidance as Swift, who said, 'Whoever makes the fewest persons uneasy, is the best bred man in the company.'

Politeness is thoughtfulness for others and forgetfulness of yourself. Good breeding is consideration for the pleasure of those about you. It is the same in palace and cottage; in the highest assembly and the lowest; in Parliament or a town council; in pulpit or on the platform; at the fireside or in the street. It is possible to all in the workshops, in the mill, or in the store. It is not rank, it is not wealth, it is not learning that constitutes good breeding. Good breeding is good feeling, and it is good taste to remember it.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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