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That this is an undoubted truth must be confessed by any person who observes how much more numerous good, or at least tolerable writers, are at present in this country than they were two centuries ago. Nature must create a Shakspeare, a Milton, a Pope, a Swift, an Addison, a Johnson or a Gibbon. These were men possessed of most powerful imaginations, most pregnant fancies; but it is chiefly art which produces the many smooth and elegant writers who flourish at all times in the inferior walks of literature. I knew a very old gentleman of considerable talent who used to say, that in his youth it was a distinction to write well; but that now even the essays in the common newspapers were composed in a correct and agreeable style.
What I have now observed ought not to lessen the value of this accomplishment of writing well in your opinion. The more general it is, the more indispensable it becomes. To be able to maintain an epistolary correspondence, with elegance and spirit, is now an essential qualification in the character of every gentleman, . I had almost said of every lady. Besides, that all public speaking, in whatever line, is a species of composition, and he will certainly be the most successful who, if possessed of equal talents with his competitors, has made himself well acquainted with the rules and principles of eloquence.
MY DEAR JOHN, ..
MY last letter concluded with recommending an inquiry why the style of one author should be more pleasing and interesting than that of another. If instruction was the sole end of reading, that style which conveyed knowledge in the simplest terms, with the greatest clearness and correctness, would be preferable to every other. This style has indeed its value, and even its beauty; and in books of mere science ought to be preferred to every other. I shall have in future to make some observations on this subject, when I treat inore particularly of the different kinds of composition ; but this is not our present object. We are now considering the source of that pleasure which is derivable from the mere style, manner, or language of a literary production.
Authors have distinguished between the different styles; and a grand division is into the plain, such as I have just now described, and the ornamented. I apprehend it is chiefly the ornamented that contributes to the mere pleasure of a reader. You cannot be at a loss to know what I mean by an ornamented style ; it is that in which lively description, similies, allusions, metaphors, and the other figures of rhetoric abound.
Poetry always interests a reader of taste more than prose. The causes of this are the harmony arising from the metre or the rhyme, and which (without entering into a metaphysical inquiry as to the cause) may be referred to the same source as the pleasure which music affords. The other circumstance which renders poetry pleasing is the animated and figurative language, which is one of its characteristics.
We may, I think, easily explain why the style of one literary work is more pleasing than that of another, upon the very same principles that the matter of one is more interesting than that of another. I observed that histories of great events, tragedies, or ingenious fictions of human actions and events, always interest more than any other literary productions, and the reason is, that they contain something that immediately comes within the sphere of self, and engages, and by an associated action excites our passions.
It is of but little consequence whether the subject is fiction or reality. Robinson Crusoe, George Barnwell, and even Don Quixote, not to speak of the incomparable novel of Cecilia, interest, I will venture to say, more than Livy or than Hume. The same may be said of those plays of Shakspeare, which are notoriously founded on fiction, Hamlet, Othello, Cymbeline, Lear, The Merchant of Venice, &c. which are certainly not less interesting than his plays founded on the English history, though the latter are so far correspondent to fact, that many of the speeches are nearly a literal transcript from the antient chronicles.
It is the picture of the little world within that interests and agitates us; it is that correspondent emotions are at once excited in our minds by what we see or what we read, without referring to the judgment, or examining the proofs as to the reality of what is presented to us.
The very same principles I apprehend will apply to what is called an animated style, as to an animated or interesting narrative or description. That style will engage us most which calls up the most lively and vivid images, which upon the principle of association shall excite corresponding emotions in our minds.
I can cite a very decisive proof of what I have now asserted, in the well-known and incomparable parable of the prophet Nathan. The effect of this parable, I assert, is principally owing to the style or manner in which it is narrated; and to prove it, we need only re
late the circumstance in the usual manner of a newspaper paragraph.
“ We have it from the best authority, that Christopher Saveall, of the county of Salop, esį. the other day being surprized by the visit of a London friend and his family, and not being immediately supplied with butcher's meat, and not choosing to take any of his own flock, they being of a curious breed, dispatched two of his servants to the house of Timothy Boorman, a little farmer in the neighbourhood, who took forcibly thence, a pet lamb, which they immediately killed and dressed for entertainment of the great man's guests.”
Here is nothing particularly affecting; and yet in England such a circumstance is more likely to excite interest and indignation, than in any of those countries where the feudal system is at all predominant. It must then be from the style or manner that this narrative has so, powerful an effect over the heart, that a person of sensibility can scarcely read it without a tear. Let us examine.
“ There were,” says the prophet to the royal sinner, not yet a penitent, “two men in one city; the one rich and the other poor." Here 'the different state and circumstances of the two parties are admirably contrasted, and it affords a beautiful and striking opening to the narrative which is to follow. “ The rich man,” he proceeds, “had exceeding many flocks and herds.” Here is a fine amplification, and yet so far from appearing forced it is absolutely necessary, and the contrast is still preserved in the succeeding sentence:....“ But the poor man had nothing save one little ewe lamb”....where, observe, the words “ nothing,” « little," and even the word “ewe,” which marks the sex, as more gentle and defenceless, are all emphatic, and increase the interest.... ( which he had bought,” bought it out of his little sayings, it was indeed his all, “and nourished up, and it grew up with him, and with his children." What a train of endearing and affecting ideas are here summoned together? Not only the affections of the man, but of his children, are supposed to be attached to this cherished object. “It did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom;"....here the very nature and kind of the animal is forgotten, and it becomes almost a rational creature; which is indeed nearly established in the consclusion of the sentence, for “it was unto him as a daughter."
Thus the hearer's mind is prepared by a series of pathetic imagery to feel in a tenfold degree the cruel sequel which is coming, and which is also not less skilfully wrought up. “ And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock, and of his own herd; to dress for the way-faring man that was come unto him, but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him."
Nothing I apprehend need be added to convince you of the different effects to be produced by the manner of telling a very simple story, in other words, of the effect of style.
From this example too you will see the truth of an axiom, which is, I believe, generally admitted. That it is by a clear and distinct recapitulation of little circumstances, which render the picture more vivid and complete, that poets and orators, and all who address the passions of their hearers, establish an influence over their minds.
To select the circumstances which will have most effect is the peculiar province of genius; for there is nothing in which folly is more displayed than in too circumstantial a detail of trifling matters; while, on the contrary, it is certain that a discourse (and much more a poem) which consists entirely of abstract and general words, can never have an effect upon the hearer and reader.
I shall subjoin another instance of a picture composed of a variety of little, but well-chosen circumstances. An historian might have said, in allusion to the shocking murder of Prince Arthur, the real heir to the crown, in the reign of King John: “ This event produced a general agitation in the minds of the people; scarcely any conversation occurred in which it was not directly