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Literary Composition

TO literary composition we may apply the saying of an ancient philosopher:—“A little thing gives perfection, although perfection is not a little thing.”

The great legislator of the Hebrews orders us to pull off the fruit for the first three years, and not to taste them. Levit. xix. ver. 23. He was not ignorant how it weakens a young tree to bring to maturity its first fruits. Thus, on literary compositions, our green essays ought to be picked away. The word Zamar, by a beautiful metaphor from pruning trees, means in Hebrew to compose verses. Blotting and correcting was so much Churchill’s abhorrence, that I have heard from his publisher, he once energetically expressed himself, that it was like cutting away one’s own flesh. This strong figure sufficiently shows his repugnance to an author’s duty. Churchill now lies neglected, for posterity only will respect those, who

          “———File off the mortal part
Of glowing thought with Attic art.”

I have heard that this careless bard, after a successful work, usually precipitated the publication of another, relying on its crudeness being passed over on the public curiosity excited by its better brother. He called this getting double pay; for thus he secured the sale of a hurried work. But Churchill was a spendthrift of fame, and enjoyed all his revenue while he lived; posterity owes him little, and pays him nothing!

Bayle, an experienced observer in literary matters, tells us, that correction is by no means practicable by some authors; as in the case of Ovid. In exile, his compositions were nothing more than spiritless repetitions of what he had formerly written. He confesses both negligence and idleness in the corrections of his works. The vivacity which animated his first productions failing him when he revised his poems, he found correction too laborious, and he abandoned it. This, however, was only an excuse. “It is certain, that some authors cannot correct. They compose with pleasure, and with ardour; but they exhaust all their force: they fly but with one wing when they review their works; the first fire does not return; there is in their imagination a certain calm which hinders their pen from making any progress. Their mind is like a boat, which only advances by the strength of oars.”

Dr. More, the,Platonist, had such an exuberance of fancy, that correction was a much greater labour than composition. He used to say, that in writing his works, he was forced to cut his way through a crowd of thoughts as through a wood, and that he threw off in his compositions as much as would make an ordinary philosopher. More was a great enthusiast, and, of course, an egotist, so that criticism ruffled his temper, notwithstanding all his Platonism. When accused of obscurities and extravagancies, he said, that, like the ostrich, he laid his eggs in the sands, which would prove vital and prolific in time; however, these ostrich eggs have proved to be addled.

A habit of correctness in the lesser parts of composition will assist the higher. It is worth recording that the great Milton was anxious for correct punctuation, and that Addison was solicitous after the minutiæ of the press. Savage, Armstrong, and others, felt tortures on similar objects. It is said of Julius Scaliger, that he had this peculiarity in his manner of composition; he wrote with such accuracy that his MSS, and the printed copy corresponded page for page, and line for line.

Malherbe, the father of French poetry, tormented himself by a prodigious slowness; and was employed rather in perfecting than in forming works. His muse is compared to a fine woman in the pangs of delivery. He exulted in his tardiness, and, after finishing a poem of one hundred verses, or a discourse of ten pages, he used to say he ought to repose for ten years. Balzac, the first writer in French prose who gave majesty and harmony to a period, it is said, did not grudge to bestow a week on a page, and was never satisfied with his first thoughts. Our “costive” Gray entertained the same notion: and it is hard to say if it arose from the sterility of their genius, or their sensibility of taste.

It is curious to observe that the MSS. of Tasso, which are still preserved, are illegible from the vast number of their corrections. I have given a facsimile, as correct as it is possible to conceive, of one page of Pope's MS. Homer, as a specimen of his continual corrections and critical rasures. The celebrated Madame Dacier never could satisfy herself in translating Homer: continually retouching the version, even in its happiest passages. There were several parts which she translated in six or seven manners; and she frequently noted in the margin—I have not yet done it.

When Pascal became warm in his celebrated controversy, he applied himself with incredible labour to the composition of his “Provincial Letters.” He was frequently twenty days occupied on a single letter. He recommenced some above seven and eight times, and by this means obtained that perfection which has made his work, as Voltaire says, “one of the best books ever published in France.”

The Quintus Curtius of Vaugelas occupied him thirty years; generally every period was translated in the margin five or six several ways. Chapelain and Conrart, who took the pains to review this work critically, were many times perplexed in their choice of passages; they generally liked best that which had been first composed. Hume was never done with corrections; every edition varies with the preceding ones. But there are more fortunate and fluent minds than these. Voltaire tells us of Fénélon’s Telemachus, that the amiable author composed it in his retirement in the short period of three months. Fénélon had, before this, formed his style, and his mind overflowed with all the spirit of the ancients. He opened a copious fountain, and there were not ten erasures in the original MS. The same facility accompanied Gibbon after the experience of his first volume; and the same copious readiness attended Adam Smith, who dictated to his amanuensis, while he walked about his study.

The ancients were as pertinacious in their corrections. Isocrates, it is said, was employed for ten years on one of his works, and to appear natural studied with the most refined art. After a labour of eleven years, Virgil pronounced his Æneid imperfect. Dion Cassius devoted twelve years to the composition of his history, and Diodorus Siculus, thirty.

There is a middle between velocity and torpidity; the Italians say, it is not necessary to be a stag, but we ought not to be a tortoise.

Many ingenious expedients are not to be contemned in literary labours. The critical advice,

“To choose an author as we would a friend,”

is very useful to young writers. The finest geniuses have always affectionately attached themselves to some particular author of congenial disposition. Pope, in his version of Homer, kept a constant eye on his master Dryden; Corneille’s favourite authors were the brilliant Tacitus, the heroic Livy, and the lofty Lucan: the influence of their characters may be traced in his best tragedies. The great Clarendon, when employed in writing his history, read over very carefully Tacitus and Livy, to give dignity to his style, as he writes in a letter. Tacitus did not surpass him in his portraits, though Clarendon never equalled Livy in his narrative.

The mode of literary composition adopted by that admirable student Sir William Jones is well deserving our attention. After having fixed on his subjects, he always added the model of the composition; and thus boldly wrestled with the great authors of antiquity. On board the frigate which was carrying him to India, he projected the following works, and noted them in this manner:

1. Elements of the Laws of England.
   Model—The Essay on Bailments. ARISTOTLE.
2. The History of the American War.
3. Britain Discovered, an Epic Poem. Machinery—Hindu Gods.
4. Speeches, Political and Forensic.
5. Dialogues, Philosophical and Historical.

And of favourite authors there are also favourite works, which we love to be familiarized with. Bartholinus has a dissertation on reading books, in which he points out the superior performances of different writers. Of St. Augustine, his City of God; of Hippocrates, Coacæ Prænotiones; of Cicero, De 0fficiis; of Aristotle, De Animalibus; of Catullus, Coma Berenices; of Virgil, the sixth book of the Æneid, &c. Such judgments are indeed not to be our guides; but such a mode of reading is useful to contract our studies within due limits.

Evelyn, who has written treatises on several subjects, was occupied for years on them. His manner of arranging his materials and his mode of composition appear excellent. Having chosen a subject, he analyzed it into its various parts, under certain heads, or titles, to be filled up at leisure. Under these heads he set down his own thoughts as they occurred, occasionally inserting whatever was useful from his reading. When his collections were thus formed, he digested his own thoughts regularly, and strengthened them by authorities from ancient and modern authors, or alleged his reasons for dissenting from them. His collections in time became voluminous, but he then exercised that judgment which the formers of such collections are usually deficient in. With Hesiod he knew that “Half is better than the whole,” and it was his aim to express the quintessence of his reading, but not to give it in a crude state to the world, and when his treatises were sent to the press, they were not half the size of his collections.

Thus also Winkelman, in his “History of Art,” an extensive work, was long lost in settling on a plan; like artists, who make random sketches of their first conceptions, he threw on paper ideas, hints, and observations which occurred in his readings—many of them, indeed, were not connected with his history, but were afterwards inserted in some of his other works.

Even Gibbon tells us of his Roman History, “At the outset all was dark and doubtful; even the title of the work, the true æra of the decline and fall of the empire, the limits of the introduction, the division of the chapters, and the order of the narration; and I was often tempted to cast away the labour of seven years.” Akenside has exquisitely described the progress and the pains of genius in its delightful reveries, Pleasures of Imagination, B, iii. v. 373. The pleasures of composition in an ardent genius were never so finely described as by Buffon. Speaking of the hours of composition he said, “These are the most luxurious and delightful moments of life: moments which have often enticed me to pass fourteen hours at my desk in a state of transport; this gratification more than glory is my reward!”

The publication of Gibbon’s Memoirs conveyed to the world a faithful picture of the most fervid industry; it is in youth, the foundations of such a sublime edifice as his history must be laid. The world can now trace how this Colossus of erudition, day by day, and year by year, prepared himself for some vast work.

Gibbon has furnished a new idea in the art of reading! We ought, says he, not to attend to the order of our books, so much as of our thoughts. “The perusal of a particular work gives birth perhaps to ideas unconnected with the subject it treats; I pursue these ideas, and quit my proposed plan of reading.” Thus in the midst of Homer he read Longinus; a chapter of Longinus led to an epistle of Pliny; and having finished Longinus, he followed the train of his ideas of the sublime and beautiful in the Inquiry of Burke, and concluded with comparing the ancient with the modern Longinus. Of all our popular writers the most experienced reader was Gibbon, and he offers an important advice to an author engaged on a particular subject. “I suspended my perusal of any new book on the subject till I had reviewed all that I knew, or believed, or had thought on it, that I might be qualified to discern how much the authors added to my original stock.”

These are valuable hints to students, and such have been practised by others. Ancillon was a very ingenious student; he seldom read a book throughout without reading in his progress many others; his library-table was always covered with a number of books for the most part open; this variety of authors bred no confusion; they all assisted to throw light on the same topic; he was not disgusted by frequently seeing the same thing in different writers; their opinions were so many new strokes, which completed the ideas which he had conceived. The celebrated Father Paul studied in the same manner. He never passed over an interesting subject till he had confronted a variety of authors. In historical researches he never would advance, till he had fixed, once for all, the places, time, and opinions—a mode of study which appears very dilatory, but in the end will make a great saving of time, and labour of mind; those who have not pursued this method are all their lives at a loss to settle their opinions and their belief, from the want of having once brought them to such a test.

I shall now offer a plan of Historical Study, and a calculation of the necessary time it will occupy without specifying the authors; as I only propose to animate a young student, who feels he has not to number the days of a patriarch, that he should not be alarmed at the vast labyrinth historical researches present to his eye. If we look into public libraries, more than thirty thousand volumes of history may be found.

Lenglet du Fresnoy, one of the greatest readers, calculated that he could not read, with satisfaction, more than ten hours a day, and ten pages in folio an hour ; which makes 100 pages every day. Supposing each volume to contain 5oo pages, every month would amount to onc volume and a half, which makes 18 volumes in folio in the year. In fifty years, a student could only read 900 volumes in folio. All this, too, supposing uninterrupted health, and an intelligence as rapid as the eyes of the laborious researcher. A man can hardly study to advantage till past twenty, and at fifty his eyes will be dimmed, and his head stuffed with much reading that should never be read. His fifty years for 9oo volumes are reduced to thirty years, and 5oo volumes! And, after all, the universal historian must resolutely face thirty thousand volumes!

But to cheer the historiographer, he shows, that a public library is only necessary to be consulted; it is in our private closet where should be found those few writers who direct us to their rivals, without jealousy, and mark, in the vast career of time, those who are worthy to instruct posterity. His calculation proceeds on this plan.—that six hours a day, and the term of ten years, are sufficient to pass over, with utility, the immense field of history.

He calculates this alarming extent of historical ground.

For a knowledge of Sacred History he gives: 3 months
Ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria, modern Assyria or Persia: 1 month
Greek History: 6 months
Roman History by the moderns: 7 months
Roman History by the original writers: 6 months
Ecclesiastical History, general and particular: 30 months
Modern History: 24 months:
To this may be added for recurrences and reperusals: 48 months
The total will amount to 10½ years.

Thus, in ten years and a half, a student in history has obtained an universal knowledge, and this on a plan which permits as much leisure as every student would choose to indulge.

As a specimen of Du Fresnoy’s calculations, take that of Sacred History.

For reading Père Calmet’s learned dissertations in the order he points out: 12 days.
For Père Calmet's History, in 2 Vols. 4to. (now in 4): 12 days.
For Prideaux’ History: 10 days.
For Josephus 12 days.
For Basnage’s History of the Jews: 20 days.
In all, 66 days.
He allows, however, 90 days for obtaining a sufficient knowledge of Sacred History.

In reading this sketch, we are scarcely surprised at the erudition of a Gibbon; but having admired that erudition, we perceive the necessity of such a plan, it' we would not learn what we have afterwards to unlearn.

A plan like the present, even in a mind which should feel itself incapable of the exertion, will not be regarded without that reverence we feel for genius animating such industry. This scheme of study, though it may never be rigidly pursued, will be found excellent. Ten years’ labour of happy diligence may render a student capable of consigning to posterity a history as universal in its topics, as that of the historian who led to this investigation.

Editor’s Notes

 § In posthumous editions of the Curiosities there is a footnote on the first sentence of the paragraph beginning: ‘These are valuable hints to students:’

Edgar Poe’s account of the regular mode by which he designed and executed his best and most renowned poem, “The Raven,” is an instance of the use of methodical rule successfully applied to what appears to be one of the most fanciful of mental works.

 ¶ A version of this article first appeared in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities, from which the text above has been extensively revised. More of the original article has been lost than retained—I give the main omissions below:

In a little Tract, printed in 1681, is to be found some curious literary information. The ingenious author attempts to mark out the most profitable way of reading and writing books. He first informs us of various voluminous writers; of some, so infested with the cacœthes scribendi, that they have composed from six to seven thousand volumes! He then notices vast libraries; fuch as that of Ptolomy, King of Egypt, which was said to contain four hundred thousand; or. as others write, seven hundred thousand volumes: and also that of the younger Theodosius, at Constantinople, containing ten myriads of books.
He reflects that, since the invention of printing, an author can publish as much in one day as he has composed in one year. He laments, that these multifarious volumes may prove prejudicial to the student; that such a continued novelty of matter will render his knowledge less clear and digested than before this invention took place: though he is willing to allow that this evil originates rather from the ill use made of books, than from their number.
He complains—a complaint, I fear, which must ever exist—that the press is continually pouring forth trivial, crude, and useless performances: yet he observes—“If men would take care that ill books be not written, and that good books be not ill written, but that in their composition a due regard be always had to prudence, solidity, perspicuity, and brevity, there would be no cause left for us to complain of the too great number of books.”
By the idea of prudence, he would have us understand, that an author should never rashly or inconsiderately apply himself to composition: let him learn well what he purposes to teach to others. The greatest scholars have always taken time to make their compositions approach perfection […] Jacobus Sannazarius wrote three books de Partu Virginis, and dedicated twenty years to this labour. […] Hence he advises writers to reflect on the reply of Zeuxis to one who boasted of a more fluent hand in painting—Diu pingo, quia eternitati pingo— “I paint but a line every day; but I paint for posterity.”
In works of importance, he would have us be studious of what he calls solidity. He means, that our arguments should be forcibly urged, and skilfully applied; that every thing we write tend to shew that we feel ourselves the conviction of what we would convince our reader; that nothing be feeble, doubtful, or frivolous; that truth be firm, clear, and as indisputable as possible. “Not,” as he candidly remarks, “that this solidity can be every where observed alike, it being above the infirmity of man so to do; but men should be very wary not to flatter themselves that others will believe their bare say-so’s.”
By perspicuity, he requires that the style serve like a mirror to the mind of the author; so that the sense may be lucidly presented to the reader. As for those authors who are pleased to throw over their compositions an affected obscurity, he shrewdly remarks, that they might gratify their humour and the world much better by remaining silent.
Lastly, he would not have perspicuity so far indulged as to neglect brevity. “For, as obscurity makes a book useless; so, if drawn out in length, it becomes tedious.” To observe this brevity, he advises the writer not to give into wild digressions, but always “to keep close to his main subject;” to reject, as much as possible, trite sentiments and familiar arguments; to be sparing of an idle amplification of words; and, in controversy, not so much to combat his adversaries by number as by weight of argument.
To close this slight review, which, I hope, will not be found unuseful, he exhorts the ingenuous youth not to delight in a multiplicity of authors; to be select in his choice, and then studiously to unite himself to those authors whom he finds most congenial to his own dispositions. An excellent rule this! […]
For the benefit of young authors, 1 will add the advice of a veteran on Publication—
Menage observes, that the works which are most generally liked, give a more extensive reputation than the most excellent ones, which are only relished by a few connoisseurs. The dishes at at least should rather be seasoned to the taste of the guests than to that of the cooks, however able they may be: for, as Martial says—
———“Nam Cœnae fercula Nostræ
Malim Convivis, quam placuisse Cocis.”
To give a work which may be crowned with the approbation of the public, it must be read three times: the first:, perfectly to understand it; the second, to criticise it; and the third, to correct it.
D’Andilly, the translator of Josephus, asked Richelet, who was intimately acquainted with D’Ablancourt, (another very celebrated translator) how often this ingenious writer retouched his works before he gave them to the public. Six times, answered Richelet. And I, replied D’Andilly, rewrote ten times my history of Josephus. I chastised the style with care, and could never please myself.
Some authors spare no trouble or expence to improve their works. Cardinal Perron frequently printed his works twice before he ventured to publish them: the first, to distribute them amongst his friends, that they might make their observations; the second, to give them to the public in a more perfect state.