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ON CARE AND CONDENSATION IN WRITING.
When Apelles was reproached with the paucity of his productions, and the
incessant attention with which he re-touched his pieces, he condescended to make no other answer than that he painted for perpetuity.
The Rambler. Alcestides objecting that Euripides had only in three days composed three
verses, whereas himself had written three hundred : Thou tell’st truth (quoth he); but here is the difference ; thine shall only be read for three days, whereas mine shall continue three ages. Webster's Dedication to the Reader of the White Devil, or Vittoria
THERE are some writers who seem to regard mere quickness and facility of production as of more importance than the quality of the thing produced. They insult the public with a flippant boast of the little time which they have thought it necessary to bestow upon a work intended for its acceptance, and make that a subject of triumph which calls for an apology. If the public were in a state of intellectual deprivation, and were too voracious to be nice, these rapid writers might be looked upon as benefactors : but the case is precisely the reverse; the world abounds in books, both good and bad. There is at all events no demand for a greater number of the latter kind. We can afford to wait for the result of an author's best exertions, and are not obliged to accept with gratitude the first crude and hurried productions that he is disposed to offer*. It is not the task of a day for a man to enter into competition with such writers as Shakespeare and Milton, or Byron and Wordsworth, or to produce a work of whatever kind, which the world would not willingly let die. A reader is as little curious about the number of hours which
I hate all those nonsensical stories about Lope de Vega and his writing a play in a morning before breakfast. He had time enough to do it after.Hazlitt.
a poet may have taken to write his verses, as about the number of arms or legs of his study chair. The question is, whether the verses are good or bad, and not how, when, or where, they were composed. Even the age of a writer is a consideration of very slight importance. His years have 'no inseparable connection with his works. The latter stand alone in the world's eye, and are judged of by their intrinsic merit, and by this alone must they live or die. There are no works in the language that have been long popular merely on account of the precocity of the author. The peculiar character and condition of a young poet may excite for a while the generous sympathy of the public mind, and direct a friendly attention to his productions, as in the case of Kirke White and Chatterton; but this adventitious popularity can never last. These two unhappy youths have already lost their first bloom of reputation, and we begin to value their productions according to their intrinsic worth alone, which, though far from being inconsiderable, has been greatly overrated. If their writings had been entirely destitute of genuine merit, the circumstances with which they were connected would not have saved them from an almost instantaneous oblivion. Who now reads Dermody* or Blackett ? Southey's friend Jones, the butler,
When only ten years of age, Dermody was accustomed to translate a short poem from the Greek or Latin, with the same ease and rapidity, with which a maturer genius would write a familiar private letter. Some of these translations are preserved in the account of his life, but they form no portion of the permanent literature of his country. The effusions of facility and precocity may be a nine days' wonder, but no more. Dermody was like Master Betty, the actor, who was only a surprising boy, and who became but an ordinary man. Untimely fruits rarely ripen. Dermody was the son of a respectable schoolmaster, and in his ninth year, was actually in the situation of a teacher of Greek and Latin in his father's establishment. Yet he lived to the age of twenty-seven, and though a prolific writer, left nothing behind him that the world will care to preserve. His earliest productions were his best, but even these have very little intrinsic merit. Men of true genius have been seldom remarkable in their childhood for any manifest superiority of talent. Great intellectual power is usually tardy in its development. There is often a seeming sluggishness or obtuseness in the early years of those gifted persons who subsequently tower above their
was forgotten in a few months, though his verses were edited by the Laureate, and praised in the Quarterly Review. A certain literary Cardinal used to boast, that he had written all his works with the same pen. If he had been unable to procure another, the world might have commended his careful preservation of this single instrument of author-craft, and have pitied the unhappy printers who had to compose from an unintelligible manuscript ; but as this mechanical difficulty was of his own choosing, we only smile at such an indication of littleness and obliquity of mind. His ingenious saving of quills conferred no interest on his works. He, however, who voluntarily writes against time, and fancies that there is a prodigious merit in declining to avail himself of a few additional hours for consideration and correction, is not a whit less absurd and puerile than was the writer who thus voluntarily confined himself for years to the use of a single quill. Such an uncalled-for economy of pens and time is neither useful nor commendable, but shows “
a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”
Anna Seward had the impudence to talk of translating an Ode of Horace while dressing her hair. If her translations had been worth a straw, we should have been surprised at her facility ; but their real value would have received no additional charm from the mode in which they were produced. On the contrary, we should have had reason to be dissatisfied with them, however good, when we came to consider how much better they might have been made, if the author had been less presumptuous and more careful. Her affectation of facility was disrespectful both to Horace and to the public, and her indecent haste or negligence was in direct defiance of the advice of Horace himself. The author of an impromptu may boast with some reason of his quickness, but other writers are not timed like race horses. If these vain and careless authors wrote with greater elegance and effect than modest and careful ones, we might restrain our indignation at their fopperies; but it is almost idle to observe that true genius is very rarely the accompaniment of self-conceit, and that in all human arts the attainment of excellence is the result of a happy combination of skill and labour. Extreme facility is, generally speaking, an unfavorable indication of the character of an author's mind. Rapid writers, like rapid talkers, are far more frequently shallow than profound.
fellow men, that deceives or puzzles the judgment of their associates. Rousseau, in his Emilius, observes that nothing is more difficult than to distinguish real dulness in children, from that apparent and fallacious stupidity, the forerunner of great abilities. He reminds us that the younger Cato in his infancy, passed for an idiot. He speaks also of a profound reasoner of his own acquaintance, who at a pretty advanced age appeared to his family and friends to possess a very ordinary capacity. Sheridan, Walter Scott, Byron, and many other men of equal eminence, were by no ineans brilliant in the school-room.
The tongue, says Butler, is like a racehorse, which runs the faster the lesser weight it carries. It is the same with the pen. The veins of golden thought do not lie upon the surface of the mind. The wealthiest men may want ready cash. Some people fall into the egregious mistake of supposing that easy writing must be easy reading. It is quite the contrary. As Pope says,
“ True ease in writing comes from art, not chance;
As those move easiest who have learned to dance*." “ The best performances,” says Melmoth, “ have generally cost the most labour; and that ease which is essential to fine writing, has seldom been attained without repeated and severe corrections. With as much facility as the numbers of Prior seem to have flowed from him, they were the result of much application. A friend of mine, who undertook to transcribe one of the noblest performances of the finest genius that this, or perhaps any age can boast, has often assured me that there is not a single line, as it is published, which stands in conformity with the original manuscript."
*“ When I was looking on Pope's foul copy of the Iliad, and observing how very much it was corrected and interlined, he said, 'I believe you would find, upon examination, that those parts which have been the most corrected read the easiest.' "-Spence's Anecdotes.
A Mr. Tupper has published a Continuation of Christabel, and has told his readers that it was "the pleasant labour of but a very few days.” Coleridge wrote the first part in 1797, and the second in 1800, and did not publish them till 1816. See a review of this Continuation in Blackwood's Magazine for Dec. 1838.
Rousseau has remarked, that with whatever faculties a man may be born, the art of writing is of difficult acquisition. Hazlitt was so many years before he could give expression to his thoughts, that he almost despaired of ever succeeding as an author. It is true that he attained great facility before he died. It is thus also with the painter. The quick master-touch is only to be acquired at the expense of long toil and study. A manual dexterity, however, is almost sure to be attained at last, after a certain degree of practice; but a corresponding ease and celerity of execution is not always to be acquired by an author, even in a long life of literary labour. Some of the most eloquent writers that ever lived, have produced their earliest and latest works with the same difficulty and toil.
“For e'en by genius excellence is bought
With length of labour, and a life of thought." It has been very justly observed, that nothing is such an obstaele to the production of excellence as the power of producing what is pretty good with ease and rapidity.
Rousseau has described the ceaseless inquietude,” with which he attained the magic and beauty of his style. “ His existing manuscripts,” says D’Israeli, display more erasures than Pope's, and show his eagerness to set down his first thoughts, and his art to raise them to the impassioned style of his imagination*.” Dr. Johnson has told us of the “blotted
My manuscripts blotted, scratched, interlined, and scarcely legible, attest the trouble they cost me; nor is there one of them but I have been obliged to transcribe four or five times, before it went to press.--Rousseau's Confessions.