L O I T E R E R.
"Speak of us as we are."
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L O I T E R E R.
SATURDAY, March 13, 1790.
Scribendi rectè sapere est principium et fons. Horace.
AS my literary career is now drawing to an end, in imitation of those Eastern sages who in their last moments deposit with their disciples the higher secrets of their art, I propose in the following pages to deliver to my readers those occult principles of the science of composition, the skilful application of which has so justly procured to some of my contemporaries the reputations of adepts. After a very accurate analysis of the most fashionable productions of the present age, I have discovered the source of that charm which so eminently distinguished them from the works of former times, and shall reveal it to my readers as my last and most valuable bequest.
My readers must not be surprised when I inform them, as a preliminary to these instructions, that all the essentials of fine writing center in one point — Style. Style is the Sine qua non, and the Ne plus ultra, of a modern writer. Thanks to our elaborate predecessors, thoughts are easily collected on any subject: All that remains for us is, to disguise the expression yet preserve the substance, to introduce them however unconnected without obvious abruptness, and join them however little related without obvious incongruity. To this end, it will be necessary to polish the style till the flaws in the interior of the piece are lost in the lustre of the surface; for the radiance of ornamental expression diffuses itself over every void, and blends the motley parts into one uniform and splendid whole.
To this indispensable glare of colouring much attention is requisite. It is not produced by the free use of the pencil, but is effected by an infinity of patient and timid touches, accumulated with intense and unremitting industry; and when the rough draft is so heightened by repeated revisions, that of the original words not more than half a score remains to constitute its identity, the writer may flatter himself that he is near the proposed perfection.
It will immensely contribute to the pomp of style, that the sentence should be principally constructed of such words as boast Greek or Latin genealogy: however trivial this may seem to superficial judges, I venture to pronounce it a rule which admits not a single exception. For instance, Ardour should be preferred to Heat — tardy to slow — sinuous to winding: I should have little hope of an author who should write, “the country lying round,” when he might so classically phrase it, “the country circumjacent.” A great master of language of my acquaintance invariably uses “Fortitude” to the exclusion of “Magnanimity,” as being nearer the latin by one letter. This may be perhaps to construe the rule too literally, but for the spirit of it I must strenuously contend. Wherefore, in the name of Common Sense, do we consume so many years over Ainsworth and Hederic, if after all we must sit down contentedly to write plain English all our lives?
The cavalcade of sentences is most striking, when a row of Nouns is drawn up in the front and rear; and the period moves with a pretty ambling pace, when its several Substantives are mounted on stately Adjectives. Hence my readers will easily conclude that they must never compress an idea into one word which may be diffused through two. To change the metaphor, words are an excellent screen to ideas — luxuriance of branches diverts the attention from slenderness of stem; and to thicken the foliage will be found the best method of concealing scarcity of fruit.
A band of proper names enters with great dignity into a sentence; and there are enough ready to enlist in any cause. In the selection of them regard should be principally had to Alliteration; and here Antithesis may be studied with great effect. But care must be invariably taken, that each be preceded by an article, by way of Gentleman-Usher. In a late answer to a well-known Pedagogue’s strictures upon the University, a characteristic Epithet is attached to them with great effect. Among many others, I cannot but point out to my readers, “the Judicious Blackstone,” as the most happy resolution of plain Judge Blackstone which human ingenuity could invent.
The beauty of Climax like that of plants disposed in a Greenhouse proceeds from visible proportion. It depends of course on accuracy of eye. If therefore after having fixed on the first term of your Climax, you cannot find any similar expressions proportionably longer, it remains only to write the original term at some distance forwards on the page; and to fill up the intervening space at your leisure by words proportionably shorter in an inverse Ratio. And thus your Climax will still be in beautiful Perspective. It is after all much easier to form the members of a sentence into a perfect Climax, than single words; for the members of a sentence may be produced to any length by the accumulation of supernumerary syllables.
Next to Climax, which is particular, succeeds general Rhythm, or the modulation of a whole sentence, or period. Their nature however is by no means the same. The defects of the former were to be detected only by the eye; whereas the merits of the latter are determinable by the ear alone. To please the ear, therefore, is the last and grand effort of a highly finished Style. To this end no labour must be considered too great, no attention too minute. The easiest way perhaps of attaining such an excellence will be to note down the most admired sentences of Addison, Junius, and Blair; to calculate the words in each member; the proportion of vowels to consonants; the balance of long and short syllable; — till your ear be so attuned to one particular measure, that your ideas may be spontaneously absorbed into the same revolving eddy of recursive harmony. Wherever there is any danger of sinking beneath the weight of your subject; your language should be proportionably swollen, and sublime; a full band is a wonderful support to a weak voice. Yet as one continual blaze of light is oppressive; and as the Cataracts of the first River in the world deafen those who listen too long; a prudent Essayist will render his language rather soothing than animating; and more polished than pointed. It will break on the Ear like Thunder so distant that its Lightnings alarm not; and when well rounded will roll smoothly over the mind without leaving an impression. I shall sum up my observations on style with these memorable words of Quintilian; which ought to be engraven with letters of gold in the Studies of all my Readers.
NIHIL POTEST INTRARE IN EFFECTUM, QUOD IN AURE, VELUT QUODAM VESTIBULO, OFFENDIT.
Having said thus much concerning Style, I shall conclude with some miscellaneous observations on the conduct of a Piece.
It will be found the safest way, in the opening of an Essay, to dwell on a few positive truths conveyed in short, and unconnected sentences. As a bird, first leaving his nest, perches by short and irregular hops on some bits of rubbish, to look about him before he spreads his wings.
The more obvious these truths are, the better; and if they have been already mentioned once or twice by different Authors, it will be an additional advantage. Since every body will see how cautious you tread at first, and follow wherever you lead them, without suspicion.
In the further advancement of an Essay, your sentences must of course be long and short as the nature of your subject requires; yet even here care should be taken to mix them properly. And before I ventured to introduce a string of long and intricate sentences, I should generally glance at what was to come, by playing off some concise Apothegm; as at Chess the oblique motion of the PAWN prepares us for the direct attack of the PIECE.
Mythological allusions, if very familiar, have an indescribable charm. They excite in us the same sensations of delight, the same soothing remembrance of our earlier hours, with which after a long absence, we recognize a School acquaintance. When an author describes a scene which he wishes to be affecting, let him boldly pronounce it so himself. Nothing is so convenient to the reader as thus to be taught how he is to feel; nothing is more consistent, than to be at once the Painter and the Spectator of the Piece. The author to whose merits I have already borne testimony excels in this art; When he presents any image with Which he wishes to depress his reader, he previously gives his cue, by phrases similar to these: “It is melancholy to reflect;” “It is a painful and humiliating consideration” — When on the contrary he wishes to elevate him; he begin, something in this manner — “We gaze with sensible delight on this bright and amiable picture;” “From this gloomy catalogue we turn with eagerness to a more pleasing retrospect.” My readers will readily perceive what an appearance of amiable sensibility this practice diffuses over a Piece.
In those works in which it is expected that the Author should fortify himself with Authorities, my readers will find their Advantage in pursuing the following method. As soon as the piece is transcribed, a wide marginal space being left in every page, let them arrange at the side of their Text, the names of the most abstruse Authors from whom information might have been drawn. The more of these the better: And let not my Readers scruple to cite books which they have never opened. This is of all others the mode of Citation which is most secure. For He will generally betray too much who mentions the Books which he has really read. The Critical Essayist I therefore allow freely to quote Aristotle, Longinus, and the Halicarnassian, but positively forbid him to drop a syllable of Blair.
Having thus in a very few word laid open to my Reader the Arcana of my Art; I shall conclude by recommending them to his serious attention. Let him
“Read them by day, and meditate by night.”
Let him study them intensely, and practise them religiously. And, as the words of a Dying Man are said to be Prophetic, I will venture to predict that in a very short time himself and all who know him will be astonished at his unsuspected Success.
As this Work will soon be concluded, such of our Correspondents who may be inclined to favour us with any farther Contributions, are requested to do so as early s possible; and we should esteem it an additional obligation, if they would make us acquainted with their names, that we may have it in our power to thank them in our last number.
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