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appears intending only to say this, he says what implies the greatest praise, and, as it were, accidentally betrays the high opinion he entertained of the other's merit. If he had said directly, “You are the most deserving man that I know in England," the answer, though implying no more than what he did say, would have been not only indelicate, but intolerable. On so slight a turn in the expression it frequently depends, whether the same sentiment shall appear delicate or gross, complimental or affronting
Sometimes praise is very successfully and very delicately conveyed under an appearance of chagrin. This constitutes the merit of that celebrated thought of Boileau : "To imagine in such a warlike age, which abounds in Achilleses, that we can write verses as easily as they take towns !"* The poet seems only venting his complaints against the unreasonable expectations of some persons, and at the same time discovers, as by chance, the highest admiration of his monarch and the heroes who served him, by suggesting the incredible rapidity of the success with which their arms were crowned.
Sometimes also commendation will be couched with great delicacy under an air of reproach. An example of this I shall give from the paper lately quoted : "My Lord, said the Duke of B- m, after his libertine way, to the Earl of 0 y, you will certainly be damn’d. How, my Lord, said the earl, with some warmth. Nay, replied the duke, there's no help for it, for it is positively said, Cursed is he of whom all men speak well.”+ A still stronger example in this way we have from the Drapier, who, speaking to Lord Molesworth of the seditious expressions of which he had himself been accused, says, “I have witnesses ready to depose, that your Lordship hath said and writ fifty times worse, and, what is still an aggravation, with infinitely more wit and learning, and stronger arguments : so that, as politics run, I do not know a person of more exceptionable principles than yourself: and if ever I shall be discovered, I think you will be bound in honour to pay my fine and support me in prison, or else I may chance to inform aginst you by way of reprisal.”I
I shall produce one other instance from the same hand, of an indirect, but successful manner of praising, by seeming to invert the course of the obligation, and to represent the person obliging as the person obliged. Swift in a letter to the Archbishop of Dublin, speaking of Mr. Harley, then Lord High Treasurer, afterwards earl of Oxford, by whose means the Irish clergy had obtained from the queen the grant of the first fruits and tenths, says, “I told him, that, 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."$
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
* Et dans ce tems guerrier et fecond en Achilles
Croit que l'on fait les vers, comme l'on prend les villes. | Tatler, No. 17.
| Drapier's Let. 5. $ Swift's Letters, 10.
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 stigmatizing, 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 were confirmed by the pope in the possession of the abbeylands. 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.” 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 topie 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 the 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 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
* Swift's Letter, 40.
| Preface to the Bishop of Sarum's Introduction to the 3d volume of his History of the Reformation.
or the figure of the moon, that you are looking at, he must have undoubtedly been 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 scarcely to 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 is more suited than to the prophetical. Many reasons might be assigned which render it improper that prophecy 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 laws to prophets, nor does it fall within the confines of any human art to lay down rules for a species of composition so far above art. Thus far, however, we may warrantably observe, that when the prophetic style is imitated in poetry, the piece ought, as much as possible, to possess the character above mentioned. 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 nothing 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 scarcely 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 blunder 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. 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 never.
MAY THERE NOT BE AN EXCESS OF PERSPICUITY ?
I shall conclude this subject with inquiring whether it be possible that perspicuity should be carried to excess. It hath been said, that too much of it has a tendency to cloy the reader, and, as it gives no play to the rational and active powers of the mind, will soon grow irksome through excess of facility. In this manner some able critics have expressed themselves on this point, who will be found not to differ in sentiment, but only in expression from the principles above laid down.
The objection ariseth manifestly from the confounding of two objects, the common and the clear, and thence very naturally their contraries, the new and the dark, that are widely different. If you entertain your reader solely or chiefly with thoughts that are either trite or obvious, you cannot fail soon to tire him. You introduce few or no new sentiments into his mind, you give him little or no information, and consequently afford neither exercise to his reason, nor entertainment to his fancy. In what we read, and what we hear, we always seek for something in one respect or other new, which we did not know, or at least attend to before. The less we find of this, the sooner we are tired. Such a trifling minuteness, therefore, in narration, description, or argument, as an ordinary apprehension would render superfluous, is apt quickly to disgust us. The reason is, not because any thing is said too perspicuously, but because many things are said which ought not to be said at all. Nay, if those very things had been expressed obscurely, (and the most obvious things may be expressed obscurely,) the fault would have been mch greater; because it would have required a good deal of attention to discover what, after we had discovered it, we should perceive not to be of sufficient value for requiting our pains. To an author of this kind we should be apt to apply the character which Bassanio in the play gives of Gratioano's conversation : " He speaks an infinite deal of nothing. His reasons are as two grains of wheat bid in two bushels of chaff; you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them they are not worth the search."* It is therefore futility in the thought, and not perspicuity in the language, which is the fault of such performances. There is as little hazard that a piece shall · be faulty in this respect, as that a mirror shall be too faithful in reflecting the images of objects, or that the glasses of a telescope shall be too transparent.
At the same time, it is not to be dissembled, that, with inattentive readers, a pretty numerous class, darkness frequently passes for depth. To be perspicuous, on the contrary, and to be superficial,
* Shakspeare's Merchant of Venice.
are regarded by them as synonymous. But it is not surely to their absurd notions that our language ought to be adapted.
It is proper, however, before I dismiss this subject, to observe, that every kind of style doth not admit an equal degree of perspicuity. In the ode, for instance, it is difficult, sometimes perhaps impossible, to reconcile the utmost perspicuity with that force and vivacity which the species of composition requires. But even in this case, though we may justly say, that the genius of the performance renders obscurity to a certain degree excusable, nothing can ever constitute it an excellence. Nay, it may still be affirmed with truth, that the more a writer can reconcile this quality of perspicuity with that which is the distinguishing excellence of the species of composition, his success will be the greater.