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remarked, by-the-way, that the first is characteristic of the Italian, the second of the Spanish, the third of the Dutch, and perhaps of most of the Teutonic dialects, the fourth of the English, and the fifth of the French, whose final m and n, when not followed by a vowel, and whose terminations ent and ant, are much more nasal than the ng and nk of the English. I suspect, too, both from their prosody and from their pronunciation, that of all the languages above mentioned, the French is the least capable of that kind of imitation of which I have been speaking. On the other hand, I think, but in this opinion I am not confident, that of all those languages the English is, on the whole, the most capable. There is, perhaps, no particular excellence of sound in which it is not outdone by one or other of them: the Italian hath doubtless more sweetness, the Spanish more majesty, the German, perhaps, more bluster; but none of them is in this respect so various as the English, and can equal it in all these qualities.
So much for the properties in things that are susceptible of a kind of imitation by language, and the degree in which they are susceptible.
PART II. In what Esteem ought this Kind of Imitation to be held, and when ought it to be Attempted?
It remains now to consider what rank ought to be assigned to this species of beauty, and in what cases it ought to be attempted.
As to the first of these inquiries, from what hath been already said, it appears very plain that the resemblance or analogy which the sound can be made in any case to bear to the sense is at best, when we consider the matter abstractly, but very remote. Often a beauty of this kind is more the creature of the reader's fancy than the effect of the writer's ingenuity.
Another observation which will assist us in determining the question is, that when the other properties of elocution are attained, the absence of this kind of imagery, if I may express it by so strong a term, occasions no defect at all. We never miss it; we never think of it; whereas an ambiguous, obscure, improper, languid, or inelegant expression, is quickly discovered by a person of knowledge and taste, and pronounced to be a blemish. Nor is this species of resemblance to be considered as on the same footing with those superior excellences, the want of which, by reason of their uncommonness, is never censured as a fault, but which, when present, give rise to the highest admiration. On the contrary, not the absence only, but even the attainment of this resemblance, as far as it is attainable, runs more risk of passing unheeded than any other species of beauty in the style. I ought, however, to except from this the imitation produced
by the different kinds of measure in poetry, which, I ac knowledge, is sufficiently observable, and hath a much stronger effect than any other whereof language alone is susceptible. The reason why in other cases it may so readily pass unnoticed is, that even the richest and most diversified language hath very little power, as hath been shown already, in this particular. It is therefore evident, that if the merit of every kind of rhetorical excellence is to be ascertained by the effect, and I know of no other standard, to this species we can only assign with justice the very lowest rank. It ought, consequently, ever to give place to the other virtues and ornaments of elocution, and not they to it.
As to the other question, In what cases it may be proper to aim at the similitude in sound of which I have been treating those cases will appear, to one who attentively considers what hath been already advanced on the subject, to be comparatively few. Hardly any compositions in prose, unless those whose end is to persuade, and which aim at a certain vehemence in style and sentiment, give access to exemplify this resemblance; and even in poetry it is only the most pathetic passages and the descriptive parts to which the beauty whereof I am speaking seems naturally adapted. The critical style, the argumentative, and the didactic, by no means suit it. Yet it may be said that some of the examples above quoted for the illustration of this subject are taken from the writings of the kind last mentioned, from Pope on Criticism, and Vida on Poesy. But it must be observed, that the authors, in the passages alluded to, are discoursing on this very subject. An exemplification was therefore necessary in them, in order to convey to their readers a distinct idea of what they meant to recommend.
I must farther observe, that, even in those poems wherein this kind of resemblance is most suitable, it is only in a few passages, when something more striking than ordinary comes to be described, that it ought to be attempted. This beauty in language is not to be considered as bearing an analogy to dress, by which the whole person is adorned, but to those jewels which are intended solely for the decoration of certain parts, and whose effect depends very much on their being placed with judgment. It is an invariable rule, that in every poem and oration, whatever be the subject, the language, in the general tenour of it, ought to be harmonious and easy. A deviation in a few particular passages may not only be pardonable, but even meritorious. Yet this merit, when there is a merit in introducing harsh sounds and jarring numbers, as on some occasions there doubtless is, receives great relief from its contrariety to the general flow of the style; and with regard to the general flow, as I observed already, the rule holds invariably. Supposing the subject of
the piece were the twelve labours of Hercules, should the poet, in order to adapt his language to his theme, choose words of the most difficult utterance, and through the whole performance studiously avoid harmony and grace; far from securing to himself admiration, he would not even be read.
I shall only add, that though it is not prudent in an author to go a step out of his way in quest of this capricious beauty, who, when she does not act spontaneously, does nothing gracefully, a poet, in particular, may not unreasonably be more solicitous to avoid her opposite, especially in the expression of the more striking thoughts, as nothing in such a case can be more ungraceful in the style than when, either in sound or in measure, it serves as a contrast to the sentiment.
OF VIVACITY AS DEPENDING ON THE NUMBER OF THE WORDS.
THIS QUALITY EXPLAINED AND EXEMPLIFIED.
WHEN I entered on the subject of vivacity,* I observed that this quality of style might result either from a happy choice of words, from their number, or from their arrangement. The first I have already discussed, and shown how words may conduce to vivacity, not only from their sense, whether they be proper or figurative, but also from their sound.
I come now to consider how far vivacity may be affected by the number of the words. Of this article it may be established as a maxim that admits no exception, and it is the only maxim which this article admits, that the fewer the words are, provided neither propriety nor perspicuity be violated, the expression is always the more vivid. Brevity," says Shakspeare, "is the soul of wit." Thus much is certain, that of whatever kind the sentiment be, witty, humorous, grave, animated, or sublime, the more briefly it is expressed, the energy is the greater, or the sentiment is the more enlivened, and the particular quality for which it is eminent the more displayed.
Among the ancients, the Lacedemonians were the most remarkable for conciseness. To use few words, to speak energetically, and to be laconic, were almost synonymous. As when the rays of the sun are collected into the focus of a burning glass, the smaller the spot is which receives them, * Book iii., chap. i. † Hamlet.
compared with the surface of the glass, the greater is the splendour; or as in distillation, the less the quantity of spirit is that is extracted by the still, compared with the quantity of liquor from which the extraction is made, the greater is the strength; so, in exhibiting our sentiments by speech, the narrower the compass of words is wherein the thought is comprised, the more energetic is the expression. Accordingly, we shall find, that the very same sentiment, expressed diffusely, will be admitted barely to be just; expressed concisely, will be admired as spirited,
To recur to examples: the famous answer returned by the Countess of Dorset to the letter of Sir Joseph Williamson, secretary of state to Charles the Second, nominating to her a member for the borough of Appleby, is an excellent illustration of this doctrine. "I have been bullied," says her ladyship, "by a usurper, I have been neglected by a court, but I will not be dictated to by a subject-your man sha'n't stand."* If we consider the meaning, there is mention made here of two facts, which it was impossible that anybody of common sense, in this lady's circumstances, should not have observed, and of a resolution, in consequence of these, which it was natural for every person who had a resentment of bad usage to make. Whence, then, results the vivacity, the fire which is so manifest in the letter? Not from anything extraordinary in the matter, but purely from the laconism of the manner. An ordinary spirit would have employed as many pages to express the same thing as there are affirmations in this short letter. The epistle might in that case have been very sensible, and, withal, very dull, but would never have been thought worthy of being recorded as containing anything uncommon, or deserving a reader's notice.
Of all our English poets, none hath more successfully studied conciseness, or rendered it more conducive to vivacity, than Pope.
Take the following lines as one example of a thousand which might be produced from his writings:
"See how the world its veterans rewards!
A youth of frolics, an old age of cards;
Fair to no purpose, artful to no end;
Nothing is more evident than that the same passage may have great beauties and great blemishes. There is a monotony in the measure of the above quotation (the lines being all so equally divided by the pauses) which would render it, if much longer, almost as tiresome to the ear as a speech in a French tragedy; besides, the unwearied run of antithesis
* Catalogue of royal and noble authors.
† Moral Essays, ep. ii.
through five successive lines is rather too much, as it gives an air of quaintness to the whole. Yet that there is a great degree of liveliness in the expression is undeniable. This excellence is not, I acknowledge, to be ascribed solely to the brevity. Somewhat is doubtless imputable both to the words themselves and to their arrangement; but the first mentioned is still the principal cause. The trope in the fifth line, their passion, for the object of their passion, conduceth to vivacity, not only as being a trope, but as rendering the expression briefer, and thereby more nervous. Even the omission of the substantive verb, of the conjunctions, and of the personal pronouns, contribute not a little to the same end. Such ellipses are not, indeed, to be adopted into prose, and may even abound too much in verse. This author, in particular, hath sometimes exceeded in this way, and hath sacrificed both perspicuity and a natural simplicity of expression to the ambition of saying a great deal in few words. But there is no beauty of style for which one may not pay too high a price : and if any price ought to be deemed too high, either of these certainly ought, especially perspicuity, because it is this which throws light on every other beauty.
Propriety may sometimes be happily violated. An improper expression may have a vivacity, which, if we should reduce the words to grammatical correctness, would be annihilated. Shakspeare abounds in such happy improprieties. For instance,
"And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
In another place,
"It is a custom More honoured in the breach than the observance."t David's accusation of Joab, that he had shed the blood of war in peace, or what Solomon says of the virtuous woman, that she eateth not the bread of idleness,§ serve also to verify the same remark. Everybody understands these expressions; everybody that knows English perceives an impropriety in them, which it is perhaps impossible to mend without destroying their energy. But a beauty that is unperceivable
1 Kings, ii., 5.
Prov., xxxi., 37.
The Hebraism in each of these quotations from Scripture constitutes the peculiarity; and as the reasons are nearly equal with regard to all modern languages for either admitting or rejecting an Oriental idiom, the observation will equally affect other European tongues into which the Bible is translated. A scrupulous attention to the purity of the language into which the version is made must often hurt the energy of the expression. Saci, who in his translation hath been too solicitous to Frenchify the style of Scripture, hath made nonsense of the first passage, and (to say the least)