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In the tenth place, when a subject is introduced by its proper name, it is absurd to attribute to it the properties of a different subject to which the word is sometimes applied in a figurative sense: Hear me, oh Neptune! thou whose arms are hurl'd From shore to shore, and gird the solid world.
Odyssey, IX. 617.
Neptune is here introduced personally, and not figuratively for the ocean: the description therefore, which is only applicable to the latter, is altogether improper.
It is not sufficient, that a figure of speech be regularly constructed, and be free from blemish: it requires taste to discern when it is proper, and when improper; and taste, I suspect is our only guide. One, however, may gather from reflection and experience, that ornaments and graces suit not any of the dispiriting passions, nor are proper for expressing any thing grave and important. In familiar conversation, they are in some measure ridiculous: Prospero, in the Tempest, speaking to his daughter Miranda, says,
The fringed curtains of thine eyes advance,
No exception can be taken to the justness of the figure; and circumstances may be imagined to make it proper; but it is certainly not proper in familiar conversation.
In the last place, though figures of speech have a charming effect when accurately constructed and properly introduced, they ought, however, to be scattered with a sparing hand: nothing is more luscious, and nothing consequently more satiating, than redundant ornaments of any kind.
NARRATION AND DESCRIPTION.
Writers should choose subjects adapted to their genius-In history, the reflections to be chaste and solid-The commencement of an epic poem to be modestSubjects intended for entertainment solely, to be described as they appear, and not as they really are-Objects in both narration and description, to be painted with great accuracy-A useless circumstance to be suppressed-The power of a simple circumstance happily selected-The drawing of characters, the master stroke in description-In this Tacitus, Shakspeare, and Ossian excel-Verbal dress-The emotion raised by the sound and the sense to be concordant-A stronger impression made by an incident upon an eye-witness than when heard at second hand-The effect of abstract or general terms in composition for amusement, not good-In the fine arts, the capital object to be placed in the strongest point of view-A concise comprehensive style, a great ornament in narration-Tautology to be avoided-An object ugly to the sight, not so when represented by colors or by words-Illustrated, from painting, and from language.
HORACE, and many critics after him, exhort writers to choose a subject adapted to their genius. Such observations would multiply rules of criticism without end; and at any rate belong not to the
present work, the object of which is human nature in general, and what is common to the species. But though the choice of a subject comes not under such a plan, the manner of execution comes under it; because the manner of execution is subjected to general rules, derived from principles common to the species. These rules, as they concern the things expressed as well as the language of expression, require a division of this chapter into two parts; first of thoughts, and next of words. I pretend not to justify this division as entirely accurate: for in discoursing of thoughts, it is difficult to abstract altogether from the words; and still more difficult, in discoursing of words, to abstract altogether from the thought.
The first rule is, that in history the reflections ought to be chaste and solid; for while the mind is intent upon truth, it is little disposed to the operations of the imagination. Strada's Belgic History is full of poetical images, which discording with the subject, are unpleasant; and they have a still worse effect, by giving an air of fiction to a genuine history. Such flowers ought to be scattered with a sparing hand, even in epic poetry; and at no rate are they proper, till the reader be warmed, and by an enlivened imagination be prepared to relish them in that state of mind they are agreeable; but while we are sedate and attentive to an historical chain of facts, we reject with disdain, every fiction. This Belgic History is indeed wofully vicious both in matter and in form: it is stuffed with frigid and unmeaning reflections; and its poetical flashes, even laying aside their impropriety, are mere tinsel.
Second, Vida, following Horace, recommends a modest commencement of an epic poem; giving for a reason, that the writer ought to husband his fire. This reason has weight; but what is said above suggests a reason still more weighty: bold thoughts and figures are never relished till the mind be heated and thoroughly engaged, which is not the reader's case at the commencement. Homer introduces not a single simile in the first book of the Iliad, nor in the first book of the Odyssey. On the other band, Shakspeare begins one of his plays with a sentiment too old for the most heated imagination:
Bedford. Hung be the heav'ns with black, yield day to night!
First Part Henry VI.
The passage with which Strada begins his history, is too poetical for a subject of that kind; and at any rate too high for the beginning of a grave performance. A third reason ought to have no less influence than either of the former, that a man, who, upon his first appearance, strains to make a figure, is too ostentatious to be relished. Hence the first sentences of a work ought to be short, natural and simple. Cicero, in his oration pro Archia poeta, errs against this
Poet. lib. II. 1. 30.
rule: his reader is out of breath at the very first period; which seems never to end. Burnet begins the History of his Own Times with a period long and intricate.
A third rule or observation is, that where the subject is intended for entertainment solely, not for instruction, a thing ought to be described as it appears, not as it is in reality. In running, for example, the impulse upon the ground is proportioned, in some degree, to the celerity of motion: though in appearance it is otherwise for a person in swift motion seems to skim the ground, and scarcely to touch it. Virgil, with great taste, describes quick running according to appearance; and raises an image far more lively than by adhering scrupulously to truth:
Hos super advenit Volsca de gente Camilla,
Eneid, VII. 803.
Last from the Volscians fair Camilla came
Les Brutiens sont legeres à la course comme les cerfs, et comme les daims; On croiroit que l'herbe même la plus tendre n'est point foulée sous leurs pieds. à peine laissent-ils dans le sable quelques traces de leurs pas.
Déjà il avoit abattu Eusilas si léger à la course, qu'à peine il imprimoit la trace de ses pas dans le sable, et qui devançoit dans son pays les plus rapides flots de l'Eurotas et de l'Alphée. Liv. XX.
Fourth, In narration as well as in description, objects ought to be painted so accurately as to form in the mind of the reader distinct and lively images. Every useless circumstance ought indeed to be suppressed, because every such circumstance loads the narration; but if a circumstance be necessary, however slight, it cannot be described too minutely. The force of language consists in raising complete images;* which have the effect to transport the reader as by magic into the very place of the important action, and to convert him as it were into a spectator, beholding every thing that passes. The narrative in an epic poem ought to rival a picture in the liveli ness and accuracy of its representations: no circumstance must be omitted that tends to make a complete inage; because an imperfect image, as well as any other imperfect conception, is cold and unin* Chap. 2. Part 1. Sect. 7.
teresting. I shall illustrate this rule by several examples, giving the first place to a beautiful passage from Virgil:
Qualis populea marens Philomela sub umbrâ
So close in poplar shades, her children gone,
Whose nest some prying churl had found, and thence
The poplar, ploughman, and unfledged young, though not essential in the description, tend to make a complete image, and upon that account are an embellishment.
Georg. lib. IV. 1. 511.
Hic viridem Æneas frondenti ex ilice metam
On this, the hero fixed an oak in sight
Horace, addressing to Fortune:
Te pauper ambit sollicita prece
Eneid, V. 129.
Carm. lib. I. ode 35.
Thee the poor farmer's anxious prayer
Per medias rapit ira cædes.
And marriageable virgin sends her broken sighs.
Ah me for fear my royal spouse
Should this ungoverned lion rouse,
And with inferior skill provoke his rage,
Which breaks through thickest ranks the midmost war to wage. Shakspeare says, "You may as well go about to turn the sun to ice by fanning in his face with a peacock's feather." The peacock's feather, not to mention the beauty of the object, completes the image: an accurate image cannot be formed of that fanciful operation, without conceiving a particular feather; and one is at a loss when this is neglected in the description. Again, "the rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drown'd a bitch's blind puppies, fifteen i' th' litter." t
Carm. lib. III. ode 2.
Oid Lady. You would not be a queen?
Anne. No, not for all the riches under heav'n.
Old Lady. 'Tis strange: a threepence bow'd would hire me, old as I am, to queen it. Henry VIII. Act II. Sc. 3. In the following passage, the action, with all its material circumstances, is represented so much to the life, that it would scarcely
• Henry V. Act IV. Se. 4. ✦ Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III. Sc. 5.
appear more distinct to a real spectator; and it is the manner of description that contributes greatly to the sublimity of the passage.
He spake; and to confirm his words, out flew
Millon, B. 1.
A passage I am to cite from Shakspeare, falls not much short of that now mentioned in particularity of description:
O you hard hearts! you cruel men of Rome!
Julius Cæsar, Act I. Sc. 1. The following passage is scarcely inferior to either of those mentioned:
Far before the rest, the son of Ossian comes; bright in the smiles of youth, fair as the first beams of the sun. His long hair waves on his back: his dark brow is half beneath his helmet. The sword hings loose on the hero's side; and his spear glitters as he moves. I fled from his terrible eye, King of high Temora. Fingal. The Henriade of Voltaire errs greatly against the foregoing rule: every incident is touched in a summary way, without ever descendiug to circumstances. This manner is good in a general history, the purpose of which is to record important transactions: but in a fable it is cold and uninteresting; becanse it is impracticable to form distinct images of persons or things represented in a manner so superficial.
It is observed above, that every useless circumstance ought to be suppressed. The crowding of such circumstances, is, on the one hand, no less to be avoided, than the conciseness for which Voltaire is blamed, on the other. In the Æneid,* Barce, the nurse of Sichæus, whom we never hear of before nor after, is introduced for a purpose not more important than to call Anna to her sister Dido: and that It might not be thought unjust in Dido, even in this trivial circumstance, to prefer her husband's nurse before her own, the poet takes care to inform his reader, that Dido's nurse was dead. To this I must oppose a beautiful passage in the same book, where, after Dido's last speech, the poet, without detaining his readers by describ ing the manner of her death, hastens to the lamentation of her attendants:
Dixerat: atque illam media inter talia ferro
Lib. iv. 1. 632.