IN my last lecture I endeavoured [sic] to point out a line of discrimination between figurative and literal language, essentially necessary for fixing the rules of composition; and as a standard of judgment upon the compositions of others. In illustrating the rule of unity, the great and vital principle of figurative speech, I was naturally led to a comparative view of that and of literal language. In the communication of thought by articulate sounds these are so intermingled together, and yet are governed by systems of regulation so difFerent from each other, that their combinations and oppositions have often produced the effect of perplexing the writer, and entangling the critic.
This distinction I would again recommend to your observation and study. Literal speech, you will remember, is a direct representation of things to the memory and to the rational faculty. Figurative speech is an indirect representation of things to the senses and to the imagination. Literal speech therefore is combined upon principles of mere ratiocination; and the words, which stand for ideas, are put together by the rules of syntax. But figurative speech is subject in some sort to the dominion of the senses, and to the laws of matter.
Literal and figurative expressions are so blended together in the practice of speech, that the boundaries between them are imperceptible; like the colors of the rainbow, of which the dullest eye can perceive the varieties, while the keenest cannot catch the precise point, at which every separate tint is parted from its neighbouring [sic] hue. I have observed, that a great proportion of all human language consists of expressions originally figurative, but which from frequency of use have become literal; and I have urged, that to them the principles of figurative language can seldom be applied; that the abuse of such application to them is one of the great sources of erroneous criticism, and a principle cause why “ten censure wrong, for one who writes amiss.” I have particularly shown you by a variety of examples, that derivative words, adopted from foreign languages, can seldom be bound to the figurative analogies of their primary meaning. In this respect I have pleaded for a degree of indulgence perhaps greater, than most philological writers have hitherto been willing to allow. I plead for it however from the necessity of the case. That theory of human science must be false, to which no practice ever was or ever can be made to conform. THey, who insist that the figure of a primitive word must be retained through all the changes, which it undergoes in its intercourse with mankind, should remember, that even the modifications of matter disdain all such limitations. Shakspeare’s [sic] Hamlet traces the dust of Caesar and Alexander, until they stop the bunghole of a beer barrel. But he does not contend that the patch, which expels the winter’s flaw, is still to be admired a hero, or obeyed as the conqueror of the world.
The second rule for the management of figurative language is that of congruity. As the power of imagery results from the association of ideas, to make the communication clear and distinct, every heterogeneous mixture, presenting images and associations different from those intended to be imparted, ought carefully to be avoided.
1. The figure should be suited to the subject. A certain proportion of dignity or of familiarity, of magnificence or of simplicity, should be observed between the idea, proposed to be conveyed, and the image, by which it is presented. If the subject itself be great, it is degraded by figures, which carry with them accessories of meanness. If the subject be low, images of grandeur expose it to ridicule. This rule has not however always been observed by the greatest poets of antiquity. Virgil has been censured for comparing a queen, stimulated by a fury, to a top lashed about by a troop of boys; and many of the similes of Homer are liable to a similar objection.
This rule however does not always require that the image of itself should be precisely of the character of the subject. The same figure may be exhibited in colors, surrounded with circumstances, and clad in words, which will either raise or sink it to the level of the subject.
Thus, at the opening of the eleventh book of the Iliad, we have a figurative exhibition of the morning.
The saffron morn, with early blushes spread,
Now rose refulgent from Tithonius’ bed,
With new-born day to gladden mortal sight,
And gild the course of heaven with sacred light.
To a lover of nature, and of the pure enjoyments, which a beneficent Providence has lavished upon us, there is no portion of existence more replete with unadulterated pleasure, that the return of the morning. It is here represented by an allegorical personification; and by an image strictly consonant with the subject appears rising from bed. Every circumstance, introduced as attending on this action, is calculated to excite ideas of tenderness and pleasure, of beauty and devotion. The blushes of the morn, her refulgence, the new-born day, the gilding of heaven with sacred light, are all accessories congenial to the sensations of delight, which the principal object presents tot he imagination of the reader.
Let us now see how the same natural phenomenon, the return of morning, is exhibited in Butler’s Hudibras.
The sun had long since in the lap
Of Thetis taken out his nap;
And, like a lobster boil’d, the morn
From black to red began to turn.
Here, as in the passage from Homer, is an allegorical personage rising from sleep; and thus far the image is suited to the subject. But Hudibras is a burlesque poem; the excellence or which consists in the degradation of its pictures. His allegorical person therefore is the sun; whom he represents as having risen, not from bed, but from taking a nap in the lap of Thetis. The change in the face of heaven from darkness to day-light is compared to that of a boiled lobster, turning from black to red. One of the most enchanting objects in nature is thus accommodated to the meanness of the poet’s subject. The reader is indeed deprived of all those beauties of sentiment, which are communicated by the associations of the Grecian poet; but in their stead he finds the substitute of ridicule, and considers the incongruity between the natural object and the image,in which it is displayed, as reconciled by the nature of the poem.
In the Annus Mirabilis of Dryden, a work of which that poet boasted as his masterpiece, and for which he almost claimed the honors of an epic poem, there are two images, in two successive stanzas, which exemplify very strongly the observance and the breach of that congruity, which suits the imagery to the subject, They are in the description of a naval battle between the Dutch and English fleets.
In the first of these stanzas he says,
Sometimes from fighting squadrons of each fleet,
Deceiv’d themselves, or to preserve some friend
Two grappling Ætnas on the ocean meet,
And English fires with Belgian flames contend.
The image here is well suited to the subject. Two ships of war in the flames of battle, metaphorically represented as two Ætnas meeting and grappling upon the ocean, present a figure at one magnificent and terrible.
But hear the next stanza.
Now at each tack our little fleet grows less,
And, like maim’d fowl, swing [sic] lagging on the main;
Their greater loss their numbers scarce confess,
While they lose cheaper than the English gain.
What a falling off is there.The grappling Ætnas in the compass of two lines have dwindled down into maimed water fowl. The image in the second line of this stanza is lively; the likeness striking; and line itself,
Like maim’d fowl, swim lagging on the main,
highly picturesque. But it is altogether unsuitable to the dignity of the subject; and, coming so immediately after the grappling Ætnas, seems as if Dryden purposely meant his fleet should give a specimen of the art of sinking. The closing line, casting up an account of profit and loss between the two fleets, finishes the degradation of the stanza, by the incongruity between the imagery and the subject.
An example of gross incongruity between the image and the subject appears in the following lines of a poet, usually far more correct than Dryden.
Superior beings, when of late they saw
A mortal man unfold all nature’s law,
Admir’d such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And show’d a Newton, as we show an ape.
The object, intended to.be illustrated by this image, is the wonderful contrast between the powers and the infirmities of man; a topic, in-which there is little novelty, and which Young in his Night Thoughts has handled with as much vigor, and with more propriety. Pope supposes, that superior beings were struck with admiration at the discoveries of Newton; considering them as far transcending the common capacities of the human species. And to demonstrate their admiration, they showed a Newton as we show an ape. The idea of the poet was to exalt Newton at the expense of his species. But the sentiment, with which we show an ape, is not admiration. The accessories, which accompany the name of that animal, are all contemptuous and derisory. The object of comparison degrades instead of ennobling the character, to which it is associated in idea. The thought is complementary to Newton; but the image in which it is moulded [sic] is insulting. It is unsuitable to the subject; and unsuitable to the sentiment of the writer. It violates then both the first and the second rule of congruity.
I have taken these examples to elucidate the first rule, congruity to the subject, from poetical writers, because they furnished more luminous views of this principle, than I could readily have found among the orators; and as poetry is still more than oratory within the dominions of figurative language, its records may with equal freedom be consulted for the knowledge of those laws, which are equally binding over all the regions of imagination.
2. The second rule of congruity refers to the sentiments of the speaker; and this rule is of the first importance to the purposes of oratory. When the object is persuasion, then your great end is to make your hearer sympathize with the feelings which you are expressing, it becomes you to be peculiarly cautious to avoid mingling any thing contrary to your purpose in the ideas, which you excite in the mind of your hearer by the means of imagery. Would you recommend your subject to the affections of your auditory, let your figures bear the stamp of benevolence. Is it your purpose to rouse the angry passions, you must darken your canvass with harsh and odious colors.
Let us exemplify this rule by remarking the contrasted manner, in which Mr. Burke and Dr. Johnson, while contending for the opposite sides of the same question, derive arguments from the same facts, and paint the same objects. The subject of the particular passages I shall quote is the rapid increase of population in North America; of which Burke in his speech on conciliation with America speaks thus.
“The first thing, that we have to consider with regard to the nature of the object, is the number of people in the colonies. I have taken for some years a good deal of pains on that point. I can by no calculation justify myself in placing the number below two millions of inhabitants of our own European blood and color; besides at least five hundred thousand others, who form no inconsiderable part of the strength and opulence of the whole. This, sir, is, I believe, about the true number. There is no occasion to exaggerate, where plain truth is of so much weight and importance. But whether I put the present numbers too high or too low is a matter of little moment. Such is the strength, with which population shoots in that part of the world, that, state the numbers as high as we will, whilst the dispute continues the exaggeration ends. Whilst we are .discussing any given magnitude, they are grown to it. Whilst we spend our time in deliberating on the mode of governing two millions, we shall find we have millions more to manage. Your children do not grow faster from infancy to manhood, than they spread from families to communities, and from villages to nations.”
The object of Burke in this speech was conciliation. A civil war between Great Britain and her colonies was just bursting out, on a question respecting the authority of the British parliament over America. Burke’s desire was to promote peace, and restore harmony. You observe that, in the passage I have read, he draws an argument in favor of conciliatory measures from the population, the great and growing population of this country. He presents a variety of very striking lights the rapidity if this growth; and concludes by comparing it to the growth of an individual from infancy to manhood. There was perhaps a little exaggeration in this idea, but not much. The eloquence of sentiment speaks in round numbers, and never concerns itself about fractional parts. But the great address and beauty of the image here introduced in the reference to children of his hearers. “Your children do not grow faster from infancy to manhood, than they spread from families to communities, and from villages to nations.” Had he said a single individual grows not faster from infancy to manhood, the image would have lost all its force. He amplifies the circumstance to touch the imagination of his hearers; but he brings in their children to move their affections. The figure then was strictly consonant to the sentiments of the speaker. Its tendencies were all towards conciliation.
Dr. Johnson’s pamphlet, entitled taxation no tyranny, was published shortly after this speech; and in many parts was doubtless indeed as an answer to it. He too speaks of the rapid increase of American population. But his inferences and his images are as different from those of Burke, as was the purpose, which guided his pen. Let us hear him on the same topic, just discussed by Burke.
“But we are soon told that the continent of North America contains three millions, not of men merely, but of whigs; of whigs fierce for liberty, and disdainful of dominion; that they multiply with the fecundity of their own rattlesnakes; so that every quarter of a century doubles their numbers.
“Men, accustomed to think themselves masters, do not love to be threatened! This talk is I hope commonly thrown away, or raises passions different from those, which it was intended to excite. Instead of terrifying the English hearer to tame acquiescence, it disposes him to hasten the experiment of bending obstinacy, before it has become yet more obdurate; and convinces him, that it is necessary to attack a nation thus prolific, while we may yet hope to prevail. When he is told through what extent of territory we must travel to subdue them, he recollects how far, a few years ago, we traveled in their defence [sic]. When it is urged that they will shoot up like the hydra, he naturally considers how the hydra was destroyed.”
Johnson was writing in support of the system or measures, which the government was then pursuing towards America. His purpose was to counteract every thing conciliatory; to rouse and stimulate the vio1ent and angry passions. The rapid increase of American population, a fact in which he coincides entirely with Burke, gives him an opportunity to address the pride of dominion; the jealousies,the fears of those, to whom he writes. How incongruous then to his sentiments·would have been an image, which would have brought to the hearts of his readers the soothing sentiments of parental affection! How absurd would it have been for him to say, as Burke did on the same theme, “the Americans spread from villages to nations, as fast as your children grow from infancy to manhood!” No; the image of fecundity, which occurs to his mind as an object of comparison, is that of our rattlesnakes; an image, borrowed from the subject, as the rattlesnake is an animal peculiar to this continent. To instill ideas of disgust and abhorrence against the Americans, what association of ideas more forcible could have been presented, than that, which is connected with the most odious and most venomous of reptiles! The image of the hydra is more obscure, and in a popular harangue would have been unsuitable; for it would have been too learned. It is a classical allusion; and to be understood requires a perfect familiarity with the ancient mythology. But to those, who could comprehend it, the ideas associated with the image were as bitter and full of malignity, as the comparison to the rattlesnake. Our extraordinary rapidity of increase, he says, reminds him of the hydra, and leads him to consider how the hydra was destroyed. The hydra was a fabulous monster with fifty heads; and whenever one of these was cut off, two shot forth in its stead. It was destroyed by Hercules; and Johnson calls upon his readers to consider how. The how was in this manner. Hercules cut off all its heads successively; and to prevent their shooting out again in double numbers he seared with a hot iron the wound of every head, as he cut it off. This is the remedy, which suggests itself to Johnson’s mind; and which he suggests to his readers, as fit to be employed for arresting the rapidity of American population. He seems however ashamed of disclosing it in all its nakedness, and leaves it under veil of a general and indistinct allusion.
It is an amusing, and may be a useful speculation at this day, when the questions then agitated have been long settled, to compare with philosophical impartiality the course of reasoning and the body of sentiment, by which the opposite sides of that important, cause were maintained, by two of the greatest and wisest men, that England ever has produced. This however is not within the province of these lectures. The passages I have read you, and the figures, to which I have called your attention, afford examples of one and the same principle of composition. I have adduced them to show you how the masters of language, in oratorical works, make their imagery, coincide with the sentiments which they entertain, and which they wish to communicate. In both these cases you perceive how the imagination is made instrumental to the support of argument. You see how incongruous it would have been to the purpose of Burke, if, in speaking of our increasing numbers, he had thought of rattlesnakes and hydras; and how unsuitable it would have been to Johnson’s intentions to have brought into view, in connexion [sic] with the same circumstance, the children of those, whose passions he was stimulating to anger and severity.
3. The rule of congruity has in the third place reference to the feelings and understanding of the auditory. Every idea, excited in the mind of the hearer, should perform its part toward effecting the object of the speaker; that is, to convince or persuade.
One of the most illustrious examples of a figure, accommodated to the feelings of the auditory, is the celebrated apostrophe of Demosthenes, in the oration for the crown, to the souls of the Athenians, who had perished at Marathon and Plataea, at Salamis and Artimisium [sic].
Demosthenes had instigated his countrymen to take arms against the usurpations of Philip of Macedon. But the conduct of the war had been unfortunate; and Eschines in his oration against Ctesiphon, to which the oration for the crown was an answer, had endeavoured [sic] to cast upon his rival the odium of the public misfortunes, by imputing to him the commencement of war. In replying to this charge Demosthenes argues the extreme injustice of condemning his counsels merely from the inauspicious character of the event; shows that the war had been undertaken to maintain the honor and supremacy of the state, and the general liberties of Greece; and after insisting with much address that the counsels, which he had recommended, were those of the whole people, who had made them their own by adopting them, affirms, that they were right, notwithstanding their issue had been unsuccessful. After thus preparing the minds of his auditors by making them partakers of his cause, he seizes upon their most ardent passions; and engages every recollection, connected with the national glory, in his favor. “It cannot be,” says he, “No, my countrymen, it cannot be, that you have acted wrong in encountering danger bravely for the liberty and safety of all Greece. No; by those generous souls of ancient times, who were exposed at Marathon! By those who stood arrayed at Plataea! By those who encountered the Persian fleet at Salamis; who fought at Artemisium! By all those illustrious sons of Athens, whose remains lie deposited in the public monuments! All of whom received the same honorable interment from their country; not those only who prevailed; not those only who were victorious; and with reason. What was the part of gallant men they all performed; their success was such, as the supreme Director of the world dispensed to each.”
This is perhaps the most admired stroke of eloquence, that ever was uttered by this first of human orators. It exhibits a grandeur and generosity of sentiment, to which the heart of every virtuous man, through all the lapses of ages, must yield assent. But the peculiar power of the figure, with which it was associated, consisted in its application to the feelings of those, to whom it was addressed.
The principle, which requires that the figure should be adapted to the understanding of the audience, is applicable principally to extemporaneous discourse before popular assemblies. In such cases imagery should seldom be drawn from objects of science, or of nature, remote from the knowledge of the auditory. Generally speaking the figure will be forcible in proportion to its novelty, combined with the familiarity of the source, from which it is derived, to the mind of the hearer.
Other rules fir the management of figures might be added; but as this branch of the science enters into another department of your studies, I shall not enlarge upon them here. For the purposes of oratory, and so far as figurative language is employed in that art, the most important rules will be found included in the two, which have formed the subject of this lecture and the preceding one; in the rule of unity, which will make every image consistent with itself; and in the rule of congruity, which will make it suitable to the subject, to the sentiments of the speaker, and to the feelings and understanding of the hearer. From these observations upon the subject of figurative language in general we shall next pass to the consideration of some particular figures, which from their importance are entitled to more special notice than the rest.