HAVING in my first lecture considered the origin and character of figurative language in general, it foundation upon the association of ideas, and upon the analogies between matter and spirit, between one material substance and another, and between sounds, it will now be proper to consider the rules of practice in composition, which naturally result from these principles.
The purpose of figurative speech is to address the eye through the medium of the imagination. The sight, as has been remarked by philosophical observers, is the most perfect and most delightful of all our senses. As an inlet of ideas to the mind, its capacities are greater than those of all the senses together. Hence it is that the faculty of the human soul, by which we are enabled to bring into the mind ideas of sensible objects, which are not present and accessible to any of the senses, is termed the imagination. Its powers are not limited to the sense of seeing. It will call up in obedience to our will ideas, which originated from the taste, the touch, the smell, or the hearing, as readily as those, which first entered at the eye. Yet as an image can be perceptible only to the sight, so the word imagination, in its primary sense, could have been applied only to such objects, as came within the cognizance of that sense; which, from its great superiority to the others, has for all the purposes of fancy been received as the representative of all the rest.
The powers of the imagination are not confined to the reminiscence of ideas, which have been admitted to the mind through the medium of the senses; they extend also to the combination of such ideas into forms different from any of the combinations of nature. It is the union of these two powers in the faculties of man, which opens a new creation to the mind. It is possessed in very different degrees by different persons; and more than any thing else constitutes the varieties of genius among mankind.
If the imagination and the eye thus predominate in storing the mind with ideas, they are equally essential to the art of communicating them by means of speech. For this purpose indeed the sense of hearing acquires an importance far beyond any, that it possesses for the mere acquisition of ideas. The ear is the sole receptacle of articulated speech; but it must be remembered, that the sense of hearing receives no direct ideas from the sounds of articulation. Speak to a man in a language, which he does not understand; his physical sense of hearing will receive the same impressions, as if he understood you; but his mind will receive none of the ideas you would convey. It is not then the ear, which receives your ideas. But certain ideas have, by convention between those who speak the same language, been agreed to be represented by certain articulate sounds. The eye and the imagination therefore must have performed their whole task in producing the idea, before you can resort to the instrument of speech for imparting it.
But in oratorical discourse it very seldom occurs, that you can employ the senses of your auditor, as means of communicating your idea. When it can indeed be done, it never fails to produce the most powerful effect. The artifices, which were employed to produce this effect by the orators of ancient times, have been mentioned in another part of this course; and the practice was carried often to an excess, which defeated its purpose by becoming ridiculous. At all times however it must have been impossible to exhibit any considerable proportion of the ideas, which the speaker intended to impart, directly to the senses of his auditory. The most immediate and necessary substitute them must be imagination; that faculty, which exhibits to the mind’s eye the forms of absent things. Hence the use of figurative speech. The object of the orator is to seize with accuracy those analogies, which exist in the nature of things; and to exhibit them in the colors, which imagination can throw upon them. But the combining power of the imagination must here be used with great discretion. And the first rule, which the orator of figures must impress upon his mind, is the rule of unity; that universal rule, which applies at least to every part of oratorical composition; to the whole compass of the most complicated discourse, as well as to every thought, of which it is combined.
This rule of unity, and the reason upon which it is founded, have been urged with the utmost possible force by Horace, at the very threshold of his art of poetry. “Suppose a painter,” says he, “should clap the head of a man upon the neck of a horse ; and, gathering from all quarters the limbs of various animals, should stick them over with variegated feathers; or join together the form of a beautiful woman and a disgusting fish; would you not laugh at the sight of such an object ? Precisely such is the book made up of parts, as incoherent as a sick man’s dreams.”
The original passage is familiar to you all; and it affords at the same time an excellent specimen of figurative language, and an admirable illustration of the role of unity. The precept of simplicity and consistency might be presented abstractedly to the understanding a thousand times, without making the impression of this image. Here you see the object; the motley compound of bird, beast, fish, and human kind. You need no process of reasoning to perceive its absurdity. You see, you laugh, and you adopt the poet’s conclusion, that a book, composed of materials thus dissimilar, is as ridiculous as the picture, which has been presented to your imagination.
The principle is peculiarly applicable to figurative language in general. Every image, under which a writer or speaker proposes to display thought, is a picture. It ought them above all things to be consistent with itself.
The critical, rhetorical, and poetical teachers of all ages have been so earnest in the recommendation of this rule, that one would imagine it must be observed with the utmost accuracy by all correct writers. It is however often violated by the most celebrated authors; and it is sometimes enjoined by critics in cases, where it ought not to prevail.
You have perceived from the observations of a preceding lecture, that a vast proportion, perhaps nine tenths of all languages were originally figurative. But that when figurative expressions have once obtained a general currency, and become familiar to common discourse, they loose their picturesque character, and assume a literal signification; just as gold and silver coins in great circulation loose the impression of the figure, stamped upon them, and retain only the value of the metal, of which they were composed. As this change from a figurative to a literal meaning is effectuated gradually and in process of time, there must always be a multitude of terms in a state of fluctuation between the figure and the letter, and partaking more or less of the nature of both.
It is the province of taste and of judgment to discriminate between·terms of these different kinds, and to apply the principles or figurative or of literal discourse to them according to their several acceptations. To those, which are purely figurative, the rule of unity applies in its most rigorous severity. In such cases the image cannot be perfect, unless it would endure the test of painting. For, as Quinctilian remarks, to begin with a tempest and finish with a fire, or an earthquake, is a most flagrant inconsistency.
But if a term, originally figurative, has by frequent circulation, by adoption from a different language, or by a modification of idea, which custom has sanctioned, lost its primitive image as a figure of speech, and acquired a literal signification generally understood and recognised [sic]; the role of picturesque unity no longer confines its powers, and it may freely form associations with similar derivatives from other figures, although such affinity would have been prohibited between them in their primary signification.
Between these two classes of words there is a third, which may sometimes be taken in a figurative and sometimes in a literal sense. To these the rules of consistent imagery applies with some latitude of relaxation. A correct writer, in combining them with other words, will always be mindful of their descent, and avoid connecting them with other terms utterly incompatible with their primitive meaning.
The distinction between these three classes of terms, and of the rule of unity, as applicable to them in their varieties, may perhaps best be illustrated by examining several passages from some of the most recent and most correct oratorical English writers.
1. Of the first class, purely figurative, examine the following sentences from Junius.
“If the discipline of the army be in any degree preserved, what thanks are due to a man, whose cares, notoriously confined to filling up vacancies, have degraded the office of commander in chief into a broker of commissions?”
Here are cares, which have degraded an office into a broker. Cares cannot with propriety be said to degrade; neither can an office be degraded into a broker. This sentence, had the author not given it a figurative turn, would have read thus; “what thanks are due to a man, who, by notoriously confining his cares to the filling up of vacancies, has degraded the office of commander in chief into that of a broker of commissions.”
Again, Junius to the Duke of Grafton. “But it seems you meant to be distinguished; and to a mind like yours there was no other road to fame, but by the destruction of a noble fabric, which you thought had been too long the admiration of mankind.”
This figure is exquisitely beautiful. The classical allusion to the incendiary, who, to immortalize his name, burnt the temple of Diana at Ephesus, is barely hinted to the recollection of the reader, and adds much to the elegance and energy of the image. But it wants unity. The destruction of a fabric is not a road. And if a road could be supposed to be opened by the destruction of fabric, still the word other would be superfluous. It gives a meaning contrary to that, which the writer intended. He meant to say, that to the Duke of Grafton’s mind there was no road to fame but by the destruction of a noble fabric. As the sentence stands it implies, that there was another road in the Duke’s mind; besides which there was no other, but by the destruction of the fabric. One more sentence from Junius, speaking of Horne.
“No, my lord,...it was the solitary, vindictive malice of a monk, brooding over the infirmities of his friend, until he thought they quickened into public life, and feasting with a rancorous rapture upon the sordid catalogue of distress.”
The first part of this sentence introduces us to the malice of a monk; in the second this malice is brooding like a dunghill fowl over a nest of infirmities; in the third it is feasting with rancorous rapture upon a catalogue.
Yet this is one of the most striking figures in that whole collection of letters. It would doubtless have been an easy thing to render it more correct; but I know not how it could be done without extracting some of its fire. Criticism is a frigid damper; and you can seldom lay hold of any slight incorrectness in any of these bold, original figures, without taking from it all its vital heat. Thus too Julius to Lord Camden.
“I turn with pleasure from the barren waste, in which no salutary plant takes root, no verdure quickens, to a character fertile, as I willingly believe, in every great and good qualification.”
The first part of this sentence is purely figurative; the second is a mixture of figurative and literal. He turns from a barren waste to a fertile character.
These passages have been taken from Junius, because he is one of the most correct writers in the language; and because he has been much and justly admired for the beauty of his figures. But it would not be quite fair to select inaccuracies from him alone. Let us then bring to the test one or two sentences of Dr. Johnson.
“If he, who considers himself as suspended over the abyss of eternal perdition only by the thread of his life, which must soon part by its own weakness, and which the wing of every minute may divide, can cast his eyes round him without shuddering with horror, or panting with security; what can he judge of himself, but that he is not yet awakened to sufficient conviction.”*
In this sentence the thread of life is divided by the wing of a minute. But a wing is not a proper instrument for dividing a thread.
The next passage I shall quote is less entitled to indulgence, because it is taken from the plan of his dictionary, a work professedly philological; and because it is itself a reprobation of irregular phraseology.
“Barbarous or impure words and expressions may be branded with some not of infamy, as they are carefully to be eradicated wherever they are found; and the occur too frequently even in the best of writers.”
Barbarous or impure words cannot indeed be treated with too much severity; but the rigor of their sentence must be limited by the powers of the judge. After being branded with a note of infamy as felons, they must undergo a metamorphosis before they can be eradicated as noxious weeds; and a second transformation before they can occur, that is, run out to meet you.
To brand and to eradicate, when applied in the treatment of words, are terms purely figurative; and as they present two images not only distinct, but altogether incompatible with each other, they ought not to have been coupled together in the same sentence. But I do not mean to include in the same censure the use of the term occur; for I consider that as belonging to the second of the classes of words, which I have enumerated; that is, of words which, though in origin figurative, have by the custom of the language acquired a literal meaning, which absolves them from the laws of imagery, to which in their primitive sense they would have been subjected. So that either a word, a felon, or a weed, may be said without impropriety to occur.
2. Of this second class of words every language is full. I shall give you therefore only two of three examples, from the same authors I have just quoted.
Junius in his letter to the king says, “in this error we see a capital violation of the most obvious rules of policy and prudence.”
The terms error and capital violation, are derived from words originally figurative. And, if the laws of figurative language were still binding upon them, they could not have been brought together in this sentence. An error was a wandering of the feet; a capital violation was a fracture of the head. Now, although a broken head may often follow, as a consequence from the wandering of the feet, it would be a strange confusion of perception, which would see the one in the other; especially as the error is predicated of one object, and the violation of another; the error being supposed to be committed by the king, and the violation to be suffered by the rules of policy.
But the words, error and capital violation, are here used without any regard to figure; neither the writer nor the reader thinks of looking at them as embodied images; they are received and understood as bearing a literal meaning; and in their association together there is neither error of expression, nor violation of rule. The same principle must be applied to the following paragraph from Johnson, in his tract entitled taxation to tyranny.
“The legislature of a colony (let not the comparison be too much disdained) is only the vestry of a larger parish, which may lay a cess on the inhabitants, and enforce the payment; but can extend no influence beyond its own district.”
The terms, which I would here call to your attention, are extend and influence; words originally figurative, and which as such could not have been coupled together in the relation, which they here hear to each other. To extend is to stretch out; influence is flowing in. Unless you discard entirely this figurative meaning, you see how absurd the connexion [sic] between them would be. But the writer is speaking of an abstracted operation of political power. There is a literal meaning annexed to his words, which none of his readers will mistake. He may therefore extend his influence freely, without needing a floodgate to be opened for its extension; and he may extend the influence of a legislature, without being bound to invest it with all the other properties of matter.
3. Let us come to the third class of expressions, which I have designated as fluctuating between the literal and the figurative sense; so that they may be occasionally amenable to the laws of picturesque composition, and occasionally released from their obligation.
“Every common dauber,” says Junius, “writes rascal and villain under his pictures; because the pictures themselves have neither character nor resemblance. But the works of a master require no index. His features and coloring are taken from nature.”
This paragraph is entirely figurative. Political writers are represented as painters, and their works as pictures. But the term index applies to their works as written compositions; and not to their works as paintings. An index is the table of contents to a book. But it also means a finger, pointing to its object. This is the sense, in which it is obviously used by Junius; and in this sense it is perfectly consistent with the remainder of the figure.
The same writer, addressing the Duke of Grafton, says, “for the present you may safely resume that style of insult and menace, which even a private gentleman cannot submit to hear without being contemptible.”
A style, in its primitive meaning, was the instrument used for writing. Figuratively it now means the character of written composition. In neither of these senses can a style be heard. Perhaps if the writer had said tone of insult, instead of style, the sentence would have been more perfect; for a tone can be heard. Yet, in the popular acceptation, style is naturally extended from the modification of written language to that of language spoken; and with this indulgence a style may obtain a hearing.
Dr. Johnson, in his life of Addison, makes the following remark on his character of Sir Roger de Coverley.
“The variable weather of the mind, the flying vapors of incipient madness, which from time to time cloud reason without eclipsing it, it requires so much nicety to exhibit, that Addison seems to have been deterred from prosecuting his own design.”
An eclipse is the disappearance of one heavenly body by the intervention of another. It has nothing to do with the variations of the weather; and never can be effected by the operation of vapors. In rigorous analysis here is a mixed metaphor, one part of which has reference to an atmospheric phenomenon, and the other to the motions of the planetary system. Yet who would have the hardihood to efface one stroke of the pencil in this beautiful image?
I have dwelt the more earnestly upon this distinction between the three classes of words and expressions, which may be termed the figurative, the literal and the intermediate, because it appears to me essential for adjusting the principles of composition and of criticism; and because inattention to it is one of the most abundant sources of erroneous judgment concerning works of taste.
I shall conclude this lecture with an example of false criticism in Dr. Johnson, originating in this same error, a misapplication of the rules, that govern literal language, to figurative speech.
In Gray’s bard he apostrophizes the tower of London in the following lines.
“Ye towers of Julius, London’s lasting shame,
By many a foul and midnight murder fed,
Revere his consort’s faith, his father’s fame,
And spare the meek usurper’s holy head.
Here, says Johnson with a sneer, we are told how “towers are fed.” In the literal sense it would certainly be absurd to speak of feeding a tower, But the personification of inanimate objects is one of the most unquestionable privileges of poetry; and Gray’s bard might personify the towers of London, as well as any other object. He does so. Once personified, all the attributes of living persons may be applied to them; and of those towers, the towers of London, where many a foul and midnight murder had been committed, there was strict propriety, as well as striking energy in saying, that with such murders they were fed.
The result then is, that literal and figurative language are governed by different laws; that the realm of imagination has a code of its own, differing materially from that of grammar, and which must not be confounded with it.
Perhaps the rules for the management of figures might all be comprehended under this universal principle of unity, which I have here endeavoured [sic] to explain. There are however some others, which, though subordinate, deserve a distinct consideration; which shall be given them in my next lecture.