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ligiously thinks.” Of the same kind also is the subsequent quotation : “ Mr Dryden makes a very handsome “ observation on Ovid's writing a letter from Dido to “ Æneas, in the following words. *" Whether are the following words, the words of Dido's letter, or of Dryden's observation ? Before you read them, you will more readily suppose them to be the words of the letter ; after reading them, you find they are the words of the observation. The order ought to have been, “ Mr Dry
den, in the following words, makes a very bandsome “ observation on Ovid's writing a letter from Dido to “ Æneas.”
I shall conclude this section with an instance of that kind of ambiguity which the French call a squinting construction t; that is, when a clause is so situated in a sentence, that one is at first at a loss to know whether it ought to be connected with the words which go before, or with those which come after. Take the following passage for an example : “ As it is necessary to have " the head clear as well as the complexion, to be perfect " in this part of learning, I rarely mingle with the men, " but frequently the tea-tables of the ladies I.” Whether, “ To be perfect in this part of learning, is it neces
sary to have the head clear as well as the complexion;" or, “ To be perfect in this part of learning, does he rare“ ly mingle with the men, but frequently the tea-tables " of the ladies ?” Which ever of these be the sense, the words ought to have been otherwise ranged.
Section III.- The Unintelligible.
I have already considered two of the principal and most common offences against perspicuity; and come now to make some remarks on the third and last offence, mentioned in the enumeration formerly given. It was observed, that a speaker may not only express himself obscurely, and so convey his meaning imperfectly to the mind of the hearer, that he may not only express him
* Spect. No. 62.
+ Construction louche.
* Guardian, No. 10.
self ambiguously, and so along with his own, convey a meaning entirely different; but even express himself unintelligibly, and so convey no meaning at all. One would, indeed, think it hardly possible, that a man of sense, who perfectly understands the language which he useth, should ever speak or write in such a manner as to be altogether unintelligible. Yet this is what frequently happens. The cause of this fault in any writer, I take to be always one or other of the three following ; first, great confusion of thought, which is commonly accompanied with intricacy of expression ; secondly, affectation of excellence in the diction; thirdly, a total want of meaning. I do not mention as one of the causes of this imputation, a penury of language ; though this, doubtless, may contribute to produce it. In fact I never found one who had a justness of apprehension, and was free from affectation, at a loss to make himself understood in his native tongue, even though he had little command of language, and made but a bad choice of words
Part I.-From confusion of thought.
The first cause of the unintelligible in composition, is confusion of thought. Language, as bath been already observed, is the medium through which the sentiments of the writer are perceived by the reader. And though the impurity or the grossness of the medium will render the image obscure or indistinct, yet no purity in the medium will suffice for exhibiting a distinct and unvarying image of a confused and unsteady object. There is a sort of half-formed thoughts, which we sometimes find writers impatient to give the world, before they themselves are fully possessed of them. Now if the writer himself perceive confusedly and imperfectly the sentiments he would communicate, it is a thousand to one, the reader will not perceive them at all. But how then, it may be asked, shall he be qualified for discovering the cause, and distinguishing in the writer between a confusion of thought, and a total want of meaning? I an
swer, that in examples of this kind, the cause will, sometimes, not always, be discovered, by means of an attentive and frequent perusal of the words and context. Some meaning, after long poring, will perhaps be traced ; but in all such cases we may be said more properly to divine what the author would say, than to understand what he says; and therefore all such sentences deserve to be ranked among the unintelligible. If a'discovery of the sense be made, that it is made ought rather to be ascribed to the sagacity of the reader, than to the elocution of the writer. This species of the unintelligible (which, by the way, differs not in kind, but in degree, from the obscurity already considered, being no other than that bad quality in the extreme) I shall exempl first in simple, and afterwards in complex sentences.
First in simple sentences : " I have observed,” says Sir Richard Steele, who, though a man of sense and genius, was a great master in this style, "that the superiority among these," he is speaking of some coffee-house politicians, “ proceeds from an opinion of gallantry and fashion*.” This sentence considered in itself, evidently conveys no meaning. First, it is not said, whose opinion, their own, or that of others; secondly, it is not said what opinion, or of what sort, favourable or unfavourable, true or false, but in general an opinion of gallantry and fashion, which contains no definite expression of any meaning. With the joint assistance of the context, reflection and conjecture, we shall perhaps conclude, that the author intended to say, “ that the rank among these
politicians, was determined by the opinion generally
entertained of the rank in point of gallantry and fa"shion that each of them had attained.” But no part of this is expressed. Another specimen : “ And as to a “ well-taught mind, when you've said an haughty and
proud man, you have spoke a narrow conception, little “spirit, and despicable carriaget.” Here too it is posible to guess the intention of the author, but not to explain the import of the expression.
Take the two following examples of complex sentences from the same hand : “I must confess we live in an
age wherein a few empty blusterers carry away the “ praise of speaking, while a crowd of fellows overstocked “ with knowledge are run down by them : I say, over“ stocked, because they certainly are so, as to their ser* vice of mankind, if from their very store they raise to " themselves ideas of respect and greatness of the occa“ sion, and I know not what, to disable themselves from “ explaining their thoughts *.” The other example is, “ The serene aspect of these writers, joined with the
great encouragement I observe is given to another, or, “ what is indeed to be suspected, in which he indulges “ himself, confirmed me in the notion I have of the pre“ valence of ambition this way t." But, leaving this, which is indeed the dullest species of the unintelligible, I proceed to the second class, that which arises from an affectation of excellence.
Part II.- From affectation of excellence.
In this there is always something figurative; but the figures are remote, and things heterogeneous are combined. I shall exemplify this sort also, first in a few more simple sentences, and then in such as are more complex. Of the former, take the following instances :
" This temper of the soul,” says the Guardian, speaking of meekness and humility,“ keeps our understanding tight about
us.!" Whether the author had any meaning in this expression, or what it was, I shall not take upon me to determine; but hardly could any thing more incongruous in the way of metaphor, have been imagined. The understanding is made a girdle to our other mental faculties, for the fastening of which girdle, meekness and humility serve for a buckle. “ A man is not qualified “ for a butt, who has not a good deal of wit and vivaci" ty, even in the ridiculous side of his characters." It is
only the additional clause in the end that is here exceptionable. What a strange jumble! A man's wit and vivacity placed in the side of his character. Sometimes in a sentence sufficiently perspicuous, we shall find an unintelligible clause inserted, which, as it adds not to the sense, serves only to interrupt the reader, and darken the sentiment. Of this the following passage will serve for an example: “ ] seldom see a noble building, or any great
piece of magnificence and pomp, but I think how lit“ tle is all this to satisfy the ambition, or to fill up the “idea, of an immortal soul.*" Pray, what addition does the phrase to fill the idea make to the sense ; or what is the meaning of it? I shall subjoin, for the sake of variety, one poetical example from Dryden, who, speaking of the universal deluge, says,
Yet when that flood in its own depths was drown'd,
The first of these lines appears to me marvellously nonsensical. It informs us of a prodigy never heard of or conceived before, a drowned flood, nay, which is still more extraordinary, a flood that was so excessively deep, that after leaving nothing else to drown, it turned felo-dese and drowned itself. And, doubtless, if a flood can be in danger of drowning in itself, the deeper it is, the danger must be the greater. So far at least the author talks consequentially. His meaning expressed in plain language (for the line itself hath no meaning) was probably no more than this : “ When the waters of the deluge " had subsided."
I proceed to give examples of a still higher order, in sentences more complicated. These I shall produce from an author, who, though far from being deficient in acuteness, invention, or vivacity, is perhaps, in this species of composition, the most eminent of all that have written in the English language : “ If the savour of things lies “ cross to honesty, if the fancy be florid, and the ap
* Pope's thought's on various Subjects.