Page images

as to become susceptible of an admirable adaptation to the wants, occupations, pursuits, and improvements, of each peculiar people to whose uses it is applied. Why should it be thought incredible, or even wonderful, that mankind should display judgment or skill in this production of their ingenuity, when they act under the guidance of nature, or rather under the direction of his hand and supervision of his eye, whose skill is more consummate than we can conceive, and whose wisdom and power are infinite ? Does not the great Contriver lead his creatures unerringly by their instincts and propensities in the pursuit of wholesome aliments, the gratification of their appetites and passions, the construction of commodious habitations for themselves, and the propagation of their species? What power is it that leads the ant to make provision in summer for the inclement season of winter - the bee to procure and garner its honey in the comb-and the beaver to contrive its cell ? And when the poet, by his invention, gives rise to his dramatic or epic production, in the outset of his enterprise, and before art has furnished him lessons, what other instructor but nature enables him to produce his Iliad or Odyssey ? Shall that power which, in the course of its operations, can elicit the exquisite contrivances of the human frame, and of all animated creation, as well as the order and harmonious movements of the planetary system, be thought incapable of conducting mankind to the formation of a finished language, whatever may be the regularity of its laws, and the exactness of its adaptation to its uses ?

I conclude, therefore, upon a review of the whole argument in its favor, as well as by many other considerations which might be readily adduced, which would leave scarcely any room for hesitation, or a hinge upon which a doubt might bang, that man is the inventor, improver, and perfecter of both spoken and written language, in all its stages of improvement and perfection.

We are now prepared for an investigation of the next subject of inquiry, what are the various forms of style which come under the designation of fine writing, and what are faulty and exceptionable ? We have already remarked, that every species of composition, to merit this first distinction, must be characterized by good sense, sound knowledge, just sentiments, a faithful conformity to truth and nature, and where wit, pleasantry, and merriment are attempted, must be restrained within the bounds of probability and verisimilitude. When solid and useful materials are presupposed, the qualities which will recommend works to perusal, are a simple elegance of expression, or what Horace denominates, a style simplex munditiis ; propriety and correctness in the selection of terms to convey our ideas, or the use of those terms which have been sanctioned by the best authorities; clearness and precision, without which properties our conceptions are dimly discerned, and finally, strength and descriptiveness, which depend upon the frugal employment of words, and the force and fertility of the imagination. There is an ineffable charm in perfect simplicity, when it is connected with elegance of thought and diction; so that the writer seems to pour fourth his conceptions without reflection or artifice from the overflowing abundance of his own resources; and if there be richness, beauty, or sublimity in his conceptions, they appear to be the spontaneous productions of the soil. The judicious selection of words, and the proper employment of figures, appear to be the two requisites in good writing, in regard to which authors of inferior merit are most apt to err, and concerning which, the greatest skill, management, and address, are to be displayed. The words and phrases selected should be pure and genuine English, or such as have been incorporated into our literature by the practice of the best authors. Nothing can be more offensive to a correct taste, than the pedantry and affectation displayed by some authors, when they interlard their style with those quotations from the French, which, of late years, have taken the place of references to the Greek and Latin classics, so frequent soon after the revival of learning in Europe. Our tongue is now so copious and flexible, that we can never be at a loss to transmit every shade of thought and modification of feeling, without any recurrence to foreign help. If Swift and Addison, in their times, complained of this innovation, and reprobated the attempt to corrupt the purity and impair the beauty of their own speech by French phrases, what would be their dissatisfaction, could they witness the license assumed in this respect by many writers at the present day? The two great and distinguishing imperfections of English composition, at this time, are, on the one hand, an excessive intermixture of French phrases with our native speech, and an incessant propensity to shine in superfluous ornament. Recent writers too generally endeavor to make amends for solid matter and just conceptions, by the spangles of French quotations, striking illustrations, and sparkling imagery.

One of the sensible correspondents of Miss Hannah More observes to her, that she and Mr. Burke were the only writers of her day who seemed to understand the proper use of metaphors; and perhaps he here suggests one of the least fallible tests, save that of the ideas themselves, by which an able author may be discriminated. Very few persons are expert in the employment of metaphors, which require as much nicety in the management of the pen, as the laying on of coloring does to the painter. They are almost always either too profusely developed, or too unskilfully mingled, producing confusion in the picture - originating at first in the barrenness of language, and the want of terms to express abstract ideas and invisible feelings of the mind, the figures of speech are soon found to afford entertainment to the imagination, and thus the pleasure they occasion betrays mankind into a too liberal indulgence in them. It is not until a community arrive at the highest perfection in science and letters, that they learn to pronounce a correct decision in regard to the degree of embellishment which should be admitted into their discourse and writings. And it is a point of no small difficulty to the rhetorician, to ascertain at what stage in our progress the highest degree of legitimate ornament terminates, and where excessive decoration begins. When should we begin to be figurative, and when should we be contented with plain language ? When do these embellishments assist in the communication of thought, and when are they injurious and objectionable ?— are questions which nothing but a correct taste can solve, and are scarcely to be determined by precise rules. Whole nations have differed in their sentiments upon the subject; the glowing imagination of people in the East, and warmer latitudes, where their



temperaments are more ardent, allowing a richer imagery than would be relished or tolerated by nations, whose constitutions are cooled and minds sobered by the temperate and northern climates. Making full allowance, however, for that diversity of taste subsisting among mankind, arising out of their constitutional temperament and habits of conversation and writing, there must be some precise limits at which the decorations of style, like those of dress, begin to be truly advantageous and ornamental, and at which they become useless and positively detrimental. To arrive at just conclusions in this weighty matter, let us reflect upon the purpose which language is intended to answer, which is, undoubtedly, to communicate information and instruction, to persuade to a course of action, or to furnish rational amusement. To attain the first of these ends, all that can be necessary, supposing the thoughts to be good, is a judicious selection of the most expressive words, a right collocation of them, and those chastened ornaments which, like a tasteful dress to the person, serve rather to recommend the ideas, than to furnish additional entertainment to the mind. Nothing can be more egregiously misplaced, than splendid flourishes of rhetoric, vehemence of spirit, and bold and passionate figures of speech, in the calm disquisitions of science. By such artifices as these, philosophy, instead of preserving her grave and manly air, dignified tread and demeanor, and authoritative mode of address, awakens a just suspicion of her imbecility, and that she is endeavoring to gain, by management and indirect expedients, that assent and submission to her doctrines, which she should seek only through the force of truth. In matters of persuasion and entertainment, a wider field is opened for the display of decorations and flights of fancy, always taking care, however, still to maintain a just medium between a flat, tame, and barren style, and that which is florid, glittering and rampant, or rantipole. The history of literature, both in ancient and modern times, reveals to us three distinct stages in the mode of writing. The first is that in which mankind commence the task of communicating their thoughts upon paper, when they are contented with the simple expression of the sentiments which fill their own minds, and interest their feelings; the second, in which they attain to the highest perfection; and the third, in which they take delight in excessive decoration. The progress which men make in fine writing, resembles that which is observable in their indulgence of the luxuries of the table. When they have obtained the gratification of all those wholesome viands which regale the appetite for food, and nourish and invigorate the body, they then strive to enhance their sensual enjoyment, by stimulating condiments, and all the arts of refined cookery. So, also, is it found in fine writing. When nations have produced authors who amuse and instruct them by the most finished productions of genius, productions in which are comprised every species of natural and becoming ornament, the public taste begins to demand those performances which more strongly excite their feelings, and enchant their imaginations. This is the excess into which writing degenerated in Greece, after the age of Aristotle and Demosthenes, and in Rome, after that of Cicero, Horace, and Virgil. Since the times of Anne, in England, and of Louis XIV., in France, it must be perceptible to every philosophic observer, that,

with many honorable exceptions, taste has been gradually declining, and an appetite awakening for productions rather stimulating than solid, rather ornamental than useful, rather striking than just. In France, more especially, from the stirring events which have happened in that country during and since their revolution, and the utter absorption of the public attention by the noble object of regaining their long lost liberties, and establishing a wholesome government, (I speak it with many prepossessions in her favor, and an ardent admiration of her superiority,) her literati, for the most part, seem to have abandoned those habits of persevering application and devotion to the perusal of the best models, which are indispensable to the production of the greatest writers. In consequence, the largest number of her authors, since her beneficial changes in government, have been characterized by a superficial science and false taste. Our country discovers, in matters of this nature, all the symptoms of a great scientific and literary nation in embryo, or its juvenile state. If an over: weening fondness for superabundant finery in style is our prevailing literary sin at this time, even this deficiency, as in a young man, is an indication of that fertility of imagination and vigor of genius, which, in mature age, will lead us to the greatest eminence and imperishable fame.



The blast that sweeps o'er the frozen earth,

The last leaves from the forest shaking,
Breathes softer notes than the worldling's mirth,

To the heart that's heavy and breaking.
For what are songs of the festal board,

Or the wildest strains of the viol,
When the soul is bowed, as its dying Lord

In the garden of gloom and trial ?


Ye may kindle smiles in the drooping eye,

Though tears o'er the pale cheeks are stealing,
As lightning flashes along the sky,

When the storm is sullenly pealing.
Wild words of mirth on the lip may play,

Though sorrow can know no assuaging,
As merrily glisten the drops of spray

O'er the gulf where torrents are raging.


Then, worldling, sing to the broken heart,

In 'vain of its anguish beguiling,
And deem that solace the strains impart

When your victim is wildly smiling!
That smile may glimmer a moment bright,

Not a pang of the bosom quelling,
As the cold moon gleams on the mists of night,

And illumines without dispelling.
New-York, November 30, 1836.

B. D. W.




If life were to be measured by incidents, I should have lived a long, and apparently a useless one. I feel that it is drawing to a close, though I am not old now

not old in years. But I have lived long enough to survive the love of life; and this seems strange to myself, as I look upon a world so intent upon the mere act of living, and so careless of the future. As I revert to the past, I find little to regret, save the waste of time, and the misapplication of powers ; and these were more the work of education, than my own agency. The reason why I am not happier, is, that I have acquired so strong a moral momentum in certain courses - not criminal ones, as the world judges - that I find it impossible to turn myself 10 useful

I grasp at the idea that I may yet be useful, by giving a history of my mind, and of my growth in pernicious habits. I know that I represent thousands of Americans, born as I was born, nurtured as I was nurtured, and feeling as I feel. I start in this project with doubt and uncertainty. It seems impossible that I can finish it. I throw down my pen, even at the commencement, and resume it again with a trembling hope that I have not started another chimera to cheat me of my time, and delude me into nothingness ; for now I am literally nothing. I am alone. No one cares for me care for many. I love my fellow men. I


for their miseries ; I pity their misfortunes. I look upon them as creatures of circumstance, with myself. The vile have become so, by degrees imperceptible to themselves; the good are equally incapable of tracing their progress. When men begin to reflect, and to look about them, and to be acted on by pride of character - to find themselves subjected to the arbitrary criterions of society- to discover the reasons why they occupy this station or that they then begin to play an equal game with their fellows. But until this time of awakening to their real situation, they are passive instruments in the hands of fate. Some never think never awake

but live on, they inquire not how, or where. The present moment absorbs them; they are satisfied, and chance directs them, or what is the same thing, as far as they are concerned, the actions of other men decide their destiny. Whether this be good or bad, is to them a matter of mere fortune.

yet I

* The story of 'Wilson CONWORTH' is what it purports to be, a veritable transcript from real life. The correspondent from whom we receive it, was a college classmate of the writer, of whom he thus speaks : 'In reading over the history of my friend, I have felt disposed to expunge some sentiments, which the world may not perhaps call just; but upon reflection, I have coocluded to submit it in its original state. As it is, it is a perfect picture of his character, as he himself observes; and if any moral is to be deduced from his story, it must be read as he wrote it.' It may be proper to add, that the mss. is all before us, arranged in such a manner as to preserve in each of its several divisions an interest which is pot contingent upon what may follow. Our readers will find in this autobiography, when they shall have fairly entered upon it, or we greatly mistake human feeling and good taste, much of the beautiful sentiment and simple grace of Irving, united with a calma and thoughtful philosophy, and a thorough knowledge of the world - the harvest of an observant eye.


« PreviousContinue »