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dium will render the image obscure or indistinct, yet no purity in the medium will suffice for exhibiting a distinct and unvarying image of a confused and unsteady object. There is a sort of half-formed thoughts, which we sometimes find writers impatient to give the world, before they themselves have been fully possessed of them. Now if the writer himself perceive confusedly and imperfectly the sentiments he would communicate, it is a thousand to one, the reader will not perceive them at all. But how then, it may be asked, shall he be qualified for discovering the cause, and distinguishing in the writer between a confusion of thought, and a total want of meaning 2 I answer, that in examples of this kind, the cause will, sometimes, not always, be discovered, by means of an attentive and frequent perusal of the words and context. Some meaning, after long poring, will perhaps be traced ; but in all such cases we may be said more properly to divine what the author would say, than to understand what he says; and therefore all such sentences deserve to be ranked among the unintelligible. If a discovery of the sense be made, that it is made ought rather to be ascribed to the sagacity of the reader, than to the elocution of the writer. This species of the unintelligible, (which, by the way, differs not in kind, but in degree, from the obscurity already considered, being no other than that bad quality in the extreme) I shall exemplify first in simple, and afterwards in complex, sentences.
Sect. III. The unintelligible...Part I. From confusion of thought.
FIRST in simple sentences: “ I have observed.” says Sir Richard Steele, who, though a man of sense and genius, was a great master in this style, “ that “the superiority among these,” he is speaking of some coffee-house politicians, “proceeds from an opis “nion of gallantry and fashion *.” This sentence, considered in itself, evidently conveys no meaning. First, it is not said, whose opinion, their own, or that of others; secondly, it is not said what opinion, or of what sort, favourable or unfavourable, true or false, but in general an opinion of gallantry and fashion, which contains no definite expression of any meaning. With the joint assistance of the context, reflection, and conjecture, we shall perhaps conclude, that the author intended to say, “ that the rank among “these politicians, was determined by the opinion “generally entertained of the rank in point of gallan“try and fashion that each of them had attained.” But no part of this is expressed. Another specimen: “And as to a well-taught mind, when you've said an “haughty and proud man, you have spoke a narrow “conception, little spirit, and despicable carriage +.” Here too it is possible to guess the intention of the author, but not to explain the import of the expresSiOil,
TAKE the two following examples of complex sentences from the same hand : “I must confess we live
* Spect. No. 49. + Guardian, No. 20.
“in an age wherein a few empty blusterers carry away “the praise of speaking, while a crowd of fellows “overstocked with knowledge are run down by them: “I say overstocked, because they certainly are so, “ as to their service of mankind, if from their very “store they raise to themselves ideas of respect and “greatness of the occasion, and I know not what, to “disable themselves from explaining their thoughts +.” The other example is, “ The serene aspect of these “writers, joined with the great encouragement I ob“ serve is given to another, or, what is indeed to be. “suspected, in which he indulges himself, confirmed “me in the notion I have of the prevalence of ambi“tion this way f.” But, leaving this, which is indeed the dullest species of the unintelligible, I proceed to the second class, that which arises from an affectation of excellence.
PART II....From affectation of excellence. ”
IN this there is always something figurative; but the figures are remote, and things heterogeneous are combined. I shall exemplify this sort also, first in a few more simple sentences, and then in such as are more complex. Of the former, take the following instances: “This temper of soul,” says the Guardian, speaking of meekness and humility, “ keeps our un
+ Spect. No. 484. f Guardian, No. 1.
The unintelligible....Part II. From affectation of excellence.
“derstanding tight about us *.” Whether the au
thor had any meaning in this expression, or what it
was, I shall not take upon me to determine; but hard
ly could any thing more incongruous in the way of metaphor, have been imagined. The understanding
is made a girdle to our other mental faculties, for the
fastening of which girdle, meekness and humility
serve for a buckle. “A man is not qualified for a
“butt, who has not a good deal of wit and vivacity,
"even in the ridiculous side of his character +.” It
is only the additional clause in the end that is here
exceptionable. What a strange jumble ! A man's
wit and vivacity placed in the side of his character.
Sometimes in a sentence sufficiently perspicuous, we
shall find an unintelligible clause inserted, which, as
it adds not to the sense, serves only to interrupt the
reader, and darken the sentiment. Of this the folllowing passage will serve for an example: “I seldom “See a noble building, or any great piece of magnifi“cence and pomp, but I think, how little is all this “to satisfy the ambition, or to fill the idea, of an im“mortal soul $.” Pray, what addition does the phrase. to fill the idea, make to the sense; or, what is the meaning of it? I shall subjoin, for the sake of variety, one poetical example from Dryden, who, speaking of the universal deluge, says,
Yet when that flood in its own depths was drown'd, It left behind it false and slippery ground f.
* Guard. No. 1. + Spect. No. 47. § Pope's Thoughts on various subjects. f Panegyric on the coronation of King Charles II.
The first of these lines appears to me marvellously nonsensical. It informs us of a prodigy never heard of or conceived before, a drowned flood; nay, which is still more extraordinary, a flood that was so excessively deep, that after leaving nothing else to drown, it turned felo-de-fe and drowned itself. And, doubtless, if a flood can be in danger of drowning in itself, the deeper it is, the danger must be the greater. So far at least the author talks consequentially. His meaning, expressed in plain language (for the line itself hath no meaning), was probably no more than this: “When the waters of the deluge had subsided.”
I PRoceFD to give examples of a still higher order, in sentences more complicated. These I shall produce from an author, who, though far from being deficient in acuteness, invention, or vivacity, is perhaps, in this species of composition, the most eminent of all that have written in the English language: “ If the “savour of things lies cross to honesty, if the fancy “be florid, and the appetite high towards the subal“tern beauties and lower order of worldly symmetries “ and proportions, the conduct will infallibly turn this “latter way *.” This is that figure of speech which the French critics call galimatias, and the English comprehend under the general name bombart, and which may not improperly be defined the sublime of nonsense. You have lofty images and high sounding
* Characteristics, Vol. III. Misc. ii. Chap. 2.