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obtained previously to every motion, is, I will take upon me to affirm, utterly inconceivable. Yet the whole of the paragraph from which this quotation is taken, hath such a speciousness in it, that it is a hundred to one, even a judicious reader will not, on the first perusal, be sensible of the defect.
4. The Marvellous.
THE last species of nonsense to be exemplified I shall denominate the marvellous. It is the characteristic of · this kind, that it astonishes and even confounds by the boldness of the affirmations, which always appear flatly to contradict the plainest dictates of common sense, and thus to involve a manifest absurdity. I know no sort of authors that so frequently abounds in this manner, as some artists, who have attempted to philosophise on the principles of their art. I shall give an example from the English translation of a French book †, as there is no example which I can remember at present in any book written originally in our own language: "Nature,” says this writer, "in "herself is unseemly, and he who copies her servilely, "and without artifice, will always produce something
poor, and of a mean taste. What is called load "in colours and lights, can only proceed from a
profound knowledge in the values of colours, and "from an admirable industry, which makes the
+ Dr Piles' Principles of Painting.
The unintelligible....Part III. From want of meaning.
painted objects appear more true, if I may say so, "than the real ones. In this sense it may be assert"ed, that in Rubens' pieces, Art is above Nature, "and Nature only a copy of that great master's "works." What a strange subversion, or inversion, if you will, of all the most obvious, and hitherto undisputed truths. Not satisfied with affirming the unseemliness of every production of Nature, whom this philosopher hath discovered to be an arrant bungler, and the immense superiority of human Art, whose humbler scholar dame Nature might be proud to be accounted, he riseth to asseverations, which shock all our notions, and utterly defy the powers of apprehension. Painting is found to be the original; or rather Rubens' pictures are the original, and Nature is the copy and indeed very consequentially, the former is represented as the standard by which the beauty and perfections of the latter are to be estimated. Nor do the qualifying phrases, if I may say so, and in this sense it may be asserted, make here the smallest odds. For as this sublime critic has nowhere hinted what sense it is which he denominates this sense, so I believe no reader will be able to conjecture, what the author might have said, and not absurdly said, to the same effect. The misfortune is, that when the expression is stript of the absurd meaning, there remains nothing but balderdash, a jumble of bold words without meaning *. Specimens of the same kind are
*Since writing the above observations, I have seen De Piles' original performance, and find that his translator hath, in this
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 véri"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.
BUT though the general fact hath been frequently observed, I do not find that any attempt hath been