Billeder på siden

We thankfully acknowledge, however, that during this period there was at least one author by whom pure and nervous English was written with rare felicity. The poems and prose of Dryden anticipate the improvements in the language which were not generally achieved till the age of Addison. His plays — utterly unworthy of his genius are disfigured by all the usual vulgarisms of the times.


At the commencement of the following century, those changes of construction and style which commenced with the Revolution were completed. elements of the language were in fact just what they are still, both in form and construction; we exclude, of course, such additions as the mere increase of knowledge has necessitated. New thoughts will necessarily require new terms. Meanwhile the periodic structure had disappeared at the same time that the vocabulary was adjusting itself. In this second fermentation, the language worked itself clear from all the feculence which had hitherto clouded it, — till at length, fully refined and clarified, it flowed transparent as crystal from the pen of the elegant Addison.

During the next generation the vocabulary of the English language fluctuated but little. An affectation, it is true, of French idiom and phraseology was manifested by several authors from time to time, and is conspicuous enough in Bolingbroke. Of this fashion Johnson and Campbell both subsequently complained. Its principal cause was the extensive influence of French literature, then in its glory, and which was translated wholesale. It was not uncommon to hear these innovations justified by the assertion that the French was much the finer language of the two, and that the introduction of words and idioms from it was but enriching our own. Camp

bell has well met this argument in the following paragraph:

'But the patrons of this practice will probably plead, that as the French is the finer language, ours must certainly be improved by the mixture. Into the truth of the hypothesis from which they argue, I shall not now inquire. It sufficeth for my present purpose to observe, that the consequence is not logical, though the plea were just. A liquor produced by the mixture of two liquors, of different qualities, will often prove worse than either.* The Greek is doubtless a language much superior in riches, harmony, and variety to the Latin; yet, by an affectation in the Romans of Greek words and idioms (like the passion of the English for whatever is imported from France), as much perhaps as by any thing, the Latin was not only vitiated, but lost almost entirely in a few centuries that beauty and majesty which we find in the writers of the Augustan age. On the contrary, nothing contributed more to the preservation of the Greek tongue in its native purity, for such an amazing number of centuries, unexampled in the history of any other language, than the contempt they had for this practice. It was in consequence of this contempt that they were the first who branded a foreign term in any of their writers,

* Ascham had anticipated the same argument and the same answer, expressed with a pleasant homeliness. 'Once I communed with a man which reasoned the English tongue to be increased and enriched thereby, -saying, who will not praise that feast where a man shall drink at a dinner both wine, ale, and beer? Truly, quoth I, they be all good, every one taken by himself alone; but if you put malmsey and sack, red wine and white, ale and beer, and all into one pot, you shall make a drink neither easy to be known, nor yet wholesome for the body.'

with the odious name of barbarism.' And Johnson, a little before the appearance of Campbell's work, had alluded to the same tendency, fostered by the extensive translations from the French. His opinion, recorded at the close of the Preface to his Dictionary, is as follows:-'If an academy should be established for the cultivation of our style, which I, who can never wish to see dependence multiplied, hope the spirit of English liberty will hinder or destroy, let them, instead of compiling grammars and dictionaries, endeavour with all their influence to stop the licence of translators, whose idleness and ignorance, if it be suffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of France.'

The last considerable fluctuation in literary diction. was produced by the great critic and censor himself, -whose theory, as it often happens, was more perfect than his practice. Johnson is sometimes unjustly represented as having introduced into the language many new words of Latin lineage. In truth, however, he is rarely, if ever, chargeable with coining derivatives absolutely new. Almost every word he employs was already in the language, and had been used by the writers of the first half of the seventeenth century; they had simply been disused for a time, or had been rarely used. Words of this latter class Johnson used more freely, and in larger proportion to the vernacular stock than any other modern writer. It was Johnson's familiarity with certain authors, as Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Burton, which supplied him with his Latinisms. In brief, if Johnson rendered turbid the pure 'well of English,' it was not by pouring in a foreign admixture, but by stirring up the sediment which had sunk, or was sinking to the bottom. Of his Latinisms, those in his well-known

definition of net-work may be taken as a specimen ; they were not new; but what a heap of them in the same sentence! 'Any thing reticulated or decussated, with interstices at equal distances between the intersections.'

[ocr errors]

It is not easy for those who have not minutely inspected the literature of Johnson's time,-especially its second-rate productions, to conceive to what an extent Johnson's style was imitated by his admirers. His genius and long undisputed literary reign would indeed have secured for him a train of apes, even had his style been difficult of imitation; unhappily, it was imitated with the greatest ease, and its chief faults most easily of all. They fell in with the universal tendencies of all young writers. As regards diction, for example, young writers have uniformly a strong appetite for the ornate and sonorous; for fine words' as they are usually called. They think that terms of foreign or learned origin give to their compositions greater dignity; forgetting that frigid stateliness is but a poor exchange for idiomatic strength and simplicity; and that if the coveted terms are more sonorous, they are less vivid. Even when they are fully understood, they are feebler, because they are not those long-established symbols, the very utterance of which summons up the whole band of appropriate associations. Between sounding Latinisms and homely idiomatic Saxon, there is all the difference as to power of awakening association that there is between a gong and a peal of village bells. Similar remarks apply to that profuse use of antithesis which was another of Johnson's faults. Contrast, in which antithesis originates, and in which its power consists, heightens effect, and therefore the young writer thinks he cannot employ it too frequently; not aware as yet

that a figure which is constantly employed not only loses its effect, but wearies by its repetition. But, what is worse, the love of antithesis is apt to mislead ordinary writers, as it did, indeed, Johnson himself, into an antithesis of words, where there is little or none in the ideas. Yet extensive as the imitation of Johnson was, it could not last long. The rage of imitation is always a violent, but transient, epidemic. Sir James Mackintosh, however, (no incompetent judge,) had so strong a sense of the pernicious influence of Johnson's style on our language generally, that so late as 1831 he declared that 'from the corruptions introduced by Dr. Johnson, English style was only then recovering.' Other critics, besides Dr. Parr, would probably think this an exaggeration. True genius, even in Johnson's time, witness Goldsmith and Burke, could not descend to imitate; and, long before 1831, Johnson's writings, though always and deservedly popular, had ceased to exercise any appreciable influence on mere style.

One of the most extravagant caricatures of the imitations of Dr. Johnson's style we ever recollect to have seen was a new model of a translation of the 23rd Psalm. Two of the verses, if we remember rightly, ran thus, 'Deity is my pastor, I shall not be indigent. Thou anointest my locks with odoriferous unguents -my chalice exuberates.' And perhaps the absurdity of such grandiloquence is best seen by thus trying its effect on a composition of exquisite simplicity. We recommend all who aspire to this species of style to study the peroration of Sir Thomas Urquhart's Jewel: 'I could have introduced, in case of obscurity (!), synonymal, exargastic, and palilogetic elucidations; for sweetness of phrase, antimetathetic commutations of epithets; for the vehement excitation

« ForrigeFortsæt »