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"O unexpected stroke, worse than of death!
"At even, which I bred up with tender hand,
"Your tribes, and water from th' ambrosial fount?" &c.
I have already laid down one rule concerning the use of this figure, which is, that it is only adapted to impassioned expression, otherwise its introduction is frigid, if not ridiculous. I may add, as a second rule, that it should always be made with gravity and dignity. The following instance is a breach of both these rules....
But tell us, why this waste,
Why this ado in earthing up a carcase
The hyperbole is nothing more than an excess of figurative language; the effect, when it is natural, of passion. All the passions are inclined to magnify their objects. Injuries seem greater than they really are to those who have received them; and dangers, to those who are in fear. The lover naturally makes a divinity of his mistress; valour and contempt are equally inclined to degrade and diminish. This figure, therefore, in particular, requires passion to give it force or propriety; and if this is not the case, it renders a style very bombastic and frigid. Lucan is too fond of this figure. See the first six lines of Rowe's Lucan, where
sicken'd to behold Emathia's plain,
"And would have sought the backward east again."
And in book vi. v. 329.....
"The missive arms fix'd all around he wears,
"And even his safety in his wounds he bears,
Nothing indeed can be more bombastic than the whole description of this warrior's death. The poet calls upon the Pompeians to lay siege to him as they would to a town; to bring battering engines, flames, racks, &c. to subdue him. He is first compared to an elephant, and again to a hunted boar; at length.....
"When none were left him to repel,
Fainting for want of foes the victor fell."
The above instances may serve to shew how easily the hyperbolical style may slide into the ridiculous. The last of them is only surpassed by one which is quoted by the authors of the Bathos....
"He roar'd so loud, and look'd so wondrous grim,
Or another from the same assemblage of humour. The poet is speaking of a frighted stag, who
"Hears his own feet, and thinks they sound like more, "And fears the hind feet will o'ertake the fore."
One more I cannot help transcribing. It is the description of that elegant entertainment a bull-baiting, by Sir Richard Blackmore.....
“ Up to the stars the sprawling mastiffs fly,
Nothing in short can be more fertile in the ridiculous than the awkward attempts of bad writers at the hyperbole. On this account, I can give you no better rule with respect to the use of it, than to employ it as little as possible.
Irony has been classed as a figure of rhetoric by Farnaby, and other writers of equal taste and brilliancy; but with deference to such high authorities, I would rather consider it as a style of writing than as a figure of speech. Dr. Priestley observes, that "all irony is humour, but all humour is not irony." In other words, irony is a species of humour, and if you will attend to the definition of humour, which I attempted in Letter VI. viz. that it depends upon the same principle of contrast as wit; but that in humour, the mind of the reader or auditor is left to make the comparison for itself, and form the contrast; you will find that it strictly applies to irony. This figure (if a figure we must call it) generally consists in giving undeserved praise, implying censure on the object; or conveying censure under the appearance of praise; but the former is the most common. I remember however a very pretty stroke of irony of the latter kind. When the King of Prussia, Frederic II. published his poem on the art of war, he took no notice of Marlborough. On this circumstance, the Monthly Reviewers remarked, "that they presumed his Majesty had omitted the name of Marlborough, in the catalogue of distinguished commanders, because he might deem him deficient in one branch of his profession, having never on any occasion evinced his skill in conducting a retreat.”
The greatest master in irony is Swift; and his "Tale of a Tub" is the most complete specimen extant of ironical composition. To select examples would be to transcribe almost half the book. Take therefore the first that occurs in the "Dedication to Prince Posterity."
"To affirm that our age is altogether unlearned, and devoid of writers of any kind, seems to be an assertion so bold and false, that I have been sometime thinking, the contrary may almost be proved by uncontrollable demonstration. It is true indeed, that although their numbers be vast, and their productions numerous in proportion, yet are they hurried so hastily off the scene, that they escape our memory, and elude our sight,”
"What is then become of those immense bales of paper, which must needs have been employed in such numbers of books; can these also be wholly annihila⚫ted, and so of a sudden as I pretend? What shall I say in return to so invidious an objection; it ill befits the distance between your highness and me, to send you for ocular demonstration to a jakes or an oven; to the windows of a bawdy-house, or to a sordid lanthern. Books, like men their authors, have no more than one way of coming into the world, but there are ten thousand to go out of it, and return no more."
The force and delicacy of this irony may be easily understood without a comment. The sarcastic author, passes a most severe censure on his contemporaries, under the colour of a very moderate and well-conducted defence.
Let it be observed that more exaggerated praise, even though it evidently appears extravagant, and meant for ridicule, is not irony. To constitute that, there must be a sarcastic archness, which, if not actual wit, must very nearly approach it, and must at least be humour. I shall conclude with the finest specimen of this figure extant in any language......
"HERE continueth to rot
Who with an INFLEXIBLE CONSTANCY,
In spite of AGE and INFIRMITIES,
In the undeviating Pravity of his Manners,
In Accumulating WEALTH:
For, without TRADE OF PROFESSION,
He acquired, or more properly created,
He was the only Person of his Time
Who could CHEAT without the Mask of HONESTY,
When possess'd of TEN THOUSAND a year;
Think not his Life useless to Mankind;
A conspicuous PROOF and EXAMPLE,
By his bestowing it on the most UNWORTHY of ALL
A figure which the Greeks call paraleipsis, borders upon irony, and is sometimes united with it. From the name you will perceive that it implies an affectation of omission, as when an orator exclaims, "I refrain from touching on the rapacity, the venality, the exceeding corruption of the person I accuse; I confine myself to the point," &c. Cicero makes a very free use of this figure; and the late Mr. Burke, who made that great master his model, was particularly fond of it.
Dr. Blair has enumerated two or three other forms of expression as figures of rhetoric; and that I may not leave this sketch imperfect, I shall conclude this letter with a short notice of them. The first of these is interrogation, of which (he observes) we have many fine instances in the poetical and prophetical parts of Scripture...." God is not a man that he should lie, nor the son of man that he should repent. Hath he said, and shall he not do it?" The effect of this mode of expression will be very evident, if the sense is preserved, and the words thrown out of this interrogative form. “What he hath said he will do, and what he hath spoken he will make good." Also in St. Matthew, ch. xi. v. 7 and 9. "And as they departed, he began to say unto the multitude concerning John. What went ye out into the