WE have finished our examination of those constituent parts of elocution, which have been called by the names of elegance and composition, from which we are to deduce our principles for the selection and arrangement of the words, which combine to the formation of oratorical discourse. We have now arrived at the third subdivision of this department, which has been called dignity; and which I have heretofore explained, as intending the decoration of discourse. It involves the consideration of all figurative language.
You have learnt from Mr. Locke, that all human ideas are ultimately derived from one of two sources; wither from objects perceptible to the senses, or from the reflections of our own minds upon such objects. It is equally clear that language, the purpose of which is to communicate our ideas, must be composed of words, first drawn from ideas of sensation. For, in order that the articulate sound, by which an idea could be conveyed, might be received in association with the same idea, connected with it in the mind of the speaker, there must necessarily be some material prototype, to which both speaker and hearer might alike resort, and which they should agree to represent by that sound. Of ideas of reflection no such prototype can exist. The operations of the mind therefore, when exhibited by means of speech, must be embodied into figure; and hence every word, representing such an operation, must have been originally figurative. Figures have sometimes been called modes of speech, differing from the common. But this, from what I have here observed, is not altogether correct. Nothing is more common than figurative language.
The symbols, the hieroglyphics, the allegories of antiquity, all furnish examples of the prevalence of figures in the primitive ages of the world. Among the savages of this continent the same figurative character is found in their modes of communicating thought, It is among the most unlettered classes of civilized society, that figurative discourse principally predominates. The disposition so generally observed in men of every trade and profession to apply the technical terms, with which they are most familiar, bears the same indication. They all use figuratively the words, with which they are acquainted, instead of the proper terms, of which they are ignorant. So that figurative speech, instead of being a departure from the ordinary mode, is the general practice, from which the words, rigorously confined to their proper sense, are rare exceptions. The use of figures must indeed have preceded metaphysical reasoning. They communicate ideas not by abstractions, but by images. They speak always to the senses, and only through them to the intellect. They give thought a shape. They are therefore the mother tongue, not only of reflection, but of the imagination and the passions.
The observation of Cicero, then, although in late times it has been contested, must be substantially true; that figures were in the first instance used from necessity, and afterwards were multiplied on account of their beauty. They were necessary to express every idea, which had no mould [sic] of matter to be shaped in. They were found beautiful, because they amused the imagination with unexpected visionary forms, in which that faculty chiefly delights. But it is one of the properties of figurative speech, that it loses its character by the multiplicity of its use; and words, originally figures, assume the character of proper terms by merely becoming familiar. The word spiritus, spirit, originally meant breath; a material though highly attenuated substance. It now means the soul; the portion of our nature, which we hold to be altogether distinct from matter.
The word figure, as I am now using it, is itself figurative. I its first and literal meaning it is defined by Johnson the form of any thing, as terminated by the outline. But what is the outline of thought, expressed by means of speech? Literally speaking the term figure, as applied to speech, is absurd. It is used metaphorically, by a supposed analogy between matter and language. Extension is a property common to all bodies; besides which every separate body has a figure, peculiar to itself. And so figures of speech, besides the common properties of being a conveyance for ideas, have each a separate modification peculiar to itself. Thus, if you were to say “Longinus was a critic of universal learning, united with a bold spirit, and poetical enthusiasm,” you would express certain thoughts in their simplest form. But when Pope says,
Thee, bold Longinus, all the nine inspire,
And bless their critic with a poet’s fire,
the same thought is expressed with a variety of figures. “Thee, bold Longinus,” is an apostrophe. The nine is doubly figurative; first an ellipsis, the nine for the muses, and secondly a personification, the muses for the faculties of the mind. THe remaining parts of the two lines form an allegory, in which all the muses are represented as inspiring Longinus, and blessing him with a poet’s fire; a metaphor, fire for genius.
Dr. Johnson at the word figure, as applied to rhetoric, gives the following definition and remarks.
Figure (in rhetoric), any mode of speaking, in which words are detorted [sic] from their literal and primitive sense. In strict acceptation the change of a word is a trope, and any affection of a sentence, a figure; but they are confounded even by the exactest [sic] writers.
But there is a distinction, noticed by all the rhetorical writers from the time of Aristotle, between figures of thought and figures of diction, which is altogether without the bounds of this definition. A figure of thought need not to detort [sic] the words from their literal sense. It is on the contrary expressly termed a figure, not depending at all upon the words, in which it is clothed. The words may all be changed, or translated into another language, without impairing the figure. Such are exclamations, interrogations, comparisons, and many others.
The figures of diction are divided into two classes, which Johnson’s definition considers as including the whole; that is, into tropes of a single word, and figures affecting the whole sentence, which the Greek rhetoricians call schemes; but of which we have not adopted the name, as we have of tropes. The term trope is derived from τροπος, a conversion; formed from the verb τροπα, to turn round; because the word used figuratively is turned round from its literal meaning. There are therefore as many tropes, as there are ways of diverting a word from the direct to the indirect signification.
In this sense every word in every language, excepting the primitive roots denoting material substances, is a trope. The author of the Diversions of Purley contends at least with great plausibility, that those subsidiary parts of speech, called articles, prepositions, and conjectures, are all abbreviations from words, which were originally verbs or nouns; and if so they are, as now used, all tropes.
I have heretofore remarked the almost invincible reluctance, which prevails among mankind, to the introduction of a new word; and have shown by some very striking examples their propensity to affix old words to new ideas. There is no part of the world, where this disposition more generally predominates, than on our own continent. Look over a map of the American hemisphere. You will see republics and kingdoms, states, counties, and towns, mountains, lakes, and rivers, in great multitudes, but scarcely a single new name. The great natural objects, mountains, lakes, and rivers, are known by the names, which they were found to bear among the aboriginal natives. But the whole new creation, which has arisen from the labors of man, has received names already familiar to those, by whom they were adopted, and significant of different objects.
In this enlarged sense perhaps nine tenths of the world in all languages consist of tropes. And the generality of mankind would be in the predicament of Sir Hudibras, of whom it is said, that he could not ope
His mouth, but out there flew a trope.
It is not however to all such terms, that the rules for figurative language can be extended. It would perhaps be impossible to draw the line between figurative and literal language with precision. But although the boundaries be not accurately defined, and although there may be numerous gradations between expressions strictly literal and unquestioned figures, the real distinction between them still exists; and the ancient and modern rhetoricians in this, as in every other part of the science, have multiplied divisions, subdivisions, and names, until they have made out a perfect army of figures. To enumerate them would be useless; for, if you had them all by heart, they would rather deserve to be unlearned, than retained in memory.
On the other hand the modern writers do not appear to have any settled notions of the boundaries between figurative and literal language. Dr. Blair for instance, after observing that some of the most admired and pathetic passages of the greatest ancient poets are expressed without any figure, and with the utmost simplicity, gives among others the following passage from Virgil,
Te, dulcis Conjux, te solo in littore secum,
Te veniente die, te decedente canebat,
as a sample of that tender and pathetic simplicity; while in truth there is scarcely a word in the two lines but is highly figurative. The first word, te, introduces an apostrophe, which is a figure. Dulcis, associated with Conjux, is a figure. Solo in littore secum, for solus in littore, is a figure beyond the proper walks of oratory. It is not only his solitude, but the solitude of the beach, which this figure imports. Veniente and decedente die are figures. The day neither comes nor goes. I question whether in all VIrgil two lines more figurative could have been selected. The prayer of Evander on parting with his son is another instance given of tender simplicity. It is nearly as figurative, as the lamentation of Orpheus in the above lines.
The effect of the extreme minuteness, which in ancient times discriminated and multiplied the names of figures, was to loosen the laws of composition. It avowedly sanctioned false grammar. Almost every violation of syntax was set down to the account of certain tropes; and Quinctilian expressly says, that there are as many ways of making a figure, as there are of committing solecism.
The effect of the uncertain boundary between figurative and literal language among moderns is to leave every philological inquirer at liberty to settle his own canons of criticism. The indulgence of the ancients legitimated every trespass. The rigor of the moderns banishes for the most trifling offence [sic] against logical analysis. You will find it necessary for the purposes of composition or of criticism to take a middle standard between the two; never to indulge a looseness of imagery, which would dissolve the texture of the sentiment; nor yet to bind down language by the chains of metaphysics, until you discover, that there never was and never will be a correct sentence, written or spoken in any human language.
The great foundation of figurative language rests on the association of idea. When a word has in the first instance been appropriated to any particular thing, and is afterwards turned or converted to the representation of some other thing, its new signification must arise from association with the old. This association must be sympathetic between the speaker and the hearer, That is, the hearer must at the moment, when the word is uttered, form the same association, which existed in the speaker’s mind at the moment of utterance; else he cannot understand the figure.
The most abundant of all the sources of figurative association is the analogy between matter and spirit. For as ideas of reflection can be communicated only by material images, nothing that relates to spiritual nature can be expressed but by figures. This is an idea so important in the philosophical consi9deration of figurative speech, that it deserves particular illustration; for which purpose let us recur tot he two most solemn and most important topics of spiritual existence, the Supreme Creator, and the immortality of the human soul.
An immaterial Deity was an idea entertained by the Hebrews alone of all the nations of antiquity. And in order to preserve them from the errors of others in this respect, one of the commandments of the decalogue expressly forbad them to make graven images for objects of worship. Yet in their holy books God is said to have made man in his own likeness. And in all the interpretations of Deity, with which their sacred history abounds, he is always represented, as operating by physical organs. This has been made, by some of the shallow cavaliers against religion, as argument to dispute the authenticity of the scriptures. It is absurd, say they, that the almighty and eternal Creator of the universe should see, and hear, and speak, and work, and rest from labor, like the mere clod of humanity. True; but to make the conception of immaterial energies intelligible to the capacities of man, they must be presented in images of sensation. To show how impossible it is for the human mind to escape from this thralldom of sense, examine how the philosophical poet, in his essay on man, has undertaken to exhibit the Deity.
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul;
That, chang’d through all, and yet in all the same;
Great in the earth, as in the ethereal frame;
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees;
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent;
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect in a hair, as heart;
As full, as perfect in vile man, that mourns,
As the rapt seraph, that adores and burns;
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.
POPE, ESSAY ON MAN, EP. 1
The meaning of these beautiful lines is that God is a Spirit, omnipotent, and every where present. And this is expressed partly by displaying him as the universal Agent, by which particular operations of nature are produced, and partly by marking the boundaries of material substance, and affirming that they are no boundaries to him. He warms in the sun; he glows in the stars; he breathes in our soul. To him no high, no low; every reference, affirmative or negative, is to properties of matter.
In St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, treating of the immortality of the soul, a doctrine which constitutes the peculiar glory of christianity, as that on an immaterial God did of the old testament dispensation, he supposes some man to ask the question, how are the dead raised up; and with what body do they come. After rebuking with pointed severity the propounder of this inquiry, he answers by pointing to the changes in the growth and the substance of material objects; seeds, the flesh of animals, and the celestial bodies. He contrasts the glories of the immortal soul, by negation of the infirmities incident to our earthly condition. And he concludes in a strain of sublimity, beyond all Greek, beyond all Roman fame.
“Now this I say, brethren, that fLesh and blood cannot inHerit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not alL sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory ?”
This whole passage abounds in figures of the highest and most passionate eloquence. But every one of the images it contains is material. Death and the grave are personified. Their powers are characterized by metaphors of striking analogy, .the sting of death, the victory of the grave. And the interrogations addressed to them, where is thy sting, where is thy victory, glow with that triumphant exultation, so justly due to that religion, which thus vanquishes the heaviest of all human calamities. The true christian shares in this honest triumph. He feels the consolation and joy of believing, that his mortal shall put on immortality, and his corruptible shall put on incorruption. That is, that he shall no longer be incident to the fatalities and infirmities of material nature. But his ideas are all negative. He has no distinct idea of what that condition will be. Not of flesh and blood; not mortal ; not corruptible; in one word, not material. The conception of what his positive state of existence will be is reserved for the time, when he shall be placed in it.
This eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
From this impossibility of expressing abstract ideas, otherwise than by means of images borrowed from the senses, we can account for that propensity, so universal among mankind, to clothe anew those abstractions, which in the progress of refinement have lost their perceptible materiality. Hence the relations between spiritual and material existence are so multiplied; and hence the faculty of discovering new relations of that sort forms perhaps the first characteristic od genius.
Another great class of associations arises from the analogies between one material substance and another. This is varied and modified by the numerous differences and resemblances between animate and inanimate objects.
The third principle source of association is that of sounds, which produces a mongrel brood of genuine and of spurious wit; which is necessarily superficial, because it comes from the immediate report of the senses; but which for that very reason is more easily remarked, and more universal in its impression, than either of the others.
Sometimes these three kinds of association are all united in the composition of a figure. For example, Virgil calls the two Scipios “duo fulmina belli,” two thunderbolts of war. Here is a striking analogy between the effects of their warlike talents and a natural phenomenon. The association is between physical and intellectual nature. But the poet did not intend that the whole analogy should be applied. The sudden, irresistible rapidity of destruction, effected by the thunderbolt, was the quality, which he meant to have compared with the military powers of his heroes. But the thunderbolt falls indiscriminately upon the head of friend or foe. The Scipios were thunderbolts only to the enemies of Rome.
When the Western empire was overrun by Attila, king of the Huns, the Romans called him the scourge of God.
Here are two analogies between moral and physical nature. A scourge is an instrument, used for the punishment of offenders. Hence, in calling the king of the Huns a scourge, they considered him as the instrument to punish their own crimes. But he was the scourge of God; of the Almighty Governor of the universe. The instrument then was terrible in proportion to the power of him, by whom it was employed. The scourge too is an odious weapon, implying the mastery of the being, by whom it is used, and the helpless inferiority of the sufferer under it. But in the two following lines from the Dunciad,
Jacob, the scourge of grammar, mark with awe;
Nor less revere him, blunderbuss of law;
the three kinds of association are united. Jacob is a scourge, like Attila; an odious instrument of punishment. But he is a scourge of grammar, operating only upon children; the weapon of petty punishment for petty transgression. Jacob the scourge is as ridiculous, as Attila the scourge is terrific.
But in the next line, to shower still more contempt upon Jacob, the association of sounds is introduced. Jacob was the blunderbuss of law. To understand the force of these associations we must know, that Jacob was one of the writers, who undertook to convince the public, that Pope was a fool, who could not write English, and had no poetical genius. Jacob had published a grammar, and a law dictionary in a large folio volume. To make him therefore the scourge of grammar is a ludicrous image, disgracing him by the nature of the weapon. But the blunderbuss of law brings in a new association, A blunderbuss is a kind of musket, made for firing at random; very heavy, and of little use. The application of the term itself was already severe, by force of this analogy. But there is a second sense, in which the word is used, signifying a blockhead. In this sense it is so mean and vulgar, that Pope could not have ventured nakedly to apply it. The apparent sense, in which the verse employs it, is figuratively for the fire-arm. And under the decoration of this figure the poet knew, that the imagination of the reader would of itself apply the other meaning as effectually, as if he had dared openly to express it.
Such then is the general doctrine of figurative language; which originated first from the necessity of communicating ideas of reflection by means of the images of sensation; founded upon a natural association of ideas, and upon the analogies between the properties of spirit, of matter, and of sounds; and afterwards greatly multiplied by the charm, which the discovery and display of these analogies possess over the minds of men. From these principles we are to deduce a few rules for our direction is the management of figures, and to consider more particularly some of the figures most frequently used by orators and poets. This however must be the occupation of another day.