| from Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres
E PISTOLARY Writing becomes a distinct species of Composition, subject to the cognizance of Criticism, only or chiefly, when it is /67/ of the easy and familiar kind ; when it is conversation carried on upon paper, between two friends at a distance. Such an intercourse, when well conducted, may be rendered very agreeable to Readers of taste. If the subject of the Letters be important, they will be the more valuable. Even though there should be nothing very considerable in the subject, yet if the spirit and turn of the correspondence be agreeable ; if they be written in a sprightly manner, and with native grace and ease, they may still be entertaining ; more especially if there be any thing to interest us, in the characters of those who write them. Hence the curiosity which the Public has always discovered, concerning the Letters of eminent persons. We expect in them to discover somewhat of their real character. It is childish indeed to expect, that in Letters we are to find the whole heart of the Author unveiled. Concealment and disguise take place, more or less, in all human intercourse. But still, as Letters from one friend to another make the nearest approach to conversation, we may expect to see more of a character displayed in these than in other productions, which are studied for public view. We please ourselves with beholding the Writer in a situation which allows him to be at his ease, and to give vent occasionally to the overflowings of his heart.
/68/M UCH , therefore, of the merit, and the agreeableness of Epistolary Writing, will depend on its introducing us into some acquaintance with the Writer. There, if any where, we look for the man, not for the Author. Its first and fundamental requisite is, to be natural and simple ; for a stiff and laboured manner is as bad in a Letter, as it is in Conversation. This does not banish sprightliness and wit. These are graceful in Letters, just as they are in conversation ; when they flow easily, and without being studied ; when employed so as to season, not to cloy. One who, either in Conversation or in Letters, affects to shine and to sparkle always, will not please long. The style of Letters should not be too highly polished. It ought to be neat and correct, but no more. All nicety about words, betrays study ; and hence musical periods, and appearances of number and harmony in arrangement, should be carefully avoided in Letters. The best Letters, are commonly such as the Authors have written with most facility. What the heart or the imagination dictates, always flows readily ; but where there is no subject to warm or interest these, constraint appears ; and hence, those Letters of mere compliment, congratulation, or affected condolance, which have cost the Authors most labour in composing, and which, for that reason, they perhaps consider as their master-pieces, never fail /69/ of being the most disagreeable and insipid to the Readers.
I T ought, at the same time, to be remembered, that the ease and simplicity which I have recommended in Epistolary Correspondence, are not to be understood as importing entire carelessness. In writing to the most intimate friend, a certain degree of attention, both to the subject and the style, is requisite and becoming. It is no more than what we owe both to ourselves, and to the friend with whom we correspond. A slovenly and negligent manner of Writing, is a disobliging mark of want of respect. The liberty, besides, of writing Letters with too careless a hand, is apt to betray persons into imprudence in what they write. The first requisite, both in conversation and corresondence, is to attend to all the proper decorums which our own character, and that of others, demand. An imprudent expression in conversation may be forgotten and pass away ; but when we take the pen into our hand, we must remember, that "Litera scripta manet."
P LINY 's Letters are one of the most celebrated collections which the Antients have given us, in the epistolary way. They are elegant and polite ; and exhibit a very pleasing /70/ and amiable view of the Author. But, according to the vulgar phrase, they smell too much of the lamp. They are too elegant and fine ; and it is not easy to avoid thinking, that the Author is casting 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 publishes his own Letters, to divest himself altogether of attention to the opinion of the world in what he says ; by which means, he becomes much less agreeable than a man of parts would be, if, without any constraint of this sort, he were writing to his intimate friend.
C ICERO 's Epistles, though not so showy as those of Pliny, are, on several accounts, a far more valuable collection ; indeed, the most valuable collection of Letters extant in any language. They are Letters of real business, written to the greatest men of the age, composed with purity and elegance, but without the least affectation ; and, what adds greatly to their merit, written without any intention of being published 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 those which are now extant, amounting to near /71/ a thousand*. They contain the most authentic materials of the history of that age ; and are the last monuments which remain of Rome in its free state ; the greatest part of them being written during that important crisis, when the Republic was on the point of ruin ; the most interesting situation, perhaps, which is to be found in the affairs of mankind. To his intimate friends, especially to Atticus, Cicero lays open himself and his heart, with entire freedom. In the course of his correspondence with others, we are introduced into acquaintance with several of the principal personages of Rome ; and it is remarkable that most of Cicero's correspondents, as well as himself, are elegant and polite Writers ; which serves to heighten our idea of the taste and manners of that age.
T HE most distinguished Collection of Letters in the English Language, is that of Mr. Pope, Dean Swift, and their friends ; partly published in Mr. Pope's Works, and partly in those 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 Epistles, of too much study and refinement. In the variety of Letters from different persons, contained in that Collection, we find many that are written with ease, and a beautiful simplicity. Those of Dr. Arbuthnot, in particular, always deserve that praise. Dean Swift's also are unaffected ; and as a proof of their being so, they exhibit his character fully, with all its defects ; though it were to be wished, for the honour of his memory, that his Epistolary Correspondence had not been drained to the dregs, by so many successive publications, as have been given to the world. Several of Lord Bolingbroke's, and of Bishop Atterbury's Letters, are masterly. The censure of writing Letters in too artificial a manner, falls heaviest on Mr. Pope himself. There is visibly more study, and less of nature and the heart in his Letters, than in those of some of his correspondents. He had formed himself 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. Addison : "I am more joyed at your return, than I should be at that of the Sun, as much as I wish for him in this /73/ melancholy wet season ; but it is his fate too, like yours, to be displeasing to owls and obscene animals, who cannot bear his lustre." How stiff a compliment is it, which he pays to Bishop Atterbury? "Though the noise and daily bustle for the Public be now over, I dare say, you are still tendering its welfare ; as the Sun in winter, when seeming to retire from the world, is preparing warmth and benedictions for a better season." This sentence might be tolerated in a harangue ; but is very unsuitable to the Style of one friend corresponding with another.
T HE gaiety and vivacity of the French genius appear to much advantage in their Letters, and have given birth to several agreeable publications. In the last age, Balzac and Voiture were the two most celebrated Epistolary Writers. Balzac's reputation indeed soon declined, on account of his swelling periods and pompous Style. But Voiture continued along a favourite Author. His Composition is extremely sparkling ; he shows a great deal of wit, and can trifle in the most entertaining manner. His only fault is, that he is too open and professed a wit, to be thoroughlly agreeable as a Letter Writer. The Letters of Madam de Sevignè, are now esteemed the most accomplished model of a familiar correspondence. 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 expressions of fondess, to her favourite daughter ; but withal, they show such perpetual sprightliness, they contain such easy and varied narration, and so many strokes of the most lively and beautiful painting, perfectly free from any affectation, that they are justly intitled to high praise. the Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague are not unworthy of being named after those Mad. de Sevignè. They have much of the French ease and vivacity ; and retain more the character of agreeable Epistolary Style, than perhaps any Letters which have appeared in the English language.
* See his Letter to Atticus, which was written a year or two before his death, in which he tells him, in answer to some enquiries concerning his Epistles, that he had no collection of htem, and that Tyro had only about seventy of them.
Return to text.
Published @ RC