S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
If writings are thus durable, and may pass from age to age through the whole course of time, how careful should an author be of committing anything to print that may corrupt posterity and poison the minds of men with vice and error! Writers of great talents who employ their parts in propagating immorality, and seasoning vicious sentiments with wit and humour, are to be looked upon as the pests of society, and the enemies of mankind. They leave books behind them (as it is said of those who die in distempers which breed an ill-will towards their own species) to scatter infection and destroy their posterity. They act the counterparts of a Confucius or a Socrates; and seem to have been sent into the world to deprave human nature and sink it into the condition of brutality.
And here give me leave to mention what Monsieur Boileau has so very well enlarged upon in the preface to his works, that wit and fine writing do not consist so much in advancing things that are new, as in giving things that are known an agreeable turn. It is impossible for us, who live in the latter ages of the world, to make observations in criticism, morality, or in any art or science, which have not been touched upon by others. We have little else left us but to represent the common sense of mankind in more strong, more beautiful, or more uncommon lights. If a reader examines Horaces Art of Poetry, he will find but very few precepts in it which he may not meet with in Aristotle, and which were not commonly known by all the poets of the Augustan age.
Method is of advantage to a work both in respect to the writer and the reader. In regard to the first, it is a great help to his invention. When a man has planned his discourse, he finds a great many thoughts rising out of every head, that do not offer themselves upon the general survey of a subject. His thoughts are at the same time more intelligible, and better discover their drift and meaning, when they are placed in their proper lights, and follow one another in a regular series, than when they are thrown together without order and connection. There is always an obscurity in confusion; and the same sentence that would have enlightened the reader in one part of a discourse perplexes him in another. For the same reason, likewise, every thought in a methodical discourse shows itself in its greatest beauty, as the several figures in a piece of painting receive new grace from their disposition in the picture. The advantages of a reader from a methodical discourse are correspondent with those of the writer. He comprehends everything easily, takes it in with pleasure, and retains it long.
On this point I have a piece of advice to offer to all young intellectual aspirants: they should keep their commodities to themselves; they should not produce their notions until they have wrought them into form. I did the contrary of this myself, and I smarted severely for it. In the first place, I used to confuse myself with the perplexity of my thoughts,half conceptions, abortions of truth that came to the birth when my mind had not strength to bring them forth,monsters begotten out of the cloud, like those in the old fable. With Cassio, I saw a mass of things, but nothing distinctly. I had chosen my own points of observation; I viewed many things differently from the vulgar, but my visions for some time, until my eye was accustomed to the change, were wont to float before me vaguely and inapprehensibly. I had rejected the hack notions, the uses of other men, and had as yet made none for myself that I could call properly my own. What, then, would have been my wisdom? Clearly, to reserve these rough sketches of my intellect for secret service, and not to set them forth for show; to veil from the vulgar eye the unseemliness of my mind, while in its rudiments; to employ its airy portraiture for exercise, in order that it might so learn to labour finally for use; just as the young painter will work off a hundred sketches for the fire before he can finish one for public exhibition. In the mean time I should have holden to the old adage, Loquendum ut vulgus sentiendum ut docti. I should have talked and demeaned myself like mere matter-of-fact men, until I felt that I had risen to the level of the men of mind and had attained the mastery of their method. I should have let my raw fruit hang and sun itself upon the tree till it was penetrated with ripeness and would come away easily upon the touch of a little finger. I ought not to have torn it off violently and with difficulty while its humours were yet crude, to the laceration of the parent tree,the torture of my own inward man.
There are three difficulties in authorship: to write anything worth the publishingto find honest men to publish itand to get sensible men to read it. Literature has now become a game; in which the Booksellers are the Kings; the Critics, the Knaves; the Public, the Pack; and the poor Author, the mere Table, or Thing played upon.
Every author is a far better judge of the pains that his efforts have cost him than any reader can possibly be; but to what purpose he has taken those pains, this is a question on which his readers will not allow the author a voice, nor even an opinion; from the tribunal of the public there is no appeal, and it is fit that it should be so; otherwise we should not only have rivers of ink expended in bad writing, but oceans more in defending it: for he that writes in a bad style is sure to retort in a worse.
That author, however, who has thought more than he has read, read more than he has written, and written more than he has published, if he does not command success, has at least deserved it. In the article of rejection and abridgment we must be severe to ourselves, if we wish for mercy from others; since for one great genius who has written a little book we have a thousand little geniuses who have written great books. A volume, therefore, that contains more words than ideas, like a tree that has more foliage than fruit, may suit those to resort to who want not to feast, but to dream and to slumber; but the misfortune is, that in this particular instance nothing can equal the ingratitude of the public; who were never yet known to have the slightest compassion for those authors who have deprived themselves of sleep in order to procure it for their readers.
As the great fault of our orators is, that they get up to make a speech, rather than to speak; so the great error of our authors is, that they sit down to make a book, rather than to write. To combine profundity with perspicuity, wit with judgment, solidity with vivacity, truth with novelty, and all of them with liberality, who is sufficient for these things? a very serious question; but it is one which authors had much better propose to themselves before publication, than have proposed to them by their editors after it.
The great designs that have been digested and matured, and the great literary works that have been begun and finished, in prisons, fully prove that tyrants have not yet discovered any chains that can fetter the mind.
If I might give a short hint to an impartial writer, it would be to tell him his fate. If he resolves to venture upon the dangerous precipice of telling unbiassed truth, let him proclaim war upon mankind, neither to give nor to take quarter. If he tells the crimes of great men, they fall upon him with the iron hands of the law; if he tells them of virtues, when they have any, then the mob attacks him with slander. But if he regards truth, let him expect martyrdom on both sides, and then he may go on fearless: and this is the course I take myself.
Of all the kinds of writing and discourse, that appears to me incomparably the best which is distinguished by grand masses and prominent bulks; which stand out in magnitude from the tame ground-work, and impel the mind by a succession of separate strong impulses, rather than a continuity of equable sentiment.
The distance is commonly very great between actual performances and speculative possibility. It is natural to suppose that as much as has been done to-day may be done to-morrow; but on the morrow some difficulty emerges, or some external impediment obstructs. Indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure, all take their turns of retardation; and every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes that can, and ten thousand that cannot, be recounted. Perhaps no extensive and multifarious performance was ever effected within the term originally fixed in the undertakers mind. He that runs against time has an antagonist not subject to casualties.
This dependence of the soul upon the seasons, those temporary and periodical ebbs and flows of intellect, may, I suppose, justly be derided as the fumes of vain imagination. Sapiens dominatibus astris. The author that thinks himself weather-bound will find, with a little help from hellebore, that he is only idle or exhausted. But while this notion has possession of the head, it produces the inability which it supposes. Our powers owe much of their energy to our hopes: possunt quia posse videntur. When success seems attainable, diligence is enforced; but when it is admitted that the faculties are suppressed by a cross wind or a cloudy sky, the day is given up without resistance: for who can contend with the course of nature?
In an occasional performance no height of excellence can be expected from any mind, however fertile in itself, and however stored with acquisitions. He whose work is general and arbitrary has the choice of his matter, and takes that which his inclination and his studies have best qualified him to display and decorate. He is at liberty to delay his publication till he has satisfied his friends and himself, till he has reformed his first thoughts by subsequent examination, and polished away those faults which the precipitation of ardent composition is likely to leave behind it. Virgil is related to have poured out a great number of lines in the morning, and to have passed the day in reducing them to fewer. The occasional poet is circumscribed by the narrowness of his subject. Whatever can happen to man has happened so often that little remains for fancy or invention. We have been all born; we have most of us been married; and so many have died before us, that our deaths can supply but few materials for a poet. In the fate of princes the public has an interest; and what happens to them of good or evil the poets have always considered as business for the Muse. But after so many inauguratory gratulations, nuptial hymns, and funeral dirges, he must be highly favoured by nature, or by fortune, who says anything not said before. Even war and conquest, however splendid, suggest no new images: the triumphal chariot of a victorious monarch can be decked only with those ornaments that have graced his predecessors.
Not only matter but time is wanting. The poem must not be delayed till the occasion is forgotten. The lucky moments of animated imagination cannot be attended; elegances and illustrations cannot be multiplied by gradual accumulation: the composition must be despatched while conversation is yet busy, and admiration fresh; and haste is to be made lest some other event should lay hold upon mankind. Occasional compositions may, however, secure to a writer the praise both of learning and facility; for they cannot be the effect of long study, and must be furnished immediately from the treasures of the mind.
Genius now and then produces a lucky trifle. We still read the Dove of Anacreon, and Sparrow of Catullus; and a writer naturally pleases himself with a performance which owes nothing to the subject. But compositions merely pretty have the fate of other pretty things, and are quitted in time for something useful: they are flowers fragrant and fair, but of short duration; or they are blossoms to be valued only as they foretell fruits.
Tediousness is the most fatal of all faults; negligence or errors are signal and local, but tediousness pervades the whole; other faults are censured and forgotten, but the power of tediousness propagates itself. He that is weary the first hour is more weary the second; as bodies forced into motion contrary to their tendency pass more and more slowly through every successive interval of space. Unhappily, this pernicious failure is that which an author is least able to discover. We are seldom tiresome to ourselves; and the act of composition fills and delights the mind with change of language and succession of images. Every couplet when produced is new, and novelty is the great source of pleasure. Perhaps no man ever thought a line superfluous when he first wrote it, or contracted his work till his ebullitions of invention had subsided. And even if he should control his desire of immediate renown, still keep his work nine years unpublished, he will still be the author and still in danger of deceiving himself; and if he consults his friends he will probably find men who have more kindness than judgment, or more fear to offend than desire to instruct.
Most writers use their words loosely and uncertainly, and do not make plain and clear deductions of words one from another, which were not difficult to do, did they not find it convenient to shelter their ignorance, or obstinacy, under the obscurity of their terms.
Hoping that his name may deserve to appear not among the mercenary crew of false pretenders to learning, but the free and ingenuous sort of such as evidently were born to study, and love learning for itself, not for lucre, or any other end than the service of God and truth, and perhaps that lasting fame and perpetuity of praise which God and good men have consented shall be the reward of those whose published labours advance the good of mankind.
And now the most beautiful dawn that mortal can behold arose upon his spirit,the dawn of a new composition. For the book that a person is beginning to create or design contains within itself half a life, and God only knows what an expanse of futurity also. Hopes of improvementideas which are to insure the development and enlightenment of the human raceswarm with a joyful vitality in his brain, as he softly paces up and down in the twilight, when it has become too dark to write.
I find by experience that writing is like building; wherein the undertaker, to supply some defect or serve some convenience which at first he saw not, is usually forced to exceed his first model and proposal, and many times to double the charge and expense of it.
Consult the acutest poets and speakers, and they will confess that their quickest, most admired conceptions were such as darted into their minds like sudden flashes of lightning, they know not how nor whence.
As for my labours, which he is pleased to inquire after, if they can but wear one impertinence out of human life, destroy a single vice, or give a mornings cheerfulness to an honest mind, in short, if the world can be but one virtue the better, or in any degree less vicious, or receive from them the smallest addition to their innocent diversions, I shall not think my pains, or indeed my life, to have been spent in vain.