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LITERATURE AND COMPOSITION.
MY DEAR JOHN,
THOUGH oratory seems to require more genius, for if the orator would touch the heart, he must call fancy to his aid, yet it is an ex> traordinary fact, that taking cratory in an extensive view, as including all addresses to the passions, whether in the shape of letters, pamph lets, or speeches, almost every period of literature has produced more good orators than good
The number of good historians in any language is very limited. There are but few books of travels which are so interesting that we would
wish to read them a second time; and even the fictitious narratives which issue daily in swarms from the press, are seldom well written: though for reasons, which I shall afterwards assign, this is by far the easiest form of narrative composition.
Let any man of letters try to compose an argumentative, or even an oratorical discourse, and let him afterwards attempt a narrative, and he will soon find the latter by far the more difficult task. It is difficult to form and pursue a lucid order and arrangement; it is difficult, out of the number of circumstances which will crowd upon him, to select those only which are important and striking; to know where to be brief and where to be minute; to distinguish the lights and the shades; to see on what he ought to enlarge, and what he should cursorily pass over. It is exceedingly difficult to avoid a. fat and monotonous tone; to give spirit, animation, and interest to a mere recital of facts; and that, when the writer composes not under the influence of passion, or the ardour of controversy, which in narrative is seldom the case.
I know not whether I shall express myself clearly or not; but I feel that, in didactic or
argumentative discourses, the words arrange themselves more easily in sentences, more in the manner of colloquial discussion. In narrative the writer scarcely knows where to stop, or how to round a sentence, which may perhaps be in part the reason for the long periods of Clarendon, and some other historians. It is difficult too to draw the picture; for narrative is a picture in words, so that it shall be full, clear, and impressive, and keep awake the reader's attention through the whole.
The difficulties which I have now enumerated will in some measure anticipate the rules for narrative composition; if indeed any rules can be laid down for governing the fancy, and directing the taste. Perspicuity, it will be easily seen, is the first excellence of narrative. The impression must be clear and vivid. Whether the subject will admit of ornament or not is a remote consideration compared with this indispensable quality. On this account, the writer of even an extended history should take care to have a clear and comprehensive view of the subject in his mind, at least to a given period. He should see it as a picture or a drama before his eyes, previous to his beginning to compose. If
he has this view of the subject before him, he will easily, if he has judgment and taste, distinguish the parts or circumstances which should be treated in detail, from those which should be transiently glanced at, or perhaps wholly omitted.
To have a just and comprehensive view of his subject previously formed, (at least to a certain extent as to the order of time) will enable an author to write with vivacity, and to interest his readers, for he will describe within a shorter compass, and in a manner less dull and tedious than the person who transcribes every circumstance from a note book; and the fancy will have a more unbounded range, and be able to throw in more of ornament and eloquence.
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 á 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