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The Principles of Literature

By

Jerrold Prothero, Ph.D.


jdprothero@gmail.com

June 21st, 2009


2:48 GMT
The Principles of Literature

To Homer

For teachers are the torch the gods may send,


Whose patient light, the wounds of darkness mend;
Who, but they bring beginning, there be end.

Copyright © 2009, Jerrold Prothero. All rights reserved. May distribute freely in unaltered form.
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The Principles of Literature

Table of Contents
Abstract ......................................................................................................................................................... 4

1. Introduction ........................................................................................................................................... 5

2. The Fallacy of Genius ........................................................................................................................... 6

3. The Principles ....................................................................................................................................... 8

3.1 Be Invisible ......................................................................................................................................... 8

3.2 Explore through Contrast .................................................................................................................. 10

3.3 Unify through Commonality ............................................................................................................. 10

3.4 Unfold through Emotion ................................................................................................................... 11

3.5 Be Concise ........................................................................................................................................ 12

3.6 Questions of Principle ....................................................................................................................... 12

4. The Craft ............................................................................................................................................. 14

4.1 Inhabitation ....................................................................................................................................... 14

4.2 Theme and Mood .............................................................................................................................. 16

4.3 Characters ......................................................................................................................................... 17

4.4 Plot and Setting ................................................................................................................................. 18

4.5 Meter, Rhyme and Alliteration ......................................................................................................... 18

4.6 The Power of the Vacuum ................................................................................................................ 20

4.7 Reversal ............................................................................................................................................ 21

4.8 Avoid Self-Expression and Creative Writing ................................................................................... 21

4.9 Composition ...................................................................................................................................... 22

4.10 Ruins ............................................................................................................................................... 23

5. Conclusion .......................................................................................................................................... 25

Copyright © 2009, Jerrold Prothero. All rights reserved. May distribute freely in unaltered form.
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The Principles of Literature

Abstract
Stories teach lessons that help us survive: as such, they are part of our biology. From this consideration,
principles for effective storytelling can be derived.

Because of their survival value, we inherently remember good stories. Conversely, in order for a story to
be memorable, it has to be good. The quality of Homer’s epic poems is partially due to the fact that,
having been composed in an illiterate society, they had to be memorized. The process of memorization
forced them into a highly polished form.

There are valuable lessons to be learned about literature by repeating the Homeric technique of
composing epic poems entirely in memory. This process is described from personal experience.

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The Principles of Literature

1. Introduction
In origin, all form in chaos lay:
One wilderness of warped and seething spray.

The remarkable universality of storytelling has a story of its own to tell. Different cultures and ages find
various ways to entertain themselves, but they have all told stories. Whether told around a campfire on a
cold night, printed in a book, or distributed to theaters with the latest technology, the core of storytelling
has always remained the same, and has always drawn an audience.

Nature has a trick: it is to make us enjoy things that are essential to our survival. Whether it is eating,
reproduction, or learning, we innately enjoy our basic necessities. The universality of storytelling suggests
that it falls into this category: we enjoy stories because we could not survive without them. It is not
difficult to see why this might be so. Stories convey life templates. They tell us about situations we may
be in before they arise, and give us tools to think about and prepare ourselves for them.

If we accept this line of reasoning, it leads to an important consequence. Stories will be perceived by their
audience as good to the extent that they assist in making sense of our world. We can use this fact to
explore the fundamental principles underlying the construction of good stories.

From this perspective, humanity and storytelling evolved together. Good stories are easy to remember
because our brains were designed to retain them.1 Conversely, if one creates a story that is easy to
remember, it is likely that its audience will think it is good. In fact, memorability is an empirical measure
for the quality of a story.

The link between story memorability and quality is shown most dramatically by Homer’s epics.
Composed in the illiterate period of the Greek Dark Ages (around 800 BC), Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
could be created and preserved only through memorization (and the Iliad alone is fifteen thousand lines
long).The fact that Homer’s epics had to be composed and transmitted in this way was a strong
contributor to their extraordinary quality.

Memory is a kind but thorough editor. It never criticizes. Instead, it quietly smoothes, rearranges, and
shortens. What it retains is generally much better than what it was given. By using memory as an editor,
one gains a tremendous advantage in terms of achieving literary quality.

As an application of this line of thought, two epic poems were composed using the Homeric method. That
experience is described here.

1
For a related discussion of stories and memory, see my essay Applied Synesthesia.
http://www.esnips.com/doc/31089b25-2f73-49d0-8ccc-07d9e938e7a7/Applied-Synesthesia-2005
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The Principles of Literature

2. The Fallacy of Genius


Of little measure is poor man who plods
Within the wake of vast intrigues of gods!

It is, or rather should be, an embarrassment to the literary community that the best work their field has
produced is nearly three thousand years old, and that no one has come close for four hundred years.

That this fact is not perceived as a cause for embarrassment reflects a widespread view of how literary
talent arises. One might call it the “heroic” theory of literature. This theory holds that the ability to
compose at the level of Homer, or even Shakespeare, is a gift given by birth or by the accidents of
upbringing. Such ability is assumed to be mostly unteachable. It occurs very rarely, rather like being
struck by lightning. And, unfortunately, the weather has been all too good since Homer, particularly
recently.

This line of thought leads us to that curious word, “genius”. Originally, “genius” referred to a guiding
spirit.2 In this sense of the word (the sense I prefer), we all have a genius: the question is how we choose
to use it. Over time, “genius” morphed into its current meaning, someone of extraordinary and
inexplicable talent. Generally, “genius” is now a word people use when they prefer a pleasant
befuddlement to the effort of understanding how something was done. It is a polite means to justify
mediocrity.

It is interesting to contrast the fates of “geniuses” in literature and in physics. No student of literature can
avoid reading Shakespeare’s plays. Yet it is perfectly possible for a professional physicist to retire without
ever having read a scientific paper written by Newton, or even by Einstein. The reason for this difference
has to do with the power of simple, fundamental principles.

There is a frequent misconception that intellectual achievement amounts to mastering the complex. The
opposite is true. Understanding arises from grasping the right simplicities. For instance, the whole of
classical physics (everything prior to general relativity and quantum mechanics) fits comfortably on one
side of one sheet of paper.3 When a final theory of physics arrives, it will be simpler still. Physics is not
difficult because it is complex. Physics is difficult because it is simple in terms of a language and a
manner of thought that is alien to human experience. The same process of embedding understanding into
principles occurs across the sciences, including for instance Mendeleev’s periodic table and Darwin’s
theory of evolution.

2
http://www.klever.org/wrdz/world/genius.html
3
See The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol. II Sect. 18.
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The Principles of Literature

It is because it has been possible to compress the achievements of Newton and other notable scientists
into simple, fundamental principles that their original work is rarely read. Using the power of principles,
students can now do better (if less novel) science than the best minds of previous times.

Generally, the underlying principles that make apparent complexity simple are not readily apparent.4
Learning is essentially the process of grasping simplicity; or, put differently, of making simple things
easy.

An interesting example of the power of fundamental principles comes from chess. In the years 1857-9, a
young chess player from Louisiana by the name of Paul Morphy rose from obscurity, convincingly
defeated the best chess players in the world, and equally quickly retired from competitive play.

Prior to Morphy, chess was in its “heroic” period. Chess ability was assumed to result primarily from
innate talent, not from an understanding of chess principles. One found the brilliant attack or the
mysterious defense, or one did not; one mastered the raw complexity of chess, or one did not; one was a
genius, or one was not. It was the analysis of Morphy’s games that put chess on a scientific footing. The
true basis of Morphy’s success was his understanding of one chess principle unknown to his
contemporaries.5

Morphy’s career is a lasting monument to the power of fundamental principles. It shows that if one
understands the essential ideas of a subject better than others, it is possible to achieve a level of
performance that will appear magical to the uninitiated. Indeed, if one wants to give the word “genius” a
useful definition in its modern sense, it would be this: “a genius is one who acquires a better
understanding than his contemporaries of the fundamental principles of a discipline, and of their
applications.”

It is suggested here that literature, like other efforts of the mind, can be understood in terms of simple
underlying principles. It is the purpose of what follows to explore what those principles might be.

4     
For instance, ∀ lim 2  ∑
 ∑ =1
→∞
5
The importance of rapid development in open positions. Two good accounts of chess principles are Reti, Masters
of the Chessboard and Lasker, Lasker’s Manual of Chess.
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The Principles of Literature

3. The Principles
Artemis, in the age of our despair,
Amidst the boiling waste, so wild and bare,
Didst not we find that form alone could mend
The empty grief the emptiness would send?

In exploring the principles underlying effective composition, it is reasonable to start from the
evolutionary considerations introduced above, which explain why stories have appeal. It is then useful to
study what I take to be the two leading exponents of the literary art, Homer and Shakespeare,6 much like a
chess master of the 19th century studying the games of Morphy.

3.1 Be Invisible
In solitude, our suffering on the sea.
Yet now there’s land, the gods claim victory!

If stories exist to help us think about the world, then they should be an accurate representation of that
world, or at least of the parts of it relevant to the story. A story that acts like a distorted lens is useless.7

This does not necessarily mean that a story needs to be realistic, in the sense of describing a situation that
(taken literally) is likely to occur in practice. In fact, it is often better if it does not. Creating an extreme
situation may be the best way to show clearly what is usually partially disguised. The meaning of
friendship is more evident in crisis than in the general mundanity of life.8

6
I refer to Shakespeare’s plays, not his poetry. Shakespeare wasn’t much of a poet. Despite the enormous popularity
of Shakespeare’s plays, there is little demand for recitation of his poems, and the reason is not hard to fathom. There
is a studied artificiality to Shakespeare’s poetry that he left behind in his plays. In poetry, Shakespeare was a man of
his age; as a playwright, he became a man for all ages. In English, better poets than Shakespeare include Geoffrey
Chaucer, Robert Burns, A.E. Housman, Edward FitzGerald, and Alfred Tennyson. The two poems by Coleridge that
are readable, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, are both better than Shakespeare’s. Indeed, of the
best-known literary figures, only one is in my opinion clearly a worse poet than Shakespeare: Milton. To digress, the
sole phrase from Milton that is to me readily memorable is “If in strength thou exceed all others, in anger do not so.”
(Samson Agonistes, 817) Milton did not state it so nicely, but that’s what he had in mind. After refusing to be bound
by rhyme, Milton crippled himself with his meter. Housman’s two-line response to Paradise Lost is better than the
work itself: “And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.”
7
It is not enough for a story to be incredible: it must also be credible.
8
In the same way, the programming languages that tell us the most about software in general are those that push a
single idea to an extreme, such as lists for Lisp or objects for Smalltalk. And experimental physicists create highly
unusual conditions in order to better understand the general laws of physics.
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The Principles of Literature

What is essential is that once the conditions of a story have been set, everything must unfold as it would if
it were real. Any distortion to the story’s development makes it useless as a tool for thinking about the
world.

One could term this the “principle of accuracy”. However, it is more prescriptive to call it the “principle
of invisibility”, in the following sense: authors should be invisible in their works. If it is easy to tell what
an author thinks about his topic, then it is likely we achieved that knowledge through a distortion in the
development of the story.

The principle of invisibility places a heavy burden on the writer, particularly when dealing with
unpleasant characters. It is not enough to represent them “fairly”: one must inhabit them. One must
understand and reflect their emotions and their thoughts, their virtues as well as their sins.

The principle of invisibility is very evident in Homer’s Iliad. Although a Greek, much of the strength of
Homer’s story stems from the sympathy he affords their enemies, the Trojans. Shakespeare is also
invisible in his best plays, to the extent that when he has a clear villain (notably in Macbeth and Richard
III) he goes so far as to tell the story from the villain’s point of view.9

The argument may be taken one step further, to suggest that it is inappropriate for authors to discuss the
interpretation of their work. If the purpose of literature is to facilitate thought, it defeats that purpose for
authors to tell their audience what to think.

There is an instructive exception to the principle of invisibility, perhaps best exemplified by Aesop’s
Fables. Aesop leaves us in no doubt whatever of his thoughts on his material, going so far as to provide
explicit morals. Yet his fables have stood the test of time.

The reason for the survival of Aesop’s Fables apparently has to do with the nature of Aesop’s material.
Aesop’s goal was not to represent the most difficult problems in life, things inherently shaded in nuance.
His aim was to represent simple and generally accepted truths in their most basic possible form. Doing so
facilitates thinking about them. The rule is this: a writer is allowed an opinion when only one opinion is
possible.

Extending this rule brings us into the realm of what could be called “partisan literature.” Certain beliefs
are strongly held by a particular community, and writers will be considered good by that community if
they explicitly reflect those views. But, by the same coin, they will be considered poor writers by
everyone else.10

9
By contrast, in his lesser works it is all too clear what Shakespeare was thinking: for instance, the Henry VI trilogy.
10
Wartime stories frequently fall into the category of partisan literature in their depiction of the enemy. So do stories
written for a particular religious group. One might suggest that works appealing primarily to literary professionals
are an example of a similar effect.
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The Principles of Literature

3.2 Explore through Contrast


And if it’s all for naught, yet nonetheless,
Our failure we prefer, to their success.

Both Darwin and Wallace, the two independent developers of the theory of evolution, received their key
insight from a treatise by Malthus.11 Malthus’ main point is that the demand for resources always grows
to be greater than the resources themselves. Consequently, we are inevitably faced with difficult choices,
or else have difficult outcomes forced upon us.12

Since life is spent navigating such limitations, it is not surprising that the consequences of critical
decisions are deeply rooted in literature. The key means for their presentation is through the use of
contrast: showing different approaches to essentially the same problem. The exploratory part of a good
story is built around its choice of contrasts.

In the simplest case, one contrasts good with evil. But pure good and evil are rare in Homer and
Shakespeare, as they are in life itself. More interesting contrasts convey, for instance, what it means to be
a hero (Achilles/Hector, in the Iliad), what it means to grow into responsibility (Henry/Harry Hotspur, in
Henry IV), or what it means to be a good daughter (Cordelia/Goneril and Regan, in King Lear).

3.3 Unify through Commonality


Yet know this of the gods, and know it well,
That we and mortals form a single spell!

Relationship always implies something shared in common: for instance, family, occupation, or interest.13
What contrast tears asunder, commonality binds. They work together.14 One might say that if contrast is
like the branches of a tree, commonality is the trunk. The choice of commonality is how unification is
achieved.15

The “point” of a story is often conveyed through its identification of commonalities. This is where the
disparate contrasts come together, and are seen as different aspects of the same thing.

11
Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population.
12
Reality is never a stranger. If you don’t go looking for it, it will come looking for you.
13
While this principle is obvious, its generality is remarkable, going far beyond literature. Whether it is shared
variable names in an equation, shared addresses in a software data structure, or shared bonds in a molecule,
relationship always implies shared information.
14
Rather like the dot and wedge products in geometric algebra, which provide respectively the symmetric and anti-
symmetric relationships between vectors. Incidentally, “dot product” is a misnomer: it should be called the “edge
product”, to emphasize that it measures the projection on a common edge, and to rhyme with “wedge”. This
terminological suggestion is only slightly influenced by a brand preference in cigars.
15
Some unifications are less attractive than others. Like SharePoint, which is Microsoft ectoplasm. A sort of jelly
that glues the unholy parts together.
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The Principles of Literature

We see this toward the end of the Iliad, as King Priam comes to the tent of his enemy, Achilles, to ask for
the return of his son’s body.16 Here, the contrasting passions of Greeks and Trojans at war disappear into
their common humanity.

Romeo and Juliet is similar. In the hands of a lesser writer, Romeo and Juliet would have been a tale of
contrasts. One of the warring families would have been chosen to be good, the other evil, and most likely
good would have prevailed over evil with Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after.

Shakespeare chose instead to make Romeo and Juliet a story of commonality. The two families are little
different; even their mutual hatred is simply mirrored between them. His point is that the apparent
differences between them, so evident to themselves, are a fallacy; but a deadly fallacy, capable of
destroying something beautiful.

3.4 Unfold through Emotion


For I, who have brought winter on our world,
Whose fists in bloods of innocents have curled,
Do not propose to live but for the day
That something of my past, I wash away.

Contrast and commonality define the architecture of a story. But it is a mostly static architecture: it tells
us little about how the story should flow. For that, one must study emotion.

Like fish for whom the ubiquity of water makes it imperceptible, we are emotional creatures with little
knowledge of emotion. The granularity of emotion is much finer than we generally realize. Music elicits
emotions for which we have no words.17

Emotion and memory are deeply intertwined. This is visible in the fact that we tend to remember things in
proportion to their ability to produce an emotional response in us. Beyond that, I believe emotion serves
as an index for human memory. We recall things by recalling the emotion that it produced.

Given the link between story quality and memorability suggested above, the tie between memory and
emotion means that a story cannot be good if it does not produce an emotional response from its audience.
To strain a prior analogy further, if a story is like a tree for which commonality is the trunk and contrast is
the branches, then emotion is the leaves, providing both color and life.

A key to constructing a good story, therefore, is to examine how emotions flow within the framework laid
down by contrast and commonality. This emotional analysis is primary: characters, plot, and setting come
in and out of existence, and are transmuted as necessary, in service of the emotional dynamics.18

16
Iliad, Book XXIV. An online translation by Butler is available from http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.html . But
Lattimore’s translation is better.
17
Perhaps more surprising is that there is no word I am familiar with for the emotion that drives scientific discovery.
It is something like the longing for perfection.
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The Principles of Literature

For instance, the Iliad begins “Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles…”19 Notice that it is the anger of
Achilles, not Achilles himself, which is Homer’s topic. And it is wrath in general, not Achilles’ in
particular, that concerns Homer. The Iliad is a vast meditation on emotion, for which the characters, and
even the war itself, are incidental.20

As a second example, King Lear is the story of a man’s emotional journey, to which theme characters,
plot, and setting are arranged in support.

3.5 Be Concise
Persephone, as sorrow and as grief,
The world and all its tales are told in brief.

If stories exist to help us think about various aspects of our lives, then their value increases to the extent
that they do so efficiently. A good story takes problems of interest to its audience and compresses them
into a concise form that simplifies consideration. Anything that does not serve this purpose should be
swept away.21 There is nothing worse than that which is both intolerable and interminable.22

In English poetry, the power of brevity is particularly apparent in A.E. Housman and in Edward
FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.23

3.6 Questions of Principle


Pose not thy questions in the form of fears,
<or render all thy answers in thy tears.

Are there other principles by which literature could be analyzed? Of course.24 Beyond a certain sanity
check, principles are not so much right or wrong as useful or useless.

18
That characters, plot and setting are the first things apparent when reading a story does not mean that they are the
most fundamental or important. In a similar way, it was once thought that the discovery of attacks was elemental in
chess. It was found that one plays better chess by first examining the hidden positional features that allow attacks to
exist.
19
Iliad, Book I.
20
It is noteworthy that one cannot point to a clear main character in the Iliad. None consistently controls the action.
Characters in the Iliad are secondary; though exquisitely drawn, they are derived from a deeper theme. By contrast,
the Odyssey is essentially the story of one man. This is one sense in which the Odyssey is markedly inferior to the
Iliad.
21
Or, at least, consigned to footnotes.
22
Of opera, it may be said that eventually it ends: from which, one may deduce the existence of a benevolent god.
23
In fairness, neither Homer nor Shakespeare are particularly concise. However, a good story is never killed by
conciseness; it can be easily killed by the wrong extravagance. Capture the essential first, then add layers if
necessary.
24
See, for instance, C. Meyer-Schaffer, Principles of Literature.
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The Principles of Literature

For example, classical mechanics can, in theory, be defined equivalently by either Newtonian or
Lagrangian principles. But when theory moves to practice, one develops a certain fondness for Lagrange,
as he saves one a lot of trouble. Similarly, Morphy’s chess principle is in theory unnecessary. One could
find just as good moves by blind calculation of possibilities. But Morphy’s principle saves so much effort
that a player who knows it will easily and routinely demolish one who does not.

It is suggested that the principles provided above, being rooted in the biology of why stories matter,
provide a practical advantage for analyzing and producing good literature. As with any other set of
principles, the only test for this assertion is experience.

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The Principles of Literature

4. The Craft
For the love of the ship, and the love of the craft.

Principles are concise and simple, practice is lengthy and complex. Every discipline develops a craft for
translating from one to the other. This section describes the craft of literature. Specifically, it describes the
craft of composing epic poetry.

What passes for modern poetry has drifted sufficiently far from the principles of literature as to have
earned the well-deserved contempt of the public. My purpose here is to return poetry to its narrative roots.

The most obvious difference between Homer and later writers is that they were writers and Homer was
not. Given the relative quality of Homer’s composition, this raises the suspicion that there was something
in Homer’s technique itself that at least partially contributed to his results. If one has an interest in
literature, this consideration of course leads to the exercise of repeating Homer’s method of composition.

The prospect of memorizing long passages of poetry during composition is perhaps daunting. One may
think it requires an extraordinary memory. In fact, it is precisely the peculiarities of human memory that
make Homer’s technique powerful. One does not strain memory to encompass the composition: one
instead forces the composition to be easily memorable.

It turns out that how one will keep an epic poem in memory is the wrong question to ask. And when one
has answered the right question, the memorization problem disappears. The right question is: “how can I
inhabit a scene, existing only in my mind, which conveys the same or greater emotional impact as if I was
there in life?” When one has answered this question, the poem comes to be attached to the emotional flow
of the story, and is recalled simply by placing oneself in each scene. I call this technique “inhabitation”.25

Using this technique, an epic poem becomes mnemonically simply an emotional cascade. The length of
the cascade is more a matter of patience than of difficulty.

4.1 Inhabitation
So verdant were the ample paths of Earth!
Eternal summer and eternal mirth!

25
For those with a background in mnemonic technique, what I call “inhabitation” is of course related to the classical
“method of loci” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci and F. Yates, The Art of Memory). However,
having used both, I think of inhabitation as a distinct technique. The purpose of the method of loci is to use a mental
world as a framework for remembering items. The items are primary; the mental world is simply a tool. The goal of
inhabitation is to create a mental world, with as much emotional valence as possible, and to compose from within
this place. The mental world is primary for inhabitation. The fact that this mental world can also be used to
remember an epic poem is an important practical consideration, but is secondary.
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The Principles of Literature

What strikes me most about Homer’s composition is the utter clarity of his vision. I have the impression
that in his mind he could stand upon the Achaean ships, and on the war fields of Troy, with as much or
greater clarity as if he had been there in life. I do not believe that anyone can compose at the level of
Homer without achieving this ability.26

“Inhabitation”, as I call this mental capability, can be learned in a manner similar to acquiring an athletic
skill. As with athletics, genetics may possibly help or hinder, but practice is the primary determinant of
success. And, like an athletic skill, there are specific exercises that are useful.

One exercise is to memorize lists using the method of loci. The “method of loci” consists of walking
through a space in one’s mind (sometimes called a “memory palace”) and placing each item from the list
in a particular spot. The space can be modeled after a real one, or it may be completely imagined. One
then walks through the mental space again to remember the items. Practicing the method of loci enables
one to build increasingly vibrant mental worlds, and helps one to learn what is effective and what is not
(in terms of what increases or hinders memorability). An interesting trend is that as one gets better at the
technique, the imagined spaces start to seem much larger.

Over the course of many trials, two factors struck me as especially important to the success of the method
of loci. The first is the degree to which the mental space induces an emotional response. The second
factor is the extent to which one has the sense of “being in” the mental space, rather than merely looking
at it from outside.27 For a weak mental space, one turns the space to see different parts of it. But when the
space becomes sufficiently large and compelling, one instead has the sense of having to turn oneself to
look around within the space.28

In addition to the method of loci, it is also useful to explicitly build one’s ability to visualize things in
one’s mind. An exercise for doing so is to bounce a knight around a chessboard in one’s head as one goes
about other business. Every square on a chessboard is close to either c3, c6, f3 or f6, in algebraic
notation.29 If one imagines the position of the knight with respect to the nearest of these four squares, one
is not faced immediately with grasping the full sixty-four squares of the chessboard. After mastering this
skill, one can work up to solving chess puzzles without sight of the board.

26
The clarity of Homer’s mental vision lends some credence to the legend that he was blind. Certainly, he must have
spent much time and effort inhabiting a mental world, and the lack of an available visible one may partially explain
this.
27
This is known as the sense of “presence” when it occurs from computer-generated virtual environments. In the
language of that community, one might say that Homer’s technique requires creating a virtual world within one’s
mind that is sufficiently compelling as to induce presence.
28
An observation that led to the introduction of rest frames into the psychology of spatial perception. See The Role
of Rest Frames in Vection, Presence, and Motion Sickness. http://www.esnips.com/doc/694da917-c923-4281-b68f-
8a4217bc8989/The-Role-of-Rest-Frames-in-Vection,-Presence,--Motion-Sickness
29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algebraic_chess_notation
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The Principles of Literature

While it is useful to build one’s ability to visualize, it is important to understand that the goal of
inhabitation is to not primarily to recreate a sensory world. The sensory world follows the rules of
physics; the mental world is concerned with identifying relationships. For instance, it is perfectly
acceptable in a mental world to “see” things that are behind walls or not “on scene” at all. Even in the
case of memorizing chess positions, which one might think an entirely visual task, it is more useful to
“feel” relationships between pieces than to focus merely on their visual appearance.30

Details that are not necessary do not need to be provided: it is often better if they are not. For instance, I
may sense that a particular imagined character is poorly dressed, without knowing precisely what his
clothing is. Certainly, that level of detail could be provided. But doing so reduces the generality of the
character, while providing little in return.31

Inhabitation can be quite painful, particularly initially. I do not mean abstract angst. I mean a sudden,
sharp pain in the forehead, similar to a muscle cramp, except that it occurs within the brain itself. The
pain is accompanied by a forcible narrowing of the flow of thought to a single idea for a period of about a
minute. Afterwards, one is left woozy and tired. Over time, such episodes become less frequent.32

4.2 Theme and Mood


What shall it mean, when gods immortal war?

By “theme” is meant here the general idea explored in a work; by “mood”, its dominant emotion.
Together, they define the highest-level constraints on the design of a composition.

Composition need not start with a theme. Homer, for instance, was almost certainly handed his basic story
and characters by earlier tradition, but then had a choice of theme within that context.33 When the work is
finished, however, it should be entirely consistent with its theme. Theme guides contrast, commonality,
and emotional flow; these in turn shape characters, plot and setting.

Homer lived after the fall of one civilization and before the rise of another. Perhaps influenced by this
situation, he took as his theme what it means to be honorable in the face of forces much greater than we,
which are indifferent or hostile to our welfare.

30
And, over time, these relationships develop emotional valence. Certain pieces “want” certain things in particular
chess positions.
31
This is similar to the preference mathematicians have for maintaining a high level of abstraction. Adding
unnecessary mathematical detail both complicates and reduces the generality of a proof.
32
I have the impression that mastering Homer’s technique requires rewiring one’s brain slightly.
33
For instance, Homer could have taken as his theme the glory of Greek arms, in which case we probably would not
have heard of him.
Copyright © 2009, Jerrold Prothero. All rights reserved. May distribute freely in unaltered form.
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The Principles of Literature

A theme Shakespeare returned to repeatedly was political power: particularly, the transition of power.34

If Homer has become dated, it is partly because his story material has inevitably become of less interest to
us. Hand-to-hand combat is no longer a significant part of our lives, and we care little about the details of
Greek mythical lineage.

But Homer is also unfashionable because his theme seems less relevant to our time than to his. Our
problem is not that we have too little power to influence things, but rather that we have too much.35
However, the eclipse of Homer’s theme may be temporary. If we are struck by a Carrington event while
our civilization still clings to the surface of a single planet, Homer’s perspective will gain new relevance.
And later, when we no longer look up at the stars, but rather swim among them, one speck in a rather
large wilderness, we will again sense a kinship to Homer’s theme.

Homer does not differ fundamentally from later writers in his use of theme. But he does in mood. I know
of no literate composer who uses mood as systematically, as architecturally, as Homer. This may well be
a defining difference. I do not believe that the Iliad could have existed without a strongly articulated
mood.

For an epic poem held in memory, mood is the mechanism through which composition flows, and by
which it will be remembered. While emotions may vary considerably across the composition, they are
always seen with respect to the underlying mood, to which the composition tends to return as if through
gravitational force.

We lack the emotional vocabulary to discuss mood in detail. Roughly, however, Homer’s mood could be
described as “thoughtful endurance”, consistent with his theme.

4.3 Characters
Asclepius, one cannot build from sand,
Such light and shifting grains as mortals be.
The wind and tide shall warp what e’er is planned,
Foundations fade before the pounding sea.

While the characters of Homer and Shakespeare are the most memorable in literature, we are told little of
their physical characteristics or mannerisms. We hear of Richard III’s appearance, because of its direct

34
A topic of particular interest to Elizabethans, faced with an heirless queen and the national memory of the War of
the Roses.
35
Indeed, if an epitaph were to be needed for humanity, it might be this: “They had no enemies except themselves,
and yet they were vanquished.”
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The Principles of Literature

relevance to Shakespeare’s story,36 but neither composer provides physical descriptions for their own
sake.

The reticence of Homer and Shakespeare on this topic is quite interesting. I believe it reflects that their
stories were not built from their characters; their characters are instead derived from the principles
discussed above. Characters are therefore described only to the extent that other considerations require.
This parsimony endows their characters with a great deal of generality: they are not people with particular
appearances, but rather any person that fits the constraints of the story.

I do not mean to suggest that characters are unimportant. My point instead is that characters are important
not as the heart of a story, but rather as its face.

4.4 Plot and Setting


I did not judge his follies, as did they:
In knowing most, I had the least to say.

Plot and setting define the time and space of a story. They are a story’s background, often mistaken for its
foreground. Keep them simple and supportive of the principles. Homer’s plot was never complex.
Shakespeare’s most complex plots do not occur in his best plays.

4.5 Meter, Rhyme and Alliteration


The rhythms of the Earth shall make no tune:
Asunder shall its structures fall to ruin.

Meter can provide a hypnotic regularity that draw one into a poem. Mastering the use of meter is easier
than one might suppose. Start by finding a short poetic passage that one likes and memorizing it. Then,
alter it slightly while preserving the meter, even if the changes are nonsensical. One quickly develops the
ability to compose in meter.

I chose to compose in rhyme mostly because I enjoy it, but also to simplify memorization.37 Rhyme, like
meter, is not too difficult to learn.

Meter and rhyme need not follow a fixed pattern. They can be thought of as tools for expressing the
principles of contrast and commonality at the most local level of a poem. As such, they should vary as
necessary to perform this task. For instance, consider the stanza:

36
Richard III, Act I Scene 1.
37
Note, however, that Homer did not use rhyme.
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The Principles of Literature

I, Zeus, Poseidon, brothers were we three,


As fell upon this rare and favored plot,
And for its three partitions cast our lot,
As each of equal worth, or so judged we.

Here, the second and third lines are closely related, as are the first and fourth. The pattern of rhyme
therefore adjusts to reflect this fact.

A closely related sequence of ideas can and should be given a syntactic commonality, as with the
extended rhyme in the following:

Thus sets these souls, whom I forever claim.


And yet, preserve the honor of their name.
And let them walk amidst you, through their fame!
And Chiron, in whose cause tonight I came,
Beloved of gods, he kindled reason’s flame,
With which, ferocious fortune, sought to tame.
Forever honor those who do the same!

Conversely, one can mark the end of a passage by breaking the rhyme and meter patterns:

For we on honeydew had fed,


And with the winter winds were wed:
And so, like clouds of August sped,
Across the wondrous sea.

Another technique for showing commonality, particularly useful within a line, is to select words with the
same initial letter (“alliteration”). Notice the words associated with “arts”, “grounds”, “statues” and
“fountains” in this couplet:

With all allicient arts their grounds didst gild:


With selcouth statues, fabrile fountains filled.

Alliteration can of course be used (even more) excessively. One might hope I would counsel piously
against such practice, but I’m fond of excess:

In all great measure dwells but sad decay.


In narrow compass, cruel and awkward things.
Melt then the moment to what mirth one may!
Well wine will warm when wandering wit it wings!

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The Principles of Literature

4.6 The Power of the Vacuum


Each other is the greatest fear you know.
We fear the void, where even grief can’t go.

Aristotle notwithstanding, Nature is quite comfortable with vacuums. Most of the universe consists of
precisely that, to a very good approximation. The human mind, however, is a different matter.

We are very quick to fill holes in limited information with plausible conjecture. We are driven to do so,
presumably, because missing a possible bigger picture is more dangerous to us than is forming an
incorrect hypothesis.

It is possible to use our innate curiosity about incomplete information to draw people into a poem. For
instance, the two lines

Having lived, they live forever,


Who to purpose grand endeavor.

would convey the same meaning, with similar grammatical difficulty, if their order were reversed. But the
reversed order would be less effective, because one would not be drawn to ask: “who are they”?

Another example:

Born on the islands that gleam in the sea!


Born in contentment, and born to be free!
Raised in your midst with your faults as they be,
Gone is my daughter, sweet Persephone!

And more subtly:

I shall not love thee but in summer tide,


<or only in the blush of fragrant spring;
I shall not love thee but when sorrows hide:
To time and tempers all, my heart I bring.

The whole genre of mystery fiction is built on this idea. A “whodunit” would have little appeal if one
were given the answer at the beginning. Of course, one has to be careful not to overuse this technique to
the point that the reader misses too much information to easily follow the narrative.

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The Principles of Literature

4.7 Reversal
I do not strain my eyes to see!
I drink, and visions come to me.

In political debate, the contestants usually start from different premises and essentially talk past each
other. A more effective technique, where possible, is to accept one’s opponent’s premises and derive a
different conclusion. This places one initially in the camp of one’s opponent’s supporters, and allows one
to lead them away.38

A model for this technique is the funeral oration in Julius Caesar,39 in which Antony initially accepts the
premise that his opponents are “honourable men”, before gradually changing the meaning of this phrase.

However, the same idea can also be used much more concisely. For instance, in Henry IV Part 1, we have

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.


Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?

A similar construction appears in Henry V: Act 5, Scene 2.

4.8 Avoid Self-Expression and Creative Writing


Rare sentinel upon a blasted plain!
Leave unemployed such words as are insane!

The problem with self-expression is that beyond a small circle of family and friends, no one much cares
what one thinks, and there is no reason why they should. To reach a general audience, therefore, one
should focus instead on providing value to that audience. Self-expression should be at most a secondary
purpose. Writers exist for the benefit of their audience, not conversely. A writer’s goal should be to reflect
accurately things common to us all, or greater than any of us.

The term “creative writing” similarly encourages authors to look to the wrong source for their works.
“Creative” implies that one seeks resources within oneself. A better phrase is “reflective writing” (if
“composition” or “literary writing” is not sufficient), which suggests that one look to the world around us,
and attempt to reflect its key characteristics.40

38
It is something like an impedance match in electrical engineering.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impedance_matching
39
Act 3, Scene 2. http://www.online-literature.com/shakespeare/julius_caesar/10/
40
A second objection to the term “creative writing” is the strangeness of using these two words in a sense that is
intended to include the latest literary drivel, while excluding Einstein’s 1905 papers on special relativity, the
photovoltaic effect, and Brownian motion.
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The Principles of Literature

Literature is not a bully pulpit. In literature, the master of the house arrives through the servants’ entrance.

4.9 Composition
Thou, Minos, know I’m weary of all things,
Of wars and deaths, and cabbages and kings.

In my reconstruction of Homer’s technique, composition is much closer to listening than to speaking. One
builds a world in one’s head, using the techniques described above, and then lives within it for an
extended period of time. When the emotions are felt with sufficient clarity, when the world has become
sufficiently sharp, when one can see it from many perspectives, then composition amounts to listening to
what is said and repeating it.

I have described inhabitation in terms of constructing a mental world, but the subjective impression is
quite different. It feels like one has journeyed, with difficulty, to a far land, one in which the poem
already exists. The limitations of one’s work seem less a failure of one’s artistic talent than an inability to
perceive the poem in its full and subtle detail. One does not feel like one is composing, but rather that one
happened to be an available portal when the poem decided to reveal itself.41

At a conscious level, one determines the theme for the poem, defines the contrasts and commonalities,
and develops the general mood and emotional flow. From these, characters, plot, and setting start to form.
As one begins to inhabit this world, as intensely as possible, the specific words of the poem begin to
emerge from the subconscious.42

What develops is a sort of dialogue between the conscious and subconscious mind. The former sets the
general parameters of the poem, the latter bubbles up phrases and story ideas. Each modifies the other.
Over a long series of iterations between the two, the poem gradually takes shape.43

I liken the process to whittling a piece of wood, slowly removing rough edges and bringing forth form.44
One goal of poetic whittling is to remove the arbitrary. If two possibilities are equally good, make a
reason for one to be better. In the end, there should be nothing left that is not there for a reason, and that is
not the way it is for a reason. While a poem may flow fairly well when it is finished, it rarely does so
during composition. There is a lot of whittling to be done.

41
“Sing, goddess…” Although Homer’s invocation of his Muse has been tritely parroted for millennia, notably by
Milton, to Homer it was perfectly serious. Homer did not feel that the Iliad came from him, but rather through him.
42
The words, in my experience, can come only from the subconscious. I have never composed a single phrase I am
happy with that was solely, or even primarily, due to conscious thought. The line between the sublime and the
ridiculous is nowhere so fine as in poetry. The conscious mind lands consistently on the wrong side.
43
The close working relationship between the conscious and subconscious in this style of composition perhaps
contributes to the strong subjective sense that the poem comes from an external source.
44
A different analogy would be simulated annealing, an optimization technique inspired by the metallurgical craft of
slowly cooling a substance to produce better crystals. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulated_annealing
Copyright © 2009, Jerrold Prothero. All rights reserved. May distribute freely in unaltered form.
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The Principles of Literature

Although my goal was to recreate Homer’s general method of composition, I took advantage of literacy in
one way. A partial phrase or a fragment of a new idea, before it has taken definitive form, is very likely to
be forgotten. It is as vulnerable as a bird that has not yet learned to fly. I made a habit of writing these
down as soon as they occurred to me.45

4.10 Ruins
Green, gold, grey, old, from thence they pass away.
And from the dawn, the night is cast,
What’s due to mortals falls at last.
.
The mnemonist Sherashevsky wrote things down so that he would be able to forget them.46 Although this
is generally found surprising, I understand Sherashevsky’s sentiment entirely. Once one has written
something down one no longer feels the obligation, consciously or not, to inhabit it. It becomes possible
to walk away.

Having finished my efforts with epic poetry, and having written down the results, I left the mental space
in which they exist. Over time, their mental structures crumbled. Rather like magnificent ruins, they
gained a certain grandeur in decay.

The first to go was not so much the words themselves as the fine emotional detail to which the less
important passages were tied. Given a prompt, the words could still be found; but it became harder to
reach them. Eventually, larger chunks fell away.

However, certain passages have always stayed with me, without any effort to retain them. The verses
sprinkled perhaps too liberally through this essay were all written down from memory, years after their
composition, without the slightest effort or hesitation. And the reader may feel spared in knowing that I
could have added many more in the same way.

One may presume that the number of people interested in resurrecting the art of composing epic poetry in
memory can be counted on the fingers of a badly maimed hand. If I may nonetheless address that hand for
a moment, one benefit the craft provides is that it leaves one permanently with an art gallery in one’s
mind. But it is better than an art gallery in an important respect. Artists create physical instantiations of a
mental state, in the hope that the viewer will, through the external cue, achieve the same or similar mental
state as the artist. But what I have permanently between my ears is the mental state of art itself.

45
As a matter of truth in advertising, while I always kept the poem completely memorized during composition, as
Homer had to, I did write it down as I went along. Partly from an unjustified paranoia that I would forget it, but
more because it was interesting to see how particular passages evolved over time. Whenever a difference developed
between the written version of the poem and the version in memory, it was almost always the version in memory
that was better. The only exceptions involved new ideas that had been partially forgotten.
46
Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist.
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The Principles of Literature

When I die, a museum will die with me.

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The Principles of Literature

5. Conclusion
Therefore for all seasons shall ye be,
<or winters wild, nor summers only see.
And therefore shall the gods again as one,
Rebuild what ruin this time of war hath done.

Literature is the art of lying in order to tell the truth. All fiction is constructed from lies: it becomes
literature when the lies are arranged to reveal the truth.

I have walked merely as a student on Homer’s path. Nonetheless, I believe I have seen enough of his
method to understand how epics such as his could be composed. The way is open to any who choose to
follow it. Doing so is not primarily a matter of innate memory, intellect, or ability. It is a matter of will.

As an example of the topics discussed here, my second epic is currently available.47

47
The Way of Trilobites. As befits a student of Homer, it is based loosely on a Greek myth: the descent of
Persephone into Hades and the origin of seasons. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0013R0AKO
Copyright © 2009, Jerrold Prothero. All rights reserved. May distribute freely in unaltered form.
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