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It has also been generally esteemed ungraceful to conclude a sentence with a preposition or a trifling word. The auxiliary verbs are generally very bad conclusions. Ex. “If this affects him, what must the first motion of his zeal be?”... Robinson's ESSAY ON A SERMON.
“ Youth and health are with difficulty made to comprehend how frail a machine the human body is, and how easily impaired by excesses.” Better: “ How frail a machine is the human body.”....HURD. v. 21. It gives force to a period to complete the sense only with the last word.
Lastly. There is often inelegance in placing the adverb before the auxiliary verb, as in the following instance: “ The question stated in the preceding chapter never has been fully considered.” It would I think be better “ has never been fully,” &c.
It would be impossible, in the limits of a letter, to descend to a very minute detail. A good taste, and the perusal of good authors, must unite to form a good style in this particular. Pedantry, however, more frequently misleads us than any other cause.
The style of female authors flows easier, and is commonly more harmonious, than that of professed scholars. One general rule may indeed be admitted: in narrative or plain didactic composition, in those which are intended merely to convey information, the natural order of the words is to be preferred; but, when passion or sublimity is the object, this order may be departed from, and a sentence must never conclude with a weak member or a trifling word. As perspicuity demands that enough shall be displayed in the first part of the sentence to make the aim of it manifest; so elegance and vivacity demand a degree of energy at the termination, in order to leave an impression on the mind. Sometimes, however, in very animated expression, it has a good effect to place the emphatic word the first in order, as,
« Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord.” “ Silver and gold have I none, but such
as I have I give thee.” In this last sentence, the eager expectation, and the imploring look of the beggar naturally lead to a vivid conception of what was in his thoughts; and this conception is answered by the form in which the declaration of the apostle is couched.
MY DEAR JOHN,
THE third quality of a good style, whether plain or ornamented, is harmony. The fable, that a swarm of bees settled on the cradle of Plato, as emblematical of the future sweetness of his style, seems to have been invented, like many other pretended presages, only to suit the event. The sweetness and harmony of Plato must, however, be allowed to be his greatest excellence, and that quality seems principally to have given him popularity and lasting fame. But Plato is not the only author who has been elevated into high reputation by his style. The harmony of style must greatly depend upon the writer possessing a fine and well-tuned ear, and this no critical rules can furnish; yet it is possible that, aided by the perusal of good authors, they may contribute to the correcting of a deficient ear, or the improvement of a good one. Without harmony of style the best matter will weary or disgust; with it very indifferent books have attracted at least a temporary popularity. We have one author in our language whose only excellence, I might almost say, was the finest ear that perhaps ever fell to the lot of any writer.....I speak of Lord Bolingbroke. The poverty and triteness of his matter sink him beneath most of the writers of his age, and yet it is almost impossible to read his productions without being charmed: there is in his periods the charm of magic.
I have not a doubt that the harmony of prose compositions pleases upon the same principles with those of verse; and that something like a metrical arrangement may be traced in the style of our best prose writers.
This observation will be less clear and obvious to those who are only acquainted with modern verse. There so much has been given to the rhyme, that little attention has been paid to the charm of numbers; and there is a sameness in the measure which inevitably tires the ear. The French verse is all in dactyls;* the English in iambics or trochaics. Even our blank verse has too much of monotony to please for any length of time. This is not the case with the Greek and Latin hexameter verses. In them there is such a mixture of dactyls and spondees, that you will scarcely ever find two succeeding lines alike. This finely diversifies the measure, and the ear is not wearied by an insipid sameness, while the verse is sufficiently marked by the recurrence of the same sound at the end of the lines.
The harmony of prose numbers, I am well convinced, depends on the judicious admixture of long and short syllables, and the musical, or perhaps metrical conclusion of the periods or sentences. This is an arrangement made by the ear, perhaps without the observation, or knowledge of the writer. A fine ear feels what sounds would be agreeable if it heard them pronounced, and naturally, and almost without effort, moulds and forms the sentences in the most pleasing manner. It might be not an unimproving exercise to a student, who is master of Latin prosody, to examine occasionally the usual metre of our best authors; for almost every one will be found to have a metre peculiar to himself. I remember when I was young, I sometimes amused myself in this way. I have no note of the instances, but the results I perfectly recollect.
I found that many long syllables crowded together rendered a style languid and heavy; and this I appre
* A dactyl is one long and two short syllables, marked thus : tēgmine? a spondee two long syllables, as fāgi; an iambic a short followed by a long syllable..." àwāke, my St. John,” &c. A trochee a long and short one, as glītt'ring stones ånd golden things,” &c.
hend to be the reason why monosyllables, if too numerous, are unpleasing either in prose or verse.
A style abounding in dactyls will seem rapid, but it wants dignity. You will find the writings of Shaftsbury very much of this description.
Many verses in our common translation of the Bible, and the reading Psalms, you will find almost perfect Irexameters. Macpherson's Ossian is throughout metrical, and even monotonous.
A familiar subject will accord well with dactyls and anapestics. A grave uniform style abounds most in trochees and iambics.
A rough and halting style is where, from a deficiency of ear, there is no musical arrangement whatever. What are called round or full periods will be found, I apprehend, to be those, of which the conclusion consists of one or two dactyls, followed by one or two long syllables. Ex. “ His empire was enfeebled by the extent of his conquests; and his foreign triumphs terminated in a rebellion at home.”
The serious writings of Mr. Addison resemble in their metre those of Lord Bolingbroke, but with this difference, that the style of the former abounds more in short syllables, and is therefore less grave and sonorous. Swift had no ear, and his prose is therefore extremely deficient in harmony; he commonly concludes his sentences with a trochee or an iambic, which renders them mean, and destitute of majesty. The verse of Swift, on the contrary, is fluent, easy, and even harmonious. The reason I conceive to be, that there is something more mechanical in verse than in prose; there are few.ears so unmusical as not to be able to comprehend the cadence of verse; but the music of
is on a more varied scale.
A fault opposite to the harsh and dissonant, for which all the wit and genius of Swift cannot compensate, is monotony. Though one of the chief excellencies of Mr. Hume was his ear, yet I think a reader of nice perceptions will find his style exceedingly monotonous, as well as his vocabulary scanty. He had more taste than genius.