Page images

mens of poetic expression result from the very simplicity and paucity of a rude people's vocabulary, we may begin to form some notion of what will really constitute a forcible and good style. The parent race, unpolished as it was, has left to its more polished descendants the legacy of a language which served the common purposes of life, and which necessarily partook of the character of the country and climate under whose influences it was formed: the increasing wants of science and civilisation, will oblige their posterity to borrow from other sources to supply the deficiency, but the ancient language will still be that which best applies to the earth, and the sky, and the seasons, of what the Germans very appropriately term, "the fatherland;" * and he who would speak to the heart and feelings of his countrymen, must speak in a language, which is congenial to them, which is knit up with their earliest habits,—which finds its metaphor in objects familiar to their senses;— and must not dread to use an expression of the

* It is possible that we may trace, in the modification of this term in the English, the difference between the two climates, vie say "the mother country," and certainly this expression conveys the idea of a softer nurse than the more rugged "father land " of the German.

people, if it be forcible and appropriate. The art of good writing (and a very difficult one it is,) consists in knowing how much of the expressions of our forefathers ought to be preserved,—how much reformed or abandoned. And it is the business of the grammarian to assist the judgment in this: but still much remains to be done by the taste of the writer; for the grammarian can only afford examples of good and bad style, and point out what he conceives to be the cause why it is so; but who can meet by rule all the exigencies of forcible, terse, and varied expression?

It should always be remembered, when we begin to write, that letters are but a perpetuation of spoken words :—the earliest records of most countries, even their philosophy and science, were recited, not written; and, though a book is useful for reference, we all know how much more pleasantly we acquire knowledge from the conversation of a person who thoroughly understands his subject. He who would write well then, must endeavour to approach the ease of colloquial expression in narrative, or in letter writing; or the forcible expression of passion in poetry and oratory: and, in order to do this, he must not be too free in using words of foreign derivation; for in speaking we seldom use such an one if a native one will serve our purpose, and very rarely do we use any inversion in the arrangement of our sentences.

The period during which language usually becomes deteriorated is during the first steps of refinement; when men begin to despise the habits of the people as vulgar, and place their language in the same category. The commonality do not speak by rule;—they violate the concords; they misapply words newly introduced; and their more refined countrymen scoff at their blunders, and think it a part of liberal education to root out as far as possible the common expressions of their forefathers, and substitute those of the nation which has been the leader of civilisation in their time. Thus the Romans in the decline of their greatness, were fond of Greek expressions :—thus Europe, when sunk in barbarism, clung to Latin as the language of literature, and thus in later years French exercised a deteriorating influence over English. Then comes a re-action ;—the terse, strong expression of older writers begins to be appreciated by a juster taste, and men try to imitate them, and fancy they may thus attain to something like their excellence. But neither is this the right course: for those older authors wrote as they spoke, exercising merely a just taste in selecting the most appropriate phrases. If the colloquial language he changed, and we know that it is, then we shall not charm our readers by returning to a phraseology no longer familiar; and we should imitate the great writers of other ages, not so much in their actual expressions, as in the good taste and sound judgment which they showed in their choice of them. A good style is colloquial English purified from all grammatical inaccuracy, and from any familiarity which would not sort well with the subject. The judgment of the writer is shown in his just appreciation of this last point.

I would refer to the expressions which Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Macduff, when he receives the news of the slaughter of his wife and children, as an instance where the deepest pathos is attained by excessive simplicity of phrase and metaphor.

My children too ?—

exclaims the bereaved father, after a pause when we learn from the expression of the prince that his grief had been too great for utterance; and in a moment more, after hearing farther


And I must be from thence !—

My wife killed too ?—

Rosse. I have said.

Mac. He has no children.—All my pretty ones? Did you say all ?—O hell-kite!—All 1 What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam, At one fell swoop?

Mai. Dispute it like a man.

Mac. I shall do so;

But I must also feel it as a man:
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me.

There is scarcely a word here that is not in the most familiar use, and the metaphor is that of a farm yard; yet the heart goes with every word; for we feel that such sorrow cannot spare thought enough to pick out far fetched expressions.

A kindred spirit, Schiller, has shown the like correct judgment, or rather feeling, in the scene where Thekla, the daughter of Wallenstein, receives the news of her lover's death. I annex it at length in Mr. Coleridge's excellent translation, for the gratification of those who cannot read it in the original German.

« PreviousContinue »