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page," said Coleridge, pointing to one of them; "you cannot alter one conjunction without spoiling the sense. It is a linked strain throughout. In your modern books, for the most part, the sentences in a page have the same connection with each other that marbles have in a bag: they touch without adhering."* Junius, waging his fierce, factious war, fought with these short, pointed sentences, piercing his foes with them; and it has been said that nothing but Horne Tooke and a long sentence were an overmatch for him; and in our day, Macaulay, waging his larger and more indiscriminate war, deals so exclusively with the same fashion of speech, that if you undertake to read his history aloud your voice will crave a good old-fashioned, long sentence, as much as your heart may crave more of the repose and moderation of a deeper philosophy of history. This fashion of short sentences is mischievous, not only as a temptation to an indolent habit of reading, (for it asks a much less sustained attention,) but it is fatal to the fine rhythm which English prose is capable of. As I cannot pause to consider especially the nature of our prose rhythm, I will give what
*Coleridge's Table Talk, vol. ii. p. 185.
If I were asked
One of the grandest long sentences in our modern English is the opening passage of Mr. Brougham's speech in defence of Queen Caroline. It extends through twenty-seven lines. to select a sentence of perfect English formation, I should take the following from Miss Sewell's History of Greece.
mind like music:
It dwells in my
"There is little now to be seen in the plains of Olympia but a few ruins of brick. The mountains stand as they did in the old times, and trees flourish upon them year after year, and the rivers flow in the same track; but all the great buildings and statues have crumbled to dust, and the valley is silent and deserted." W. B. R.
is better, a sentence from the pen of a living divine, which is an example of true prose rhythm, and all pure English words:
"The land that is very far off—it can be no other than the heavenly country, for love of which God's elect have lived as strangers in the earth-a land far away, over a long path of many years, up weary mountains, and through deep broken ways, full of perils and of pit-falls; through sicknesses and weariness, sorrows and burdens, and the valley of the shadow; world-worn and foot-sore, they have been faring forth, one by one, since the world began, 'going and weeping.'"*
There is no appearance of art in this sentence; but the highest art could not more truly make choice and combination of its words.
I must hasten to the powers of the language in verse; and, in the first place, let me say that it is a happy trait in our literature that it has no peculiar poetic diction. Words that are used in good prose are not excluded from poetry, and words which the poets employ belong also to our prose uses of speech and writing; and hence the poets are the better enabled to exert a perpetual influence in the fulfilment of their high function of conservators of the purity of the language. Our prosody, taking accent rather than quantity for its principle, seldom if ever, disqualifies words on account of their sound, whereas in the Latin, as has been ascertained, one word out of every eight is excluded from its chief metres by the rules of its prosody. An analysis of a passage from Cicero, the elevated prose of the language, for this purpose, has proved
Manning's Sermons, vol. iii. p. 432.
that, in fifty lines, thirty words are impossible words for the most usual forms of Latin verse.
The study of English poetry, being in closer affinity with the prose, admits of an important use in the formation of a good prose style. A mind as earnestly practical as Dr. Franklin's observed this, and he recommended the study of poetry and the writing of verse for this very purpose it was one of the sources of his own excellent English. It is a species of early training for prosewriting which he recommended, having recognised it in his own case as having given a genuine copiousness and command of language. This certainly is worth reflection, too, that all the great English poets, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Milton, Dryden, Cowper, Byron, Southey, and Wordsworth, have displayed high power as prose-writers.
It is sometimes supposed that the laws of metrical language must, of necessity, produce a style more or less artificial, and therefore alien from prose uses; but the very opposite is the fact. The true poet is always a true artist, and words are the instruments of his art. The laws of metre are no bondage to him, but genial self-control; he asks less license of language than any one, and the constraint of rhyme will often increase and not lessen the precision and clearness of expression. It is, in truth, one of the cases which prove the great moral truth, that willing obedience gains for itself unwonted power: submitting to the control of his art, bowing to its laws with happy loyalty, the poet's reward is the endowment of an ampler command of expression and of the music of the language. Verse and metre are wings, and not fetters, to the true poet.
Observe the matchless English everywhere in Shakspeare-how free it is with all the art that is to be discovered in it; how true it is, and full of beautiful and almost familiar simplicity! If, in the recollection of any passage, a word shall escape your memory, you may hunt through the thirty-eight thousand words in the language, and no word shall fit the vacant place but the one that the poet put there. Take that exquisite lament of the banished Norfolk over his native English: the words are all simple, homely words, such as anybody might use, (for Shakspeare never made his language "too bright a good for human nature's daily food.") Notice, too, if you can do so without impairing the general effect, that there are in the passage no fewer than eight alliterations:
"A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege,
And all unlook'd for from your highness' mouth;
As to be cast forth in the common air,
Have I deserved at your highness' hand.
The language I have learn'd these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
And now my tongue's use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp;
Or like a cunning instrument cas'd up,
Or, being open, put into his hands,
That knows no touch to tune the harmony.
I am too old to fawn upon a nurse,
Too far in years to be a pupil now."
Or turn to those beautiful sentences in Coriolanus, where the Roman hero, returning with wounds and victory, is met by his exulting mother and his silent, weeping wife :
"My gracious silence, hail!
Would'st thou have laugh'd, had I come coffin'd home,
Such eyes the widows in Corioli wear,
And mothers that lack sons."
Or, to take what is not so much used by Shakspeare, the rhymed poetry in Love's Labour Lost:
"These earthly godfathers of heaven's lights,
Than those that walk, and wot not what they are."
How true is it what Coleridge said, "that you might as well think of pushing a brick out of a wall with your forefinger, as attempt to remove a word out of any of the finished passages of Shakspeare."*
To show the wonderful power of expression that belongs to poetry, under even the most severe laws of verse, what mere prose-writer or reader would suppose it possible, within the narrow limit of fourteen lines, and with all the complex structure and redoubled rhymes of the sonnet, for a poet to speak of no fewer than seven of the illustrious poets of modern Europe, and to touch upon their characters and the story of their lives; and yet this has been achieved, apparently without effort-so natural is the flow of the language-in that well-known sonnet of Wordsworth, wherein he at once defends and illustrates that form of composition :—
"Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
*Table Talk, vol. ii., p. 211.