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- The Philosophy of Style - 4/7 -
should come before the more concrete. Observe the better effect obtained by making these two changes:--"At last, with no small difficulty, and after much fatigue, we came, through deep roads and bad weather, to our journey’s end." This reads with comparative smoothness; that is, with less hindrance from suspensions and reconstructions of thought--with less mental effort.
§ 32. Before dismissing this branch of our subject, it should be further remarked, that even when addressing the most vigorous intellects, the direct style is unfit for communicating ideas of a complex or abstract character. So long as the mind has not much to do, it may be well able to grasp all the preparatory clauses of a sentence, and to use them effectively; but if some subtlety in the argument absorb the attention--if every faculty be strained in endeavouring to catch the speaker’s or writer’s drift, it may happen that the mind, unable to carry on both processes at once, will break down, and allow the elements of the thought to lapse into confusion.
iv. The Principle of Economy applied to Figures.
§ 33. Turning now to consider figures of speech, we may equally discern the same general law of effect. Underlying all the rules given for the choice and right use of them, we shall find the same fundamental requirement--economy of attention. It is indeed chiefly because they so well subserve this requirement, that figures of speech are employed. To bring the mind more easily to the desired conception, is in many cases solely, and in all cases mainly, their object.
§ 34. Let us begin with the figure called Synecdoche. The advantage sometimes gained by putting a part for the whole, is due to the more convenient, or more accurate, presentation of the idea. If, instead of saying "a fleet of ten ships," we say "a fleet of ten _sail_," the picture of a group of vessels at sea is more readily suggested; and is so because the sails constitute the most conspicuous parts of vessels so circumstanced: whereas the word _ships_ would very likely remind us of vessels in dock. Again, to say, "_All hands_ to the pumps," is better than to say, "All _men_ to the pumps," as it suggests the men in the special attitude intended, and so saves effort. Bringing "gray _hairs_ with sorrow to the grave," is another expression, the effect of which has the same cause.
§ 35. The occasional increase of force produced by Metonymy may be similarly accounted for. "The low morality of _the bar,_" _is_ a phrase both more brief and significant than the literal one it stands for. A belief in the ultimate supremacy of intelligence over brute force, is conveyed in a more concrete, and therefore more realizable form, if we substitute _the pen_ and _the sword_ for the two abstract terms. To say, "Beware of drinking!" is less effective than to say, "Beware of _the bottle!_" and is so, clearly because it calls up a less specific image.
§ 36. The Simile is in many cases used chiefly with a view to ornament, but whenever it increases the _force_ of a passage, it does so by being an economy. Here in an instance: "The illusion that great men and great events came oftener in early times than now, is partly due to historical perspective. As in a range of equidistant columns, the furthest off look the closest; so, the conspicuous objects of the past seem more thickly clustered the more remote they are."
§ 37. To construct by a process of literal explanation, the thought thus conveyed would take many sentences, and the first elements of the picture would become faint while the imagination was busy in adding the others. But by the help of a comparison all effort is saved; the picture is instantly realized, and its full effect produced.
§ 38. Of the position of the Simile, it needs only to remark, that what has been said respecting the order of the adjective and substantive, predicate and subject, principal and subordinate propositions, &c., is applicable here. As whatever qualifies should precede whatever is qualified, force will generally be gained by placing the simile before the object to which it is applied. That this arrangement is the best, may be seen in the following passage from the ‘Lady of the Lake’;
"As wreath of snow, on mountain breast, Slides from the rock that gave it rest, Poor Ellen glided from her stay, And at the monarch’s feet she lay."
Inverting these couplets will be found to diminish the effect considerably. There are cases, however, even where the simile is a simple one, in which it may with advantage be placed last, as in these lines from Alexander Smith’s ‘Life Drama’:
"I see the future stretch All dark and barren as a rainy sea."
The reason for this seems to be, that so abstract an idea as that attaching to the word "future," does not present itself to the mind in any definite form, and hence the subsequent arrival at the simile entails no reconstruction of the thought.
§ 39. Such, however, are not the only cases in which this order is the most forcible. As the advantage of putting the simile before the object depends on its being carried forward in the mind to assist in forming an image of the object, it must happen that if, from length or complexity, it cannot be so carried forward, the advantage is not gained. The annexed sonnet, by Coleridge, is defective from this cause:
"As when a child, on some long winter’s night, Affrighted, clinging to its grandam’s knees, With eager wond’ring and perturb’d delight Listens strange tales of fearful dark decrees, Mutter’d to wretch by necromantic spell; Or of those hags who at the witching time Of murky midnight, ride the air sublime, And mingle foul embrace with fiends of hell; Cold horror drinks its blood! Anon the tear More gentle starts, to hear the beldame tell Of pretty babes, that lov’d each other dear, Murder’d by cruel uncle’s mandate fell: Ev’n such the shiv’ring joys thy tones impart, Ev’n so, thou, Siddons, meltest my sad heart."
§ 40. Here, from the lapse of time and accumulation of circumstances, the first part of the comparison is forgotten before its application is reached, and requires re-reading. Had the main idea been first mentioned, less effort would have been required to retain it, and to modify the conception of it into harmony with the comparison, than to remember the comparison, and refer back to its successive features for help in forming the final image.
§ 41. The superiority of the Metaphor to the Simile is ascribed by Dr. Whately to the fact that "all men are more gratified at catching the resemblance for themselves, than in having it pointed out to them." But after what has been said, the great economy it achieves will seem the more probable cause. Lear’s exclamation--
"Ingratitude! thou marble-hearted fiend,"
would lose part of its effect were it changed into--
"Ingratitude! thou fiend with heart like marble;"
and the loss would result partly from the position of the simile and partly from the extra number of words required. When the comparison is an involved one, the greater force of the metaphor, consequent on its greater brevity, becomes much more conspicuous. If, drawing an analogy between mental and physical phenomena, we say, "As, in passing through the crystal, beams of white light are decomposed into the colours of the rainbow; so, in traversing the soul of the poet, the colourless rays of truth are transformed into brightly tinted poetry"; it is clear that in receiving the double set of words expressing the two halves of the comparison, and in carrying the one half to the other, considerable attention is absorbed. Most of this is saved, however, by putting the comparison in a metaphorical form, thus: "The white light of truth, in traversing the many sided transparent soul of. the poet, is refracted into iris-hued poetry."
§ 42. How much is conveyed in a few words by the help of the Metaphor, and how vivid the effect consequently produced, may be abundantly exemplified. From ‘A Life Drama’ may be quoted the phrase--
"I spear’d him with a jest,"
as a fine instance among the many which that poem contains. A passage in the ‘Prometheus Unbound,’ of Shelley, displays the power of the metaphor to great advantage:
"Methought among the lawns together We wandered, underneath the young gray dawn, And multitudes of dense white fleecy clouds Were wandering, in thick flocks along the mountains _Shepherded_ by the slow unwilling wind."
This last expression is remarkable for the distinctness with which it realizes the features of the scene: bringing the mind, as it were, by a bound to the desired conception.
§ 43. But a limit is put to the advantageous use of the Metaphor, by the condition that it must be sufficiently simple to be understood from a hint. Evidently, if there be any obscurity in the meaning or application of it, no economy of attention will be gained; but rather the reverse. Hence, when the comparison is complex, it is usual to have recourse to the Simile. There is, however, a species of figure, sometimes classed under Allegory, but which might, perhaps, be better called Compound Metaphor, that enables us to retain the brevity of the metaphorical form even where the analogy is intricate. This is done by indicating the application of the figure at the outset, and then leaving the mind to continue the parallel.’ Emerson has employed it with great effect in the first of his I Lectures on the Times’:--"The main interest which any aspects of the Times can have for us is the great spirit which gazes through them, the light which they can shed on the wonderful questions, What are we, and Whither we tend? We do not wish to be deceived. Here we drift, like white sail across the wild ocean, now bright on the wave, now darkling in the trough of the sea; but from what port did we sail? Who knows? Or to what port are we bound? Who knows? There is no one to tell us but such poor weather-tossed mariners as ourselves, whom we speak as we pass, or who have hoisted some signal, or floated to us some letter in a bottle from far. But what know they
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