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CHAPTER XXI: Narration and Description - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, vol. 2 
Elements of Criticism, Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Elements of Criticism, 2 vols.
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Narration and Description
Horace, and many critics after him, exhort writers to choose a subject adapted to their genius. Such observations would multiply rules of criticism without end; and at any rate belong not to the present work, the object of which is human nature in general, and what is common to the species. But though the choice of a subject comes not under such a plan, the manner of execution comes under it; because the manner of execution is subjected to general rules, derived from principles common to the species. These rules, as they concern the things expressed as well as the language or expression, require a division of this chapter into two parts; first of thoughts, and next of words. I pretend not to justify this division as entirely accurate: for in discoursing of thoughts, it is difficult to abstract altogether from the words; and still more difficult, in discoursing of words, to abstract altogether from the thought.
The first rule is, That in history, the reflections ought to be chaste and solid; for while the mind<326> is intent upon truth, it is little disposed to the operations of the imagination. Strada’s Belgic history is full of poetical images, which, discording with the subject, are unpleasant; and they have a still worse effect, by giving an air of fiction to a genuine history. Such flowers ought to be scattered with a sparing hand, even in epic poetry; and at no rate are they proper, till the reader be warmed, and by an enlivened imagination be prepared to relish them: in that state of mind, they are agreeable; but while we are sedate and attentive to an historical chain of facts, we reject with disdain every fiction. This Belgic history is indeed wofully vicious both in matter and in form: it is stuffed with frigid and unmeaning reflections; and its poetical flashes, even laying aside their impropriety, are mere tinsel.
Second, Vida,* following Horace, recommends a modest commencement of an epic poem; giving for a reason, That the writer ought to husband his fire. This reason has weight; but what is said above suggests a reason still more weighty: bold thoughts and figures are never relished till the mind be heated and thoroughly engaged, which is not the reader’s case at the commencement. Homer introduces not a single simile in<327> the first book of the Iliad, nor in the first book of the Odyssey. On the other hand, Shakespear begins one of his plays with a sentiment too bold for the most heated imagination:
The passage with which Strada begins his history, is too poetical for a subject of that kind; and at any rate too high for the beginning of a grave performance. A third reason ought to have no less influence than either of the former, That a man who, upon his first appearance, strains to make a figure, is too ostentatious to be relished. Hence the first sentences of a work ought to be short, natural, and simple. Cicero, in his oration pro Archia poeta, errs against this rule: his reader is out of breath at the very first period; which seems never to end. Burnet begins the History of his Own Times with a period long and intricate.
A third rule or observation is, That where the subject is intended for entertainment solely, not<328> for instruction, a thing ought to be described as it appears, not as it is in reality. In running, for example, the impulse upon the ground is proportioned in some degree to the celerity of motion: though in appearance it is otherwise; for a person in swift motion seems to skim the ground, and scarcely to touch it. Virgil, with great taste, describes quick running according to appearance; and raises an image far more lively than by adhering scrupulously to truth:
This example is copied by the author of Telemachus:
Les Brutiens sont legeres à la course comme les cerfs, et comme les daims. On croiroit que l’herbe même la plus tendre n’est point foulée sous leurs pieds; à peine laissent-ils dans le sable quelques traces de leurs pas.
Déjà il avoit abattu Eusilas si léger à la course, qu’à peine il imprimoit la trace de ses pas dans le sable, et qui devançoit dans son pays les plusrapides flots de l’Eurotas et dé l’Alphée.
Fourth, In narration as well as in description, objects ought to be painted so accurately as to form in the mind of the reader distinct and lively images. Every useless circumstance ought indeed to be suppressed, because every such circumstance loads the narration; but if a circumstance be necessary, however slight, it cannot be described too minutely. The force of language consists in raising complete images;* which have the effect to transport the reader as by magic into the very place of the important action, and to convert him as it were into a spectator, beholding every thing that passes. The narrative in an epic poem ought to rival a picture in the liveliness and accuracy of its representations: no circumstance must be omitted that tends to make a complete image; because an imperfect image, as well as any other imperfect conception, is cold and uninteresting. I shall illustrate this rule by several examples, giving the first place to a beautiful passage from Virgil:<330>
The poplar, ploughman, and unfledged young, though not essential in the description, tend to make a complete image, and upon that account are an embellishment.
Horace, addressing to Fortune:
Shakespear says,* “You may as well go about to turn the sun to ice by fanning in his face with a peacock’s feather.” The peacock’s feather, not to mention the beauty of the object, completes the image: an accurate image cannot be formed of that fanciful operation, without conceiving a particular feather; and one is at a loss when this is neglected in the description. Again, “The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse, as they would have drown’d a bitch’s blind puppies, fifteen i’ th’ litter.”†
You would not be a queen?
No, not for all the riches under heav’n.
In the following passage, the action, with all its material circumstances, is represented so much to the life, that it would scarce appear more distinct to a real spectator; and it is the manner of description that contributes greatly to the sublimity of the passage.
A passage I am to cite from Shakespear, falls not much short of that now mentioned in particularity of description:
The following passage is scarce inferior to either of those mentioned:
Far before the rest, the son of Ossian comes; bright in the smiles of youth, fair as the first beams of the sun. His long hair waves on his back: his dark brow is half beneath his helmet. The sword hangs loose on the hero’s side; and his spear glitters as he moves. I fled from his terrible eye, King of high Temora.
The Henriade of Voltaire errs greatly against the foregoing rule: every incident is touched in a summary way, without ever descending to circumstances. This manner is good in a general history, the purpose of which is to record important transactions: but in a fable it is cold and uninteresting; because it is impracticable to form distinct images of persons or things represented in a manner so superficial.
It is observed above, that every useless circumstance ought to be suppressed. The crowding such circumstances, is, on the one hand, no less to be avoided, than the conciseness for which Voltaire is blamed, on the other. In the Aeneid,* Barce, the nurse of Sichaeus, whom we never hear of before nor after, is introduced for a purpose not more important than to call Anna to her sister Dido: and that it might not be thought unjust in Dido, even in this trivial circumstance, to prefer her husband’s nurse before her own, the poet takes care to inform his reader, that Dido’s nurse was dead. To this I must oppose a beautiful passage in the same book, where, after Dido’s last speech, the poet, without detaining his readers by describing the manner of her death, hastens to the lamentation of her attendants:
As an appendix to the foregoing rule, I add the following observation, That to make a sudden and strong impression, some single circumstance happily selected, has more power than the most laboured description. Macbeth, mentioning to his lady some voices he heard while he was murdering the King, says,
There are two lodg’d together.
Consider it not so deeply.
Alphonso, in the Mourning Bride, shut up in the same prison where his father had been confined:
This incident is a happy invention, and a mark of uncommon genius.<336>
Describing Prince Henry:
The same author speaking ludicrously of an army debilitated with diseases, says,
Half of them dare not shake the snow from off their cassocks, lest they shake themselves to pieces.14
I have seen the walls of Balclutha, but they were desolate. The flames had resounded in the halls: and the voice of the people is heard no more. The stream of Clutha was removed from its place by the fall of the walls. The thistle shook there its lonely head: the moss whistled to the wind. The fox looked out from the windows: and the rank grass of the wall waved round his head. Desolate is the dwelling of Morna: silence is in the house of her fathers.
To draw a character is the master-stroke of description. In this Tacitus excels: his portraits are natural and lively, not a feature wanting nor misplaced. Shakespear, however, exceeds Tacitus in liveliness, some characteristical circumstance being generally invented or laid hold of, which paints more to the life than many words. The following instances will explain my meaning, and at the same time prove my observation to be just.
Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice: his reasons are two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff; you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them they are not worth the search.
In the following passage a character is completed by a single stroke.
O the mad days that I have spent; and to see how many of mine old acquaintance are dead.
We shall all follow, Cousin.
Certain, ’tis certain, very sure, very sure; Death (as the Psalmist saith) is certain to all: all shall die. How a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford fair?
Truly, Cousin, I was not there.
Death is certain. Is old Double of your town living yet?
Dead! see, see; he drew a good bow: and dead. He shot a fine shoot. How a score of ewes now?
Thereafter as they be. A score of good ewes may be worth ten pounds.
And is old Double dead?
Second part Henry IV. act 3. sc. 3.16
Describing a jealous husband:
Neither press, coffer, chest, trunk, well, vault, but he hath an abstract for the remembrance of such places, and goes to them by his note. There is no hiding you in the house.
Merry Wives of Windsor, act 4. sc. 3.
Congreve has an inimitable stroke of this kind in his comedy of Love for Love:
Well, father, and how do all at home? how does brother Dick, and brother Val?
Dick! body o’ me, Dick has been dead<339> these two years. I writ you word when you were at Leghorn.
Mess, that’s true; marry, I had forgot. Dick’s dead, as you say.
Act 3. sc. 6.
Falstaff speaking of ancient Pistol:
He’s no swaggerer, hostess; a tame cheater i’faith; you may stroak him as gently as a puppy-greyhound; he will not swagger with a Barbary hen, if her feathers turn back in any shew of resistance.
Second Part Henry IV. act 2. sc. 9.
Ossian, among his other excellencies, is eminently successful in drawing characters; and he never fails to delight his reader with the beautiful attitudes of his heroes. Take the following instances.
O Oscar! bend the strong in arm; but spare the feeble hand. Be thou a stream of many tides against the foes of thy people; but like the gale that moves the grass to those who ask thine aid.—So Tremor lived; such Trathal was; and such has Fingal been. My arm was the support of the injured; and the weak rested behind the lightning of my steel.
We heard the voice of joy on the coast, and we thought that the mighty Cathmore came. Cathmore the friend of strangers! the brother of red-haired Cairbar. But their souls were not the same; for the light of heaven was in the bosom of Cathmor. His towers rose on the banks of Atha: seven paths led to his halls: seven<340> chiefs stood on these paths, and called the stranger to the feast. But Cathmor dwelt in the wood to avoid the voice of praise.
Dermid and Oscar were one: they reaped the battle together. Their friendship was strong as their steel; and death walked between them to the field. They rush on the foe like two rocks falling from the brow of Ardven. Their swords are stained with the blood of the valiant: warriors faint at their name. Who is equal to Oscar but Dermid? who to Dermid but Oscar?
Son of Comhal, replied the chief, the strength of Morni’s arm has failed; I attempt to draw the sword of my youth, but it remains in its place: I throw the spear, but it falls short of the mark: and I feel the weight of my shield. We decay like the grass of the mountain, and our strength returns no more. I have a son, O Fingal, his soul has delighted in the actions of Morni’s youth; but his sword has not been fitted against the foe, neither has his fame begun. I come with him to battle, to direct his arm. His renown will be a sun to my soul, in the dark hour of my departure. O that the name of Morni were forgot among the people! that the heroes would only say, “Behold the father of Gaul.”
Some writers, through heat of imagination, fall into contradiction; some are guilty of downright absurdities; and some even rave like madmen. Against such capital errors one cannot be more effectually warned than by collecting instances; and the first shall be of a contradiction, the most venial of all. Virgil speaking of Neptune,<341>
The following examples are of absurdities.
Alii pulsis e tormento catenis discerpti sectique, dimidiato corpore pugnabant sibi superstites, ac peremptae partis ultores.
Strada, Dec. 2. l. 2.18
He fled; but flying, left his life behind.
Iliad xi. 433.
The last article is of raving like one mad. Cleopatra speaking to the aspic,
Reasons that are common and known to every one, ought to be taken for granted: to express them is childish, and interrupts the narration. Quintus Curtius, relating the battle of Issus,
Jam in conspectu, sed extra teli jactum, utraque acies erat; quum priores Persae inconditum et trucem sustulere clamorem. Redditur et a Macedonibus major, exercitus impar numero, sed jugis montium vastisque saltibus repercussus: quippe semper circumjecta nemora petraeque, quantumcumque accepere vocem, multiplicato sono referunt.20
Having discussed what observations occurred upon the thoughts or things expressed, I proceed to what more peculiarly concern the language or verbal dress. The language proper for expressing passion being handled in a former chapter, several observations there made are applicable to the present subject; particularly, That as words are intimately connected with the ideas they represent, the emotions raised by the sound and by the sense ought to be concordant. An elevated subject requires an elevated style; what is familiar, ought<343> to be familiarly expressed: a subject that is serious and important, ought to be clothed in plain nervous language: a description, on the other hand, addressed to the imagination, is susceptible of the highest ornaments that sounding words and figurative expression can bestow upon it.
I shall give a few examples of the foregoing rules. A poet of any genius is not apt to dress a high subject in low words; and yet blemishes of that kind are found even in classical works. Horace, observing that men are satisfied with themselves, but seldom with their condition, introduces Jupiter indulging to each his own choice:
Jupiter in wrath puffing up both cheeks, is a low and even ludicrous expression, far from suitable to the gravity and importance of the subject: every one must feel the discordance. The following couplet, sinking far below the subject, is no less ludicrous.<344>
A god wiping his dirty beard is proper for burlesque poetry only; and altogether unsuitable to the strained elevation of this poem.
On the other hand, to raise the expression above the tone of the subject, is a fault than which none is more common. Take the following instances.
Ce mortel, qui montra tant de zéle pour moi, Vit-il encore?
——— Il voit l’astre qui vous éclaire.
Esther, act 2. sc. 3.25
In the funeral orations of the Bishop of Meaux, the following passages are raised far above the tone of the subject:
L’Ocean etonné de se voir traversé tant de fois, en des appareils si divers, et pour des causes si differentes, &c.
Grande Reine, je satisfais à vos plus tendres desires, quand je célébre ce monarque; et son cœur qui n’a jamais vêcu que pour lui, se eveille, tout poudre qu’il est,<346> et devient sensible, même sous ce drap mortuaire, au nom d’un epoux si cher.
Montesquieu, in a didactic work, L’esprit des Loix, gives too great indulgence to imagination: the tone of his language swells frequently above his subject. I give an example:
Mr. le Comte de Boulainvilliers et Mr. l’Abbé Dubos ont fait chacun un systeme, dont l’un semble être une conjuration contre le tiers-etat, et l’autre une conjuration contre la noblesse. Lorsque le Soleil donna à Phaé- ton son char à conduire, il lui dit, Si vous montez trop haut, vous brulerez la demeure céleste; si vous descendez trop bas, vous réduirez en cendres la terre n’allez point trop à droite, vous tomberiez dans la constellation du serpent; n’allez point trop à gauche, vous iriez dans celle de l’autel: tenezvous centre les deux.
L. 30. ch. 10.29
The following passage, intended, one would imagine, as a receipt to boil water, is altogether burlesque by the laboured elevation of the diction:
In a passage at the beginning of the 4th book of Telemachus, one feels a sudden bound upward without preparation, which accords not with the subject:
Calypso, qui avoit été jusqu’ à ce moment immobile et transportee de plaisir en écoutant les avantures de Télémaque, l’interrompit pour lui faire prendre quelque repôs. Il est tems, lui dit-elle, qui vous alliez goûter la douceur du sommeil aprés tant de travaux. Vous n’avez rien à craindre ici; tout vous est favorable. Abandonnez vous donc à la joye. Goutez la paix, et tous les autres dons des dieux dont vous allez être comble. Demain, quand l’ Aurore avec ses doigts de rôses entr’ouvira les portes dorées de l’Orient, et que le Chevaux du Soleil sortans de l’ onde amére répandront les flames du jour, pour chasser devant eux toutes les etoiles du ciel, nous reprendrons, mon cher Télémaque, l’histoire de vos malheurs.30
This obviously is copied from a similar passage in the Aeneid, which ought not to have been copied, because it lies open to the same censure; but the force of authority is great:
Take another example where the words rise above the subject.
Ainsi les peuples y accoururent bientôt en foule de toutes parts; le commerce de cette ville étoit semblable au flux et au reflux de la mer. Lestrésors y entroient comme les flots viennent l’un sur l’autre. Tout y étoit apporté et en sortoit librement; tout ce qui y entroit, étoit utile; tout ce qui en sortoit, laissoit en sortant d’autres richesses en sa place. La justice sevére presidoit dans le port au milieu de tant de nations. La franchise, la bonne foi, la candeur, sembloient du haut de ces superbs tours appeller les marchands des terres le plus éloignées: chacun de ces marchands, soit qu’il vint des rives orientales où le soleil sort chaque jour du sein des ondes, soit qu’il fût parti de cette grande mer où le soleil lassé de son cours va eteindre ses feux, vivoit paisible et en sureté dans Salente comme dans sa patrie!
Telemaque, l. 12.32
The language of Homer is suited to his subject, no less accurately than the actions and sentiments of his heroes are to their characters. Virgil, in that particular, falls short of perfection: his language is stately throughout; and though he descends at times to the simplest branches of cookery, roasting and boiling for example, yet he never relaxes a moment from the high tone.* In adjusting his language to his subject, no writer equals Swift. I can recollect but one exception, which at the same<349> time is far from being gross: The journal of a modern lady is composed in a style blending sprightliness with familiarity, perfectly suited to the subject: in one passage, however, the poet deviating from that style, takes a tone above his subject. The passage I have in view begins, l. 116. But let me now a while survey, &c. and ends at l. 135.
It is proper to be observed upon this head, that writers of inferior rank are continually upon the stretch to enliven and enforce their subject by exaggeration and superlatives. This unluckily has an effect contrary to what is intended; the reader, disgusted with language that swells above the subject, is led by contrast to think more meanly of the subject than it may possibly deserve. A man of prudence, beside, will be no less careful to husband his strength in writing than in walking: a writer too liberal of superlatives, exhausts his whole stock upon ordinary incidents, and reserves no share to express, with greater energy, matters of importance.* <350>
Many writers of that kind abound so in epithets, as if poetry consisted entirely in high-sounding words. Take the following instance.
Here every substantive is faithfully attended by some tumid epithet; like young master, who cannot walk abroad without having a lac’d livery-man at his heels. Thus in reading without taste, an emphasis is laid on every word; and in singing without taste, every note is grac’d. Such redundancy of epithets, instead of pleasing, produce satiety and disgust!
The power of language to imitate thought, is not confined to the capital circumstances above mentioned: it reacheth even the slighter modifications. Slow action, for example, is imitated by words pronounced slow; labour or toil, by words harsh or rough in their sound. But this subject has been already handled.* <351>
In dialogue-writing, the condition of the speaker is chiefly to be regarded in framing the expression. The sentinel in Hamlet, interrogated with relation to the ghost whether his watch had been quiet, answers with great propriety for a man in his station, “Not a mouse stirring.”†
I proceed to a second remark, no less important than the former. No person of reflection but must be sensible, that an incident makes a stronger impression on an eye-witness, than when heard at second hand. Writers of genius, sensible that the eye is the best avenue to the heart, represent every thing as passing in our sight; and, from readers or hearers, transform us as it were into spectators: a skilful writer conceals himself, and presents his personages: in a word, every thing becomes dramatic as much as possible. Plutarch, de gloria Atheniensium, observes, that Thucydides makes his reader a spectator, and inspires him with the same passions as if he were an eye-witness; and the same observation is applicable to our countryman Swift. From this happy talent arises that energy of style which is peculiar to him: he can-<352>not always avoid narration; but the pencil is his choice, by which he bestows life and colouring upon his objects. Pope is richer in ornament, but possesseth not in the same degree the talent of drawing from the life. A translation of the sixth satire of Horace, begun by the former and finished by the latter, affords the fairest opportunity for a comparison. Pope obviously imitates the picturesque manner of his friend: yet everyone of taste must be sensible, that the imitation, though fine, falls short of the original. In other instances, where Pope writes in his own style, the difference of manner is still more conspicuous.
Abstract or general terms have no good effect in any composition for amusement; because it is only of particular objects that images can be formed.* Shakespear’s style in that respect is excellent: every article in his descriptions is particular, as in nature; and if accidentally a vague expression slip in, the blemish is discernible by the bluntness of its impression. Take the following example: Falstaff, excusing himself for running away at a robbery, says,
By the Lord, I knew ye, as well as he that made ye. Why, hear ye, my masters; was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince? Why, thou knowest, I am as valiant as Hercules; but<353> beware instinct, the lion will not touch the true prince: instinct is a great matter. I was a coward on instinct: I shall think the better of myself, and thee, during my life; I for a valiant lion, and thou for a true prince. But, by the Lord, lads, I am glad you have the money. Hostess, clap to the doors, watch tonight, pray to-morrow. Gallants, lads, boys, hearts of gold, all the titles of good fellowship come to you! What, shall we be merry? shall we have a play extempore?
First part Henry IV. act 2. sc. 9.33
The sentence I object to is, instinct is a great matter, which makes but a poor figure, compared with the liveliness of the rest of the speech. It was one of Homer’s advantages, that he wrote before general terms were multiplied: the superior genius of Shakespear displays itself in avoiding them after they were multiplied. Addison describes the family of Sir Roger de Coverley in the following words:
You would take his valet de chambre for his brother, his butler is gray-headed, his groom is one of the gravest men that I have ever seen, and his coachman has the looks of a privy counsellor.
Spectator, No. 106.
The description of the groom is less lively than of the others; plainly because the expression, being vague and general, tends not to form any image.<354> “Dives opum variarum,”† is an expression still more vague; and so are the following:
In the fine arts it is a rule, to put the capital objects in the strongest point of view; and even to present them oftener than once, where it can be done. In history-painting, the principal figure is placed in the front, and in the best light: an equestrian statue is placed in a centre of streets, that it may be seen from many places at once. In no composition is there greater opportunity for this rule than in writing:
What mean ye, that ye use this proverb, The fathers have eaten four grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion to use this proverb in Israel. If a man keep my judgements to deal truly, he is just, he shall surely live. But if he be a robber, a shedder of blood; if he have eaten upon the mountains, and defiled his neighbour’s wife; if he have oppressed the poor and needy, have spoiled by violence, have not restored the pledge, have lift up his eyes to idols, have given forth upon usury, and have taken increase: shall he live? he shall not live: he shall surely die; and his blood shall be upon him. Now, lo, if he beget a son, that seeth all his father’s sins, and considereth, and doeth not such like; that hath not eaten upon the mountains, hath not lift up his eyes to idols, nor defiled his neighbour’s wife, hath not oppressed any, nor with-held the pledge, neither hath spoiled by violence, but hath given<357> his bread to the hungry, and covered the naked with a garment; that hath not received usury nor increase, that hath executed my judgements, and walked in my statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father; he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die; the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. Have I any pleasure that the wicked should die, saith the Lord God; and not that he should return from his ways and live?
The repetitions in Homer, which are frequent, have been the occasion of much criticism. Suppose we were at a loss about the reason, might not taste be sufficient to justify them? At the same time, we are at no loss about the reason: they evidently make the narration dramatic, and have an air of truth, by making things appear as passing in our sight. But such repetitions are unpardonable in a didactic poem. In one of Hesiod’s poems of that kind, a long passage occurs twice in the same chapter.
A concise comprehensive style is a great ornament in narration; and a superfluity of unnecessary words, no less than of circumstances, a great nuisance. A judicious selection of the striking circumstances clothed in a nervous style, is delightful. In this style, Tacitus excells all writers, ancient and modern. Instances are numberless: take the following specimen.<358>
Crebra hinc praelia, et saepius in modum latrocinii: per saltus, perpaludes; ut cuique fors aut virtus: temere, proviso, ob iram, ob praedam, jussu, et aliquando ignaris ducibus.
Annal. lib. 12. § 39.39
After Tacitus, Ossian in that respect justly merits the place of distinction. One cannot go wrong for examples in any part of the book; and at the first opening the following instance meets the eye:
Nathos cloathed his limbs in shining steel. The stride of the chief is lovely: the joy of his eye terrible. The wind rustles in his hair. Darthula is silent at his side: her look is fixed on the chief. Striving to hide the rising sigh, two tears swell in her eyes.
I add one other instance, which, beside the property under consideration, raises delicately our most tender sympathy.
Son of Fingal! dost thou not behold the darkness of Crothar’s hall of shells? My soul was not dark at the feast, when my people lived. I rejoiced in the presence of strangers, when my son shone in the hall. But, Ossian, he is a beam that is departed, and left no streak of light behind. He is fallen, son of Fingal, in the battles of his father.—Rothmar, the chief of grassy Tromlo, heard that my eyes had failed; he heard that my arms were fixed in the hall, and the pride of his soul arose. He came towards Croma: my people fell before him. I took my arms in the hall, but what could sightless Crothar do? My steps were<359> unequal; my grief was great. I wished for the days that were past; days! wherein I fought, and won in the field of blood. My son returned from the chace; the fair-haired Fovargormo. He had not lifted his sword in battle, for his arm was young. But the soul of the youth was great; the fire of valour burnt in his eye. He saw the disordered steps of his father, and his sigh arose. King of Croma, he said, is it because thou hast no son? is it for the weakness of Fovar-gormo’s arm that thy sighs arise: I begin, my father, to feel the strength of my arm; I have drawn the sword of my youth, and I have bent the bow. Let me meet this Rothmar, with the youths of Croma: let me meet him, O my father, for I feel my burning soul.
And thou shalt meet him, I said, son of the sightless Crothar! But let others advance before thee, that I may hear the tread of thy feet at thy return; for my eyes behold thee not, fair-haired Fovar-gormo!—He went; he met the foe; he fell. The foe advances towards Croma. He who slew my son is near, with all his pointed spears.
If a concise or nervous style be a beauty, tautology must be a blemish; and yet writers, fettered by verse, are not sufficiently careful to avoid this slovenly practice: they may be pitied, but they cannot be justified. Take for a specimen the following instances, from the best poet, for versification at least, that England has to boast of.
Strength and omnipotence invest thy throne.
Iliad viii. 576.
His clanging armour rung.
Iliad xii. 94.
Fear on their cheek, and horror in their eye.
Iliad xv. 4.
The blaze of armour flash’d against the day.
Iliad xvii. 736.
As when the piercing blasts of Boreas blow.
Iliad xix. 380.
The humid sweat from ev’ry pore descends.
Iliad xxiii. 829.<361>
Redundant epithets, such as humid in the last citation, are by Quintilian disallowed to orators; but indulged to poets,* because his favourite poets, in a few instances, are reduced to such epithets for the sake of versification; for instance, Prata canis albicant pruinis of Horace,40 and liquidos fontes of Virgil.
As an apology for such careless expressions, it may well suffice, that Pope, in submitting to be a translator, acts below his genius. In a translation, it is hard to require the same spirit or accuracy, that is cheerfully bestowed on an original work. And to support the reputation of that author, I shall give some instances from Virgil and Horace, more faulty by redundancy than any of those above mentioned:
Here I can luckily apply Horace’s rule against himself:
I close this chapter with a curious inquiry. An object, however ugly to the sight, is far from being so when represented by colours or by words. What is the cause of this difference? With respect to painting, the cause is obvious: a good picture, whatever the subject be, is agreeable by the pleasure we take in imitation; and this pleasure overbalancing the disagreeableness of the subject, makes the picture upon the whole agreeable. With respect to the description of an ugly object, the cause follows. To connect individuals in the social state, no particular contributes more than language, by the power it possesses of an expeditious communication of thought, and a lively representation of transactions. But nature hath not been satisfied to recommend language by its utility merely: independent of utility, it is made suceptible of many<363> beauties, which are directly felt, without any intervening reflection.* And this unfolds the mystery; for the pleasure of language is so great, as in a lively description to overbalance the disagreeableness of the image raised by it.† This, however, is no encouragement to choose a disagreeable subject; for the pleasure is incomparably greater where the subject and the description are both of them agreeable.
The following description is upon the whole agreeable, though the subject described is in itself dismal:
An unmanly depression of spirits in time of danger is not an agreeable sight; and yet a fine description or representation of it will be relished:
Objects that strike terror in a spectator, have in<365> poetry and painting a fine effect. The picture, by raising a slight emotion of terror, agitates the mind; and in that condition every beauty makes a deep impression. May not contrast heighten the pleasure, by opposing our present security to the danger of encountering the object represented?
Objects of horror must be excepted from the foregoing theory; for no description, however lively, is sufficient to overbalance the disgust raised even by the idea of such objects. Every thing horrible ought therefore to be avoided in a description. Nor is this a severe law: the poet will avoid such scenes for his own sake, as well as for that of his reader; and to vary his descriptions, nature affords plenty of objects that disgust us in some degree without raising horror. I am obliged therefore to condemn the picture of Sin in the second book of Paradise Lost, though a masterly performance: the original would be a horrid spectacle; and the horror is not much softened in the copy:<367>
Iago’s character in the tragedy of Othello, is insufferably monstrous and Satanical: not even Shakespear’s masterly hand can make the picture agreeable.
Though the objects introduced in the following scenes are not altogether so horrible as Sin is in Milton’s description; yet with every person of delicacy, disgust will be the prevailing emotion:
[* ]Poet. lib. 2. l. 30.
[1. ]Act 1, sc. 1.
[2. ]“To crown the array comes Camilla, of Volscian race, leading her troop of horse, and squadrons gay with brass, a warrior-maid, never having trained her woman’s hand to Minerva’s distaff or basket of wool, but hardy to bear the battle-brunt and in speed of foot to outstrip the winds. She might have flown o’er the topmost blades of unmown corn, nor in her course bruised the tender ears; or sped her way o’er mid sea, poised above the swelling wave, nor dipped her swift feet in the flood.”
[3. ]Fénelon: Les aventures de Télémaque, 1699: Bks. 10, 20 (trans. Tobias Smollett: The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Ulysses, London, 1776). Fénelon’s popular work received at least 150 French editions by 1830 and 18 English translations by 1800:The Brutians are swift of foot, and in running equal the stag or deer. They seem hardly to touch the grass they run over, and the print of their feet is scarce visible in the sand.Already he had overthrown Eusilas, so swift in running, that he scarce left the prints of his feet on the sand, and in his own country outstripped the most rapid billows of Eurotas and Alpheus.
[* ]Chap. 2. part 1. sect. 7.
[4. ]“Even as the nightingale, mourning beneath the poplar’s shade, bewails the loss of her brood, that a churlish ploughman hath espied and torn unfledged from the nest.”
[5. ]“Here as a signal for sailors Aeneas set up a green cone of leafy ilex.”
[6. ]“Thee the poor peasant entreats with anxious prayer; thee, as sovereign of the deep, whoever braves the Carpathian Sea in Bythnian bark.”
[7. ]“At sight of him from foeman’s battlements may the consort of the warring tyrant and the ripe maiden sigh: ‘Ah, let not our royal lover, unpractised in the fray, rouse the lion fierce to touch, whom rage for blood hurries through the midst of carnage.’”
[* ]Henry V. act 4. sc. 4.
[† ]Merry Wives of Windsor, act 3. sc. 15.
[8. ]Act 2, sc. 3.
[9. ]Read “her banks” for “his banks” and “her concave shores” for “his concave shores.”
[* ]Lib. 4. l. 632.
[10. ]“And even as she spoke her handmaids see her fallen on the sword, the blade reeking with blood and her hands bespattered. A scream rises to the lofty roof; Rumour riots through the startled city. The palace rings with lamentation, with sobbing and women’s shrieks, and heaven echoes with loud wails.” Read “conlapsam” for “collapsam.”
[11. ]Act 2, sc. 2: read opening lines as:
[12. ]Act 4, sc. 1: read “cushes” for “cuisses.”
[13. ]Act 3, sc. 3.
[14. ]All’s Well, act 4, sc. 3.
[15. ]Act 1, sc. 1; act 1, sc. 1.
[16. ]Act 3, sc. 2: Kames omits five lines from Shadow’s penultimate speech.
[17. ]“Meanwhile Neptune saw the sea in a turmoil of wild uproar, the storm let loose and the still waters upheaved from their lowest depths. Greatly troubled was he, and gazing out over the deep he raised his serene face above the water’s surface.”
[18. ]“Others, mangled and ripped by the chains that were pulled from the catapult, fought with their halved bodies, surviving for themselves and avengers that half that was taken from them.”
[19. ]F. Berni, Il primo libro dell’Opere Burlesche, 1497–1535: “The poor man who did not realize, when he was fighting, that he was already dead.”
[20. ]“When the two armies were already in sight of each other but still out of reach of javelin-range, the Persian front raised a wild, fierce shout. The Macedonians returned it, the echoes from the mountain tops and vast forests making them sound more numerous than they were; surrounding woods and rocks always return any sound they receive with increased volume” [bk 3.10]. (The History of Alexander, trans. John Yardley)
[21. ]“Here I am! I will grant your prayers forthwith. You, who were but now a soldier, shall be a trader; you, but now a lawyer, shall be a farmer. Change parts; away with you—and with you! Well! Why standing still? They would refuse. And yet ’tis in their power to be happy. What reason is there why Jove should not, quite properly, puff out both cheeks at them in anger, and say that never again will be so easy-going as to lend ear to their prayers?”
[23. ]“Orcan the most faithful to fulfil his designs, born under the burning sun of the blackest Africans.”
[25. ]This mortal, who showed such zeal for me. Does he still? He sees the star that shines upon you.
[26. ]“Yes, it is Agamemnon your king who wakes you; Come, hear the voice that strikes your ear.”
[27. ]“The ocean, astonished to see itself crossed so many times, in such differing ways, and for such diverse causes.”
[28. ]“Great Queen, I honour your most tender wishes when I celebrate the monarch; his heart which was never conquered except by her, awakes, in dust though it is, and becomes aware, even in the shrouds of death, of the name of a wife so dear.”
[29. ]“The Count de Boulainvilliers and the Abbé du Bos have formed two different systems, one of which seems to be a conspiracy against the commons, and the other against the nobility. When the sun gave leave to Phaeton to drive his chariot, he said to him ‘ If you ascend too high, you will burn the heavenly mansions; if you descend too low, you will reduce the earth to ashes; do not drive to the right, you will meet there with the constellation of the Serpent; avoid going too much to the left, or you will fall in with that of the Altar: keep in the middle.’” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Thomas Nugent, 1750; quotation from Ovid, Metamorphoses, bk. 2)
[30. ]“Calypso, who had thus far heard Telemachus recount his adventures, with the utmost attention and transport, now interrupted him, that he might take a little repose. ‘It is time,’ said she, ‘that you refresh yourself with a little rest after such immense fatigue. Here you have nothing to make you uneasy; all if friendly and favourable. Let your heart then give way to joy; let it relish the quiet, and all the other gifts which the gods are going to pour down upon you. Tomorrow, when Aurora with her rosy fingers shall begin to unlock the gilded gates of the east, and the horses of the sun issuing from the briny waves, shall spread abroad the light of day, driving before them all the stars of heaven, you shall resume the recital of your misfortunes.’” (Fénelon, trans. Tobias Smollett)
[31. ]“But the queen, long since smitten with a grievous love-pang, feeds the wound with her life-blood, and is wasted with fire unseen. Oft to her heart rushes back the chief’s valour, oft his glorious stock; his looks and words cling fast within her bosom, and the pang withholds calm rest from her limbs. The morrow’s dawn was lighting the earth with the lamp of Phoebus, and had scattered from the sky the dewy shades, when, much distraught, she thus speaks to her sister, sharer of her heart.” (Virgil, trans. H. R. Fairclough)
[32. ]“In consequence of these regulations, great numbers of people came from allparts to settle at Salentum. The trade of that city might be compared to the ebbing and flowing of the sea, ships with merchandise and treasure coming in and going out in a constant succession, like the waves of the ocean. Every thing useful was imported and exported without restraint. What was carried out was more than balanced, by what was brought in return. Justice was dispensed with the utmost exactness and impartiality to the several nations that used the port. Freedom, probity, and fair dealing seemed from the top of the lofty towers to invite merchants from the most distant nations; and all these merchants, whether they came from the extremity of the East, where the sun every day rises from the bosom of the deep, or from that vast ocean, where, after a tedious course, he quenches his fires at eve, lived in as much peace and security at Salentum, as in his own country” (Fénelon, trans. Tobias Smollett).
[* ]See Aeneid. lib. i. 188.–219.
[* ]Montaigne, reflecting upon the then present modes, observes, that there never was at any other time so abject and servile prostitution of words in the addresses made by people of fashion to one another; the humblest tenders of life and soul, no professions under that of devotion and adoration; the writer constantly declaring himself a vassal, nay a slave: so that when any more serious occasion of friendship or gratitude requires more genuine professions, words are wanting to express them.
[* ]Ch. 18. sect. 3.
[† ]One can scarce avoid smiling at the blindness of a certain critic, who, with an air of self-sufficiency, condemns this expression as low and vulgar. A French poet, says he, would express the same thought in a more sublime manner: “Mais tout dort, et l’armée, et les vents, et Neptune.” [“But everything went wrong: the army, the winds, even Neptune.”] And he adds, “The English poet may please at London, but the French every where else.”
[* ]See chap. 4.
[33. ]Act 2, sc. 4.
[† ]Georg. ii. 468. [“rich in treasures manifold”]
[34. ]“Maecenas, the great glory and prop of my own existence.”
[35. ]“And sing on Teian lyre Penelope and Circe of the glassy sea, enamoured of the self-same hero.”
[36. ]“Jesting oft cuts hard knots more forcefully and effectively than gravity.”
[37. ]“Then follows Astyr, of wondrous beauty—Astyr, relying on his steed and many coloured arms.”
[38. ]Act 2, sc. 7.
[39. ]“They met in sudden encounters, as chance directed, or valour prompted; in the fens, in the woods, in the narrow defiles; the men, on some occasions, led on by their chiefs, and frequently without their knowledge, as resentment, or the love of booty, happened to incite their fury” (Tacitus, De Moribus Germanorum, trans. Arthur Murphy, 1793).
[* ]L. 8. cap. 6. sect. 2.
[40. ]“Nor are the meadows any longer white with hoary frost.” (Horace Odes I.4.4)
[41. ]“Often, too, there appears in the sky a mighty column of waters, and clouds mustered from on high roll up a murky tempest of black showers: down falls the lofty heaven, and with its deluge of rain washes away the gladsome crops and the labours of oxen.”
[42. ]“After our ships gained the deep, and now no longer any land is seen, but sky on all sides and on all sides sea, then a murky rain-cloud loomed over-head, bringing night and tempest, while the wave shuddered darkling.”
[43. ]“In this spot shall rich abundance of the glories of the field flow to the full for thee from bounteous horn.”
[44. ]“To see the wearied oxen dragging along the upturned ploughshares on their tired necks.”
[45. ]“You need terseness, so that the thought may run on, and not become entangled in verbiage that weighs upon wearied ears.”
[* ]See chap. 18.
[† ]See chap. 2. part 4.
[46. ]Act 3, sc. 3: read “Some way of common trade” for “Some way of common tread.”
[47. ]Act 1, sc. 5.
[48. ]Act 5, sc. 2.
[49. ]“Strophades the Greek name they bear—islands set in the great Ionian sea, where dwell dread Celaeno and the other Harpies, since Phineus’ house was closed on them, and in fear they left their former tables. No monster more baneful than these, no fiercer plague or wrath of the gods ever rose from the Stygian waves. Maiden faces have these birds, foulest filth they drop, clawed hands are theirs, and faces ever gaunt with hunger.
[50. ]“I come from the land of Ithaca, a companion of luckless Ulysses, Achaemenides by name, and, since my father Adamastus was poor—and would to heaven that fortune had so stayed!—I set out for Troy. Here my comrades, when hastily quitting the grim gateway, thoughtlessly left me in the Cyclops’ vast cave. It is a house of gore and bloodstained feasts, dark and huge within. The master, gigantic, strikes the stars on high—ye gods, take such a pest away from earth!—in aspect forbidding, in speech to be accosted by none. He feeds on the flesh of wretched men and their dark blood. I myself saw when he seized in his huge hand two of our company and, lying back in the midst of the cave, crushed them on the rock, and the splashed courts swam with gore; I saw when he munched their limbs, all dripping with black blood-clots, and the warm joints quivered beneath his teeth. Yet not unpunished! Ulysses brooked not this, nor in such a strait was he forgetful of himself. For when, gorged with the feast and drowned in wine, the monster rested his drooping neck, and lay in endless length throughout the cave, in his sleep vomiting gore and morsels mixed with blood and wine, we prayed to the great gods, then, with our parts allotted, poured round him on every side, and with pointed weapon pierced the one huge eye, that lay deep-set beneath his savage brow.”