Things would be fine but that I undertook to read Melville’s novellas and short stories, “The Piazza” among them. It’s hard to tell whether Melville is in on the joke about the narrator in this story: His diction is so archly elevated you don’t know whether Melville thinks that the high-flown language fits the moral of the story, or has decided to satirize it in the telling. The moral, by the way, is one I heard once from my grandfather, who, gazing off of White Oak Mountain at distant farms he knew to be squalid, remarked how wonderful things could look if you were just far enough away.
Anyway, Melville’s elevated diction reaches such heights as this:
“. . . the grass-grown ways were traveled but by drowsy cattle. . . .”
I had a hard time getting that. I wanted to put a “not” in it, to make it read like Wordsworth’s lines:
A poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company.
“But” here (once you supply the elliptical “be anything”) means “except.” The grass-grown ways were not traveled except by drowsy cattle. So why is there no “not” in Melville’s line? It’s no accident. A few paragraphs later he lays this on the reader:
“. . . Jacks-in-the-pulpit . . . preached but to the wilderness.”
Again I wanted to put in a “not.” Melville had left it out. Somehow, he’s making “but,” which I wanted to read as meaning “except,” mean just about the opposite ─ “only.”
Then I thought ─ elevated diction, again ─ of this line: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Only a churl would insist that this really means that everyone except God knows who’s buried here. I thought of some overly dramatic soul, suddenly enraptured, crying out, “I can but sing!” So there are uses where “but” means not “except,” but “only.” (I think that last “but” is a conjunction, doing the work of “rather,” or “contrary to what you might have thought,” but I’m not sure, as there seem to be a lot of “buts” out there doing different kinds of work.)
Grammarians seek to make all plain by saying that some “buts” are conjunctions (He flew, but he crashed); some are prepositions (Anyone but Nixon!); and some are adverbs (I can but sing!). Excellent. “But” the preposition means “except,” while “but” the adverb means “only.” But why does “but” the adverb reverse the meaning of “but” the preposition, turning “except” into “only”? Calling the one word different parts of speech in the two cases is a pseudo explanation, a case of erudition concealing rather than clarifying. To see that this is nonsense, consider that “untraveled but by cattle” and “travelled but by cattle” mean the same thing, as long as we call “but” different parts of speech in the two sentences.
Here the grammarians tell you that the right way to write “untraveled but by cattle” is with a comma: “untravelled, but by cattle.” That signals that the “but” is a preposition meaning “except,” not an adverb meaning “only.” Great. You can reverse the meaning of a word by putting a comma in front of it? How do you speak a comma? Can grammarians do that? I’ve seen people gesture quotation marks, and done it myself. I suppose I could learn to gesture commas, too.
It may be that this word “but” is one of those things that looks best from a long way off.