from Hugh Blair, _Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres_

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Poems 1773, Edited by Lisa Vargo and Allison Muri

from Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres




     E PISTOLARY Writing becomes a ditinct pecies of Compoition, ubject to the cognizance of Criticim, only or chiefly, when it is /67/ of the eay and familiar kind ; when it is converation carried on upon paper, between two friends at a ditance. Such an intercoure, when well conducted, may be rendered very agreeable to Readers of tate. If the ubject of the Letters be important, they will be the more valuable. Even though there hould be nothing very coniderable in the ubject, yet if the pirit and turn of the correpondence be agreeable ; if they be written in a prightly manner, and with native grace and eae, they may till be entertaining ; more epecially if there be any thing to interet us, in the characters of thoe who write them. Hence the curioity which the Public has always dicovered, concerning the Letters of eminent perons. We expect in them to dicover omewhat of their real character. It is childih indeed to expect, that in Letters we are to find the whole heart of the Author unveiled. Concealment and diguie take place, more or les, in all human intercoure. But till, as Letters from one friend to another make the nearet approach to converation, we may expect to ee more of a character diplayed in thee than in other productions, which are tudied for public view. We pleae ourelves with beholding the Writer in a ituation which allows him to be at his eae, and to give vent occaionally to the overflowings of his heart.

     /68/M UCH , therefore, of the merit, and the agreeablenes of Epitolary Writing, will depend on its introducing us into ome acquaintance with the Writer. There, if any where, we look for the man, not for the Author. Its firt and fundamental requiite is, to be natural and imple ; for a tiff and laboured manner is as bad in a Letter, as it is in Converation. This does not banih prightlines and wit. Thee are graceful in Letters, jut as they are in converation ; when they flow eaily, and without being tudied ; when employed o as to eaon, not to cloy. One who, either in Converation or in Letters, affects to hine and to parkle always, will not pleae long. The tyle of Letters hould not be too highly polihed. It ought to be neat and correct, but no more. All nicety about words, betrays tudy ; and hence muical periods, and appearances of number and harmony in arrangement, hould be carefully avoided in Letters. The bet Letters, are commonly uch as the Authors have written with mot facility. What the heart or the imagination dictates, always flows readily ; but where there is no ubject to warm or interet thee, contraint appears ; and hence, thoe Letters of mere compliment, congratulation, or affected condolance, which have cot the Authors mot labour in compoing, and which, for that reaon, they perhaps conider as their mater-pieces, never fail /69/ of being the mot diagreeable and inipid to the Readers.

     I T ought, at the ame time, to be remembered, that the eae and implicity which I have recommended in Epitolary Correpondence, are not to be undertood as importing entire carelenes. In writing to the mot intimate friend, a certain degree of attention, both to the ubject and the tyle, is requiite and becoming. It is no more than what we owe both to ourselves, and to the friend with whom we correpond. A lovenly and negligent manner of Writing, is a diobliging mark of want of repect. The liberty, beides, of writing Letters with too careles a hand, is apt to betray perons into imprudence in what they write. The firt requiite, both in converation and correondence, is to attend to all the proper decorums which our own character, and that of others, demand. An imprudent expression in converation may be forgotten and pas away ; but when we take the pen into our hand, we mut remember, that "Litera cripta manet."

     P LINY 's Letters are one of the mot celebrated collections which the Antients have given us, in the epitolary way. They are elegant and polite ; and exhibit a very pleaing /70/ and amiable view of the Author. But, according to the vulgar phrae, they mell too much of the lamp. They are too elegant and fine ; and it is not eay to avoid thinking, that the Author is cating an eye towards the Public, when he is appearing to write only for his friends. Nothing indeed is more difficult, than for an Author, who publihes his own Letters, to divet himelf altogether of attention to the opinion of the world in what he ays ; by which means, he becomes much les agreeable than a man of parts would be, if, without any contraint of this ort, he were writing to his intimate friend.

     C ICERO 's Epitles, though not o howy as thoe of Pliny, are, on everal accounts, a far more valuable collection ; indeed, the mot valuable collection of Letters extant in any language. They are Letters of real buines, written to the greatet men of the age, compoed with purity and elegance, but without the leat affectation ; and, what adds greatly to their merit, written without any intention of being publihed to the world. For it appears, that Cicero never kept copies of his own Letters ; and we are wholly indebeted to the care of his freed-man Tyro, for the large collection that was made, after his death, of thoe which are now extant, amounting to near /71/ a thouand*. They contain the mot authentic materials of the hitory of that age ; and are the lat monuments which remain of Rome in its free tate ; the greatet part of them being written during that important criis, when the Republic was on the point of ruin ; the mot intereting ituation, perhaps, which is to be found in the affairs of mankind. To his intimate friends, epecially to Atticus, Cicero lays open himelf and his heart, with entire freedom. In the coure of his correpondence with others, we are introduced into acquaintance with everal of the principal peronages of Rome ; and it is remarkable that mot of Cicero's correpondents, as well as himelf, are elegant and polite Writers ; which erves to heighten our idea of the tate and manners of that age.

     T HE mot ditinguihed Collection of Letters in the Englih Language, is that of Mr. Pope, Dean Swift, and their friends ; partly publihed in Mr. Pope's Works, and partly in thoe of Dean Swift. This Collection is, on the whole, an entertaining and agreeable one ; /72/ and contains much wit and refinement. It is not, however, altogether free from the fault which I imputed to Pliny's Epitles, of too much tudy and refinement. In the variety of Letters from different perons, contained in that Collection, we find many that are written with eae, and a beautiful implicity. Thoe of Dr. Arbuthnot, in particular, always deerve that praie. Dean Swift's alo are unaffected ; and as a proof of their being o, they exhibit his character fully, with all its defects ; though it were to be wihed, for the honour of his memory, that his Epitolary Correpondence had not been drained to the dregs, by o many ucceive publications, as have been given to the world. Several of Lord Bolingbroke's, and of Bihop Atterbury's Letters, are materly. The cenure of writing Letters in too artificial a manner, falls heaviet on Mr. Pope himelf. There is viibly more tudy, and les of nature and the heart in his Letters, than in thoe of ome of his correpondents. He had formed himelf on the manner of Voiture, and is too fond of writing like a wit. His Letters to Ladies are full of affectation. Even in writing to his friends, how forced an Introduction is the following of a Letter to Mr. Addion : "I am more joyed at your return, than I hould be at that of the Sun, as much as I wih for him in this /73/ melancholy wet eaon ; but it is his fate too, like yours, to be dipleaing to owls and obcene animals, who cannot bear his lutre." How tiff a compliment is it, which he pays to Bihop Atterbury? "Though the noie and daily butle for the Public be now over, I dare ay, you are till tendering its welfare ; as the Sun in winter, when eeming to retire from the world, is preparing warmth and benedictions for a better eaon." This entence might be tolerated in a harangue ; but is very unuitable to the Style of one friend correponding with another.

     T HE gaiety and vivacity of the French genius appear to much advantage in their Letters, and have given birth to everal agreeable publications. In the lat age, Balzac and Voiture were the two mot celebrated Epitolary Writers. Balzac's reputation indeed oon declined, on account of his welling periods and pompous Style. But Voiture continued along a favourite Author. His Compoition is extremely parkling ; he hows a great deal of wit, and can trifle in the mot entertaining manner. His only fault is, that he is too open and profeed a wit, to be thoroughlly agreeable as a Letter Writer. The Letters of Madam de Sevignè, are now eteemed the mot accomplihed model of a familiar correpondence. They turn indeed very much /74/ upon trifles, the incidents of the day, and the news of the town ; and they are overloaded with extravagant compliments, and expreions of fondes, to her favourite daughter ; but withal, they how uch perpetual prightlines, they contain uch eay and varied narration, and o many trokes of the mot lively and beautiful painting, perfectly free from any affectation, that they are jutly intitled to high praie. the Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague are not unworthy of being named after thoe Mad. de Sevignè. They have much of the French eae and vivacity ; and retain more the character of agreeable Epitolary Style, than perhaps any Letters which have appeared in the Englih language.


* See his Letter to Atticus, which was written a year or two before his death, in which he tells him, in anwer to ome enquiries concerning his Epitles, that he had no collection of htem, and that Tyro had only about eventy of them.
Ad ATT. 16. 5.

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Published @ RC

April 2000

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