Part One

Book One

Introduction

 

It has been a question for some time past, what would be the best means to fix the English language. Some have thought of Dictionaries, others of Institutes, for that purpose. Swift, I think it was, who proposed, in his letters to the Earl of Oxford, the forming an academy of learned men, in order by their observations and rules, to settle the true spelling, accentuation and pronunciation, as well as the proper words, and the purest, most simple, and perfect phraseology of language. It has always appeared to me, that if some great master of style should arise, and without regarding sentiment, or subject, give an example of good language in his composition, which might serve as a model to future speakers and writers, it would do more to fix the orthography, choice of words, idiom of phrase, and structure of sentence, than all the Dictionaries and Institutes that have been ever made. For certainly, it is much more conducive to this end, to place before the eyes what is good writing, than to suggest it to the ear, which may forget in a short time all that has been said.

It is for this reason, that I have undertaken this work; and that it may attain the end the more perfectly, I shall consider language only, not in the least regarding the matter of the work; but, as musicians, when they are about to give the most excellent melody, pay no attention to the words that are set to music; but take the most unmeaning phrases, such as sol, fa, la; so here, culing out the choicest flowers of diction, I shall pay no regard to the idea; for it is not in the power of human ingenuity to attain two things perfectly at once. Thus we see, that they mistake greatly, who think to have a clock that can at once tell the hour of the day, the age of the moon, and the day of the week, month, or year; because the complexness of the machine hinders that perfection which the simplicity of the works and movements can alone give. For it is not in nature to have all things in one. If you are about to chuse a wife, and expect beauty, you must give up family and fortune; or if you attain these, you must at least want good temper, health, or some other advantage: so to expect good language and good sense, at the same time, is absurd, and not in the compass of common nature to produce. Attempting only one thing, therefore, we may entertain the idea of hitting the point of perfection. It has been owing to an inattention to this principle, that so many fail in their attempts at good writing. A Jack of all Trades, is proverbial of a bungler; and we scarcely ever find any one who excels in two parts of the same art: much less in two arts at the same time. The smooth poet wants strength; and the orator of a good voice, is destitute of logical reason and argument. How many have I heard speak, who, were they to attempt voice only, might be respectable; but undertaking at the same time, to carry sense along with them, they utterly fail, and become contemptible. One thing at once is the best maxim that ever came into the mind of man. This might be illustrated by a thousand examples; but I shall not trouble myself with any; as it is not so much my object to convince others as to show the motives by which I myself am governed. Indeed I could give authority which is superior to all examples; viz. that of the poet Horace; who, speaking on this very subject of excellence in writing, says, Quidvis, that is, whatever you compose, let it be simplex dundaxit & unum: that is, simple, and one thing only.

It will be needless for me to say any thing about the critics, for as this work is intended as a model or rule of good writing, it cannot be the subject of criticism. It is true, Homer has been criticised by a Zoilus and an Aristotle; but the one contented himself with pointing out defects; the other, beauties. But Zoilus has been censured, Aristotle praised; because in a model there can be no defect; error consisting in a deviation from the truth, and faults, in an aberration from the original beauty; so that where there are no faults there can be no food for criticism, taken in the unfavourable sense of finding fault with the productions of an author. I have no objections, therefore, to any praise that may be given to this work; but to censure or blame must appear absurd; because it cannot be doubted but that it will perfectly answer the end proposed.

Being a book without thought, or the smallest degree of sense, it will be useful to young minds, not fatiguing their understandings, and easily introducing a love of reading and study. Acquiring language at first by this means, they will afterwards gain knowledge. --It will be useful, especially to young men of light minds, intended for the bar or pulpit. By heaping too much upon them, stile and matter at once, you surfeit the stomach, and turn away the appetite from literary entertainment, to horse-racing and cock-fighting. I shall consider myself, therefore, as having performed an acceptable service to all weak and visionary people, if I can give them something to read without the trouble of thinking. But these are collateral advantages of my work, the great object of which is, as I have said before, to give a model of perfect stile in writing. If hereafter any author of super-eminent abilities, should chuse to give this stile a body, and make it the covering to some work of sense, as you would wrap fine silk round a beautiful form, so that there may be, not only vestment, but life in the object, I have no objections; but shall be rather satisfied with having it put to so good a use.