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The unintelligible.... Part II. From affectation of excellence.
words, but are always at a loss to find the sense. The meaning, where there is a meaning, cannot be said to be communicated and adorned by the words, but is rather buried under them. Of the same kind are the two following quotations from the same author ::“ Men “ must acquire a very peculiar and strong habit of
turning their eye inwards, in order to explore the "interior regions and recesses of the mind, the hollow “caverns of deep thought, the private seats of fancy, "and the wastes and wildernesses, as well as the more " fruitful and cultivated tracks of this obscure cli“ mate *.” A most wonderful way of telling us, that it is difficult to trace the operations of the mind. This may serve to give some notion of the figure which the French Phebus, no offence to the Grecian, who is of a very different family, is capable of making in an English dress.
His lordship proceeds, in his own inimitable manner, or rather in what follows hath outdone himself: " But what can one do? or how dispense with these darker disquisitions, and moon-light voyages,
when we have to deal with a sort of moon" blind wits, who, though very acute and able in their “ kind, may be said to renounce day-light, and extin
guish in a manner the bright visible outward world, " by allowing us to know nothing beside what we can
prove by strict and formal demonstration *.” It must be owned, the condition of those wits is truly deplorable, for though very acute and able in their
Characteristics, Vol. III. Misc. iv. Chap. 2.
kind, yet, being moon-blind, they cannot see by night, and having renounced day-light, they will not see by day : so that, for any use they have of their eyes, they are no better than stone-blind. It is astonishing, too, that the reason for rendering a moon-light voyage
indispensable, is, that we have moon-blind persons only for our company, the very reason which, to an ordinary understanding, would seem to render such a voyage improper. When one narrowly examines a piece of writing of this stamp, one finds one's self precisely in the situation of the fox in the fable, turning over, and considering the tragedian's mask *, and can hardly refrain from exclaiming in the same words :
How vast a head is here without a brain to
PART III.... From want of meaning:
I come now to the last class of the unintelligible, which proceeds from a real want of meaning in the writer. Instances of this sort are even in the works of good authors, much more numerous than is commonly imagined. But how shall this defect be discovered? There are indeed cases, in which it is hardly discoverable; there are cases, on the contrary, in
* Persona tragica is commonly rendered so ; but it was very different from what is called a mask with us. It was a case which covered the whole head, and had a face painted on it suitable to the character to be represented by it.
+ O quanta species, inquit, ast cerebrum non habet! PÆDRUS.
The unintelligible....Part III. From want of meaning.
which it may be easily discovered. There is one remarkable difference between this class of the unintelligible, and that which was first taken notice of, proceeding from confusion of thought, accompanied with intricacy of expression. When this is the cause of the difficulty, the reader will not fail, if he be attentive, to hesitate at certain intervals, and to retrace his progress, finding himself bewildered in the terms, and at a loss for the meaning. Then he will try to con. strue the sentence, and to ascertain the significations of the words. By these means, and by the help of the context, he will possibly come at last at what the author would have said. Whereas, in that species of the unintelligible which proceeds from a vacuity of thought, the reverse commonly happens. The sentence is generally simple in its structure, and the construction easy. When this is the case, provided words glaringly unsuitable are not combined, the reader proceeds without hesitation or doubt. He never suspects that he does not understand a sentence, the terms of which are familiar to him, and of which he perceives distinctly the grammatical order. But if he be by any means induced to think more closely on the subject, and to peruse the words a second time more attentively, it is probable that he will then begin to suspect them, and will at length discover, that they contain nothing, but either an identical proposition, which conveys no knowledge, or a proposition of that kind, of which one cannot so much as affirm, that it is either true or false. And this is justly allowed to VOL. II.
be the best criterion of nonesense * It is, indeed, more difficult to distinguish sentences of this kind from those of the second class of the unintelligible already discussed, in which the darkness is chiefly imputable to an affectation of excellence. But in these matters it is not of importance to fix the boundaries with precision. Sometimes pompous metaphors, and sonorous phrases, are injudiciously employed to add a dignity to the most trivial conceptions; sometimes they are made to serve as a vehicle for nonsense. And whether some of the above citations fall under the one denomination or the other, would scarce be worth while to inquire. It hath been observed, that in madmen there is as great a variety of character, as in those who enjoy the use of their reason. In like manner, it may be said of nonsense, that, in writing it, there is as great scope for variety of style, as there is in writing
I shall therefore not attempt to give specimens of all the characters of style which this kind of composition admits.
The task would be endless. Let it suffice to specify some of the principal.
* Of all that is written in this style, we may justly say, in the words of Lord Verulam, (De Aug. Sci. L. vi. C. 2.) applying to a particular purpose the words of Horace.
Tantum series juncturaque pollet,
ut speciem artis, nescio cujus, præclaræ sæpenumero reportent ca, que si solvantur, segregentur, et denudentur, ad nihilum fere recasura forent.
-As to the causes of the deception there is in this manner of writing, I shall attempt the investigation of them in the following chapter.
The unintelligible.... Part III. From want of meaning.
1. The puerile.
The first I shall mention is the puerile, which is always produced when an author runs on in a specious verbosity, amusing his reader with synonymous terms and identical propositions, well-turned periods, and high-sounding words; but, at the same time, using those words so indefinitely, that the latter can either affix no meaning to them at all, or may almost affix to them any meaning he pleases. “ If 'tis asked,” says “ a late writer, “ Whence arises this harmony or beau"ty of language ? what are the rules for obtaining it ? “ The answer is obvious, Whatever renders a period
sweet and pleasant, makes it also graceful ; a good " ear is the gift of nature, it may be much improv"ed, but not acquired by art; whoever is possessed “ of it, will scarcely need dry critical precepts to en" able him to judge of a true rhythmus, and melody " of composition : just numbers, accurate proportions,
a musical symphony, magnificent figures, and that decorum, which is the result of all these, are unison " to the human mind; we are so framed by Nature, " that their charm is irresistible. Hence all ages and * nations have been smit with the love of the mus
*.” Who can now be at a loss to know whence. the harmony and beauty of language arises, or what the rules for obtaining it, are? Through the whole
* Geddes on the Composition of the Ancients, Sect. i.