« ZurückWeiter »
part of the adventures of Gulliver. The voyage to Laputa, and the flying island, contains some excellent ironical animadversions on the science of his time, and I believe would even excite a smile in a mathematician. Yet more I apprehend might have been made of the subject in the hands of Swift, if he had possessed a more profound acquaintance with the subjects he ridicules, or been less in a hurry. What would Swift have done with the modern self-created philosopher ? But the task has been executed with scarcely less spirit, and in a more engaging style, by my excellent friend Miss Hamilton, in her “ Modern Philosophers."
It is evident that the epistolary style may be adapted to almost any of the departments of literature. In that may be taught all that is important in science and useful in life. A charming specimen we have of didactic epistles in the Letters of Lord Chesterfield to his Son ; and of the narrative and descriptive in those already mentioned, of Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Its force in historical composition is happily exemplified by the History of Eng: land in a series of letters, originally attributed to Lord Lyttleton, bụt really written by a man of superior genius, Dr. Goldsmith; and in biography, in a work undeservedly neglected, Lord Orrery's Letters on Swift.
Epistolary writing, however, in the common, and therefore the just acceptation of the word, is confined to those compositions which serve to transact the common business of life, or to promote its most pleasing intercourses. In this point of view letter-writing is the most necessary, at the same time it is happily the most easy, of all literary accomplishments. All that is necessary is some perspicuity in arrangement, and a style unblemished by glaring faults.
I have in general found one caution only necessary to young persons of a tolerable educa. tion, in order to enable them to write a good letter, and that is not to attempt to be fine; but to let the current of their thoughts flow naturally as they would in conversation, to endeavour to practise Swift's maxim of, using
proper words in their proper places.” Persons endued with much genius and fancy may play with metaphors and similies; but they must be managed with infinite address, not to destroy the simplicity, and even to obscure the spirit of a familiar epistle. I cannot in this
place omit to mention a most excellent rule of Mr. Shenstone's, from which I have often profitted ; if you wish to answer a letter with spi. rit, answer it as soon as possible after you have received it.
When I speak of letters of business, I would not be understood to recommend the usual forms of mercantile correspondence. They are too technical, too full of expletives, and not always clear. The best rule for a business letter is, to express the object in as few words as possible, in plain but not vulgar phraseology; and this I am convinced any well-bred man, who has clear ideas of his subject, may easily do, only using the phraseology which commonly occurs in genteel society.
A letter of business is long or short according as the subject may require. On an occasion somewhat out of the course of common affairs, there cannot be a finer specimen than the Epistle of Paul to Philemon, where there is not one redundant word, nor à sentence ill placed. But, without a prejudice from religion or education, St. Paul was the greatest master I have read, in all the excellencies of composition.
As it was very early necessary to men occa.
sionally to communicate their thoughts to eaclı other when separated by distance, examples of epistolary writing occur very early; there are several instances even in the Scriptures. The best collections of letters left us by the antients are those of Cicero, Seneca and Pliny, all of them evidently written with a view immediate or remote to publication. The letters of Cicero are chiefly valuable as far as they are explanatory of events which occurred at a most important period of the history of Rome. They are the productions of an accomplished orator, who, however, from having been long in the habits of composition, probably wrote them with little previous study. But this must be admitted, that they are at least as highly polished as any other of his writings. Perhaps a man, who has a character at stake, ought not to be more slovenly in his letters than in any composition intended for the public.
Pliny is, I confess, a more interesting writer than Cicero, though he chiefly treats of domestic scenes, or matters of taste and literature. More is to be learned from him of the private life and manners of the Romans than from
any other writer. The letters of Pliny are, how
ever, more laboured than those even of Cicero; and I am inclined to think, that epistolary cor. respondence was at that period of infinitely more consequence than at present. As the art of printing was then unknown, it was one of the modes which men of talents adopted for conveying their sentiments to posterity ; and as the learned and the great all corresponded with each other, letters upon interesting subjects were certain to be preserved by others, if not by the authors themselves. Thus Seneca's epistles are to be regarded as a collection of essays or treatises on moral and philosophical subjects. They are however less read than they deserve. They contain a morality so pure and so sublime, that I am inclined to credit the opinion that the author was at heart a Christian. Besides this, you will find in them many excellent practical precepts for the regulation of the studies as well as the conduct of young persons. It is very remarkable that Seneca, who was the richest subject of his time, is in these letters continually declaiming in favour of poverty.
Among the French, Balzac and Voiture were long regarded as models of epistolary writing ; but the former is pompous and inflated; and