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If it were asked, however, to what species of com. position long or short sentences are most adapted, I would say that long sentences are the language of oratory, short sentences of conversation. Grave and studied composition best accords with a length of period, and some degree of inversion of language is then an excellence, since it serves to dignify and raise it above the level of colloquial discourse. For the gay and familiar, short sentences are best adapted; as such composition is commonly an imitation of common conversation. On this account Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws is a most ill-written book. The number of short sentences tires excessively; and they succeed each other so rapidly, as not to leave impressions sufficiently strong and distinct.
Composition purely didactic, however, in which there is no appeal to the passions, ought not to abound in very long sentences, nor should there be much departure from the natural order of the words. I would almost prescribe the same rule for narrative, especially where there is no description. Where, however, description is introduced, there is room for a display of eloquence, and then the composition may assume something of a rhetorical cast. For reasons which I shall afterwards assign, I think Mr. Hume's history very faulty; but I cannot deny him the praise of a clear and unaffected style, which renders his narrative generally intelligible and pleasant. Mr. Gibbon, on the contrary, has more eloquence, and he describes better than he narrates.
After all that I have urged on this topic, you will derive more of practical improvement from the careful perusal of good authors, than from any rules that can be laid down. Take Pope, Addison, Burke, Robertson, Johnson, (particularly the preface to his dictionary) and Gibbon; and observe carefully how each of these great writers has arranged his words, and constructed his periods. You will find something characteristic in each with respect to the harmony of their numbers, and the structure of their sentences; but though I advise you to study them all, I do not recommend a servile imita
tion of any. If I was to propose a model for general use, it would be the style of Mr. Addison; for in copying that, you are copying the expression of nature itself. He is sufficiently pure though not faultless. He is always perspicuous, natural and easy. In harmony he has never been excelled; and his periods are constructed with the art, dexterity and promptitude of a master workman. They are never deficient in grace, though it must be allowed that sometimes they want strength, but that was not an object considering the nature of his subjects. On this account Mr. Addison shewed his judgment in not attempting the part of an orator in parliament. His style was not adapted to it. In fine, to use the words of an incomparable critic and biographer:"Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”
MY DEAR JOHN,
THE real ornaments of composition, whether prose or poetry, can proceed only from genius, from a mind rich in such ideas as are the fruits of observation, active in forming combinations, and nice in selecting such as are interesting and beautiful, and adapted to the subject. This observation will naturally recal to your memory what have advanced in my second letter, that it is the clear and striking display of a number of circumstances which are calculated to exhibit a picture strongly to the mind, that renders a style interesting and animated. Compare the description of the storm in Virgil's first Eneid, that of Milton's Death and Sin, or the account of a battle by a Livy or a Gibbon, with the narratives or descriptions of ordinary writers, and you will soon perceive the magic touch of genius.
An historian, or even a poet, might have expressed or described the surprise of the northern invaders at finding themselves transported from a bleak and unfriendly region, to the genial climate of Italy, and yet not raise the emotions which Mr. Gray excites even in a few lines.....
"With grim delight the brood of winter view,
Here even every epithet speaks something to the purpose: the "grim delight," the "brood of winter," the brightness of the day, and the "skies of azure hue," the rose and the grape, so beautifully introduced, are
all picturesque, and have a finer effect than a formal description.
Again Shakspeare might have moralized, as many a popular preacher does, upon the progress of human life from infancy to manhood, and its subsequent decline and melancholy termination. He might have compared it to a drama, remarked on the variety of characters which we are called upon by Providence to assume; and he might have concluded, like the gentleman to whom I have alluded, with some good common-place remark, as "he is a happy man, who plays well the part which is assigned him." But this would not attract and engage the reader like the picture which he draws of the different and almost contrasted characters in which the same man may be appointed to appear....
"All the world's a stage,
"And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits, and their entrances;
Mewling and puking, in the nurse's arms:
"Even in the cannon's mouth: and then, the justice;
I select this well-known passage, because from its being familiar to you, it will more strongly impress upon your mind the doctrine I wish to enforce.
I had read many accounts of the first crusades, but I never saw them, till depicted by the animating pencil of Gibbon.
"The 15th of August had been fixed in the council of Clermont for the departure of the pilgrims: but the day was anticipated by the thoughtless and needy crowd of plebeians; and I shall briefly dispatch the calamities which they inflicted and suffered, before I enter on the more serious and successful enterprise of the chiefs. Early in the spring, from the confines of France and Lorraine, above sixty thousand of the populace of both sexes flocked round the first missionary of the crusade, and pressed him with clamorous importunity to lead them to the holy sepulchre. The hermit, assuming the character, without the talents or authority, of a general, impelled or obeyed the forward impulse of his votaries along the banks of the Rhine and Danube. Their wants and numbers soon compelled them to separate, and his lieutenant, Walter the Pennyless, a valiant, though necdy soldier, conducted a vanguard of pilgrims, whose condition may be determined from the proportion of eight horsemen to fifteen thousand foot. The example and footsteps of Peter were closely pursued by another fanatic, the monk of Godescal, whose summons had swept away fifteen or twenty thousand peasants from the villages of Germany. Their rear was again pressed by an herd of two hundred thousand, the most stupid and savage refuse of the people, who mingled with their devotion a brutal licence of rapine, prostitution, and drunkenness. Some counts, and gentlemen, at the head of three thousand horse, attended the motions of the multitude to partake in the spoil; but their genuine leaders (may we credit such folly?) were a goose and a goat, who were carried in the front, and to whom these worthy Christians ascribed an infusion of the divine spirit."