Page images

vivacity. The ornament should be of a high kind-such as ennobles and exalts the subject. Diffuseness, as already remarked, is likewise desirable.

In concluding the attempt, that has now been made, to state the principles and rules of composition in English, I would enforce the following general directions for forming a good style.

1. Be familiar with the best models of style.

In observing this injunction, the attention should be principally directed to the best writers of the present day. There are peculiarities of style which characterize the productions of different periods, no less than of different individuals; and to be esteemed a good writer, some regard must be paid to the literary taste of the age. The inquiries may here arise, what is the character of the prevalent style of our times, and where may the best models of writing be found ? With the view of more fully answering these inquiries, I shall here introduce a short account of some prominent changes in the style of English writers.

If we go back to the time of Hooker, and Barrow, and Taylor, we find prevalent a rough, plain, and energetic manner of writing. The literary men of that period were men of thought. Having but few books, and those difficult of access, they relied chiefly on the resources of their own minds. Hence their conceptions were distinct, and their expressions are marked by the freshness and strength of originality of thought. At the same time, from their familiarity with Greek and Latin literature, and from their occasionally composing in the latter of these languages, they acquired a harshness and stiffness of expression. Hence the style of the period may be characterized as forcible and often elevated, but, at the same time, harsh and laboured. Another period in the history of English style, worthy of our particular notice, is the reign of Queen Anne. The writers of that golden age were finished scholars men of knowledge, wit, and refinement, and we admire their skill in the use of words, their rich figurative language, and the smoothness and harmony of their periods. We are pleased, also, with the thoughts which they convey to us, and with the allusions and happy illustrations with which these thoughts are embellished. At the same time, we discern a marked difference, in the intellectual resources and energies, between these writers and those before mentioned. There is less of boldness of conception, less of comprehensiveness and exaltation of view, and less of freedom of expression. The style of the latter period seems formed in one uniform mould, and the different writers exhibit, not so much the characteristic marks of their own peculiar manner of thinking, as they do a conformity to some established standard.

That the influence of the polish and refinement of this period was most favourable cannot be doubted. English style acquired an ease and elegance which it had never possessed. Its forms of expression were idiomatic-its ornament had simplicity and beauty. The permanent influence of this progress has been felt in the improvement of our language itself.

But if we admit that the improvements in our language, made at this period, and the ease and beauty of expression introduced, compensate for want of boldness and vigour of thought and expression, it must still be allowed that the effect of a close imitation of these polished writers was injurious. For many years following the period of which we have last spoken, there was manifestly too great an ambition among writers to form their style on the model of Addisonian ease and simplicity. Hence freedom from faults, a negative sort of excellence, was the object at which they aimed ; and in their painful efforts for polish and refinement of style, they forgot to think for themselves, and nobly speak their thoughts. Such, with few exceptions, was the character of English writers for many years after the time of Addison.

Within the last thirty years another change in English style has been gradually making progress. The nerveless polish and refinement of the former period have been giving place to directness, and manliness, and strength of expression. In these traits of style we seem to be going back to the times of Hooker and Barrow. But the improvements of intervening periods have not been lost. Our language has become more definite in the use of words, more harmonious in its sounds, and more copious in its terms.

The good writer of the present day always seems to write under a degree of excitement. He is full of his subject, and his attention is directed to what he shall say, rather than to the manner of conveying his thoughts. His expressions have an air of originality about them. There is no toilsome selection of words, no laboured composition of sentences, no high-wrought ornament; but the words, and sentences, and ornaments, are such as most naturally and obviously present themselves to the excited mind. If one word is more expressive of his meaning than another he does not fear to use it, though it may never have been introduced to such good company before. If a form of sentence occurs to him, which is more easy and idiomatic than another, he adopts it, and stops not to inquire whether it end in a trisyllable or a monosyllable. If a figurative expression strikes him as pertinent and happy, he uses it, and leaves it for others to examine whether it be found in the numbers of the Spectator, and have the authority of classical writers for its support. In short, instead of imitating the style of any other writer as his guide, he has a style of his own, and observes the maxim of Horace in the literal use of the term :

Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri."


The most characteristic faults of the style of the present day, are incorrectness and affectation of strength. Though we could not condemn the writer, who, borne along by the rapid and impetuous flow of his thoughts, disdains the restraints of minor rhetorical rules, yet there are certain limits which cannot be passed without

No one can be esteemed a good writer whose manner of writing is not perspicuous. Hence no rule, the observance of which is essential to perspicuity, can be violated without the charge of incorrectness. If a writer uses words in a foreign or improper signification, no excellence can atone for these defects. If, in the composition of his sentences, he neglects to observe those rules, which require unity and a right arrangement of the several causes and parts, to a degree which produces obscurity, he cannot receive the name of a good writer. It too often occurs, that modern writers, in the haste and ardour with which they compose, are guilty of violations of these rules.

The other fault which has been mentioned, is an affectation of strength of expression. This arises from the propensity, so natural to man, of going to extremes. Because strength is a characteristic of the style of the good writer of the present day, many evidently labour hard for its attainment through the whole of their composition. They are ever seeking after new and forcible forms of expression, and searching for striking and dazzling illustrations; but they should bear in mind, that what is unnatural and forced must ever be disgusting.

In answer to the inqniry, where those models of writing are to be found, the study of which may aid in acquiring the style of the present day, I would first direct the attention to the literary Reviews of the time. This class of writings not only contains the best part of the literature of the age, but has done mueh towards the improvement of our style. The Edinburgh Review has greatly contributed to this object. It was the first to lead the way in that fearlessness and boldness of thought and expression, which have succeeded to the tameness and excessive polish of a former period. The Orations and popular Addresses of the day, may be mentioned as another class of writings furnishing models of good writing. But I would recommend to him who would acquire a good style, instead of confining his attention to models of good writing of the present day, to go back to an earlier period in English literature. Let him study the works of those great men of former days, who, conscious of intellectual supremacy, stood forth with a noble spirit of independence and self-reliance, as the guides and instructors of their times; and who, feeling the responsibility attached to their high gifts and attainments, sought not the praises of their contemporaries only, but, to use the noble language of Milton, “ that lasting fame and perpetuity of praise, which God and good men have consented shall be the reward of those whose published labours advance the good of mankind.” He will, indeed, find in these writings inelegances and inaccuracies of expression ;-he will meet with words and phrases which will appear to him strange and uncouth; but these deficiencies are amply compensated by a noble freedom and strength of thought, and a richness and directness of expression. Let him then study these models, that his mind may become assimilated to theirs -that he may be actuated by the same spirit, and show forth the same energy.

2. Compose frequently and with care.

It should be remembered by all those who would attain a good style, that every good writer has made

« EelmineJätka »