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"If it be the obscure, the minute, the ceremonial part of religion for which we are contending, though the triumph be empty, the dispute is dangerous. Like the men of Ai we pursue perhaps some little party that flies before us, we are eager that not a straggler may escape; but when we look behind, our city is in flames." ....DR. OGDEN'S SERMONS.
The figure called catachresis, which I hope I need not tell you means an abuse of words, is commonly no more than a violent or over-strained metaphor, as when we say of a person for whom we have little respect, "that he inflicted an obligation upon us." The vivid imagination of Mr. Burke was very fond of this figure: thus when he called the hair-brained revolutionists of France "architects of ruin," it was certainly a catachresis; but it was a very fine one.
All these figures you will easily perceive are derived from the relation of resemblance; and as metaphysicians have connected under one head the relations of resemblance and contrariety, I think I may be allowed to conclude this letter with the notice of an important figure derived from this latter quality, I mean the antithesis.
The antithesis in general, even the serious kind, may be considered as a species of witticism, and is therefore a much more favourite figure with the moderns than with the ancients. For however inferior we may be to the classical writers in other instances, in wit and humour the moderns undoubtedly excel them. The only ancient writer that I know who is very fond of the antithesis, is Seneca the rhetorician, in whose compositions this figure is continually and disgustingly introduced. Great as is my veneration for Dr. Johnson, I cannot help suspecting that he early studied in the school of Seneca, and that he there imbibed that predilection for the antithesis so conspicuous in his otherwise incomparable writings.
The French were among the first of the moderns who cultivated the antithesis. The letters of Voiture, which are very studied, and not a little affected, are full
of them. It is, however, the language of compliment, and what is called "a well turned compliment," is often no more than a pointed antithesis. Thus the writer, whom I just mentioned, tells his friend Balzac, "that self-knowledge, which was a cause of humility to other men, must with him have a quite contrary effect."
Antitheses seem to have been introduced, at least the abuse of them, into the English language in the time of Charles II. With other species of false wit they pervaded all the eloquence of the day. Even the pulpit was not free from them, and we are often disgusted with the harsh antithesis of South; take for example one sentence.....
“These were notions not descending from us, but born with us; not our offspring, but our brethren; and (as I may so say) such as were taught without the help of a teacher."
There are hardly any rules to be observed respecting the introduction and the use of antitheses; your own taste and discretion must be your only guides. I may however in the first place remark, that as they always appear the effect of study, they are never natural in impassioned language. On the stage, therefore, they are seldom introduced with propriety, as they are neither the suitable expression of passion, nor can be supposed to occur naturally in conversation. As they do not accord with the passionate, and are efforts too minute for the sublime, it forms an objection against that inimitable poem, the Night Thoughts, that it abounds too much with this figure. The sublimity of the following lines is destroyed by the epigrammatic turn.....
"Even silent night proclaims my soul immortal,
"For human weal Heaven husbands all events,
In those compositions, however, where we expect the sport of fancy, and which may be supposed to have
cost the author some study, the effect of a spirited antithesis is considerable; and the less studied it appears the better. The two following (both from the same author) are natural and easy :
"The use of the dagger is seldom adopted in public councils, as long as they retain any confidence in the power of the sword."....GIBBON'S HISTORY, c. 25.
"In the horrid massacre of Thessalonica, the cruel Rufinus inflamed the fury without imitating the repentance of Theodosius."....IBID.
Writers of genius, it is true, sometimes unite the pathetic, and even the sublime, with this figure, as in the following instances from Dr. Johnson:
"Wherever the eye is turned it sees much misery, and there is much which it sees not; many complaints are heard, and there are many pangs without complaint."....SERMONS.
In speaking of the pride of talents also...." The time will come, it will come quickly, when it shall profit us more to have subdued one proud thought, than to have numbered the host of heaven."....IBID.
We should observe, as a 2d rule, to beware of their too frequent introduction; for a reader may tire even of brilliancy. Beautiful as the compositions of Dr. Johnson are, I have sometimes felt a sameness in them; a number of sentences ending in the same way, and reading almost like a chapter in the book of Proverbs. Mr. Gibbon is also too fond of antitheses; the figure is indeed better suited to discussion than to narrative.
3dly. The antithesis should rather be in things than in words, and should not only have contrast but ingenuity to recommend it. A late writer on education puts in opposition "a false quantity and a false assertion." This is too much like a pun.
In few words the antithesis, like every figure, receives animation and elegance from the hand of genius; but nothing can be more frigid than a string of trite antitheses from a dull writer. I would much rather have plain fact, and plain truth, from such authors, than the
affectation of wit and elegance. The imitators of Dr. Johnson have miserably failed, not because they were unable to ape his manner, but because they wanted the solidity of his observation, and the brilliancy of his fancy.
MY DEAR JOHN,
NOT to detain you much longer in the rudiments of rhetoric, I shall proceed without preface to those figures, which are derived from the other relations of cause and effect, and contiguity.
You need not be informed that the word metonymy implies a change of name, or, in other words, the substitution of some characteristic circumstance or quality for the name or word by which a thing is usually known.
It is chiefly, I might almost say entirely, from the relation of cause and effect that this figure is derived. Thus the cause is put for the effect, when the inventor's name is used for the thing invented. Instead of a serious example, take one that will amuse you better, from the treatise on the Bathos....
"Lac'd in her Cosins* new appear'd the bride,
Agreeably to this figure, the author's name is employed to designate his works; as when I say, "I have read Homer, Virgil, or Milton," for the works of Ho
$ Fan. **A head-dress. All names taken, I believe, from eminent workmen or dealers in those articles.