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The extensive usefulness of perspicuity.
“ for my part, I thought he was obliged to the clergy “ of Ireland, for giving him an occasion of gratifying " the pleasure he took in doing good to the church I.”
It may be observed, that delicacy requires indirectness of manner no less in censure than in praise. If the one, when open and direct, is liable to be branded with the name of flattery, the other is no less exposed to the opprobrious appellation of abuse, both alike, though in different ways, offensive to persons of taste and breeding. I shall give, from the work last quoted, a specimen (I cannot say) of great delicacy in stigmatising, but at least of such an indirect manner as is sufficient to screen the author from the imputation of downright rudeness.
" I hear you are " like to be the sole opposer of the bank; and you “ will certainly miscarry, because it would prove a “ most perfidious thing. Bankrupts are always for
setting up banks; how then can you think a bank “ will fail of a majority in both houses *?” It must be owned that the veil here is extremely thin, too thin to be altogether decent, and serves only to save from the imputation of scurrility, a very severe reproach. It is the manner which constitutes one principal distinction between the libeller and the satirist. I shall give one instance more of this kind from another work of the same author. " To smooth the way for the “ return of popery in Queen Mary's time, the grantees
# Swift's Let. 10.
* Ibid. 40.
were confirmed by the pope in the possession of the “ abbey-lands. But the bishop tells us, that this “confirmation was fraudulent and invalid. I shall “ believe it to be so, although I happen to read it in “ his Lordship's history t.” Thus he insinuates, or signifies by implication, that his Lordship's history is full of lies. Now, from all the specimens I have exhibited, it will, I suppose, sufficiently appear to any person of common understanding, that the obscurity required by delicacy, either in blaming or in commending, is totally distinct in kind from obscurity of expression, with which none of the examples above quoted is in the smallest degree chargeable.
The illustrations I have given on this topic will contribute in some measure to explain the obscurity that is requisite in allegories, apologues, parables, and enigmas. In all these sorts of composition, there are two senses plainly intended, the literal and the figurative; the language is solely the sign of literal sense, and the literal sense is the sign of the figurative. Perspicuity in the style, which exhibits only the literal sense, is so far from being to be dispensed with here, that it is even more requisite in this kind of composition than in any other. Accordingly, you will perhaps nowhere find more perfect models both of simplicity and of perspicuity of style, than in the parables of
+ Preface to the Bishop of Sarum's Introduction to the 3d volume of his History of the Reformation,
The extensive usefulness of perspicuity.
the gospel. Indeed, in every sort of composition of a figurative character, more attention is always and justly considered as due to this circumstance, than in any other sort of writing. Æsop's fables are a noted example of this remark. In further confirmation of it, we may observe that no pieces are commonly translated with greater ease and exactness, than the allegorical ; and that even by those who apprehend nothing of the mystical sense. This sure could never be the case, if the obscurity were chargeable on the language.
The same thing holds here as in painting emblems, or graving devices. It may, without any fault in the
, painter or engraver, puzzle you to discover what the visible figure of the sun, for example, which you observe in the emblem or the device, was intended to signify; but if you are at a loss to know whether it be the figure of the sun or the figure of the moon, that you are looking at, he must have been undoubtedly a bungling artist. The body, therefore, if I may so express myself, of the emblem or of the device, and precisely for the same reason, of the riddle or of the allegory, must be distinctly exhibited, so as scarce leave room for a possibility of mistake. The exercise that in any of these performances is given to ingenuity, ought wholly to consist in reading the soul.
I KNOW no style to which darkness of a certain sort
a is more suited than to the prophetical. Many reasons
might be assigned which render it improper that prophesy should be perfectly understood before it be accomplished. - Besides, we are certain, that a prediction may be very dark before the accomplishment; and yet so plain afterwards, as scarcely to admit a doubt in regard to the events suggested. It does not belong to critics to give law to prophets, nor does it fall within the confines of any human art, to lay down rules for a composition so far above art. Thus far, however, we may warrantly observe, that when the prophetic style is imitated in poetry, the piece ought, as much as possible, to possess the character abovementioned. This character, in my opinion, is possessed in a very eminent degree by Mr Gray's ode called
The Bard. It is all darkness to one who knows no- thing of the English history, posterior to the reign of Edward the first, and all light to one who is well acquainted with that history. But this is a kind of writing whose peculiarities can scarce be considered as exceptions from ordinary rules.
But, further, may not a little obscurity be sometimes very suitable in dramatic composition ? Sometimes, indeed, but very seldom ; else the purpose of the exhibition would be lost. The drama is a sort of moral painting, and characters must be painted as they are. A blunderer cannot properly be introduced conversing with all the perspicuity and precision of a critic, no more than a clown can be justly represented expressing himself in the polished style of a courtier. VOL. II.
May there not be an excess of perspicuity ?
In like manner, when the mind is in confusion and perplexity, arising from the sudden conflict of violent passions, the language will of necessity partake of the perturbation. Incoherent hints, precipitate sallies, vehement exclamations, interrupted perhaps by feeble checks from religion or philosophy, in short, every thing imperfect, abrupt, and desultory, are the natural expressions of a soul overwhelmed in such a tumult. But even here it may be said with truth, that to one skilled in reading Nature, there will arise a light out of the darkness, which will enable him to penetrate farther into the spirit, than he could have done by the help of the most just, most perspicuous, and most elaborate description. This might be illustrated, were it necessary, but a case so singular is hardly called an exception. The dramatist then can but rarely claim to be indulged in obscurity of language, the fabulist
May theré not be an excess of perspicuity ?
I SMALL conclude this subject, with inquiring whether it be possible that perspicuity should be carried to excess. It hath been said, that too inuch of it has a tendency to cloy the reader, and, as it gives no play