Page images

from the variety of expression which it will exhibit, will conduct us to that which is most beautiful and perfect.

In the fourth place, a caution must be given against a servile imitation of any one author whatever. A desire of imitating hampers genius, and generally produces a stiffness of expression. They who follow an author minutely commonly copy his faults as well as his beauties. No one will ever become an accomplished writer or speaker, who has not some confidence in his own genius. We ought carefully to avoid using any author's particular phrases, or transferring passages from him such a habit will be fatal to all genuine composition. It is much better to possess something of our own, though of inferior beauty, than to endeavour to shine in borrowed ornaments, which will, at last, betray the utter barrenness of our genius.

In the fifth place, it is a plain but important rule, with regard to style, that we always endeavour to adapt it to the subject, and likewise to the capacity of our hearers, if we are to speak in public. To attempt a poetical, florid style, when it should be our business only to argue and reason, is in the highest degree awkward and absurd. To speak with elaborate pomp of words, before those who cannot comprehend them, is equally ridiculous and useless. When we begin to write or speak, we should previously impress on our minds a complete idea of the end to be aimed at; keep this steadily in view, and adapt our style to it.

We must, in the last place, recommend, that an attentive regard to style do not occupy us so much, as to detract from a higher degree of attention to the

thoughts. This rule is the more necessary, since the present taste of the age seems to be directed more to style than to thought. It is much more easy to dress up trifling and common thoughts with some ornament of expression, than to afford a fund of vigorous, ingenious, and useful sentiments. The latter requires genius; the former may be attained by industry, with the aid of very superficial parts. Hence the crowd of writers who are rich in words, but poor in sentiments. Custom obliges us not to be inattentive to the ornaments of style, if we wish that our labours should be read and admired. But he is a contemptible writer, who looks not beyond the dress of language, who lays not the chief stress upon his matter, and who does not regard ornament as a secondary and inferior recommendation.

With respect to the figures of rhetoric with which style is so much invigorated and embellished, see page 179.

THUS far, with the most trifling alterations, I have followed Dr. Blair,,who, in those parts of oratory called Disposition and Elocution, or a choice and arrangement of words, has exceeded every writer who went before him. I flatter myself that in pronunciation or delivery, which forms the last part of oratory, something more systematical and satisfactory has been offered in the present work, than in any that has hitherto been published. But there is another part of oratory called invention, that has been but little insisted on by our modern writers, which, however, seems to form the basis of the art. Dr. Blair has

not only omitted but discountenanced this part of rhetoric; and such an opinion have I of the good sense of this writer, that I should much doubt of its utility, if the very reason of the thing, as well as the authority of the ancients and some of the most respectable among the moderns, did not sanction and recommend it. Dr. Priestley's reasons for the use of topics appear to me unanswerable.

"I am aware (says he) that this whole business of topics is objected to by some as altogether useless, and what no persons, who are capable of composing at all, ever stand in need of, or have recourse to." To this I reply, that in fact, no person ever did, or ever can compose at all, without having recourse to something of a similar nature. What is recollection but the introduction of one idea into the mind by means of another with which it was previously associated? Are not ideas associated by means of their connexion with, and relation to, one another? And is it not very possible, that particular ideas may be recollected by means of general ideas, which include them?

It is impossible to endeavour to recollect (or, as we generally say, invent) materials for a discourse, without running over in our minds such general heads of discourse as we have found by experience to assist us in that operation. It is even impossible to conceive in what other manner a voluntary effort to invent, or recollect, can be directed. A person may not have recourse to any particular list, or enumeration of topics; or he may never have heard of the artificial distribution of them by rhetoricians: but if he compose at all, though he may be ignorant of the name,

he must be possessed of the thing. And if a person have any regular method in his compositions, he must, moreover, have arranged those topics in his mind in some kind of order; the several particulars of which, being attended to successively, furnish him with a plan for composition. Now is it not better to sit down to composition provided with a tolerably complete list of those topics, digested with care and precision, than make use of such a one as we casually and without any design form to ourselves from general reading only, or a little practice in composition, which cannot but be very imperfect, and inadequate to the purpose to which it is applied?

After previously running over such a table, a person would be much better able to form an idea of the extent of his subject, and might conduct his composition accordingly; or perusing it after reading the composition of another, he might with much greater certainty know whether any thing of importance had been left unsaid upon the subject: or whether, if the discourse were necessarily limited to a few arguments, the writer had selected the best.

If we pay any regard to the practice of the famous erators of antiquity, we cannot but be disposed to think favourably of topics; for it is certain that they made great use of topics, as appears in the writings of Cicero and Quintilian. Too much may be expected from any thing, and an improper use may be made of any thing; but this is no argument against the judicious and proper use of it.

It were absurd for any person slavishly to oblige himself to borrow something from every topic of discourse; much more to set it down in the order in

which they may happen to be enumerated: but, having glanced at the whole, let him take what is most to his purpose, and omit every thing that would appear far-fetched, or to be introduced for the sake of swelling the bulk of a discourse.

I am very ready, however, to acknowledge, that rhetorical topics are more useful in the composition of set declamations on trite subjects, and to young persons, than in the communication of original matter, and to persons much used to composition. Original thoughts cannot but suggest themselves, so that all the assistance any person can want in this case is a proper manner of arranging them. And a person much used to composition will have acquired a habit of recollection, without any express attention to topics; just as a person used to the harpsichord, or any other instrument of music, will be able to perform without an express attention to rules, or even to the manner of placing his fingers. His idea of the tune in general is so slosely associated with all the motions of his fingers necessary to the playing of it, and these motions are also so closely associated together, that they follow one another mechanically, in what Dr. Hartley calls a secondarily automatic manner, which is almost as certain as a motion originally and properly automatic.

As rules for invention, or, as Dr. Priestly more properly calls it, recollection, are established by such good reasons, and on so respectable authority, I shall present the student with a large extract from the System of Oratory of the learned Dr. Ward, professor of Gresham College. And as this book has long been out of print, and is scarcely to be got, I flatter myself I shall make my reader no unacceptable present, by

« PreviousContinue »