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DMUND BURKE devotes Part V. of his Philosophical Inquiry Into
the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful to elo
quence as it attracts and sways us in oratory and poetry. Everything he writes is entitled to respectful study. He was himself the greatest orator of modern times, and he knew as much as anyone has known of the methods by which a great mind gains the power of sublime expression. There is a secret of his own eloquence which he does not tell, however, though he once suggested it, when, in a conversation with his friend, Philip Francis, he asserted that he had wetted with his tears the paper on which he wrote of Marie Antoinette as the repulsive scenes attending her death on the guillotine brought to his mind the time, when sixteen or seventeen years before, he had seen her in her fresh youth, just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,-glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. Though Burke opposed to those who would have probed his weaknesses a lofty bearing which compelled them to feel their inferiority and keep their distance, he had a deep and tender soul, full of sympathy for everything living, as, in consequence, it was for everything beautiful and sublime in inanimate nature. He derived from the great classics of oratory and poetry,-from Homer and Virgil, not less than from Demosthenes and Cicero, - a most intimate knowledge of the art of expression. But his own greatest strength of expression,- his power of using melodious language, is associated with the tender sensitiveness of his sympathies. It does not seem probable in the nature of things that if anyone could wholly lack this gift, the gift of eloquent expression would be possible at all:
« If you would make me grieve, go learn to weep!»
This is the fundamental rule of persuasion,- that we ourselves must feel all we wish our words to convey to others. But there is in the words of such an orator as Burke at his best, a sweet and lofty music which has a power and charm of its own, apart from the sense which inspired it. At such times his ear unerringly rejects every harsh and discordant sound. His words, when he expresses pathos, are as soft as Italian. He illustrates the fundamental law that the ear for the sweet and sublime concords of language is the ear for music. The ear, even when untrained, will catch and hold far more than the best-trained mind can analyze and define; and to read over and over aloud from Burke those passages in which he shows himself most deeply moved, is to gain an idea of the possibilities of English prose which cannot be gained from analysis,-a new sense of the dignity of true oratory as the connecting link between the sublimest prose and the sublimest poetry.
Burke was born in Dublin about January 12th, 1729. This is the date according to a generally-accepted authority, though there has been a long controversy over it which is never likely to be settled. After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, he studied law, but was soon diverted to literature and politics. In 1766, he made his first speech in Parliament and at once took his place as the greatest Whig orator of England, -a place he retained without a rival until his death, July 9th, 1797. His essay “On the Sublime and Beautiful” is, next to his speeches, his greatest work; but his speeches are incomparable.
RELATION OF ELOQUENCE TO THE SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL
ATURAL objects affect us by the laws of that connection which Providence has
established between certain motions and configurations of bodies, and cer
tain consequent feelings in our mind. Painting affects in the same manner, but with the superadded pleasure of imitation. Architecture affects by the laws of nature and the law of reason ; from which latter result the rules of proportion, which make a work to be praised or censured, in the whole or in some part, when the end for which it was designed is, or is not, properly answered. But as to words: they seem to me to affect us in a manner very different from that in which we are affected by natural objects, or by painting or architecture; yet words have as considerable a share in exciting ideas of beauty and of the sublime as many of those, and sometimes a much greater than any of them ; therefore an inquiry into the manner by which they excite such emotions is far from being unnecessary in a discourse of this kind.
Section 1, Part V. "On the Sublime and Beautiful.”
THE POWER OF ELOQUENCE
he common notion of the power of poetry and eloquence, as well as that of
words in ordinary conversation, is, that they affect the mind by raising in it
ideas of those things for which custom has appointed them to stand. To examine the truth of this notion, it may be requisite to observe that words may be divided into three sorts. The first are such as represent many simple ideas united by nature to form some one determinate composition, as man, horse, tree, castle, etc. These I call aggregate words. The second are they that stand for one simple idea of such compositions, and no more: as red, blue, round, square, and the like. These I call simple abstract words. The third are those which are formed by a union,—an arbitrary union,- of both the others, and of the various relations between them in greater or less degrees of complexity: as virtue, honor, persuasion, magistrate, and the like. These I call compound abstract words. Words, I am sensible, are capable of being classed into more curious distinctions; but these seem to be natural, and enough for our purpose; and they are disposed in that order in which they are commonly taught, and in which the mind gets the ideas they are substituted for. I shall begin with the third sort of words: compound abstracts, such as virtue, honor, persuasion, docility. Of these I am convinced that whatever power they may have on the passions, they do not derive it from any representation raised in the mind of the things for which they stand. As compositions, they are not real essences, and hardly cause, I think, any real ideas. Nobody, I believe, immediately on hearing the sounds, virtue, liberty, or honor, conceives any precise notions of the particular modes of action and thinking, together with the mixed and simple ideas, and the several relations of them for which these words are substituted; neither has he any general idea compounded of them; for if he had, then some of those particular ones, though indistinct perhaps, and confused, might come soon to be perceived. But this, I take it, is hardly ever the case.
For put your self upon analyzing one of these words, and you must reduce it from one set of general words to another, and then into the simple abstracts and aggregates, in a much longer series than may be at first imagined, before any real idea emerges to light; before you come to discover anything like the first principles of such compositions ; and when you have made such a discovery of the original ideas, the effect of the composition is utterly lost. A train of thinking of this sort is much too long to be pursued in the ordinary ways of conversation; nor is it at all necessary that it should. Such words are in reality but mere sounds ; but they are sounds which, being used on particular occasions, wherein we receive some good, or suffer some evil, or see others affected with good or evil; or which we hear applied to other interesting things or events; and being applied in such a variety of cases that we know readily by habit to what things they belong, they produce in the mind, whenever they are afterwards mentioned, effects similar to those of their occasions. The sounds being often used without reference to any particular occasion, and carrying still their first impressions they at last utterly lose their connection with the particular occasions that give rise to them; yet the sound, without any annexed notion, continues to operate as before.
Section 2, Part V.
WORDS AND IDEAS
R. Locke has somewhere observed, with his usual sagacity, that most gen.
eral words,-those belonging to virtue and vice, good and evil, especially,
are taught before the particular modes of action to which they belong are presented to the mind; and with them the love of the one and the abhorrence of the other; for the minds of children are so ductile that a nurse, or any person about a child, by seeming pleased or displeased with anything, or even any word, may give the disposition of the child a similar turn. When, afterwards, the sev. eral occurrences in life come to be applied to these words, and that which is pleasant often appears under the name of evil; and what is disagreeable to nature is called good and virtuous, a strange confusion of ideas and affections arises in the minds of many, and an appearance of no small contradiction between their notions and their actions. There are many who love virtue and who detest vice, and this not from hypocrisy or affectation, who, notwithstanding, very frequently act ill and wickedly in particulars without the least remorse, because these particular occasions never came into view when the passions on the side of virtue were so warmly affected by certain words heated originally by the breath of others; and for this reason it is hard to repeat certain sets of words, though owned by themselves inoperative, without being in some degree affected, especially if a warm and affecting tone of voice accompanies them, as suppose,
« Wise, valiant, generous, good, and great.”
These words, by having no application, ought to be inoperative; but when words commonly sacred to great occasions are used, we are affected by them even without the occasions. When words which have been generally so applied are put together without any rational view, or in such a manner that they do not rightly agree with each other, the style is called bombast. And it requires in several cases much good sense and experience to be guarded against the force of such language; for when propriety is neglected, a greater number of these affecting words may be taken into the service, and a greater variety may be indulged in combining them.
Section 3, Part IV.
F words have all their possible extent of power, three effects arise in the mind
of the hearer. The first is, the sound; the second, the picture, or represen
tation of the thing signified by the sound; the third is the affection of the soul produced by one or by both of the foregoing. Compounded abstract words, of which we have been speaking (honor, justice, liberty, and the like), produce the first and the last of these effects, but not the second. Simple abstracts are used to signify some one simple idea, without much adverting to others which may chance to attend it, as blue, green, hot, cold, and the like; these are capable of affecting all three of the purposes of words, as the aggregate words, man, castle, horse, etc., are in a yet higher degree. But I am of opinion that the most general effect, even of these words, does not arise from their forming pictures of the several things they would represent in the imagination, because, on a very diligent examination of my own mind, and getting others to consider theirs, I do not find that once in twenty times any such picture is formed, and, when it is, there is most commonly a particular effort of the imagination for that purpose.
But the aggregate words operate, as I said of the compound-abstracts, not by presenting any image to the mind, but by having from use the same effect on being mentioned that their original has when it is seen. Suppose we were to read a passage to this effect: « The river Danube rises in a moist and mountainous soil in the heart of Germany, where, winding to and fro, it waters several principalities, until, turning into Austria, and leaving the walls of Vienna, it passes into Hungary; there with a vast food, augmented by the Saave and the Drave, it quits Christendom, and, rolling through the barbarous countries which border on Tartary, it enters by many mouths in the Black Sea.” In this description many things are mentioned, as mountains, rivers, cities, the sea, etc. But let anybody examine himself and see whether he has had impressed on his imagination any pictures of a river, mountain, watery soil, Germany, etc. Indeed, it is impossible, in the rapidity and quick succession of words in conversation, to have ideas, both of the sound of the word and of the thing represented; besides, some words, expressing real essences, are so mixed with others of a general and nominal import that it is impracticable to jump from sense to thought, from particulars to generals, from things to words, in such a manner as to answer the purposes of life; nor is it necessary that we should.
Section 4, Part V.
LANGUAGE AND IMAGINATION
FIND it very hard to persuade several that their passions are affected by words from whence they have no ideas; and yet harder to convince them that in
the ordinary course of conversation we are sufficiently understood without raising any images of the things concerning which we speak. It seems to be an odd subject of dispute with any man, whether he has ideas in his mind or not. Of this, at first view, every man, in his own forum, ought to judge without appeal. But, strange as it may appear, we are often at a loss to know what ideas we have of things, or whether we have any ideas at all upon some subjects. It even requires a good deal of attention to be thoroughl satisfied on this head. Since I wrote these papers, I found two very striking instances of the possibility there is that a man may hear words without having any idea of the things which they represent, and yet afterwards be capable of returning them to others, combined in a new way, and with great propriety, energy, and instruction. The first instance is that of Mr. Blacklock, a poet blind from his birth. Few men blessed with the most perfect sight can describe visual objects with more spirit and justness than this blind man,-- which cannot possibly be attributed to his having a clearer conception of the things he describes than is common to other persons. Mr. Spence, in an elegant preface which he has written to the works of this poet, reasons very ingeniously, and, I imagine, for the most part, very rightly, upon the cause of this extraordinary phenomenon; but I cannot altogether agree with him that some improprieties in language and thought, which occur in these poems, have arisen from the blind poet's imperfect conception of visual objects, since such improprieties, and much greater, may be found in writers even of a higher class than Mr. Blacklock, and who, notwithstanding, possessed the faculty of seeing in its full perfection. Here is a poet doubtless as much affected by his own descriptions as any that reads them can be; and yet he is affected with this strong enthusiasm by things of which he neither has nor can possibly have any idea further than that of a bare sound; and why may not those who read his works be affected in the same
that he was, with as little of any real ideas of the things described ? The second instance is of Mr. Saunderson, professor of mathematics in the University of Cambridge. This learned man had acquired great knowledge in natural philosophy, in astronomy, and whatever sciences depend upon mathematical skill. What was the most extraordinary and the most to my purpose, he gave excellent lectures upon light and colors; and this man taught others the theory of these ideas which they had, and which he himself undoubtedly had not. But it is probable that the words, red, blue, green, answered to him as well as the ideas of the colors themselves; for the ideas of greater or lesser degrees of refrangibility being applied to these words, and the blind man being instructed in what other respects they were found to agree, or to disagree, it was as easy for him to reason upon the words as if he had been fully master of the ideas. Indeed, it must be owned he could make no new discoveries in the way of experiment. He did nothing but what we do every day in common discourse. When I wrote this last sentence, and used the words every day” and “common discourse,» I had no images in my mind of any succession of time, nor of men in conference with each other; nor do I imagine that the reader will have any such ideas on reading it. Neither when I spoke of red, or blue, and green, as well as of refrangibility, had I these several colors or the rays of light pass