Qualities of expresson: The spirit is willing, but the pen might be weak

in-nuce.com: pen is weak
The pen should be mightier than the sword.
From Beginnings of Rhetoric and Composition, by Adams Hill:


The spirit is willing; the pen is weak

Some intelligent and faithful student who has toiled through this book will, perhaps, as he approaches the end of his labors, ask himself or his teacher: "What does it all mean? Of what practical value are all these details? Of what use is it to know whether this or that expression is good or bad English? How am I better off because I have learned that one form is preferable to another? What if my compositions are a little deficient in matters that mean so much to schoolmasters and grammarians but are of no consequence to people in general? If I have 'thoughts that breathe,' 'words that burn ' will come at my bidding; if I have nothing to say, mastery of language is of no use."
These questions point to the thing still to be said, the most important of all: the study of English composition is useful or useless according as it is or is not a means to a worthy end, the end of communicating to others what one sincerely believes. 
In the art of expression, as in other arts, there is little advantage either in possessing tools or in knowing how to handle them unless one means to do something with them — not necessarily some great thing, but a thing worth doing, and therefore worth doing well. The term "expression" implies the existence of something to express, — something known, thought, or imagined, or at least "some chime of fancy, wrong or right." Unity of expression implies that the writer has bent his mind to a definite purpose; clearness, force, ease, imply that his language serves that purpose.
There are writers, indeed, who pay undue attention to form, some aiming at mechanical correctness with little regard to meaning, some at "felicities of diction" so called. There are others — and these are not few — who write as if they believed that the substantial merits of their work were so great as to counterbalance faults in expression.
The best writers avoid both extremes, for they believe that literature is, as Cardinal Newman defines it, "the expression of thought in language. By thought, I mean," Newman goes on to say, "the ideas, feelings, views, reasonings, and other operations of the human mind. A great author, gentlemen, is not one who merely has a copia verborum, whether in prose or verse, and can, as it were, turn on at his will any number of splendid phrases and swelling sentences; but he is one who has something to say and knows how to say it. I do not claim for him, as such, any great depth of thought, or breadth of view, or philosophy, or sagacity, or knowledge of human nature, or experience of human life, though these additional gifts he may have, and the more he has of them the greater he is; but I ascribe to him, as his characteristic gift, in a large sense the faculty of Expression. He is master of the twofold Logos, the thought and the word, distinct, but inseparable from each other. He may, if so be, elaborate his compositions, or he may pour out his improvisations, but in either case he has but one aim, which he keeps steadily before him, and is conscientious and single-minded in fulfilling. That aim is to give forth what he has within him; and from his very earnestness it comes to pass that, whatever be the splendor of his diction or the harmony of his periods, he has with him the charm of an incommunicable simplicity. Whatever be his subject, high or low, he treats it suitably and for its own sake."
Some authors have, no doubt, achieved distinction as masters of expression in spite of the fact that they had no school or college training in English; but most, if not all, of this class — Franklin and Lincoln are notable examples — had great natural gifts, which they made the most of by persistent labor and unsparing self-criticism. By attending to small things, each trained himself for the great work he was to do.
Although we may not have either their gifts or their "infinite capacity for taking pains," we have advantages that they missed, advantages that impose on us corresponding obligations. If we fail to do our best in small matters because we cherish the belief that as soon as we have something to say we shall be able to write well enough for our purpose, we may be mortified to discover, when it is too late, that, although "the spirit is willing," the pen is weak.
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