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Sect. III. The unintelligible....Part II. From affectation of excellence.
derstanding 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 vivacity, even in the ridiculous side of his character †.” 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: " I seldom
see a noble building, or any great piece of magnifi"cence and pomp, but I think, how little is all this "to satisfy the ambition, or to fill the idea, of an im"mortal 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,
It left behind it false and slippery ground ‡.
* Guard. No. 1. + Spect. No. 47·
Pope's Thoughts on various subjects.
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-de-se 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 appetite high towards the subal"tern beauties and lower order of worldly symmetries “and proportions, the conduct will infallibly turn this "latter way *." This is that figure of speech which the French critics call galimatias, and the English comprehend under the general name bombast, and which may not improperly be defined the sublime of You have lofty images and high sounding
Characteristics, Vol. III. Misc. ii. Chap. 2.
words, but are always at a loss to find the sense. The meaning, where there is a meaning, cannot be said to be communicated and adorned by the words, but is rather buried under them. Of the same kind are the two following quotations from the same author: "Men "must acquire a very peculiar and strong habit of turning their eye inwards, in order to explore the "interior regions and recesses of the mind, the hollow "caverns of deep thought, the private seats of fancy, "and the wastes and wildernesses, as well as the more fruitful and cultivated tracks of this obscure cli"mate *." A most wonderful way of telling us, that it is difficult to trace the operations of the mind. This may serve to give some notion of the figure which the French Phebus, no offence to the Grecian, who is of a very different family, is capable of making in an English dress. His lordship proceeds, in his own inimitable manner, or rather in what follows hath outdone himself: "But what can one do? or how dis
The unintelligible....Part II. From affectation of excellence.
pense with these darker disquisitions, and moon-light "voyages, when we have to deal with a sort of moon"blind wits, who, though very acute and able in their kind, may be said to renounce day-light, and extinguish in a manner the bright visible outward world, by allowing us to know nothing beside what we can prove by strict and formal demonstration *." It must be owned, the condition of those wits is truly deplorable, for though very acute and able in their
* Characteristics, Vol. III. Misc. iv. Chap. 2.
kind, yet, being moon-blind, they cannot see by night, and having renounced day-light, they will not see by day so that, for any use they have of their eyes, they are no better than stone-blind. It is astonishing, too, that the reason for rendering a moon-light voyage indispensable, is, that we have moon-blind persons only for our company, the very reason which, to an ordinary understanding, would seem to render such a voyage improper. When one narrowly examines a piece of writing of this stamp, one finds one's self precisely in the situation of the fox in the fable, turning over, and considering the tragedian's mask *, and can hardly refrain from exclaiming in the same words :
How vast a head is here without a brain +.
PART III....From want of meaning.
I COME now to the last class of the unintelligible, which proceeds from a real want of meaning in the writer. Instances of this sort are even in the works of good authors, much more numerous than is commonly imagined. But how shall this defect be discovered? There are indeed cases, in which it is hardly discoverable; there are cases, on the contrary, in
* Persona tragica is commonly rendered so; but it was very different from what is called a mask with us. It was a case which covered the whole head, and had a face painted on it suitable to the character to be represented by it.
† O quanta species, inquit, ast cerebrum non habet!
The unintelligible....Part III From want of meaning.
which it may be easily discovered. There is one remarkable difference between this class of the unintelligible, and that which was first taken notice of, proceeding from confusion of thought, accompanied with intricacy of expression. When this is the cause of the difficulty, the reader will not fail, if he be attentive, to hesitate at certain intervals, and to retrace his progress, finding himself bewildered in the terms, and at a loss for the meaning. Then he will try to construe the sentence, and to ascertain the significations of the words. By these means, and by the help of the context, he will possibly come at last at what the author would have said. Whereas, in that species of the unintelligible which proceeds from a vacuity of thought, the reverse commonly happens. The sentence is generally simple in its structure, and the construction easy. When this is the case, provided words glaringly unsuitable are not combined, the reader proceeds without hesitation or doubt. He never suspects that he does not understand a sentence, the terms of which are familiar to him, and of which he perceives distinctly the grammatical order. But if he be by any means induced to think more closely on the subject, and to peruse the words a second time more attentively, it is probable that he will then begin to suspect them, and will at length discover, that they contain nothing, but either an identical proposition, which conveys no knowledge, or a proposition of that kind, of which one cannot so much as affirm, that it is either true or false. And this is justly allowed to · VOL. II. E