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A style to be perfect must be varied in the sound as well as in the language, with a happy mixture of long and short sentences, and the periods not all rounded alike.
Harmony may also be consulted both in the choice of words, and in the mode of placing them. 1st. An attention to harmony demands that we should reject, if we can find synonymous terms, such long, heavy and compound words as barefacedness, wrongheadedness, tenderheartedness, &c.
2dly. We should be sparing in the use of such as crowd together a number of short syllables, and in which the accent is thrown so far back as to give an appearance of stammering in the utterance, such as primarily, cursorily, summarily, peremptorily, peremptoriness, &c.
3dly. Such as repeat the alike syllable in an awkward and unmusical manner, as holily, farriery, sillily, &c.
In the collocation of words we should also carefully avoid an hiatus, if possible; and I conceive it may be generally done by a slight inversion or transposition.
Swift, whose taste in prose composition I never can approve, though I cannot sufficiently admire his genius, was very angry with the custom of abbreviating the eths in the third person singular of verbs, and reducing them to a plain s. The truth is however, that the s in these instances is pronounced like z, which is not a hissing, but a very musical letter; and I may appeal to any ear, whether has, and dies, and lies, are not more harmonious than hath, dieth, and lieth.
Whether it may not have arisen from an early association I am uncertain; from the Scriptures being translated into this kind of language, and its being used by old and venerable writers; but the use of the termination eth in the third person seems to me only adapted to solemn or sublime writing. It is well employed by the translator of Ossian, but is stiff and pedantic in Shaftsbury and Swift.
Dr. Middleton, instead of wishing with Swift to abridge the number of monosyllables, adds a very uncouth one to them, by cutting off the last syllable from the word
often; and Mr. Rowe, to soften the language, abridges the monosyllable them, by taking away the th when the preceding word ends with a consonant. But in general I disapprove of all such abbreviations. They have a tendency to corrupt the structure of our language, without improving its harmony; and are now properly rejected by all good writers.
From what I have stated in the course of this letter, you will perceive that there is a style naturally suited, even in point of harmony, metre, or cadence to particular subjects. The grave and solemn require an equal and majestic succession of sounds; the more violent passions may have longer and fuller periods with more rapidity. But the notion of suiting the sound to the sense, or rather mimicking the motions or the sounds you describe, though attempted by Pope, and recommended by Blair, is extremely puerile, either in prose or verse. The infelicity of Mr. Pope's imitations of this kind ought to be a caution to others not to attempt it. Had his lines.....
“When Ajax strives some mighty weight to throw,
"Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the
been all the author meant them in this respest, the merit would not have been great. It would have only been like the declaimer who acts his words. Such frivolous attempts are beneath a man of great genius, who, if he has an ear, and is really warmed with his subject, may generally trust to the former to accompany the latter with the appropriate words and sounds.
But though the rules of art cannot furnish that important qualification a good ear, still the ear is, I believe, capable of improvement in style, as well as in vocal or instrumental music. I would therefore recommend, as an exercise, that you would occasionally compose one or more sentences on any given subjects, and try after
wards to alter the arrangement of the words in different ways, till you find that which is most sonorous, and most likely to please in delivery; or if you would read over your different attempts to some friend who had a really good ear, the exercise would be more perfect.
Another practice which will improve you, not only in harmony, but in fluency and elegance of style, is to read over carefully a short passage in any good author, Addison, Johnson, Robertson or Gibbon; close the book, and try to express the ideas as nearly as you can in their manner. Then compare your attempt with the original.
I do not mean to advise you to play the part of a mere imitator, when you write from yourself; for every author should have a style of his own; but by such exercises as these you will acquire a command of language, and a tase for beauty and harmony.
Before I proceed to the ornamental part of style, properly so called, I wish to premise a few words more connected perhaps with the preceding subject. I might have introduced what I have now to state under the head of perspicuity, but that it is in some measure connected also with harmony; I mean the graceful and elegant construction of a sentence. Aristotle's definition of a sentence is absurd, because it will apply to almost any thing as well as a sentence, and does not give you an idea of that which it is intended to describe. "It is," says he, "a speech, or saying, which has a beginning and end within itself." Dr. Blair is much better, who calls it "a simple proposition or enunciation of thought;" and Dr. Lowth's, with some slight correction, will perhaps be found the most perfect, and comes recommended by its plainness and simplicity: "An assemblage of words, which in themselves make a complete sense."
Through this is a good definition of a sentence, yet it must not be understood to imply that every sentence is confined to the expression of one single act, such as requires only a noun and a verb, with possibly an objective case, such as "He is gone to London." A sentence may embrace several members, or little sentences with
in it, subservient to the principal and governing sense. These latter are called compound sentences; and such are the majority of those which occur in composition.
It is upon selecting properly what members ought to be admitted into a sentence, and arranging them with judgment, that the difficulty in this branch of composition depends; and you will find as much difference in this respect between the sentences of a master in composition, and those of a beginner or an unskilful practitioner, as between the motions of the most graceful stage dancer, and the arrantest clown.
The first rule that I shall lay down with respect to the structure of a sentence, depends immediately upon the definition I have just adopted, that it shall contain one clear proposition or enunciation of thought; and therefore you must be careful never to crowd those circumstances into one sentence, which would be better dispersed into two or more: I select an example from Sir William Temple's Essay on Poetry.
"The usual acceptation," says he, "takes profit and pleasure for two different things, and not only calls the followers or votaries of them by the several names of busy and idle men, but distinguishes the faculties of the mind, that are conversant about them, calling the operations of the first wisdom, and of the other wit, which ́ is a Saxon word, used to express what the Spaniards and Italians call ingenio, and the French esprit, both from the Latin; though I think wit more particularly signifies that of poetry, as may occur in remarks on the Runic language."
Nothing can possibly be more confused than this sentence, which, to be rendered intelligible, requires to be divided into at least two or three. We have another in Lord Shaftsbury's rhapsody, where he treats of the sun's influence, monstrous animals, and then of man, all in one period.
"The sun," says he, "breaks the icy fetters of the main, when vast sea-monsters pierce through floating islands, with arms that can withstand the crystal rocks; whilst others, that of themselves seem great as islands,
are by their bulk alone armed against all but man, whose superiority over creatures of such stupendous size and force, should make him mindful of his privilege of reason, and force him humbly to adore that great Composer of these wondrous frames, and the author of his own superior wisdom."
From these, and other examples, which will frequently occur in the course of your reading, you will find that the complaint against long sentences arises not so much from their length, as from their perplexity; from their implicating too many circumstances to admit of their being clearly comprehended by the mind at one view. This is often not the mere fault of dulness, which naturally obscures every thing, but it may arise from the exuberance of genius, which is apt to comprise, at a single glance, a vast variety of matter, and to imagine that what is easily understood by itself must be equally so by others.
A very little consideration will shew you that the whole of the obscurity in the first sentence which I have quoted from Sir William Temple may be removed, and with scarcely any multiplication of words, by merely breaking it into three; for instance:
"The usual acceptation takes profit and pleasure for two different things, and calls their respective votaries by the distinct names of the busy and the idle. A similar distinction prevails even with respect to the faculties of the mind which are conversant about these different objects, and the operations of the one are called wisdom, those of the other wit. This last word is of Saxon origin, and is used to express what the Spaniards and Italians call ingenio, and the French esprit, both from the Latin; though I am of opinion that wit is more immediately applicable to poetry," &c.
There is another sentence quoted by Dr. Blair from Swift's "Proposal for correcting the English Language," which is almost equally obscure, and which might be rectified with equal facility. After noticing the state of our language under Cromwell, he adds: To this succeeded that licentiousness which entered with