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take occasion to give an opportunity to those who desire to do so to take a note of them, on the next evening, before I proceed to the lecture for that evening ;—the subject of which will be “The Study of the English Language, considered as a source of enjoyment from its powers in prose and verse.”
The English Language.* Medium of ideas often forgotten-Witchery of English words—Analy
sis of good style difficult—The power of words-Our duty to the English language-Lord Bacon's idea of Latin-Milton-Hume's expostulation with Gibbon-Daniel's Lament-Extension of English language-French dominion in America—Landor's Penn and Peterborough-Duty of protecting and guarding language-Degeneracy of language and morals-Age of Charles II.-Language part of character-Arnold's Lectures on Modern History–Use of disproportionate words—Origin of the English language in the North-Classical and romantic languages-Saxon element of our language-Its superiority—The Bible idiom-Structure of sentences-Prepositions at the end of most vigorous sentences—Composite sentences, and the Latin element-Alliteration-Grandeur of sentences in old writers—Modern short sentences—Junius–Macaulay-No peculiar poetic diction-Doctor Franklin's rules-Shakspeare's matchless words—Wordsworth's sonnet-Byron-Landor-Coleridge's Christabel—"The Song in the Mind”-Hood—The Bridge of Sighs.
The subject which I propose for this evening's lecture is the study of the powers of the English language in prose and verse. My desire to say something on this subject has been prompted by the conviction that some attention to it will increase our enjoyment of books, and will in fact give the reader a superadded pleasure. In our reading, we are very apt to content ourselves with the reception of such thoughts and feelings as pass into our minds from the silent page, unheeding the medium through which
* January 17, 1850.
they reach us; indeed, often, the purer and more excellent the style, the less conscious are we of its merits, so transparently does it let the writer's thoughts and emotions pass through it. We think of what is said or written, and feel it, but not how it is said or written : while the power which an author's meaning has upon our minds is intimately blended with the power his language exercises over us, of the latter we scarce have a conscious recognition. Does not every one know how differently the same thing said in different ways affects us? We welcome it, perhaps, in one case, and we repel it in the other. There shall be in one man's language an air of truth, of earnestness, and reality, which will gain assent to what he tells us, while the same thing told in other words will sound vain and unreal. There is wondrous agency of power and beauty in language, a winning witchery in words-grandly and beautifully so in our English speech. I desire to consider some of the elements of this, regarded as a source of intellectual enjoyment. In all intercourse with the best writers, whether in prose or verse, our minds have, no doubt, an unconscious perception of the goodness of the style, just as we have unconscious freedom of breath in a pure atmosphere; but if the perception of style be made reflective, it may come to have too much of consciousness in it: we may come to think too much of the instrument, and too little of the music; to be too critical of our own emotions of delight. I have, therefore, some apprehensions that in attempting any thing like an analytical exposition of the enjoyment of language, considered simply as an organ of expression, it may prove a little too much like parsing our pleasure. The happy, healthful-breathing asks for no analysis of the air; the mountain-spring is
quaffed without thought of what science can tell of its components. In treating the powers of the English language
in prose and verse, I should like, without vexing it with comment, or criticism, or analysis, but simply sounding it, to show what an instrument it has been in the hands of its great masters.
I wish, however, to accomplish something more. At the same time, on an occasion like this, and within the limits of one lecture, it would not be practicable to enter into technical details of either the history or the philology of our language. I propose, therefore, to give a didactic character to this lecture, rather by making it suggestive of the interest which is to be found in the study of the language, by noticing some of its characteristics, and the applications of the philosophy of language which it serves to illustrate. Avoiding technical and recondite points of philology, I aim at treating the subject according to the universality of the interest it has, so as to show how the culture of it comes home to everybody, and how it is in the power of each one of us to awaken it into more action.
The history of the language, its origin and progress, the principles of English philology, and the laws of English metre, are subjects of deep interest and demand careful study, and a different kind of attention from what I have any right to ask from you. I propose, therefore, rather to notice and exemplify some of the leading characteristics of the language, so as to awaken into more active and intelligent consciousness our enjoyment of it, so as to form this, among our other habits of reading; to have an eye and a feeling for the fitness of the words, their power, their beauty, their simplicity, and truthfulness; to find ourselves, in reading a wise and good book, often pausing, in silent thankfulness and delight, as we think and feel what glorious apparel the author's wise thought or good feeling hath arrayed itself in—with what majesty or loveliness of speech or song the mind makes music for itself in the words in which it is embodied - so that the thought and the words receive strength and beauty from each other. Of that connection which exists between our thoughts and feelings, and the words we clothe them in, of their mutual relation and reaction, I cannot now speak further, than to say that the more we reflect on our own inner nature, and on the wondrous powers of words, the better we shall feel and understand that relation, perceiving how words seem to dwell midway between the corporeal and incorporeal—a connection between our spiritual and material being
The simple suggestion of this deep significancy of language, and its relation to man's spiritual nature, may perhaps, in some measure, correct, or, at least, startle that error of looking upon this whole subject as a mere matter of rhetoric and grammar, a superficial study of style, and therefore having claim upon the rhetorician rather than on the man-on art rather than on humanity, not reflecting on the divine origin of language ; that speech, even more than reason, distinguishes man from the brute; and that the two powers, in their mysterious union, lift bim out of barbarism. Whatever it may be, whether the rude and imperfect speech of the savage, articulate words with no help of written language, or whether it be the copious and refined language of civilized nations, there is, all the earth over, the duty of loyalty, thoughtful loyalty if possible, to the mother-tongue.