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Select some biographical work; state any impression you may have received of it as to the age, the contemporaries,
- the influence, the difficulties and advantages of the au thor, -- the style of his narrative, &c
Example.* I have selected the Life of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, written by himself, to a late period. The style of the work is simple and concise, which is the peculiar characteristic of all his writings; indeed, his writing principally for the advantage of the people, (though the most elevated ranks may be benefited by his instructions,) accounts for his desire of express ing himself in plain and simple language. The first part of the book, not being intended for public perusal, is written with more minuteness of particulars, than it otherwise would have been; he even apologizes to his son for the familiarity of the style; observing, that “we do not dress for a private company as for a formal ball."
Dr. Franklin was remarkable from his youth for persevering and indefatigable industry. This, with his prudent and reflecting mind, secured him his fame and importance in the world. He early manifested a love of learning, which his humble birth and narrow circumstances allowed him few opportunities of indulging; but when they did offer, he never suffered them to escape unimproved. He was frugal in his mode of life that he might employ his savings in the purchase of books; and diligent at his work, that he might gain time for his studies. Thus, all obstacles were removed in his pursuit of knowledge. We behold him emerging by degrees from obscurity; then advancing more and more into notice and soon taking a high stand in the estimation of his fellow-citizens.
He was continually before the world in various characters. As a natu ral philosopher, he surpassed all his contemporaries ; as a politician, he adhered to his country during her long struggle for independence, and, throughout his political career, was distinguished for his firm integrity and skilful negotiations; as a citizen, his character shines with pecăliar lustre; he seems to have examined every thing, to discover how he might add to the happiness of his friends. Philadelphia shows with delight the many institutions he has founded for her advantage, and boasts of the benefits conferred on her sons by his philanthropic zeal. Indeed, to do good was the grand aim of his life. From the midst of his philosophical researches, he descends to attend to the daily interests of his fellow creatures; after bringing down lightning from the clouds, he invents a stove for the comfort of men. In the midst of the honors paid him for
* This is a genuine college exercise, presented at one of our universities a few years ago.
his discovery of the sameness of lightning with electricity, he rejoices in the thought, that the knowledge of this important fact might contribute to the safety of mankind.
After his death, even, his example is of great use; to the young, his self-acquired learning, which procured for him the honorary distinctions of the European universities and philosophical societies, affords a practical illustration of the value of perseverance and industry; his advanced years offer to the aged an excellent model for the occupation of their time. His private life exhibits a splendid catalogue of virtues; to his temperance he owed his long sojourn upon earth; to his resolution and industry, his wide-spread fame; to his sincerity and moderation, the affection of his friends; to his frugality, the means of benevolence; and to his prudence and integrity, the esteem and approbation of his countrymen. The temptation of courts, and the favors heaped upon him by princes and nobles, robbed him of none of these virtues. These he retained, with a contented mind and a clear conscience, till he was sum moned to receive his final reward.
CRITICISM. The following criticism by Dr. Blair is here presented that the student may understand the principles by which literary merit is to be estimated. The subject criticised is No. 411 of the Spectator, written by Mr. Addison; of whom Dr. Johnson has said that all who wish to write the English language with elegance should study the pages of Addison.
“Our sight is the most perfect, and most delightful of all our senses."
This sentence is clear, precise, and simple. The author in a few plain words lays down the proposition, which he is going to illustrate. A first sentence should seldom be long, and never intricate.
He might have said, our sight is the most perfect and the most delightful. But in omitting to repeat the particle the, he has been more judicious; for, as between perfect and delightful there is no contrast, such a repetition is unnecessary. He proceeds :
“It fills the mind with the largest variety of ideas, converses with its ob jects at the greatest distance, and continues the longest in action, without being tired or satiated with its proper enjoyments."
This sentence is remarkably harmonious, and well constructed. It is en tirely perspicuous. It is loaded with no unnecessary words. That quality of a good sentence, which we termed its unity, is here perfectly preserved. The members of it also grow, and rise above each other in sound, till it is conducted to one of the most harmonious closes which our language ad aits. It is moreover figurative without being too much so for the subject. There is no fault in it whatever, except this, the epithet large, which he applies to variety, is more commonly applied to extent than to number. It is plain, however, that he employed it to avoid the repetition of the word great, which occurs immediately afterward.
“The sense of feeling can, indeed, give us a notion of extension, shape, and all other ideas that enter at the eye, except colors; but, at the same time, it is very much straitened and confined in its operations, to the number, bulk, and distance of its particular objects.”
But is not every sense confined as much as the sense of feeling, to the zumber, bulk, and distance of its own objects ? The turn of expression is also very inaccurate, requiring the two words, with regard, to be
be inserted after the word operations, in order to make the sense clear and intelligible. The epithet particular seems to be used instead of peculiar; but these words, though often confounded, are of very different import. Particular is opposed to general; peculiar stands opposed to what is possessed in common with others.
"Our sight seems designed to supply all these defects, and may be con sidered as a more delicate and diffusive kind of touch, that spreads itself over an infinite multitude of bodies, comprehends the largest figures, and brings into our reach some of the most remote parts of the universe."
TŘis sentence is perspicuous, graceful, well arranged, and highly musical Its construction is so similar to that of the second sentence, that, had it immediately succeeded it, the ear would have been sensible of a faulty monotony. But the interposition of a period prevents this effect.
* It is this sense which furnishes the imagination with its ideas; so that, by the pleasures of the imagination or fancy (which I shall use promiscu ously) I here mean such as arise from visible objects, either when we have them actually in our view, or when we call up their ideas into our minds by paintings, statues, descriptions, or any the like occasion."
The parenthesis in the middle of this sentence is not clear. It should have been, terms which I shall use promiscuously; since the verb use does not relate to the pleasures of the imagination, but to the terms, fancy and imagination, which were meant to be synonymous. To call a painting or a statue an occasion, is not accurate ; nor is it very proper to speak of calling up ideas by occasions. The common phrase, any such means, would have been more natural.
66 We cannot indeed have a single image in the fancy, that did not make its first entrance through the sight; but we have the power of retaining, altering, and compounding those images which we have once received, into all the varieties of picture and vision, that are most agreeable to the imagination ; for, by this faculty, a man in a dungeon is capable of entertaining nimself with scenes and landscapes more beautiful than any that can be found in the whole compass of nature."
In one member of this sentence there is an inaccuracy in syntax. It is proper to say, altering and compounding those images which we have once received, into all the varieties of picture and vision. But we cannot with propriety say, retaining them into all the varieties; yet the arrangement requires this construction. This error might have been avoided by arranging the passage in the following manner: * We have the power of retaining those images which we have once received; and of alteri
d compounding them into all the varieties of picture and vision." The latter part of the sentence is clear and elegant."
“ There are few words in the English language, which are employed in a more loose and uncircumscribed sense than those of the fancy and the imagination."
Except when some assertion of consequence is advanced, these little words, it is and there are, ought to be avoided, as redundant and enfeebling. The two first words of this sentence, therefore, should have been omitted. The article prefixed to fancy and imagination ought also to have been omitted, since he does not mean the powers of the fancy and the imagina. tion, but the words only. The sentence should have run thus : "Few words in the English language are employed in a more loose and uncir cumscribed sense than fancy and imagination."
“I therefore thought it necessary to fix and determine the notion of these two words, as I intend to make use of them in the thread of my following specnlations, that the reader may conceive rightly what is the subjecu
rightly what is the subject which I proceed upon.
The words fix and determine, though they may appear so, are not synony mous. We fix, what is loose; we determine, what is uncircumscribed. They may be viewed, therefore, as applied here with peculiar delicacy.
The notion of these words, is rather harsh, and is not so commonly used as the meaning of these words. As I intend to make use of them in the thread of my speculations, is evidently faulty. A sort of metaphor is im properly mixed with words in their literal sense. The subject which I proceed upon is an ungraceful close of a sentence: it should have been, the subject upon which I proceed.
“I must therefore desire him to remember, that, by the pleasures of im agination, I mean only such pleasures as arise originally from sight, and that I divide these pleasures into two kinds." .
This sentence begins in a manner too similar to the preceding. I mean only such pleasures, the adverb only is not in its proper place. It is not in tended here to qualify the verb mean, but such pleasures; and ought there fore to be placed immediately after the latter.
"My design being, first of all, to discourse of those primary pleasures of the imagination, which entirely proceed from such objects as are before our eyes; and, in the next place, to speak of those secondary pleasures of the imagination, which flow from the ideas of visible objects, when the ob jects are not actually before the eve, but are called up into our memories, or formed into agreeable visions of things, that are either absent or fic titious."
Neatness and brevity are peculiarly requisite in the division of a subject. This sentence is somewhat clogged by a tedious phraseology. My design being, first of all, to discourse in the next place to speak of such objects as are before our eyes-things that are either absent or fictitious. Several words might have been omitted, and the style made more neat and compact.
• The pleasures of the imagination, taken in their full extent, are not so gross as those of sense, nor so refined as those of the understanding."
This sentence is clear and elegant.
" The last are indeed more preferable, because they are founded on some new knowledge or improvement in the mind of man; yet it must be con fessed, that those of the imagination are as great and as transporting as tk other.”
The phrase, more preferable, is so palpable an inaccuracy, that we wonde. how it could escape the observation of Mr. Addison. The proposition, con tained in the last member of this sentence, is neither clearly nor elegantly expressed. It must be confessed, that those of the imagination are as greda and as transporting as the other. In the beginning of this sentence he had called the pleasures of the understanding the last, and he concludes with observing, that those of the imagination are as great and transporting as the other. Beside that the other makes not a proper contrast with the last, it is left doubtful whether by the other are meant the pleasures of the un derstanding, or the pleasures of sense; though without doubt it was intend ed to refer to the pleasures of the understanding only.
" A beautiful prospect delights the soul as much as a demonstration; and a description in Homer has charmed more readers than a chapter in Aristotle."
This is a good illustration of what he had been asserting, and is expressed with that elegance, by which Mr. Addison is distinguished.
“ Besides, the pleasures of the imagination have this advantage above those of the understanding, that they are more obvious and more easy to be acquired.”
This sentence is unexceptionable.
Though this is lively and picturesque, yet we must remark a small inac curacy. A scene cannot be said to enter; an actor enters; but a scene appears or presents itself.
“The colors paint themselves on the fancy, with very little attention of thought or application of mind in the beholder.”
This is beautiful and elegant, and well suited to those pleasures of the imagination of which the author is treating.
“We are struck, we know not how, with the symmetry of any thing we see ; and immediately assent to the beauty of an object, without inquiring into the particular causes and occasions of it.”
We assent to the truth of a proposition; but cannot with propriety be said to assent to the beauty of an object. In the conclusion, particular and occasions are superfluous words; and the pronoun it is in some measure ambiguous.
“A man of a polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures that the vulgar are not capable of receiving."
The term polite is oftener applied to manners, than to the imagination. The use of that instead of which, is too common with Mr. Addison. Except in cases where it is necessary to avoid repetition, which is preferable to that, and is undoubtedly so in the present instance.
“He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue. He meets with a secret refreshment in a description; and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows, than another does in the possession. It gives him indeed a kind of property in every thing he sees; and makes the most rude uncultivated parts of nature administer to his pleasures: so that he looks upon the world, as it were, in another light, and discovers in it a multitude of charms that conceal them selves from the generality of mankind.”
This sentence is easy, flowing, and harmonious. We must, however, ob serve a slight inaccuracy. It gives him a kind of property—to this it there is no antecedent in the whole paragraph. To discover its connexion, we must look back to the third sentence preceding, which begins with a man of a polite imagination. This phrase, polite imagination, is the only antecedent to which it can refer; and even this is not a proper antecedent, since it stands in the genitive case as the qualification only of a man.
“There are, indeed, but very few who know how to be idle and innocent, or have a relish of any pleasures that are not criminal: every diversion they take is at the expense of some one virtue or another, and their very first step out of business is into vice or folly.”
This sentence is truly elegant, musical, and correct.
“A man should endeavor, therefore, to make the sphere of his innocent pleasures as wide as possible, that he may retire into them with safety, and find in them such a satisfaction as a wise man would no
This also is a good sentence and exposed to no objection.
“Of this nature are those of the imagination, which do not require such a bent of thought as is necessary to our more serious employments; nor, at the same time, suffer the mind to sink into that indolence and remissness, which are apt to accompany our more sensual delights; but like a gentle exercise to the faculties, awaken from sloth and idleness, without putting them upon any labor or difficulty.”
The beginning of this sentence is incorrect. Of this nature, says he, are those of the imagination. It might be asked, of what nature ? For the preceding sentence had not described the nature of any class of pleasures.