Book 3

Introduction

 Proceeding with my object; the giving an example of a perfect style in writing, I come now to the secondvolume of the work. I well know, that it will not all at once, and by all persons, be thought to be the model of a perfect style, for it is only the perfectly instructed, and delicately discerning that can discover its beauties: and perhaps none will be more apt to pass them by, than the learned of the academies, versed in grammar rules of writing, for there is a greenness in the judgment of the school critics with respect to what is simple and natural in composition.

To illustrate this by analogy. Let a dancing master pass his judgment on the movements of the best bred man in life; and not finding in his position and attitudes, an evident conformity to the lessons of the saltatory art, he will conclude that he has not been taught to move with propriety. He does not know that it is this very circumstance that constitutes the excellence of the movements of the easy and perfectly genteel man; to wit, that when you observe him, it will never once come into your mind that he thinks of his attitudes or positions in the least; but that every movement is just as it happens, and without any intention on his part. Ars est celare artem. It is the secret of good taste and perfection in behavior to conceal that you ever think of it at all. So it is the most perfect proof of a good style, that when you read the composition, you think of nothing but the sense; and are never struck with the idea that it is otherwise expressed than every body would express it.

That style, is not good, where it appears that you have not dared to use a word without thinking a long time whether you ought to use it; that, in the disposition of words, you have carefully studied which ought to go first and which last; and, that your sentence has a cadence which could not come by chance; but is the effect of design and art.

I acknowledge that no man will ever possess a good style that has not well studied, and exercised himself in writing, selecting with a most perfect delicacy, in all cases; the proper term; but he must go beyond this, and be able to deceive the world, and, never let it come into their heads that he has spent a thought on the subject. But it is not one in five hundred that is born with such sensibility of nerve as to be able to attain. even with the help of great instruction and practice, a perfect judgment in the use of words. It is for this reason that I am ambitious of the praise of writing well so far as respects language. For it requires no uncommon structure of nerves, or organization of the brain to produce good sense; the mass of mankind is equal to this.

Language, as it is the peculiar gift, so it is the highest glory of our species; and the philologist is to be considered as cultivating the most useful and ornamental of all arts. Pursuing therefore solely the use of words, I do not descend professedly to think of sense; nevertheless, if at any time there should be found ideas that have some consistency and meaning, they may deserve attention, as much as if it was the primary object of my work to express them; for it is not their fault if I set little store by them, and think more of the dress than I put upon them than I do of themselves.

I am happy to find that in the review of this publication, given by the critics, my ideas of the merit of the style, are recognized, and fully justified; and as my work may be well supposed, to have a much more extensive circulation, and to live longer than miscellaneous performances, I have thought it not amiss, for the honour of the critics to extract some part of the observations which have been made by them, and which are as follows:

“The author of the work before us, is well known in the literary world for his treatise on the oeconomy of Rats, a satirical composition, in which under the veil of allegory, he designates the measures of the federal government; as also for his history of Weasels, in which the same strokes are given to those at the helm of our affairs, in a different fable, and narration. In the present work which he entitles Modern Chivalry, he disowns the idea of any moral or sentiment whatsoever, and proposes style only, as the object of the composition. And to this object, in our opinion, he scrupulously adheres; for though on some occasions, there would seem to be a semblance of idea, yet this we must attribute to the imagination of the reader, just as in looking upon a plaistered wall, attentively for a long time, you will conceive the inequality of the surface, or accidental scratchings, to be the shape of birds and beasts, or the letters of the alphabet. Yet as reason in this case will correct the fancy, and bring to mind that there is really no character or image there, there being none intended; so, on a perusal of the work in question, looking a long time for sense, you may at last conceive that you observe some glimmerings of it, yet, when you recollect that you have it from the author himself that he means none, you will be sensible that it is nothing more than the accidental combination of words which has given this picture to the mind.

"Style, then, which is his object, must also be ours, in our view of the publication. For, to give a simile; if a manufacturer of cloth, or a taylor that forms it into vestments, should come forward, and produce each his work, to be considered merely as to the manufacture, or making up, without regard to the materials of the woof and warp in the one case, or the wearing in the other, it would be absurd to enquire of these, when nothing was proposed to you respecting them, by the artists themselves.

"Confining ourselves therefore to the style of this performance, we observe that it has what is the first characteristic of excellence; viz. Simplicity. This consists in the choice of the plainest and most familiar words, and in the arrangement of the words in their natural order. There is a great difference between a vulgar term, or phrase, and that which is common, and comes first upon the tongue, in easy and familiar conversation. It is the mistake of this distinction which leads some writers to avoid the phrase that any one would use, and seek out what is uncommon. Hence there appears a variation in the words they put upon paper, from those which they themselves would use in conversation. And why this? Ought not language to be precisely the same whether spoken or written?

"Perspicuity is the natural result of simplicity, and needs not be laid down as a different characteristic. For can there be obscurity in that composition where the most familiar word is used, and that word put in its proper place? This brings to mind the definition of stile by Swift:“proper words in proper places.”

"There can be nothing more easy than the composition of our author. His writing savours of the skill of an artificer who after many years exercitation in his art, acquires a power of accomplishing his work by a habit of the fingers, independent of any application of the mind. So that while in the style of others there is an appearance of exertion, here there is what a superficial observer would call carelessness, but which the sound critic will discover to be the result of a perfect mastery of all that relates to language.

"It is pretty generally believed that our style has been constantly degenerating from the time of queen Anne, in whose reign flourished those immortal penmen, Swift, Addison, Arbuthnot, Tillotson, Bolinbroke, &c. If the style of this author is examined, and compared with those models, it will be found to be in the same pure, simple attic taste. We shall, therefore, not hesitate to recommend it as a restorer of all that is correct and beautiful in writing. But this will suffice for an introduction. I proceed to the body of the work.