« ForrigeFortsæt »
As in the style of narrative perspicuity is the first object, an author should be careful that every sentence may present a distinct image, for nothing confuses more than when several circumstances are blended or complicated one with another. Yet for the sake of harmony, and to avoid a monotonous tone, which is a very common vice of narration, the sentences must not be too short. I have been told that Mr. Gibbon was in the habit of composing while he walked about his room; and that he never committed a sentence to paper till it was perfectly formed in his mind. The purest, best, and most expressive terms, should be chosen for narrative. Many of the vulgarisms which are allowed in the oratorical effusions of Mr. Burke, would not be endured in narrative, nor would he have introduced them. In the style of oratory we expect the flights and eccentricities of fancy; we can forgive something that may disgust where there is much to please; but in that of narrative we expect an even flow, not turbid or impure.
The degree of ornament or figure to be employed must depend in a great measure on the subject; but in general it is safer to attempt too little in the way of ornament than too much. Nothing tends more to confuse a narrative than a style too florid; though figurative language, sparingly, and judiciously introduced, occasionally gives animation. The comparison is a figure too flat and formal to suit with narrative, and almost the only figure which may be freely employed is the metaphor. But even metaphors, when introduced, should be easy and natural, for recondite or remote allusions perplex the mind, and withdraw the attention from the subject. They must not be common-place neither, for nothing renders a style so frigid as common-place ornaments. But after all, on this as on every practical subject of literature, I must have recourse to a maxim which I recommended very early in our correspondence. The attentive and studious perusal of the best writers in this, as well as in every other department, will effect infinitely more than any abstract rules or observations whatever. Read carefully the most approved
narrators; mark their manner of bringing events and circumstances before your view; observe their mode of connecting them; the compass and turn of their periods. You will see that there is nothing abrupt; nothing either defectively terminated, or violently or harshly introduced; or where there is a deviation from the thread or course of the story, the reader's mind is prepared by a short introduction or apology, so that the smoothness and simplicity of the narrative shall not be materially interrupted. As you will have to write in English, I would advise you to study the best models in your own language, for none has better writers of narrative. It will also be an improving exercise, if, after having read a long passage, and made yourself master of the facts, you close the book and try to narrate them yourself, when the comparison will shew you your own defects, aad enable you to avoid them on a future occasion. For the grave kind of narration examine the style of Robertson, Hume, Gibbon, Goldsmith,* and Dr. Hawkesworth's Voyages; for the lighter and more familiar kinds, the short narratives in the Spectator, especially those of Mr. Addison; some of a similar nature in the Rambler of Dr. Johnson; and the Adventurer of Dr. Hawkesworth, will afford you unexceptionable specimens.
Description makes a part of every narrative, and is so nearly allied to this kind of composition, that it may be safely treated under the same head. Though I do not recommend so mechanical a practice as the use of topics, or communes loci, yct every person who has to describe should have always something of a general plan in his mind, to which he can recur, and which he may apply to particular cases, so that no material circumstance shall be omitted. Thus, in describing a place, the author must advert to the climate, the situa
*The History of England, in a series of Letters from a Nobleman to his Son, is an admirable specimen of historical language, sufficiently familiar, without any loss of dignity.
tion, the soil, the harbour, if a sea-port, the buildings, &c. In describing a battle, he will not forget the characters of the respective commanders, the nature of the troops, the proportions of cavalry and infantry, the characters of the soldiers as to country, discipline, valour and conduct, the position, order, and disposition of the two armies. If he does this in the way of contrast, it will add greatly to the liveliness of the description. The account of the onset, and the issue of the engagement, must depend upon the particular facts and incidents.
Again, in the delineation of any human character, an historian will give some account of the personal qualities of the individual he describes, as to stature, general appearance, and particularly as to the character of his countenance. He will notice his lineage and his education; the passions for which he has been most remarkable, the studies in which he has been most eminent, and thus proceed to the characteristic and marking features of his mind. Sallust perhaps exceeds every author, ancient or modern, in the delineation of character. His portrait of Catiline is alive in every part; we do not look upon a picture, we see, and converse with the
Lastly, if you have to describe any natural phenomenon, it will be right to acquaint yourself philosophically with its causes and its effects, and this will operate against your forgetting any material circumstance in the description. There is an excellent description of the presages of a thunder storm in Beccaria, which I have copied in the Economy of Nature. The moving pillars of sand in the desart, as described by Mr. Bruce, in his Travels, must interest any reader; and the following description of a phenomenon, which is unfortunately not uncommon, will serve as a fair example: it is that of an earthquake by the Abbe Raynal.
"This phenomenon, which is ever irregular in its sudden returns, is however announced by very perceptible omens. When the shock is considerable, it is preceded by a murmur in the air, the noise of which is like that of a heavy rain falling from a cloud that sud
denly bursts and discharges its waters. This noise seems to be the effect of a vibration of the air, which is agitated in several different directions. The birds are then observed to dart in their flight; neither their tails nor their wings serve them any longer as oars and helms to swim in the fluid of the skies; they dash themselves against the walls, the trees, and the rocks, whether it be that this vertigo of nature dazzles and confuses them, or that the vapours of the earth take away their strength and power to command their movements.
"To this tumult in the air is added the rumbling of the earth, whose cavities and deep recesses re-echo to each other's noises. The dogs answer these previous tokens of a general disorder of nature, by howling in an extraordinary manner. The animals stop, and, by a natural instinct, hold out their legs that they may not fall. Upon these indications the inhabitants instantly run out of their houses, with terror impressed upon their countenances, and fly to search in the inclosures of public places, or in the fields, an asylum from the fall of the roofs. The cries of children, the lamentations of women, the sudden darkness of an unexpected night; every thing combines to aggravate the too real evils of a dire calamity, which subverts every thing by the excruciating tortures of the imagination, which is distressed and confounded, and loses, in the contemplation of this disorder, the thought and courage to remedy it."
The imagination will, however, be most powerfully assisted by the perusal of fine descriptions in the best authors, such as the return of Agrippina in Tacitus ; that of the defeat of the Romans by the Samnites; and the return of the consuls, in the 9th book of Livy; that of the temple of Daphne, in the 23d chapter of Gibbon; and of the Earthquake, in the beginning of the 26th chapter of the same author, which is more ornamented, but less general, than that which I have inserted above.
History, from the importance of the subject, the rise, fate, and fall of nations, and from its utility in affording the best instruction in politics, and the most interesting views of human nature, holds the first rank among nar
rative compositions. Voyages and travels may be considered as the next in consequence; and to those ficti tious narratives, composed chiefly for entertainment, under the names of Romances and Novels, may be assigned the lowest place. It must, however, be the object of my next letters to treat of these distinctly, as I should greatly exceed my limits, or do injustice to the subject, should I endeavour to compress them into this.