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ESSAY XII.

OF ENGLISH STYLE.

SECT. I.

Introduction No

O literary enquiry can be more interesting to an inhabitant of Great-Britain, than that respecting the history of the English language, and particularly that branch of its history, which may enable us to decide, at what time it has been written and spoken in the greatest purity and perfection.

The stream of opinion seems to be unfavoura. ble to the age in which we live. The judgment of Swift and the most eminent writers in the first part of the present century, seems to have been; that the period of queen Elizabeth was the golden age of the English language. Ask the scholars and men of taste of the present day; they will perhaps for the most part give their fuffrage to the reign of queen Anne.

Men of taste of the present day think they see, as Swift believed he saw before them, the influx of a corrupt and barbarous style. The mode of writing which is now practised, we are told, is dazzling and gaudy, not of intrinsic value. Our language is infected with a motley train of foreign phraseology. We adopt expressions with eagerness, which, at the same time that they are opposed to all just analogy, are in their own nature bad and contemptible. We hunt after unreal beauties. The dignified simplicity, which characterised the language of our forefathers, is no more.

It may be allowable to suspect the justice of this invective, when it is recollected, how universally the prejudice has spread, in favour of former times and distant ages. This prejudice has however suffered grievous defalcations. It is pretty generally acknowledged, that science and the improvement of the human mind, are in a progressive state. It has come to be vehemently suspected, that the political maxims and the moral conduct of our ancestors, were not altogether so perfect as they have been represented. May it not then happen, that the opinion in favour of their language may prove equally hafty and unfounded? It is the purpose of this Effay to show, that Bb

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the English language was never in so high a state of purity and perfection, as in the present reign of king George the third.

This can only be satisfactorily done by adducing a series of infiances.

We will confine ourselves to profe examples. The licence of poetry, and the fetters of versification, have equally in all ages feduced the poets, , in some degree to deviate from tlie received lan

age in which they wrote. Before we enter upon our examples, let us endeavour to fix an idea of the laws of just composition or style.

And here I would lay it down as a maxim, that the beauty of style consists in this, to be free from unnecessary parts and excrescencies, and to communicate our ideas with the finallest degree of prolixity and circuitousness. Style should be the transparent envelop of our thoughts; and, like a covering of glass, is defective, if, by any knots and ruggedness of surface, it introduce an irregularity and obliquity into the appearances of an object, not proper to the object itself. The forming of an excellent composition, may be compared to the office of a fiatuary according to the fanciful idea of one of the ancients, who affirmed, that the statue was all along in the block of marble, and the artist did nothing more than remove those parts which intercepted our view of it. If he left any portion of the marble which ought to have been cut away, the statue was in Come degree disfigured.

In the mean while this maxim is not to be so construed as to recommend or vindicate the cutting away any words or expressions that are necessary to render the grammatical construction of a sentence complete. As little does it apply to those metaphors and ornaments of composition, which shall be found to increase the clearness or force with which an author's ideas are communieated to his readers. It applies only to those superfluities which, like dead flesh upon the limb of a human body, would call upon the skilful surgeon for the exercise of the knife or the cauftic.

The writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had for the most part a custom*, of entering upon their subject with an enumeration of the branches into which, as they supposed, it most naturally divided itself, or rather into which the genus of which it was a branch divided itself; and then dwelling, with tedious accuracy and minuteness, upon those parts which in no

* See Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Taylor's Holy Living and Dying, &c. &c. &c.

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fort belonged to their purpose, but which they thought must be described, because they were connected with it. This is an insupportable fault. It is formal, phlegmatic and repulsive. It detains us painfully in discussing all those things which we had no defire to know, and then dismisses us with a tired attention to confider what was material to the purpose. ful writer proceeds directly to his object. He shakes off with vigorous exertion every thing that would impede him*, every thing that is, in the strict sense of the words, foreign and digresfive.

The bad taste which displays itself in the phrases of the old writers, is of a similar nature to the bad taste which displays itself in the plan of their compositions. It is an ill mode of composition, where we find an author expressing his thought in ten words, when it might have been expressed with equal discrimination and grammatical propriety in five. The five additional words are so much dead and worthless matter mixed up with the true and genuine fubftance. They cloud

Sweet, rouse yourself, and the weak, wanton Cupid
Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold,
And, like a dew-drop from the lion's mane,
Be Mhook to air,

SHAKESPEAR.

the

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