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CHAPTER XVII: Language of Passion - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, vol. 1 
Elements of Criticism, Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). 2 vols. Vol. 1.
Part of: Elements of Criticism, 2 vols.
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Language of Passion
Among the particulars that compose the social part of our nature, a propensity to communicate our opinions, our emotions, and every thing that affects us, is remarkable. Bad fortune and injustice affect us greatly; and of these we are so prone to complain, that if we have no friend nor acquaintance to take part in our sufferings, we sometimes utter our complaints aloud, even where there are none to listen.
But this propensity operates not in every state of mind. A man immoderately grieved, seeks to afflict himself, rejecting all consolation: immoderate grief accordingly is mute: complaining is struggling for consolation.
When grief subsides, it then and no sooner finds a tongue: we complain, because complaining<495> is an effort to disburden the mind of its distress.*
Surprise and terror are silent passions for a different reason: they agitate the mind so violently as for a time to suspend the exercise of its faculties, and among others the faculty of speech.
Love and revenge, when immoderate, are not more loquacious than immoderate grief. But when these passions become moderate, they set the tongue free, and, like moderate grief, become<496> loquacious: moderate love, when unsuccessful, is vented in complaints; when successful, is full of joy expressed by words and gestures.
As no passion hath any long uninterrupted existence,* nor beats always with an equal pulse, the language suggested by passion is not only unequal but frequently interrupted: and even during an uninterrupted fit of passion, we only express in words the more capital sentiments. In familiar conversation, one who vents every single thought, is justly branded with the character of loquacity; because sensible people express no thoughts but what make some figure: in the same manner, we are only disposed to express the strongest pulses of passion, especially when it returns with impetuosity after interruption.
I formerly had occasion to observe,† that the sentiments ought to be tuned to the passion, and the language to both. Elevated sentiments require elevated language: tender sentiments ought to be clothed in words that are soft and flowing: when the mind is depressed with any passion, the sentiments must be expressed in words that are humble, not low. Words being intimately connected with the ideas they represent, the greatest harmony is required between them: to express, for example, an humble sentiment in high-sounding words, is disagreeable by a discordant mixture<497> of feelings; and the discord is not less when elevated sentiments are dressed in low words:
This however excludes not figurative expression, which, within moderate bounds, communicates to the sentiment an agreeable elevation. We are sensible of an effect directly opposite, where figurative expression is indulged beyond a just measure: the opposition between the expression and the sentiment, makes the discord appear greater than it is in reality.*
At the same time, figures are not equally the language of every passion: pleasant emotions, which elevate or swell the mind, vent themselves in strong epithets and figurative expression; but humbling and dispiriting passions affect to speak plain:
Figurative expression, being the work of an enli-<498>vened imagination, cannot be the language of anguish or distress. Otway, sensible of this, has painted a scene of distress in colours finely adapted to the subject: there is scarce a figure in it, except a short and natural simile with which the speech is introduced. Belvidera talking to her father of her husband:
To preserve the foresaid resemblance between words and their meaning, the sentiments of active and hurrying passions ought to be dressed in words<499> where syllables prevail that are pronounced short or fast; for these make an impression of hurry and precipitation. Emotions, on the other hand, that rest upon their objects, are best expressed by words where syllables prevail that are pronounced long or slow. A person affected with melancholy, has a languid and slow train of perceptions: the expression best suited to that state of mind, is where words, not only of long, but of many syllables, abound in the composition; and for that reason, nothing can be finer than the following passage.
To preserve the same resemblance, another circumstance is requisite, that the language, like the emotion, be rough or smooth, broken or uniform. Calm and sweet emotions are best expressed by words that glide softly: surprise, fear, and other turbulent passions, require an expression both rough and broken.
It cannot have escaped any diligent inquirer into nature, that in the hurry of passion, one generally expresses that thing first which is most at heart:* which is beautifully done in the following passage.<500>
Passion has often the effect of redoubling words, the better to make them express the strong conception of the mind. This is finely imitated in the following examples.
Shakespear is superior to all other writers in delineating passion. It is difficult to say in what<501> part he most excels, whether in moulding every passion to peculiarity of character, in discovering the sentiments that proceed from various tones of passion, or in expressing properly every different sentiment: he disgusts not his reader with general declamation and unmeaning words, too common in other writers: his sentiments are adjusted to the peculiar character and circumstances of the speaker; and the propriety is no less perfect between his sentiments and his diction. That this is no exaggeration, will be evident to every one of taste, upon comparing Shakespear with other writers in similar passages. If upon any occasion he fall below himself, it is in those scenes where passion enters not: by endeavouring in that case to raise his dialogue above the style of ordinary conversation, he sometimes deviates into intricate thought and obscure expression:* sometimes, to<502> throw his language out of the familiar, he employs rhyme. But may it not in some measure excuse Shakespear, I shall not say his works, that he had no pattern, in his own or in any living language, of dialogue fitted for the theatre? At the same time, it ought not to escape observation, that the stream clears in its progress, and that in his later plays he has attained the purity and perfection of dialogue; an observation that, with greater certainty than tradition, will direct us to arrange his plays in the order of time. This ought to be considered, by those who rigidly exaggerate every blemish of the finest genius for the drama ever the world enjoy’d: they ought also for their own sake to consider, that it is easier to discover his blemishes, which lie generally at the surface, than his beauties, which cannot be truly relished but by those who dive deep into human nature. One thing must be evident to the meanest capacity, that where-ever passion is to be display’d, Nature shows itself mighty in him, and is conspicuous<503> by the most delicate propriety of sentiment and expression.*
I return to my subject from a digression I cannot repent of. That perfect harmony which ought to subsist among all the constituent parts of a dialogue, is a beauty, no less rare than conspicuous: as to expression in particular, were I to give instances, where, in one or other of the respects above mentioned, it corresponds not precisely to the characters, passions, and sentiments, I might from different authors collect volumes. Following therefore the method laid down in the chapter of sentiments, I shall confine my quotations to the grosser errors, which every writer ought to avoid.
And, first, of passion expressed in words flowing in an equal course without interruption.
In the chapter above cited, Corneille is censured for the impropriety of his sentiments; and here, for the sake of truth, I am obliged to attack<504> him a second time. Were I to give instances from that author of the fault under consideration, I might transcribe whole tragedies; for he is no less faulty in this particular, than in passing upon us his own thoughts as a spectator, instead of the genuine sentiments of passion. Nor would a comparison between him and Shakespear upon the present article, redound more to his honour, than the former upon the sentiments. Racine is here less incorrect than Corneille; and from him therefore I shall gather a few instances. The first shall be the description of the sea-monster in his Phaedra, given by Theramene, the companion of Hippolytus. Theramene is represented in terrible agitation, which appears from the following passage, so boldly figurative as not to be excused but by violent perturbation of mind:
Yet Theramene gives a long pompous connected description of that event, dwelling upon every minute circumstance, as if he had been only a cool spectator:
The last speech of Atalide, in the tragedy of Bajazet, of the same author, is a continued discourse; and but a faint representation of the violent passion which forc’d her to put an end to her own life:
Tho’ works, not authors, are the professed subject of this critical undertaking, I am tempted by the present speculation, to transgress once again the limits prescribed, and to venture a cursory reflection upon that justly celebrated author, That he is always sensible, generally correct, never falls low, maintains a moderate degree of dignity without reaching the sublime, paints delicately the tender affections, but is a stranger to the genuine language of enthusiastic or fervid passion.
If in general the language of violent passion ought to be broken and interrupted, soliloquies ought to be so in a peculiar manner: language is intended by nature for society; and a man when alone, tho’ he always clothes his thoughts in words, seldom gives his words utterance, unless when prompted by some strong emotion; and even then by starts and intervals only.* Shakespear’s soliloquies may be justly established as a model; for it is not easy to conceive any model more perfect: of his many incomparable soliloquies, I confine myself to the two following, being different in their manner.<507>
Hum! ha! is this a vision? is this a dream? do I sleep? Mr. Ford, awake; awake, Mr. Ford; there’s a hole made in your best coat, Mr. Ford! this ’tis to be married! this ’tis to have linen and buck baskets! Well, I will proclaim myself what I am; I will now take the leacher; he is at my house; he cannot ’scape me; ’tis impossible he should; he cannot creep into a half-penny purse, nor into a pepper-box. But lest the devil that guides him should aid him, I will search impossible places; tho’ what I am I cannot avoid, yet to be what I would not, shall not make me tame.
Merry Wives of Windsor, act 3. sc. last.8
These soliloquies are accurate and bold copies of nature: in a passionate soliloquy one begins with thinking aloud; and the strongest feelings only, are expressed; as the speaker warms, he begins to imagine one listening, and gradually slides into a connected discourse.
How far distant are soliloquies generally from these models? So far indeed as to give disgust instead of pleasure. The first scene of Iphigenia in Tauris discovers that princess, in a soliloquy, gravely reporting to herself her own history. There is the same impropriety in the first scene of Alcestes, and in the other introductions of Euripides, almost without exception. Nothing can be more ridiculous: it puts one in mind of a most curious device in Gothic paintings, that of making every figure explain itself by a written label issuing from its mouth. The description which a parasite, in<509> the Eunuch of Terence,* gives of himself, makes a sprightly soliloquy: but it is not consistent with the rules of propriety; for no man, in his ordinary state of mind and upon a familiar subject, ever thinks of talking aloud to himself. The same objection lies against a soliloquy in the Adelphi of the same author.† The soliloquy which makes the third scene, act third, of his Heicyra, is insufferable; for there Pamphilus, soberly and circumstantially, relates to himself an adventure which had happened to him a moment before.
Corneille is not more happy in his soliloquies than in his dialogue. Take for a specimen the first scene of Cinna.
Racine also is extremely faulty in the same respect. His soliloquies are regular harangues, a chain completed in every link, without interruption or interval: that of Antiochus in Berenice‡ resembles a regular pleading, where the parties pro and con display their arguments at full length. The following soliloquies are equally faulty: Bajazet, act 3. sc. 7.; Mithridate, act. 3. sc. 4. & act 4. sc. 5.; Iphigenia, act 4. sc. 8.
Soliloquies upon lively or interesting subjects, but without any turbulence of passion, may be carried on in a continued chain of thought. If, for example, the nature and sprightliness of the subject prompt a man to speak his thoughts in the<510> form of a dialogue, the expression must be carried on without break or interruption, as in a dialogue between two persons; which justifies Falstaff’s soliloquy upon honour:
What need I be so forward with Death, that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter, Honour pricks me on. But how if Honour prick me off, when I come on? how then? Can Honour set a leg? No: or an arm? No: or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is Honour? A word.—What is that word honour? Air; a trim reckoning.—Who hath it? He that dy’da Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. Is it insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it; honour is a mere scutcheon; and so ends my catechism.
First part, Henry IV. act 5. sc. 2.9
And even without dialogue, a continued discourse may be justified, where a man reasons in a soliloquy upon an important subject; for if in such a case it be at all excusable to think aloud, it is necessary that the reasoning be carried on in a chain; which justifies that admirable soliloquy in Hamlet upon life and immortality, being a serene meditation upon the most interesting of all subjects. And the same consideration will justify the soliloquy that introduces the 5th act of Addison’s Cato.<511>
The next class of the grosser errors which all writers ought to avoid, shall be of language elevated above the tone of the sentiment; of which take the following instances.
The language here is undoubtedly too pompous and laboured for describing so simple a circumstance as absence of sleep. In the following passage, the tone of the language, warm and plaintive, is well suited to the passion, which is recent grief: but every one will be sensible, that in the last couplet save one, the tone is changed, and the mind suddenly elevated to be let fall as suddenly in the last couplet:
Language too artificial or too figurative for the gravity, dignity, or importance, of the occasion, may be put in a third class.
Chimene demanding justice against Rodrigue who killed her father, instead of a plain and pathetic expostulation, makes a speech stuffed with the most artificial flowers of rhetoric:
Nothing can be contrived in language more averse to the tone of the passion than this florid speech: I should imagine it more apt to provoke laughter than to inspire concern or pity.
In a fourth class shall be given specimens of language too light or airy for a severe passion.
Imagery and figurative expression are discordant, in the highest degree, with the agony of a mother, who is deprived of two hopeful sons by abrutal murder. Therefore the following passage is undoubtedly in a bad taste.
You are as fond of grief as of your child.<514>
A thought that turns upon the expression instead of the subject, commonly called a play of words, being low and childish, is unworthy of any composition, whether gay or serious, that pretends to any degree of elevation: thoughts of this kind make a fifth class.
In the Amynta of Tasso,* the lover falls into a mere play of words, demanding how he who had lost himself, could find a mistress. And for the same reason, the following passage in Corneille has been generally condemned:
Antony, speaking of Julius Caesar:
Playing thus with the sound of words, which is still worse than a pun, is the meanest of all con-<516>ceits. But Shakespear, when he descends to a play of words, is not always in the wrong; for it is done sometimes to denote a peculiar character, as in the following passage:
What say’st thou, boy? look in the lady’s face.
A jingle of words is the lowest species of that low wit; which is scarce sufferable in any case, and least of all in an heroic poem: and yet Milton in some instances has descended to that puerility:
One should think it unnecessary to enter a caveat against an expression that has no meaning, or no distinct meaning; and yet somewhat of that kind may be found even among good writers. Such make a sixth class.
His whole poem, inscribed, My picture, is a jargon of the same kind.
Such empty expressions are finely ridiculed in the Rehearsal:
End of the First Volume.
[* ]This observation is finely illustrated by a story which Herodotus records, b. 3. Cambyses, when he conquered Egypt, made Psammenitus the King prisoner; and for trying his constancy, ordered his daughter to be dressed in the habit of a slave, and to be employ’d in bringing water from the river; his son also was led to execution with a halter about his neck. The Egyptians vented their sorrow in tears and lamentations; Psammenitus only, with a downcast eye, remained silent. Afterward meeting one of his companions, a man advanced in years, who, being plundered of all, was begging alms, he wept bitterly, calling him by his name. Cambyses, struck with wonder, demanded an answer to the following question: “Psammenitus, thy master Cambyses is desirous to know, why, after thou hadst seen thy daughter so ignominiously treated and thy son led to execution, without exclaiming or weeping, thou shouldst be so highly concerned for a poor man, no way related to thee?” Psammenitus returned the following answer: “Son of Cyrus, the calamities of my family are too great to leave me the power of weeping; but the misfortunes of a companion, reduced in his old age to want of bread, is a fit subject for lamentation.”
[* ]See chap. 2. part 3.
[† ]Chap. 16.
[1. ]“A theme for Comedy refuses to be set forth in verses of Tragedy; likewise the feast of Thyestes scorns to be told in strains of daily life that well nigh befit the comic sock.”
[* ]See this explained more particularly in chap. 8.
[2. ]“So, too, in Tragedy Telephus and Peleus often grieve in the language of prose, when, in poverty and exile, either hero throws aside his bombast and words a foot and a half long, should he want his lament to touch the spectator’s heart.”
[* ]Demetrius Phalereus (of Elocution, sect. 28) justly observes, that an accurate adjustment of the words to the thought, so as to make them correspond in every particular, is only proper for sedate subjects; for that passion speaks plain, and rejects all refinements.
[* ]Of this take the following specimen.
[Act 1, sc. 4. Read “Fortune’s star” for “Fortune’s fear.”]
[* ]The critics seem not perfectly to comprehend the genius of Shakespear. His plays are defective in the mechanical part; which is less the work of genius than of experience, and is not otherwise brought to perfection but by diligently observing the errors of former compositions. Shakespear excels all the ancients and moderns, in knowledge of human nature, and in unfolding even the most obscure and refined emotions. This is a rare faculty, and of the greatest importance in a dramatic author; and it is that faculty which makes him surpass all other writers in the comic as well as tragic vein.
[6. ]Racine, Bajazet, end of act 5. “Well, it is all over. Through my pretence, my unjust suspicions, my disastrous whims, I have reached the painful moment when I see my lover die because of my crimes. Cruel fate, was it not enough that I should be condemned to survive him? To complete this horror, did I have to ascribe his death only to my mad passion? Yes, dear love, it is I who took your life. Neither Roxane nor the Sultan took it from you. I alone fashioned the unfortunate tie whose bond has stricken you with misfortune. Can I bear to think of it without dying; I, who, a little while ago, when threatened with your death, did not manage to keep myself from fainting. Did I love you only to stab you? But it is too much: I must sacrifice myself, quickly; let my obedient hand avenge you and punish me. All you others, whose glory and peace I have disturbed, past heroes who should have lived again in this hero; you, unhappy mother, who, from early childhood, entrusted me with his heart, hoping better things for him; unfortunate Vizier; desperate friends; Roxane, all called up, here, before me, come and torment a stricken lover. [She stabs herself.] Take at last what revenge is due you!” (Trans. Y. M. Martin.)
[* ]Soliloquies accounted for, chap. 15.
[7. ]Act 1, sc. 2.
[8. ]Act 3, sc. 5.
[* ]Act 2. sc. 2.
[† ]Act 1. sc. 1.
[‡ ]Act 1. sc. 2.
[9. ]Act 5, sc. 1.
[10. ]Voltaire, Henriade, 8.229: “He ever detests his guilty victory; he renounces the court, his fellow human beings, even glory; and fleeing from himself to the midst of the wilderness, he seeks to hide his sorrows at the farthest ends of the universe; there, whether the sun restores daylight to the world, or sets beneath the vast net of waves, his voice can call out again to the tender echoes, the name, the sad name of his wretched son.”
[11. ]The Cid, act 2, sc. 8.
[13. ]Act 3, sc. 4.
[* ]Act 1. sc. 2.
[15. ]Act 3, sc. 1.
[16. ]Act 3, sc. 2.
[17. ]Act 4, sc. 5.
[19. ]Act 3, sc. 1.
[20. ]Act 2, sc. 1.
[21. ]Milton, Paradise Lost: 9.11; 5.868; 1.642; 4.181; 3.346.