« FöregåendeFortsätt »
A well-known line in the same tragedy reminds me of another antique quality which has been curiously retained, long after the formal practice of it has been disused, and now prevails peculiarly in all vigorous English prose, as well as poetry: I refer to the use of alliteration, as derived from some of the forms of early poetry in England. If you will take the pains to observe it, you will probably be surprised to find to what an extent it is employed in English literature, both now and formerly. It is a curious study of the language to trace the power that lies in the repetition of a letter in a succession of words; as when Macbeth says,
“Ay, now, I see, 'tis true:
And points at them for his.* In the versions attached to Retsch's Outlines in French, Italian, Spanish, and German, no one of the languages attempts this tremendous alliteration. I cannot pause upon this quality of style further than to remark, that he who studies the language, will find an interest in observing how beautiful and striking, and, indeed, how natural, this apparently artificial process becomes in the hands of a master
Saxon words, a Latin word is brought in with singular power. In the second part of Henry VI., Suffolk says to Queen Margaret,
“For where thou art, there is the world itself
With every several pleasure in the world;
* Or in the incantation,
“the salt-sea shark;
of the language. The mere affinity of initial letters is also one of the mental associations which not unfrequently gives the fittest word to be found.*
In describing the English language as a composite language, we get, perhaps, a wrong notion of its being made up by the union of two dialects, the Saxon and the Norman. The truth rather seems to be, that the Anglo-Saxon language has displayed the same powers of acquisition as have distinguished the race, and has thus enlarged the domain by conquest, and appropriation, and annexation, retaining, however, withal, its essentially 'Teutonic character. Its early acquisitions from abroad were words of French or Southern birth, which became part of the natural spoken language, the copiousness and power of which were thus admirably increased. A single specimen will show that this is a copiousness giving not
* “The Northern languages,” remarks Mr. Henry Taylor, (Notes on Books, p. 132,) "have often been reproached for their excess in consonants, guttural, sibilant, or mute, and it has been concluded, as a matter of course, that languages in which vowels and liquids predominate must be better adapted to poetry, and that the most mellifluous language must be also the most melodious. . . This is but a rash and ill-considered condemnation of our native tongue. . . In dramatic verse, more particularly, our English combinations of consonants are invaluable, not only for the purpose of reflecting grace and softness by contrast, or accelerating the verse by a momentary detention, but also in giving expression to the harsher passions, and in imparting keenness and significancy to the language of discrimination, and especially to that of scorn. In Shakspeare for instance, what a blast of sarcasm whistles through that word, “ Thrift, thrift, Horatio !" with its one vowel and five consonants, and then how the verse runs on with a low, confidential smoothness, as if to give effect to the outbreak by the subsequent suppression,
“the funeral-baked meats Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” H, R.
merely duplicate words, but distinct expressions for delicate shades of meaning. The words “apt” and “ fit might be thought to differ only in this, that the former is of Latin derivation ; but “apt has an active sense, and “ fit a passive sense—a distinction clearly shown by Shakspeare, when the poisoner in the play in Hamlet says, “hands apt, drugs fit," and by Wordsworth
“Our hearts more apt to sympathize
While the early additions to the language were fairly absorbed into it, and have proved so valuable, the later introductions of words of Latin or French formation have never, in like manner, become natural and national; and their presence has, therefore, been often injurious as an element not divested of its foreign tone.
In our reading of English prose, it is well worth while to study what has become almost a lost art. I mean what may be called the architecture, as it were, of a long and elaborate sentence, with its continuous and well-sustained flow of thought and feeling, and, however interwoven, orderly and clear. This is to be sought chiefly in the great prose-writers of former centuries. “Read that
* The composite character of the language thus provides us with a large class of words not strictly synonymous, but serving to express the most delicate shades of meaning: we have, for instance, the words "feelings” and “sentiments," at first sight apparently mere duplicate words; but it has been observed that there is a certain idea of passiveness connected with the feelings, which contrasts with the idea of activity in the word “ sentiments,” and that the former came down to us from the ruder and simpler Saxon, and the latter from the more refined and cultivated Norman. H. R.
page,” said Coleridge, pointing to one of them; "you cannot alter one conjunction without spoiling the sense. It is a linked strain throughout. In your modern books, for the most part, the sentences in a page have the same connection with each other that marbles have in a bag : they touch without adhering."* Junius, waging his fierce, factious war, fought with these short, pointed sentences, piercing his foes with them; and it has been said that nothing but Horne Tooke and a long sentence were an overmatch for him; and in our day, Macaulay, waging his larger and more indiscriminate war, deals so exclusively with the same fashion of speech, that if you undertake to read his history aloud your voice will crave a good old-fashioned, long sentence, as much as your heart may crave more of the
and moderation of a deeper philosophy of history. This fashion of short sentences is mischievous, not only as a temptation to an indolent habit of reading, (for it asks a much less sustained attention,) but it is fatal to the fine rhythm which English prose is capable of. As I cannot pause to consider especially the nature of our prose rhythm, I will give what
* Coleridge's Table Talk, vol. ii. p. 185.
One of the grandest long sentences in our modern English is the opening passage of Mr. Brougham's speech in defence of Queen Caroline. It extends through twenty-seven lines. If I were asked to select a sentence of perfect English formation, should take the following from Miss Sewell's History of Greece. It dwells in my mind like music:
“There is little now to be seen in the plains of Olympia but a few ruins of brick. The mountains stand as they did in the old times, and trees flourish upon them year after year, and the rivers flow in the same track ; but all the great buildings and statues have crumbled to dust, and the valley is silent and deserted.” W. B. R.
is better, a sentence from the pen of a living divine, which is an example of true prose rhythm, and all pure English words:
“ The land that is very far off—it can be no other than the heavenly country, for love of which God's elect have lived as strangers in the earth—a land far away, over a long path of many years, up weary mountains, and through deep broken ways, full of perils and of pit-falls; through sicknesses and weariness, sorrows and burdens, and the valley of the shadow of death; world-worn and foot-sore, they have been faring forth, one by one, since the world began, 'going and weeping.""*
There is no appearance of art in this sentence; but the highest art could not more truly make choice and combination of its words.
I must hasten to the powers of the language in verse; and, in the first place, let me say that it is a happy trait in our literature that it has no peculiar poetic diction. Words that are used in good prose are not excluded from poetry, and words which the poets employ belong also to our prose uses of speech and writing; and hence the poets are the better enabled to exert a perpetual influence in the fulfilment of their high function of conservators of the purity of the language. Our prosody, taking accent rather than quantity for its principle, seldom if ever, disqualifies words on account of their sound, whereas in the Latin, as has been ascertained, one word out of every eight is excluded from its chief metres by the rules of its prosody. An analysis of a passage from Cicero, the elevated prose of the language, for this purpose, has proved
* Manning's Sermons, vol. iii. p. 432.