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Conception and Expression

THERE are men who have just thoughts on every subject; but it is not perceived, because their expressions are feeble. They conceive well, but they produce badly.

Erasmus acutely observed—alluding to what then much occupied his mind—that one might be apt to swear that they had been taught, in the confessional cell, all they had learnt; so scrupulous are they of disclosing what they know. Others, again, conceive ill, and produce well; for they express with elegance, frequently, what they do not know.

It was observed of one pleader, that he knew more than he said; and of another, that he said more than he knew.

The judicious Quintilian observes, that we ought at first to be more anxious in regard to our conceptions than our expressions—we may attend to the latter afterwards. While Horace thought that expressions will never fail us if we have luminous conceptions. Yet they seem to be different things, for a man may have the clearest conceptions, and at the same time be no pleasing writer; while conceptions of no eminent merit may be very agreeably set off by a warm and colouring diction.

Lucian happily describes the works of those who abound with the most luxuriant language, void of ideas. He calls their unmeaning verbosity anemone-words (anemonæ verborum); for anemones are flowers, which, however brilliant, can only please the eye, leaving no fragrance. Pratt, who was a writer of flowing, but nugatory verses, was compared to the daisy; a flower indeed, but without the fragrance.

Editor’s Notes

 § This article was dropped from the ninth (1834) and subsequent editions of the Curiosities. Its closing paragraphs were, however, salvaged, and appended to the preceding article on ‘Inequalities of Genius.’

 ¶ This short piece is slightly expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. The paragraph quoting Quintilian and Horace having since been added.