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The following description of the rising sun is taken from one of Gray's Letters :
“I set out one morning before five o'olock, the moon shining through a dark and misty autumnal air, and got to the sea-coast, time to be at the sun's levee. I saw the clouds and dark vapours open gradually to the right and left, rolling over one another in great smoky wreaths, and the tide (as it flowed in on the sands) first whitening, and then slightly tinged with gold and blue, and all at once a little line of insufferable brightness, that before I can write these five words is grown to half an orb, and now a whole one, too glorious to be distinctly seen.”
This is a representation of a scene in nature, and the writer, in looking on this scene, felt an emotion of grandeur. Should it be asked, why this emotion is thus excited, the only cause to be assigned is, that it is natural to us to feel this emotion when viewing this and similar scenes. Our Creator has so constituted us. Should we now further inquire, why the description of the scene excites an emotion of the same kind in the minds of its readers, we have to assign, in answer, the same cause. The writer addresses himself to the imagination of his readers, and by the use of words as symbois brings the scene distinctly before their minds, and an emotion of grandeur is excited at the description, on the same principle, as when this emotion was excited while gazing on the scene itself. Now this is often done, when the ornaments of style are introduced. A word, or an illustration, brings before the mind an object or scene, which from the original constitution of our mind, excites an emotion of beauty or sublimity. This original constitution of the human mind is then to be considered as one of those principles, to which the writer addresses himself, with the design of exciting emotions of taste.
It was still further stated, that the emotions of beauty and sublimity, are often excited on the principle of association. Objects and scenes, which are not fitted from any original tendencies of the mind to excite these emo
tions, may still excite them from their being associated in our minds with what is thus regarded; or where they are fitted to excite these emotions in some degree, they may excite them in a higher degree, because of such associations. The traveller in passing the river Rubicon, might regard it as a common stream ; but should it be told him, that he is standing where Cæsar stood, when he decided the destinies of Rome, the scene before him from association excites an emotion of sublimity. Here then is another principle, to which the writer addresses himself in the introduction of the ornaments of style, with the design of exciting emotions of taste. He brings before us that which from association is fitted to excite in our minds an emotion of beauty or sublimity.
On the principles which have been stated, the ornaments of style may excite emotions of taste distinct from their connexion, as found in a literary production, and as tending to the accomplishment of the design of the writer. Regarding them in this latter view, another cause of the emotions of taste which they are fitted to excite, is brought to notice. I refer to what is called fitness or adaptation.
When we look at any work of art, a piece of cabinet work for example, we may think of it in relation to some purpose which it is designed to answer, and from perceiving that it is admirably well adapted to answer this purpose, we may on this account regard it with admiration. We
still further examine it as to the proportion of its parts, their fitness to the whole work, and the skill with which they are formed and arranged ; and in this view of the work also we may feel a similar emotion. Thus we are led to pronounce the work beautiful. Now in these instances, we feel an emotion of beauty as regards fitness or adaptation. Should it be asked, why the emotion is felt, it must be answered, as before, that it is a primary law of our nature. We can only say, that our Creator has so constituted us. As it is highly important that the student should clearly understand this principle, and as it is the foundation of the rules by which we judge of descriptive writing, I shall attempt its more full devolopement in connexion with illustrations of this kind. I would remark, however, that it is not my design to state the rules and principles which apply to descriptive writing, any further than is necessary for the illustration of the principle of adaptation, which is now to be explained.
The following passage forms part of the description of a fatal contest between two Highlanders, who encountered each other on a narrow and dangerous pass :
“ They threw their bonnets over the precipice, and advanced with a slow and cautious step closer to each other; they were both unarmed, and stretching their limbs like men preparing for a desperate struggle, they planted their feet firmly on the ground, compressed their lips, knit their dark brows, and fixing fierce and watchful eyes on each other, stood there prepared for the onset. They both grappled at the same moment; but being of equal strength, were unable for some time to shift each other's position,--standing fixed on a rock with suppressed breath, and muscles strained to the “ top of their heart,' like statues carved out of the solid stone."
The object of the writer in this passage, is to place before us a distinct view of the combatants as they entered on the contest; and in answer to the inquiry, why the passage strikes us favourably, and, as a description, excites an emotion of beauty, I would assign as a cause, the adaptation of the description to this design. We admire it because both the selection and arrangement of circumstances, and the use of words, are such as to bring the scene directly and clearly before the view. Here then is one instance, where an emotion of beauty is excited by the fitness or adaptation to a particular design, and that design is the distinct and striking representation of The accurate and vivid delineation of objects and scenes here exemplified, is sometimes called truth to nature. The representation of common and familiar scenes in this way excites emotions of beauty ; but the power of truth to nature is most deeply felt, when the writer lays open to our view the hidden workings of the mind, and the strong affections of the heart. That the student may more fully understand what is meant by the phrase, “ truth to nature,” which is of frequent occurrence, I here introduce two passages, which happily illustrate its meaning, one a description of a familiar scene; the other, of the affections.
The following description of a country inn is from Goldsmith's Deserted Village :
Imagination fondly stoops to trace
Ranged o'er the chimney, glistened in a row.
There is none
Which, early faded through fond care for him,
No! these are woman's tasks! The following example is taken from a description of the Pilgrim Fathers on their
to America:“ I see them driven in fury before the raging tempest, on the high and giddy waves. The awful voice of the storm howls through the rigging. The labouring masts seem straining from their base ;-the dismal sound of the pumps is heard; the ship leaps as it were madly from billow to billow ;-the ocean breaks and settles with engulfing floods over the floating deck, and beats with deadening, shivering weight, against the staggered vessel.”
The design of the writer in this passage, is to excite emotions in the minds of his readers. He would have them shudder in view of the dangers, by which the frail bark he describes is encompassed, and regard with deep commiseration the noble adventurers it bears. If now we notice the circumstances which make up the description, as they tend to this design of the writer, we may learn at once, why the passage, as a description, excites our admiration. The “howling voice of the storm," " the straining of the masts," “ the dismal sound of pumps," " the leaping of the ship,” “ the overflowing of the deck," and “the deadening shock of the ocean,” all tend to impress the mind most deeply with horror at the scene, and commiseration for those who are exposed to its danger.
I give one example more, in which it is the design of the writer to excite emotions of a ludicrous nature. It is Washington Irving's description of Ichabod Crane :
“ He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that