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their methods of education, and the operation of causes which have long since ceased to exert an influence. Yet notwithstanding the well earned condemnation which critics are sure to bestow upon those who indulge at present in any thing approaching to such a style, there are few who do not read a quotation with greater pleasure, and awakened interest, when they learn that it comes from a “quaint old author of the former century.” A joke, be it ever so poor, is irresistible, when related in their strange phraseology; and even solemn truths are sometimes found stated in such a ludicrous manner, as to render their effect directly contrary to what was originally intended. But with all the defects of their sermons, they are no doubt more perused now, than the works of our ministers will be by the coining generation. The generality of modern sermons are selections from the commentaries on the text, diluted—spun to the required length by means of synonyms strung together in tedious succession, whose frequent repetitions remind us of Battus in Ovid, L
The last century had the bullion—we have the wire: we, the glitter—they, the substantial reality. Though all does not “veil to wit,” as Barrow said of the age of Charles II. yet another spirit is abroad, which will as effectually lop the flourishing branches of our literature, and bring a withering blight upon all its hopes. Of the writers in the quaint and epigrammatic style, none was more remarkable than Cotton Mather. Not a few passages in his sermons would strangely exercise the risible muscles of a modern congregation. Even Thomas H. Bayley, or the American Tom Hood, “Hack Von Stretcher,” have scarcely a greater number of puns, in proportion to the whole number of words. But besides being an inveterate punster, he abounds in ingenious turns, and all the literary oddities of a corrupted style. Thus, speaking of the attacks to which Christians are subjected from Satan, he says, “That foul fiend, falls foul on them. The accuser of men to God, is also an accuser of God to men, and when it is a gloomy time without them, then will Satan suggest terrible things within them.” He plays upon words of similar sounds,--" the powers of darkness, take the hours of darkness;” and so far does this propensity carry him, that he puns upon letters!—“Many a man's cash has been his crime; his house has cost him his head; by his land, he has forfeited his life.” Yet when we find the grave Matthew Henry punning as is he were a witty courtier, we must make allowances for Mather, and suffer him to screen himself behind the “spirit of his age.” Henry, in speaking of the infants slain by the order of King Herod, says, with all the gravity of a commentator, “these were the infantry of the noble army of martyrs;” and again, he calls Christ's sermon on the mount, “a set sermon,” “x a 9 to a vios dwivi.”
Although we can exercise some charity towards Mather for punning, his outrageous abuse of figurative language is without excuse. Thus, he says, “We do often very childishly cry for a knife to cut the fingers of our own souls.” Henry, with all his quaintness and singular expressions, is never guilty of so flagrant a violation of good taste, though many others are not so free from condemnation. Belthazar Gratian has left to posterity the following choice morsel of mental philosophy: “Thoughts flow from the extensive coasts of memory, embark on the sea of imagination, arrive at the port of genius, to be registered at the custom house of the understanding.” The High Sheriff of Oxford has also afforded a case in point, in the exordium of an address to the students, by which they were no doubt much edified: “Arriving at the Mount of St. Mary, in the stony stage where I now stand, I have brought you some fine biscuits, carefully conserved for the chickens of the church, the sparrows of the spirit, and the sweet swallows of salvation.” Even this last specimen is outdone by a book published about the time of the “Praise-God-Barebones Parliament,” when “Stand-steadfast on-high,” and “Fightthe-good-fight-of-faith,” usurped the place of plain John and William. The following title would certainly not disgrace the author's name, however ridiculous: “Eggs of Charity, layed by the Chickens of the Covenant, and boiled by the Water of Divine Love. Take ye and eat.”
The Latin language abounds in all the strange peculiarities of expression, which we might naturally suppose would originate in the solitary cells of gloomy convents, where no higher guide existed, than the unpolished standard of monkish taste. Anagrams, acrostics, palindromi, logogriphes, epitaphs, armorial mottoes, and solio volumes destitute of two, three and even four particular letters, attest the laborious diligence of minds, which asserted their high prerogative, and refused to be idle. Who has not met with scraps such as the following, floating around as chance quotations, without any distinct marks by which to recognize the works in which they originally appeared? “Ora et labora; quicquid libet, licet; dum spiro, spero; est Venus in vinis; respice finem, respice funem; respice, aspice, prospice; ut fluctus fluctumque sic luctus luctum; schola crucis est schola lucis;” &c. Even if the works were discovered in the dusty alcoves of a foreign library, it is probable that the authors would be found to have wasted their energies to as little advantage, as one of their sapient brethren, who supposed that in the very letters of the name Jesus, was contained all that possibly could be said, on the subject of his origin, his mission, and his character. “For, first, its being declined with only three cases, did expressively point out the Trinity of persons. Then, that the nominative case ending in s, the accusative in m, and the ablative in u, did imply some unspeakable mystery; namely, that in words of those initial letters, Christ was the SUMMUs or Beginning, the MEDIUs or Middle, and the UltiMUs or end of all things. There was yet a more abstruse mystery to be explained, which was accomplished by dividing the word into two parts, and separating the s in the middle from the two extreme syllables, making a kind of pentameter, the word consisting of five letters; and this letter, intermedials, being in the Hebrew alphabet called sin, was thought to imply that Jesus should purify us from all wickedness.”—Witte rs. Wisdome, or a Panegyrick on Follie by D. Erasmus. Even later writers than the monks have not disdained to exercise themselves in this laborious play upon words, as may be proved by a reference to one of the many epitaphs, which “Old Mortalities” have done well to decipher; if not for their intrinsic value, at least for the sake of those who possess a kindred spirit with Leland, the good old father of English antiquities. It is engraved on a stone which covers the remains of a royal beauty, and if the sentiment was not one from which modern feelings revolt, it might perhaps be more of a favorite. It reads thus: “Non redolet, sed olet quae redolere solet.” Verse has sometimes been employed to assist the memory in reference to some particular subject, by reducing the terms of explanation to the most concise and simple forms, and in the following epitaph from the Latin Anthology, the author has been at so much pains to compact and condense, that it seems absolutely impossible to express the same ideas in a less number of words.
“Pastor, Arator, Eques, pavi, colui, superavi,
To this may be added a couplet really beautiful, as well as mythologically correct.
“Terret, lustrat, agit, Proserpina, Luna, Diana.
Our own language possesses some lines in the shape of a lampoon, which are not altogether destitute of resemblance to the two preceding. “Stair's neck, mind, wife, sons, grandsons, and the rest, Are wry, false, witch, pests, parricides, possessed.”
And these will recall to every intelligent mind, Milton's celebrated description of Satan's flight:
“O'er bog, or steep, through straight, rough, dense, or rare,
Eloquence as well as poetry has also contributed its share of misguided exertion, in which labor has undermined taste, expression thwarted its own object, and the solid charms of propriety have been
sacrificed to the false glare of artificial show. St. Augustine, whose writings often contain “thoughts that breathe, and words that burn,” has been more than once seduced by the meretricious ornaments of a corrupted style, and sunk the character of orator in that of quibbler. In the midst of an animated apostrophe, when all the feelings of the writer should glow with the ardor of passionate excitement, who could have expected the following combination of quibbling expressions; —“ut turpiter atrum Desinat in piscem mulier formosa supernè "
“O dies praeclara et pulchra, nesciens vesperum, non habens occasum, ubi—summa et certa securitas, secura tranquillitas, et tranquilla jocunditas, et jocunda felicitas, felix aeternitas, asterna beatitudo, et beata Trinitas, et Trinitatis unitas, et unitatis deitas,” &c. Poets, even poet laureates, have degenerated into mere rhymsters, as well as orators into quibblers; and instances of the former are found not only in a foreign language, but among the “select works” of British poetry. Old John Skelton stands at the head of those who believe in the doctrine of Hudibras,
“One line of sense and one of rhyme,
though without entering into the merits of his thoughts, in the introduction to his “Boke of Colin Clout,” he is candid enough to admit, that
—“his rime is ragged,
Tattered, and iagged,
Rudely rayne beaten,
Rusty and mooth eaten.”
In the verse in which he states it, he no doubt proves his proposition; but it may gratify some readers to have a little more, as it will be rather difficult to procure the “Boke” for themselves.
“His head is so sat * * + * *
He glosses and he flatters.
A single quotation will conclude the long, and perhaps to some tedious list. It comes from Hawes' “Pastime of Plesure,” and if it
vol. II. 34
possesses any sense at all, it lies exceedingly deep—certainly beyond
The above examples suggest a few reflections.
We live in a polished age. Grace, ease, and beauty, are blended in the style of our leading writers of prose. Their faults arise rather from an excess of refinement, than its absence, and of course are the more readily pardoned. Poetry has unbound herself from the shackles of art, wit, and the loathsome principles of the Satanic school, and seems about to be reinstated, by the assistance of a Wordsworth, and a Talfourd, on her former throne of good sense, truth, and natural simplicity. The full blaze of literary light pours upon us, and we are at a loss to conceive, how a corrupted taste could at different periods of the world's history, have gained so universal an ascendency. Yet so strong have been its setters, and so riveted, that the colossal strength of a Shakspeare, was required to raise the standard of the drama—of a Milton, to “weave his garland with the lightenings” of popular vengeance, and to overleap the bounds of prejudice to trust his fame with posterity— and of a Johnson, to prepare the way of less vigorous candidates for literary distinction. These mighty champions were successful. But how many whose powers were inferior to the attempt, have fallen—victims to the persecution of their enemies—unknown and unregarded defenders of the Republic of Letters!
Literature as well as life, and painting, has its light and shade. The midnight heavens are not filled with a single huge star. Ten thousand are scattered through their depths, to shine still brighter from contrast with the surrounding darkness, and please still more with the variety of their lustre. Thus the great works of genius appear only here and there, and the faults of a corrupted taste, and the mistakes of conceited ignorance, constitute the shade which enables their light to be seen to the best advantage.