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sometimes also to be met with in the poets. Witness the famous protestation of an heroic lover in one of Dryden's plays:
My wound is great, because it is so small,
The nonsence of which was properly exposed by an extemporary verse of the Duke of Buckingham, who, on hearing the line, exclaimed in the house,
It would be greater, were it none at all.
Hyperbole carried to extravagance, is much of a piece, and never fails to excite disgust, if not laughter, instead of admiration. Of this the famous laureat just now quoted, though indeed a very considerable genius, affords, among many other striking instances, that which follow:
place at least, done him no injustice. The whole passage in the French is as follows: "La Nature est ingrate d'elle-même, et qui "s'attacheroit à la copier simplement comme elle est et sans arti"fice, feroit toujours quelque chose de pauvre et d'un très petit
goût. Ce que vous nommez exagerations dans les couleurs, et "dans les lumieres, est une admirable industrie qui fait paroître "les objets peints plus véritables, s'il faut ainsi dire, que les vérį, "tables mêmes. C'est ainsi que les tableaux de Rubens sont plus "beaux que la Nature, laquelle semble n'être que la copie des 66 ouvrages de ce grand-homme." Recueil de divers ouvrages sur la peinture et le coloris. Par M. de Piles. Paris, 1755, p. 225. This is rather worse than the English. The qualifying phrase in the last sentence, we find, is the translator's, who seems out of sheer modesty to have brought it to cover nudities. His intention was good; but this is such a rag as cannot answer,
The unintelligible....Part III. From want of meaning,
That star, that at your birth shone out so bright;
Such vile fustian ought to be carefully avoided by every writer.
THUS I have illustrated, as far as examples can illustrate, some of the principal varieties to be remarked in unmeaning sentences or nonsense; the puerile, the unlearned, the profound, and the marvellous; together with those other classes of the unintelligible, arising either from confusion of thought, accompanied with intricacy of expression, or from an excessive aim at excellence in the style and manner,
So much for the explication of the first rhetorical quality of style, perspicuity, with the three ways of expressing one's self by which it may be injured; the obscure, the double meaning, and the unintelligible.
Dryden on the Restoration.
What is the Cause that Nonsense so often escapes being detected, both by the Writer and by the Reader?
SECT. I.....The nature and power of signs, both in speaking and in thinking.
BEFORE quitting the subject of perspicuity, it will not be amiss to inquire into the cause of this strange phenomenon; that even a man of discernment should write without meaning, and not be sensible that he hath no meaning; and that judicious people should read what hath been written in this way, and not discover the defect. Both are surprising, but the first
much more than the last. A certain remissness will at times seize the most attentive reader; whereas an author of discernment is supposed to have carefully digested all that he writes. It is reported of Lopez de Vega, a famous Spanish poet, that the Bishop of Beller, being in Spain, asked him to explain one of his sonnets, which he said he had often read, but never understood. Lopez took up the sonnet, and after reading it over and over several times, frankly acknowledged that he did not understand it himself; a discovery which the poet probably never made before.
Bur though the general fact hath been frequently observed, I do not find that any attempt hath been
The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.
yet made to account for it. Berkeley, indeed, in his Principles of Human Knowledge, hath suggested a theory concerning language, though not with this view, which, if well-founded, will go far to remove the principal difficulty: "It is a received opinion," says that author, "that language has no other end, "but the communicating our ideas, and that every significant name stands for an idea. This being so, "and it being withal certain, that names, which yet " are not thought altogether insignificant, do not always mark out particular conceivable ideas, it is straightway concluded, that they stand for abstract "notions. That there are many names in use amongst speculative men, which do not always suggest to "others determinate particular ideas, is what nobody "will deny. And a little attention will discover, "that it is not necessary (even in the strictest reasonings) significant names which stand for ideas, should, every time they are used, excite in the understanding, the ideas they are made to stand for. In reading and discoursing, names being for the most part used, as letters are in algebra, in which, though a particular quantity be marked by each letter, yet "to proceed right, it is not requisite, that in every step each letter suggest to your thoughts that par"ticular quantity it was appointed to stand for *.” The same principles have been adopted by the author of a Treatise of Human Nature, who, speaking of ab
Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.
stract ideas, has the following words: "I believe every one, who examines the situation of his mind in
reasoning, will agree with me, that we do not annex distinct and complete ideas to every term we "make use of, and that, in talking of government, church, negociation, conquest, we seldom spread out in our minds all the simple ideas of which these complex ones are composed. "Tis, however, ob"servable, that notwithstanding this imperfection,
we may avoid talking nonsense on these subjects, " and may perceive any repugnance among the ideas, as well as if we had a full comprehension of them. "Thus if, instead of saying, that in war the weaker "have always recourse to negociation, we should say, "that they have always recourse to conquest; the
custom which we have acquired of attributing cer"tain relations to ideas, still follows the words, and "makes us immediately perceive the absurdity of that
proposition *." Some excellent observations to the same purpose have also been made by the elegant Inquirer into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful +.
Now that the notions on this subject maintained by these ingenious writers, however strange they may appear on a superficial view, are well-founded, is at least presumable from this consideration; that if, agreeably to the common hypothesis, we could under
*Vol. I. Book i. Part i. Sect. 7.
+ Part V.