IN returning to the pursuit of our inquiries concerning the science of rhetoric, after so long an interval as that, which has elapsed since I had last the pleasure of addressing you from this place, it may be necessary to remind you at what stage of our investigation we were arrested; as that must naturally be the goal, from which we are now to start anew.
The branch of the science, upon which we had just engaged, was elocution; involving all the principles, which should govern the choice, the arrangement, and the decoration of the words, in which a public discourse must be clothed.
Elocution, you will recollect, in the language of the ancient rhetoricians consists of elegance, composition, and dignity. My two last lectures were devoted to the purpose of explaining to you what was intended by the elegance of rhetorical elocution, and in pointing out the means, by which it may most effectually be obtained.
Having examined the general rules, upon which words are to be selected, the next object, which solicits our attention, is to ascertain how they are to be put together. The word composition is in Johnson’s dictionary explained by twelve different significations, neither of which is equivalent precisely to the sense, in which we are here to receive it. But we shall find its meaning determined with sufficient accuracy in its etymology. Composition is merely the act of putting together; and when words are the subject matter, in reference to which the term is applied, we readily perceive why the consideration of composition immediately succeeds that of elegance. When the words are chosen, they must be put together.
The collocation of words was deemed by the Greek and Roman rhetoricians among the most important parts of the science. One of the most accomplished critics of antiquity, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, has left a treatise upon the subject, equal in length to the whole three books of Aristotle’s rhetoric. Cicero has been equally minute in his attention to it, in respect to his own language; nor has it been disregarded by Quinctilian. In the rhetorical writings of modern times, it has also been so largely discussed, that I may be excused from dilating upon it so extensively, as might otherwise have been expected. It will be difficult to descend from the broad outline of general principals to any particulars of detail, without repetitions of rules and examples already familiar to your minds. But as we are now embracing the nicest and most volatile particles of discourse, I must refer you, for a full mastery of all their refinements and delicacies, to the precepts of grammar and philology, which you have been taught ever since language has been a part of your studies; and, for your improvement, to that practice and experience, by which alone the highest perfection of all arts can be acquired.
In the composition or putting together of words to constitute discourse of any kind, there are three things inviting attention, by the ancient rhetoricians denominated order, juncture, and number. To which must be added, in treating of oratorical discourse, that peculiar composition, and construction of sentences, which is known by the name of period. Of each of these I shall speak in turn; endeavouring [sic] as much as may be practicable to avoid encroachment upon the province of grammar, to which a great part of the observations I am to make must however necessarily belong.
We are first to consider the order, in which words are to be placed upon the principles of oratorical composition.
We can suppose a given number of ideas, however complex, to exist in the mind of a speaker at one and the same instant; but they can be communicated only by a series of words; and if these words should all be collected and equally ready to issue from his lips, still they cannot come out simultaneously, but must be uttered in succession. The question then occurs, upon what principle shall the rank of precedency [sic] be settled between them? In some systematic order they must be pronounced; for if they were spoken at random, without regard to their arrangement, they would constitute mere nonsense, and convey no idea whatsoever. Imagine the ideas and the articulate sounds, by which they are to be represented, to exist independent of the grammatical rules, introduced in the course of time among the people speaking any particular language, and the order of utterance would follow the gradation of excitement in the speaker’s mind; that is to say, he would pronounce first that word, which should constitute the most important part of his idea; and would proceed with the accessaries [sic] and collateral incidents according to their relative pressure upon his own imagination. This may be termed the natural order of speech. But as languages are formed, and the various relations and connexions [sic], existing between the words essential to an idea, are perceived and reduced to permanent regulation, the words are distributed into general classes, the parts of speech are invented; the concords are settled into syntax; and an order of composition arises, founded upon grammar.
When the necessities of articulate speech are provided for, the progress of civilization and refinement fixes the attention of mankind upon objects of speculation and of luxury. By the first they are led to form a comparative scale of importance between the several parts of speech, as forming the materials of the language; and in the construction of sentences to arrange words, not according to their relative weight in reference to the idea, but according to the importance of that class, to which every word respectively belongs. This may be termed the metaphysical order. By the second they become solicitous of combining gratification of the ear with the conveyance of thought; and harmony assumes a powerful authority to prescribe the collocation of words. There are thus four different foundations, upon which the order of composition rests in all the languages, with which we are acquainted. The natural, the grammatical, the metaphysical, and the musical order. These are variously combined in different languages. The natural order presents words in a succession, corresponding with the feelings of the speaker. The grammatical order exhibits them according to their bearing upon one another. The metaphysical order forms them by the file of abstract ideas. The musical order marshals them in the manner most agreeable to the hearer’s ear. In the Greek and Latin languages the construction is generally governed by the order of nature, with a constant and almost unlimited deference to the harmony of sounds. While in all the speeches of modern Europe the metaphysical and grammatical order steadily predominate; and every departure from them is called an inversion.
To explain objects so abstruse it is necessary to embody them into some example. Take the simplest possible combination of two Latin words to express the love of our country. According to the grammatical order their collocation must be amor patriae; because the first word is in the nominative case, and the other, being in the genitive case, is by a rule of syntax the second of two substantives. By the musical order their places must still be the same; because, by their transposition into patriae amor, the concurrence of the vowels, at the close of the first and at the commencement of the second, occasions a gasping hiatus extremely painful to a delicate ear. This however would be the arrangement required by the metaphysical order; the country being the cause, and the passion devoted to it the effect. But in the natural order, the words would be placed in either position, according as the passion or its object should be the emphatic word in the idea meant to be conveyed.
In every description of language, written or spoken, the order of the words is determined by one or more of these four principles. In every species of composition they must all have a certain portion of relative influence. But their proportions, as I have already remarked, are very different on the idioms of different languages; and I may now add, that they are also very different in the various modes of composition with materials of the same language. Their relative proportions constitute the most essential distinction in the discrimination of styles.
There are in the languages of all civilized nations three kinds of discourse, distinguished from each other by boundaries very clear, although, like all other boundaries, they are not always secure from reciprocal encroachment upon each other. The first is the discourse of ordinary conversation and business in common use and daily practice. The second is a formal and stately kind of discourse, employed on occasions of solemnity, and in the discussion of important objects. The third is the discourse of poetry. The stock words, belonging to any particular language, is alike open to the use of all discourse in either of these forms; the same ideas may be communicated by them all; but that, which forms the greatest diversity between them, is the arrangement of the words. The predominating principle of collocation differs in each of them. In the discourse of conversation or business the grammatical order is that, to which all the others are subordinate. In the discourse of form, if the subject be speculative, the metaphysical order will be first observed. But in all the walks of oratory the natural order will stand preeminent; while in the discourse of poetry the paramount principle of arrangement is harmony. These differences it would not be difficult to trace to the nature of the human character and of human society; a discussion, which the limits of my time, rather than of my subject, now forbid.
The division of language into what are called the parts of speech, and the roles of grammar resulting from it, like all other classifications, are in a great measure arbitrary. Aristotle reckoned only three parts of speech in the Greek language; nouns, verbs, and conjunctions. The modern Greek grammarians tell us there are nine. A mind, habituated to the practice of combination and abstraction, might find twenty parts of speech in the Greek or any other language. But wherever ideas are communicated by means of speech, the verb and the noun, the action·and the agent, must be the great and central parts, around which all the rest must revolve, and to which all others are subservient. In the metaphysical order then the noun is entitled to the first place in discourse, and the verb to the second. With this arrangement the grammatical construction of all languages substantially coincides. But in the formation of a sentence, more than one verb or noun may be necessary; and there are a great variety of relations, in which they may stand with regard to each other. These relations may be indicated either by inflections of the principal word itself, which gave rise to the declension of nouns, and the conjugation of verbs, or by subsidiary words, which originate the cumbrous tribe of articles, pronouns, adverbs, and prepositions. And here we remark a primary difference between the classical languages of Greece and Rome, and all the modern languages of Gothic descent. The relations, of which I am speaking, were by the former very generally expressed by the first of these two methods, the inflection of the principal word. By the latter they are almost universally signified in the second mode, by additional words. Hence that innumerab1e multitude of monosyllables, which in the shape of articles, pronouns, and prepositions, encumber the progress of thought in the modern tongues, destroy their harmony, and disqualify them for the utterance of deep sentiment or energetic feeling.
Take for an example the verb used in most of the Latin grammars, as the model of the first conjugation. The infinitive mood present tense is amare, a single word. How is it in English? To love; two words; and without that little insignificant particle to, not a transitive verb can be denoted in this mood and tense; nor indeed any tense of the infinitive mood, active or passive. Pass from the present to the past tense. In Latin you have amavisse, still a single word. In English you must use three, to have loved; and now you have, besides that eternal intruder to, a word, styling itself an auxiliary verb, by the name have, which will also insist upon burdening you with its assistance through almost all the moods and tenses of verb. Try the first person of the indicative mood, amo; it includes the noun and the verb in a single word. But in English you cannot do without the pronoun, and must say I love. In the passive verb amari, you have another auxiliary in English, to be loved; which has at least the advantage of being irregular, and therefore does not, like most of the other subsidiary words, torture the ear and understanding with a never ending repetition of the same dull sound in its continual attendance upon the verb.
Apply the same comparative analysis to the other important part or speech, the noun. The substantive in English must almost always be preceded by one of the articles, a or the. In Latin there is no article. If the relation, in which you employ the word, be any of the cases excepting that, which we call the nominative, it is denoted in Latin by a mere alteration of the word. In English you must call in the aid of prepositions of, to, by. with, from, &c. which, added to the article, give to the noun in most of its relations the same attendance, as that of the verb, two paltry monosyllables to intercept its appearance.
Observe now the necessary consequence of these differences in the construction of the two languages upon the order of the words, when a sentence is to be formed. In the Latin language the noun or the verb may be placed in the front of the sentence, whenever that station may be proper for it. In English they can scarcely ever take that place, however essential they may be to it.
To see how these different idioms operate upon the phraseology of the finest writers, compare the introductory words of the epic poets. The subject of Homer’s Iliad is the wrath of Achilles; and in announcing it his first word is μκνιν, wrath. That of his Odyssey is to celebrate the character and relate the adventures of Ulysses. His first word is ανδρα, the man. Virgil’s Aeneid, as has often been remarked, comprises subjects analogous to both those of Homer; warlike action, and personal celebration. His first words are, arma virumque; arms and the man. Milton’s subject was disobedience and fall of man. But he could not, like Homer and Virgil, announce it in the first word of his poem. His language stopped him at the threshold. His words are of man’s first disobedience. And thus a genius, at least equal to those boasts of Greece and Rome, was compelled by the clumsy fabric of his language to commence his imperishable work by a miserable monosyllable, a preposition.
I do not mean to say, that the noun or the verb must necessarily be the most emphatic word in every sentence. But, as the one or the other must contain the most important part of the idea in the great majority of cases, it is clear that a language, the idiom of which scarcely ever allows either of them to appear at the head of a sentence, must be infinitely inferior, in so far as regards the expression of sentiment or passion, to a language, which leaves every word unshackled, and free to assert the rank, which by its weight in the composition of the thought it is entitled to claim.
The different degrees of flexibility belonging to the two languages, with regard to the arrangement of words, may receive illustration be a parallel between two passages, the one from Livy, and the other from Cicero; where the words used are precisely the same; but their order is varied, manifestly because the emphatic word is in both cases placed in front, though not in both cases the same.
The first is in the account, which Mutius Scevola gives of himself upon being detected in the attempt to assassinate Porsenna, the ally of Tarquin; Romana sum civis. The idea, which Scevola, or rather the historian, who puts the words into his mouth, wishes most deeply to impress, is his character not as a citizen, but as a Roman.
The second is the exclamation of Gavius, when crucified by the orders of Verres in Sicily; civis Romanus sum. It was his privilege not as a Roman, but as a citizen, that was violated by the infamous execution, which he was suffering. In either of these passages, if the arrangement of the words were altered to that of the other, it would injure very materially the force of the expressions. Yet in English translation there could be only one form of words for both, and Gavius, as well as Scevola, must say, I am a Roman citizen.
In one of these passages we see that the substantive, and in the other the adjective is the introductory word. In the ordinary construction of Latin sentences the verb is reserved to the close; but in the following citation from Cicero’s oration for Roscius Amerinus the verb is the first, because it is the emphatic word. To estimate its importance in Cicero’s idea, we must recollect the circumstances of that cause. The prosecutors of Roscius had murdered his father. They had robbed him of his whole fortune; and, to crown the catalogue of infamy, they appeared in court to accuse him of patricide; of the very murder, which they had perpetrated themselves. The accusation was the extreme of atrocity, which Cicero wished to hold up to the execration of the judges; and it is the word, with which the sentence commences.
Accusant ii, quibus occidi patrem Sexti Roscii bono fuit; causam dicit is, cui non modo luctum mors patris attulit, verum etiam egestatem. Accusant ii, qui hunc ipsum jugulare summè cupierunt; causem dicit is, qui etiam ad hoc ipsum judicium cum praesidio venit, ne hic ibidem ante oculos vestros trucidetur. The accusation and defence [sic], with their respective circumstances, are contrasted with each other; and the keenness of this contrast arises in a great degree from this arrangement of the words.
There is no form of English translation, in which you can preserve in this sentence the energy, derived from the position of the verb. If you retain the verb and say, they accuse, who profited by the death of Roscius’ father, the pronoun they usurps the place in front, and you are even compelled to make it the emphatic word; for it is not only essential, as a part of the Latin verb accusant, but it is also the only representative you have for the Latin pronoun ii. If you change the verb into a substantive, and say the accusers are they, who profited by the murder of the father, the article still veils that all-important idea of accusation, and the whole construction of the sentence must be changed.
It is unnecessary to pursue this argument any further. Let it furnish us with an important principle, which shall illuminate the progress of our inquiry concerning the order of English oratorical composition. The maxim that the word, which bears the most important portion of the idea contained in the sentence, should be stationed at its head, so easily practised [sic] in Latin, in subject in English to such numerous and insuperable obstacles, that it cannot even be prescribed as a general rule. But so great is its efficacy in imparting animation and energy to the thought, that, whenever ardent sentiment is to be uttered, the speaker will find nothing more instrumental to the purpose, than its employment.
Several of the most eminent English writers at the close of the seventeenth century attempted to approximate the construction of their language to the idiom of the Greek and Latin; and the same attempt, though under different shapes, has been renewed by later writers within our own memory. But in language, as in all other things the use of which is universal, reason seldom controls, and must generally submit to the authority of usage. Languages are formed by a succession of casualties, rather than by any system of philosophical arrangement. Each of them is remarkable for some traits of character peculiar to itself; and no human genius or exertion can entirely transmit to one the features of another. The same experiment, at a still earlier period, was made upon the French language; and as the violence was greater for assimilating that to the Greek and Latin, than in reducing English to the same standard, so the failure was more complete; and Ronsard, the writer of France, who in French spoke Greek and Latin, is now scarcely remembered but by the ridicule of Boileau; while Milton, who strained the English tongue to the same bent, still continues the delight and glory of his nation.
From his familiarity with the classic languages, Milton discovered the power of this principle to govern the composition of sentences; and there is no other writer in the language, from whom so many examples may be drawn of forceful expression, effected by the appearance of the most emphatic word in the front. Hence it is, that the style of his prose has so generally been noted, and sometimes so ignorantly censured, for the frequency of its inversions. But in his poetry, and especially that poem which warrants his proudest pretensions to immortal fame, he has enjoyed and exercised a much freer latitude in the application of the principle, than he could venture to assume in prose. Not only because the latitude of inversion in all languages is much greater for poetry than for prose, but because by the introduction of blank verse, as the measure of his poem, he acquired a new instrument for the position of emphatic words in front. He not only has enabled to invigorate his thoughts by exhibiting occasionally the strong word at the head of the sentence; but he multiplied the use of this artifice, by presenting it in the front of the line, where its effect is equally striking, and where he could more frequently and more easily sweep away from before his frontispiece the rubbish of articles, auxiliaries, pronouns, and prepositions.
Thus then, by combining in your consideration the genius of your language with the natural order of utterance for the expression of feeling, and with the particular thought you are desirous of expressing, you may form an excellent general rule, which will direct you how to settle the arrangement of every sentence. If you address only the understanding of your hearer, if the process you are performing be directed only to his judgment, if the recipient mind be cool, and unwilling to be roused from his tranquility, the regular, grammatical arrangement of the words should be steadily observed. Inversions to express ideas of this character would be as incongruous, as it would be to use apostrophe, interrogation, or any other figure of ardent passion, to demonstrate proposition in Euclid. But are you speaking to the heart? Are you grappling with the feelings of your auditor? Would you seize the strongest holds of his affections. and with the hand of a master guide him by the uncontrollable compulsion of his own will? Invert the order of your sentences. Give to your phrase the arrangement of nature. First utter that, which you first feel; and the conspicuous word will derive energy from its location, in proportion to the wideness of its departure from that usual order, which you have habituated your hearer to expect in the coolness of your discourses to his reason.
The genius of the English language itself appears not altogether insensible to the principles, which I have here explained. For although its construction, as I have shown, generally precludes the possibility of placing the noun or the verb in the front of the sentence; yet for the special purpose of command, of interrogation, and of examination, it has discarded from both these trifling and burdensome precursors, to which in other respects they are subjected. The imperative mood of the verb, and the vocative case of the noun substantive, are alone exempted from those diminutive attendants, and may be placed without obstacle at the head of a sentence. A question relating either to present or past time may also advance the verb to the first post. These are all forms of discourse, which generally imply a degree of excitement in the feelings of the speaker; and in these the modifications of our language afford him great facilities for communicating that excitement to his hearers.
, Thus much has been said upon the grounds of election for the first word in the sentence. The next word in point of importance, as respects the effect of arrangement, is the last. The same analogies apply to the practice of all the arts. The arguments of an oration, the words of a sentence, and the force of an army, should all be marshaled on one and the same principle. The stations of honor and distinction are the first and the last.
The whole structure of the sentence must in a considerable degree be regulated with reference to these two words. The inversion sometimes reverses the whole order of the sentence, and sometimes occasions a necessary change of only two or three words. The Latin construction, as I have before observed, delights in closing the sentence with the verb; a modification well adapted to engage the attention of the hearer, by suspending to the last moment the action, generally the essence of the thought.
The internal arrangement of words, between the commencement and the close, must be governed by the rules of grammar, by the principles of perspicuity, and by the instinct of the ear. The concords of the substantive and adjective, not being marked, as in the classic languages, by similar terminations, must generally be denoted by the juxtaposition of the words. The minor parts of speech must discover by their proximity the noun or verb, to which they belong; and the varieties of their position may be selected for the purpose of giving either precision to the sense or harmony to the sound.
To the harmony of sound we must also recur for the directions necessary or proper concerning those parts of composition, termed juncture and number; the consideration of which will be resumed at a future day.