Playfulness in Writing

So, this is a tidbit from a book called The Path to Rome by Hilaire Belloc, first published in 1902, which I’m guessing probably predates the advice to Kill All Adverbs because, I mean, this book probably predates almost all of the common writing advice we see everywhere these days.

The book concerns the author’s journey, on foot, from Lorraine at the border between Germany and France, to Rome. It is therefore sort of a travel book. It’s also sort of book of essays and reflections by a great prose stylist, which leads to this passage, tossed casually into the book roughly in the middle, where Belloc writes –

You understand that under (or in) these circumstances –

When I was at Oxford there was a great and terrible debate that shook the Empire, and that intensely exercised the men whom we had sent to govern the Empire, and which, therefore, must have had its effect upon the Empire, as to whether one should say “under these circumstances” or “in these circumstances”; nor did I settle matters by calling a conclave and suggesting Quae quum ita sint as a common formula, because a new debate arose on when you should say sint and when you should say sunt, and they all wrangled like kittens in a basket.

Until there rose a deep-voiced man from an outlying college, who said, “For my part, I will say that under these circumstances, or in these circumstances, or in spite of these circumstances, or hovering playfully above these circumstances, or –

burrowing under these circumstances

plodding up to these circumstances

recognizing these circumstances

refusing these circumstances

attacking these circumstances

warily approaching these circumstances

wholly pooh-poohing these circumstances

somewhat confusing these circumstances

honestly accepting these circumstances

very stoutly criticizing these circumstances

vigorously regarding these circumstances

ironically receiving these circumstances

[and a lot more snipped out here, ending with “occasionally eliminating these circumstances”]

I take you all for Fools and Pedants, in the Chief, in the Chevron, and in the quarter Fess. Fools absolute and Pedants lordless. Free Fools, unlanded Fools, and Fools incommensurable, and Pedants displayed and rampant of the Tierce Major. Fools incalculable and Pedants irreparable; indeed the arch Fool-pedants in a universe of pedantic folly and foolish pedantry, O you pedant-fools of the world!”

But by this time he was alone and thus was this great question never properly decided.

Under these circumstances, then (or in these circumstances), it would profit you but little if I were to attempt the description of the Valley of the Emmen, of the first foothills of the Alps, and of the very uninteresting valley which runs on from Langnau.

And that sort of thing is why this is not exactly a straightforward description of travel OR a straightforward book of reflective essays or a straightforward example of anything else. It is instead an example of an author enjoying playing with words. I’m sure Belloc was having fun when he wrote the above, and the reader can certainly have fun reading it.

Also, the book is now well over a hundred years old, so that’s something right there.

I was particularly taken by the phrase hovering playfully above these circumstances, which honestly, I now feel I must someday manage to work into casual conversation or my life will be incomplete.

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5 thoughts on “Playfulness in Writing”

  1. I’ve read Chesterton, who was a contemporary, and IIRC, friend of Belloc’s but not Belloc. Obviously, I must correct this oversight at once. That was delightful.

  2. I love the heraldic imagery he uses halfway through this passage, mostly because it is so baroque and arcane as to entirely defy understanding unless one has actually studied heraldry. *snicker*
    The only reason I understand half of it is because I went down a research rabbit hole this past year for a throwaway line in a short story, thus placing me among the very Fools and Pedants the deep-voiced man is railing against.

  3. This is such delightful timing. I’d literally just finished writing a blog post about how my focus word for 2023 was going to be “playful”. I feel like the universe is patting me on the back and saying “Good idea.” The universe in the person of you, that is. Thanks!

  4. That is a splendid focus. I should try to remember to come back to that quality sporadically this year!

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