HAVING considered the principles of oratorical composition in respect to the construction of sentences, by analyzing the nature and character of their constituent parts, it will now be proper to close this part of my subject with remarks relative to the character of those sentences themselves, as entire bodies. The order, the juncture, and the number, of which I have treated in my last lectures, all refer to the position of letters, syllables, and words, in the body of a sentence. We have been inquiring how words should be put together for the formation of sentences. We are now to analyze the sentences into their component parts; not of words and syllables, but of members and divisions of thought.
The purpose of language is the conveyance of thought; and thought can be conveyed from one mind to another, through the medium of speech, only by means of propositions. These propositions must of necessity be compounded of two things, a subject and a predicate. In the simplest possible form there must be the agent and the action; which, as I have before remarked to you, are the noun and the verb. The noun and the verb are sometimes included in a single word; but this is among the conventional arrangements of language, and differs essentially in different tongues. The inflections of the verb in Greek and Latin were applied partly to this purpose. Thus in Latin lego, I read, includes a complete proposition in a single word; because of the terminating letter o the custom of the language designates myself, as the agent, concerning whom the action is predicated; change the termination to is, and the second person is indicated; to it, and the third person is implied. But if you say in English read, omitting the pronoun, which indicates the person, you likewise express a complete proposition, but of a different character. By the custom of our language, the person understood when the verb stands alone in the second; and the mood imperative. The pronoun understood without being expressed is indefinitely thou or ye. In the Latin language the impersonal ver5bs have also a noun understood. But in English it is exclusively confined to the imperative mood and the second person, or person spoken to. This indeed is of all others the case when it can be least necessary for the conveyance of thought to name distinctly the agent; he is sufficiently marked by the very act of speaking to him.
Every proposition, thus containing a subject and a predicate, constitutes, when communicated by the process of speech, what is called a sentence. A sentence may thus consist of a single word. And every proposition, consisting only of one subject and one predicate, is called a simple sentence. The attributes of the noun and the circumstances attending the verb may be added, and the sentence still remain simple. “Jehovah reigns” is a simple sentence consisting only of the noun and the verb. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” is still a simple sentence, consisting only of one nominative nou8n and one verb. But whenever a thought is compounded of more than one subject, concerning which the proposition is made, or of more than one verb predicated of it, the sentence in which it is worded becomes complex, and consists of two or more clauses, or members. The degrees and the modes of complexity, of which a portion of thought may be susceptible, and yet be included within the compass of a sentence, are various; and the principles of subdivision, adopted by the grammarians, are different from those of the rhetoricians.
The terms sentence and period are generally used as synonymous; and Dr. Johnson in his dictionary, after defining a period to be “a complete sentence from one full stop to another,” defines a sentence to be “a short paragraph; a period in writing.”
There is however another and a more limited sense, in which the word period is understood, when applied to oratorical composition. And it is the sense most appropriate to its meaning, as collected from its original derivation. The Greek word περιοδος means a circle or circumference; and the same sense appears in the corresponding Latin terms circuitus and ambitus. It is defined by Aristotle “a portion of speech, having within itself a beginning and an end; and of a length to be at once easily comprehended.” This definition will apply exactly to all simple sentences; but not to all those that are complex. A complex sentence may consist of several members, each of which contains within itself a distinct and complete sense. A rhetorical period, however complicated, keeps the meaning suspended until the whole sentence is completed. A complex, loose sentence may be compared to a mathematical triangle or square, enclosing a given space within three or four distinct lines, connected together by junction at particular points. A period is a like space, enclosed within one circumscribing line, which begins and ends within itself.
To illustrate this distinction by an example, let us take the first paragraph of Johnson’s preface to Shakspeare [sic].
“That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, | and that the honors due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, | is a complaint likely to be always continued by those, | who, being able to add nothing to truth, | hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox;” —
This is a complete period, consisting of five clauses, nearly equal in length, and accurately balanced; the subject being contained in the central clause, and the predicate divided in regular symmetry between the preceding and following members, and the meaning of the whole being suspended until the close. But the sentence does not close here. The stop is only a semi-colon, after which it proceeds — “or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, | and flatter themselves that the regard, which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time.” This last member is not strictly periodical, as it consists of three clauses, the last of which is distinct from the preceding parts, and in a great measure superfluous to the sense. The meaning would have been completed, had it stopped at the word refuses. The last clause is but a slight variation of the thought, and only serves to enliven the expression by the pointed antithesis between envy and time, which just before had been drawn between the present age and posterity. Considered merely upon the principles of grammatical construction, the whole sentence is a period; divided by one semi-colon, and eight commas. But it does not answer to Aristotle’s definition of a period; for it has not a beginning and an end within itself. It has a beginning, and three different points, which might equally serve as an end. And it is too long to be comprehended at a single glance. Rhetorically considered, it is a complex loose sentence, consisting of three members, the first of which only constitutes a period in itself.
The parts, of which a complex sentence or a period is composed, are of the same kind; and are denominated members or clauses. By the Greek writers they are called colons, and commas. The colon is a member, and the comma is a clause. In modern grammar these terms have been retained; but they are applied to punctuation, and not to composition. They designate the stops, within which the several parcels of a sentence are included, and not the parcels themselves. The milestone has usurped the name of the mile.
I have thought it necessary to point out with precision the difference between the complex loose sentence and the period, because they are often confounded together, although the principles of their composition materially vary from each other. They formed among the ancient writers two different kinds of style, which are formally discriminated by Aristotle, and which are still recognised [sic] by all the French critics. The style in loose sentences belongs to every species of prose composition. The periodical style is appropriated peculiarly to oratorical works; and is there adapted only to certain parts of discourse. The period may be compared to a consolidated union; the complex loose sentence to a confederation. The latter consists of several propositions, concurring to the composition of one principal thought; perhaps with no other cement, than contiguity of place, or a connecting particle. The former has all its members grappled together, so that they cannot suffer avulsion without ruin. In the loose sentence the several propositions concur only by community of effort. In the period there is not only community, but unity of effort to the same effect. It will hence appear why the construction of the period is so much more elaborate, than that of loose sentences. For the formation of these the mind is occupied only with one operation. It produces separately every proposition; and proceeds in succession from one to another. But to constitute the period the mind is at once' busied with various materials, and with the mechanism of their adjustment. There is a double labor of intellect; and the adaptation of the materials to each other requires time, perhaps more than the selection of the materials themselves.
The period is peculiarly adapted to the concentration of thought. And as it is the only species of complex sentence, which can possess the merit of absolute unity, it has all the energy, which naturally belongs to that quality. It was much better adapted to the construction of the ancient languages, than to ours; because the inflexions [sic] of their words permitted a much greater latitude of arrangement, and habituated them to the practice of closing the sentence with the verb, and thus of reserving the essential part of the meaning to the last. The extent of the period was regulated by the time, usually required for respiration. This was estimated at a number of words equivalent to four hexameter verses. The period might consist of two, three, or four members; and each member of two or more clauses. The length of a clause, or comma, was forbidden to exceed eight syllables; and that of a member, or colon, was to be confined within the bounds of one hexameter verse, which might be of seventeen. The perfect period could regularly consist of only of four members. But a sentence, containing a greater number, and formed by the same rules in other respects, was still called periodical.
As the composition of the period implies coolness and deliberation, it was held to be better adapted to demonstrative discourses, than to those of the deliberative and judicial classes. Its characteristics were gravity and solemnity. But from every part, which required vehemence or ardor of passion, it was rigorously excluded.
The period, says Quinctilian, is very graceful in the exordium of a great cause, to indicate fear and anxiety; to give an advantageous idea of the person, or of the subject in question; or to incline the judges to sentiments or compassion. It is also very proper for the common places, and for amplification. It is proper for commendation, but not for invective. It is also very suitable for the conclusion. But the true time for giving it in all its splendor and harmony is when the judge, fully informed of the facts, and already persuaded, begins to be delighted with the beauty of the discourse, and, in admiration of the speaker, yields, as to a sort of self-indulgence, to the pleasure of hearing him.
The perfect period, as I have shown, is more difficult in the construction of our language, than in those of Greece and Rome. So far is it indeed from being congenial to our habits of extemporaneous discourses at the bar, or in any popular assembly, that the mere appearance of it bas a tendency to counteract the purpose of a speaker, and never fails to be considered, as a proof of previous study and affectation. It is however in the highest degree adapted to that species of composition, which is so much more common since the invention of printing, than it could be in ancient times, which partakes of the character of deliberative oratory; but is written for the purpose not of being spoken, but of being read. Such are all those discourses upon political, moral, and religious topics, which appear in the periodical newspapers and pamphlets of modern times. Hence it is, that the periodical style has been successfully used in such cases even for invective; from which, as I have mentioned to you, among the ancients the period was expressly excluded.
Thus cicero for example begins almost all his orations with one or more periods. But the first oration against Catiline begins with a sentence in the simplest possible form. Why? Because the occasion, upon which it was spoken, was sudden and unexpected. Because it was a moment of great excitement, when it was impossible for the orator to be cool for a moment. It was the unparalleled impudence of Cataline’s appearance to take his seat in the senate at the very time, when he knew that his treasonable conspiracy had been fully detected by the consul. It was a time for the instantaneous flash of feeling, and not for the regular rotation of a period. But in the subsequent oration, the second against Catiline, delivered to the people immediately after the traitor had been driven by the first to leave the city, Cicero observes his ordinary practice, and begins with a formal period.
By the rule of eloquence, which is furnished by these two striking examples, examine the following introduction to a letter of Junius, addressed to the Duke of Grafton.
“If nature had given you an understanding, qualified to keep pace with the wishes and principles of your heart, she would have made you perhaps the most formidable minister, that ever was employed under a limited monarch, to accomplish the ruin of a free people. When neither the feelings of shame, the reproaches of conscience, nor the dread of punishment, form any bar to the designs of a minister, the people would have too much reason to lament their condition, if they did not find 'some resource in the weakness of his understanding. We owe it to the bounty of Providence, that the completest depravity of the heart is sometimes strangely united with a confusion of the mind, which counteracts the most favorite principles, and makes the same man treacherous without art, and a hypocrite without deceiving.”
Here are three periods in immediate succession; all constructed with great apparent labor, and with unquestionable skill. The material though is the same, three times repeated, with slight varieties of modification, and with studied adjustment of expression. It is, like the rest of the letter, a bitter personal invective without any specific charge. In the first sentence there is a distinction suggested between the understanding and the heart, which very often recurs in Junius, but which even here does not appear to have been very accurately settled in his mind. He speaks of an understanding, qualified to keep pace with the wishes and principles of a heart. Now the heart, when thus placed in opposition to the understanding, has wishes, but no principles. The heart is the seat of the affections, as the mind is that of the understanding. Principles are deductions of the rational facility, and not impulses of animal nature. Human conduct is generally the result of motives, proceeding from both there sources of action blended together; and hence in popular language it might not be incorrect to speak of the wishes of the mind, or of the principles of the heart. But where the essence of thought consists in the discrimination between the understanding and the heart, principles should be reserved, as appertaining exclusively to the reasoning, and not to the sensitive part of the composition.
The second sentence however indicates the distinction between the powers, which concur to operate upon the heart, and which in the mind of the writer might perhaps have dictated the previous distinction between wishes and principles, as applied to the heart. The feelings of shame, the reproaches of conscience, and the dread of punishment, are brought together, so as to form an ascending progression of thought, and a climax of expression. The respective influence of shame, of conscience, and of fear, as means of deterring a man from the execution of his designs, is obviously considered as holding a proportional weight, corresponding with the order, in which they are here ranged. Cavendum est ut crescat oratio, says Quinctilian; a rule observed in the sentence, I am now examining, with a degree of art, carried perhaps to excess. For the regular increase of the words keeps exact pace with that of the thought. The Greek and Roman poets and orators were used to these arts, and practised [sic] them in forming verses or sentences, which they termed ropalic, or club-formed. They consisted of words, beginning with a monosyllable, and then adding a syllable to every successive word, until the close of the line. Such is this verse of Homer.
Ω μακαρ ’Ατριοη, μοιρηγενες ολζιοδαιμων.
In prose composition the increment was applied to the last word in each clause of the sentence, as it is here in the ·climax of shame, conscience, and punishment. And this corresponding progression in the spirit of the sentiment, and in the mechanism of the period, serves to harmonize the whole at once to the ear and to the mind of the reader, even when he is not perhaps aware of the cause, from which his pleasure is derived.
The third of these periods generalises [sic] the observation, which in the first had been applied to the individual. It spreads into a philosophical reflection upon human nature; and to make this reflection interesting it is sharpened with two or three pointed antitheses. The depravity of the heart is contrasted with the confusion of the mind; a man is said to be treacherous without art; and a hypocrite without deceiving. There seems at the first glance a contradiction in the terms. It excites the reader’s curiosity; and he finds they were expressly chosen to illustrate the character, by which that contradiction is reconciled.
All this is no doubt very well written, and very elegant. But it is not the language of persuasion. It is not the style suitable for extemporaneous deliberation or judicial oratory. It would not procure a vote in a town-meeting. It would not convince the mind of a single juryman. In substance all these decorations of speech only deck out a meaning of the commonest and most vulgar ribaldry. A man, who should rise in a popular assembly and say to his opponent, sir, you are at once a villain and a fool, would express all that Junius has dilated into three periods; but he would not be likely to conciliate the good-will, or the docility of his audience. These periods would perhaps be heard with more complacency, but not with more effect. The hearer would say, this man, from what he says, appears to be in a towering passion; but he says it in such a quaint and conceited manner, that he must have been conning it all over before he came here. He has been counting syllables; he has been weighing words; he has been solving paradoxes; he has been finding out riddles; his indignation was all studied at home, and he comes here now to put it off upon us. I cannot believe him, for he does not believe himself.
I have made these remarks, and adduced these examples, to show the reason why among the ancient rhetoricians the period·was interdicted to the eloquence of invective, though it has been successfully applied to that purpose in modern times.
As the period has a beginning and end within itself it implies an inflexion [sic], or an ascending and a descending progress ; a rise and a fall. When these are equally divided, consisting of two rising and two falling clauses, placed in alternate opposition to each other, the period is in its highest perfection. The ancients called this a decussated period. Such for instance is the following, which has often been quoted from Cicero.
“If impudence could effect as much in courts of justice, as insolence sometimes does in the country, Caesina would now yield to the impudence of Ebutius, as he then yielded to his insolent assault.”
Such is the following passage from the first Olynthiac of Demosthenes.
‘Ο μεν γαρ οσω πλειονα υπερ την αξιαν πεποιηκε την αυτου, τοσουτω θαυμαστοτερος παρα πασι νομιζεται υμεις δε οσω χειρον η προσηκε κεχρησθε τοις πραγμασι τοσουτω πλειονα αιοχυνην ωφεληκατε.
ΟΛΥΝΘ. Α. ζ.
For whatever he has accomplished beyond expectation is thought by all the more worthy of admiration; and the more you have neglected your affairs, the greater is the shame you have incurred.
Such also among many others is the following paragraph from Junius to the Duke of Grafton.
“Sullen and severe without religion, profligate without gaiety, you live like Charles the second, without being an amiable companion; and, for aught I know, may die, as his father did, without the reputation of a martyr.”
But the four clauses of a period may be distributed in unequal portions. The ascent may terminate in one clause, and the descent may consist of three; as in the following from a speech of Burke.
“When we speak of commerce with our colonies, fiction lags after truth, invention is unfruitful, [a]nd imagination cold and barren.”
Or vice versâ the ascent may be of three clauses, and the descent completed in one; like the following from the same speech.
“Neither the perseverance of Holland, nor the activity of France, nor the dextrous and firm sagacity of English enterprise, ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent, to which it has been pushed by this recent people.”
In comparing the purposes, to which these two modes of constructing a period will be most applicable, it will be obvious, that the division in equal parts is best adapted to express contrast, and the unequal division best suited for accumulation. That the former is the period for antithesis, and the latter the period for climax.
Of climax and antithesis I propose to speak more at large hereafter. They are among the most splendid and ambitious ornaments of speech; and as such their characters will most properly be investigated under the next subordinate branch of elocution; which, in conformity to the terms heretofore adopted from the ancients, I have denominated dignity.