Page images

polish, Swift was successfully engaged in cultivating it, with a particular view to its purity and precision. Endowed with a mind among the most vigorous of the age in which he lived, and directing particular attention to the subject of language, he attained distinguished excellence as a writer. He was the first who attempted to express his meaning without “ subsidiary words and corroborating phrases." He was still more sparing in the use of synonymes than ADDISON; and without being very solicitous about the structure or harmony of his periods, he attended particularly to the force of individual words. Lese figurative and adorned than ADDISON, he learned more successfully than he, to avoid the diffuse and feeble manner which had so generally characterized English composition. Mr. Hume supposes that the first elegant prose in our language was written by Swift.

To Mr. Popë, also, English style is much indebted. “ He cultivated the beauties of language with so much diligence and art, that he has left, in his Homer, a treasure of poetical elegances to posterity. His version may be said to have tuned his native tongue; for since its appearance, no writer, however deficient in other powers, has wanted melody The style of English versification attained in his hands that sweetness of harmony, that grace of embellishment, that curiosa felicitas, which have never since been surpassed. There is scarcely a happy combination of words, or a phrase musical and captivating, which is not to be found in his writings.

The improvements introduced by these benefactors to English literature were pursued and extended by several contemporary and succeeding

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

writers. Among the first of these SHAFTESBURY and BOLINGBROKE hold an honourable place. The style of the former, though excessively and elaborately delicate, and displaying a continual fondness for artificial arrangement, and affected stateliness, is still rich and musical, and contributed not a little to improve the public taste. The writings of the latter, exhibiting the ease and elegance of ADDISON with more vigour, were also useful in promoting the prevalence of correct and elegant composition. Neither of them, however, can be said to have introduced a fashion of writing wholly new, or to have formed a remarkable era in the history of the English language. The same may be said of MIDDLETON, FIELDING, SHERLOCK, SMOLLET, HAWKESWORTH, GOLDSMITH, MELMOTH, and several others. With various talents and modes of expression, and with different degrees of literary merit, they all contributed something to the cultivation of style, and each displayed some new and peculiar excellence, without producing, singly, any thing like a revolution in

The change introduced into English style by Dr. Johnson, deserves particular notice. This great philologist, while he was ambitious to convey important moral and literary truth, laboured also to & refine the language of his country to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations; to add something to the elegance of its construction, and something to the harmony of its cadence."g Nor did he labour in vain. He effected important


of It will readily occur to the reader that nothing is meant to be spoken of here but the style of these writers. The tendency of their publications, in a moral and religious view, will be particularly noticed in a subsequent part of this work.

& Rambler, vol. iv. No. 208.

improvements in English style. He improved the form of its phrases, the construction of its sentences, and the precision and appropriateness of its diction. He introduced a strength and solidity of expression; a dignity, not to say pomp of manner, which, though becoming in him, can scarcely be imitated without danger; and in the happy art of exhibiting a number of adjunct ideas in the same sentence with perspicuity and vigour, he has rarely if ever been equalled. He enriched the language, also, with many words, adopted from the Greek and Latin. In this, indeed, he has been censured by some, and perhaps with justice, as having gone too far, and resorted to foreign aid without necessity. But though it be admitted that he has, in some instances, transgressed his own rules, yet he certainly added largely to the stores of English diction, and may, on the whole, be considered one of the greatest benefactors to English literature that the age produced.

But signal as the improvements in style which Dr. JOHNSON either introduced, or contributed to promote, yet it cannot be denied that, in some respects, he gave countenance to a false taste in writing. He brought into vogue, a style, which is, perhaps, too far removed from the ease and simplicity of colloquial discourse; which too much abounds in artificial embellishment, formal monotonous structure, and elaborated figure; and which, when employed on subjects less dignified than those of which he usually treated, is extremely faulty. His manner, perverted and extravagantly extended, has led many fashionable writers to suppose that a continual glare of metaphor, an unceasing effort to exhibit epigrammatic point, and an undistinguishing stateliness of march, were among the superior beauties of composition. These faults, together with the short sentences, so much affected within a few years past, by several popular writers, are among the fantastic errors, which a spirit of misguided imitation, or a perverted taste, have brought too much into use.

It would be unpardonable, in this sketch, not to take notice of several other writers, who, toward the close of the century in question, made a distinguished figure in the annals of English style. Among these, perhaps, the most worthy of our attention, are the author of the letters of JUNIUS, Mr. BURKE, Sir Joshua REYNOLDS, and Bishop WATSON. The remarkable characteristics, and the peculiar excellence of the style of JUNIUS are well known. Mr. BURKE, though sometimes very inaccurate, yet furnished many specimens of splendid and forcible eloquence, which would have done honour to the brightest era of Grecian or Roman taste. While the writings of Sir Joshua REYNOLDS" and Bishop Watson, more chaste and correct, and scarcely inferior in force and other beauties, will long be read as admirable models of English composition.

To the above names might be added those of Dr. Beattie, Dr. BLAIR, and several others, both in North and South Britain, either still living or lately deceased, who have contributed to form and extend a taste for elegant writing. But to these it would be impossible to do justice without engaging in a discussion too minute for the limits of the present sketch.

In English historical style, HumE and ROBERTson are, unquestionably, the best models. The former excels in ease, spirit, and interest; the latter in purity, dignity, strength, and elegance. The great improvement which they have effected in this kind of composition, since the time of CLARENDON, and of Rapin, must be obvious to the most cares less reader. Mr. GIBBON has attempted to carry the ornaments of this kind of style much higher than his predecessors had ventured. But it seems to be the opinion of most impartial judges, that many of his favourite ornaments are meretricious; that his loftiness is often nothing more than bombast and affectation; that what he imagined to be beautiful splendour of diction, is frequently disgusting glare; that in aiming at a dignity far above the ease of discourse, he becomes so“ fantastically infolded” as to be obscure, if not unintelligible. His manner has indeed many beauties, but it has also multiplied blemishes; and the reader of taste will probably allow that English style has rather suffered deterioration than gained improvements by his literary labours.

6 In this remark, the charge against the memory of Sir J. REYNOLDS, as having been assisted by Mr. BURKE, in the composition of those noble discourses which he delivered before the Royal Academy, is taken for granted to be false, or, at least, not true to the extent which has been


The sum of the matter, then, seems to be this; that English style, since the commencement of the eighteenth century, has become more rich and copious, by a large accession of words; that it has gained a more " lofty part,” and “ moves with a more firm and vigorous step;" that the structure of sentences, in our best authors, is more compressed, accurate, and philosophical; that “ the connective particles are used with more attention to their nuine meaning;” and, in general, that the scientific spirit of the age has extended itself remarkably, in giving to our language that precision, spirit, force, polish, and chaste ornament, which are so frequently met with at the present day.

i There are some good remarks on English style in the Inquirer, a Series of Essays, by WILLIAM Godwin. Though no friend to human happiness can recommend the moral or religious principles of this writer, which are pre-eminently fitted to delude, corrupt and destroy; yet he is himself master of a vigorous style, and his judgment on a question of literary tasta is entitled to respect..

« PreviousContinue »