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CONTENTS OF VOLUME III.
CURIOSITIES OF LITERATURE.
Nothing is more idle, and, what is less to be forgiven in a writer, more tedious, than minute and lengthened descriptions of localities; where it is very doubtful whether the writers themselves had formed any tolerable notion of the place they describe,—it is certain their readers never can! These descriptive passages, in which writers of imagination so frequently indulge, are usually a glittering confusion of unconnected things ; circumstances recollected from others, or observed by themselves at different times; the finest are thrust in together. If a scene from nature, it is possible that all the seasons of the year may be jumbled together; or if a castle or an apartment, its magnitude or its minuteness may equally bewilder. Yet we find, even in works of celebrity, whole pages of these general or these particular descriptive sketches, which leave nothing behind but noun substantives propped up by random epithets. The old writers were quite delighted to fill up their voluminous pages with what was a great saving of sense and thinking. In the Alaric of Scudery sixteen pages, containing nearly five hundred verses, describe a palace, commencing at the façade, and at length finishing with the garden ; but his description, we may say, was much better described by Boileau, whose good taste felt the absurdity of this “abondance stérile,” in overloading a work with useless details.
Un auteur, quelquefois, trop plein de son objet,
Et je me sauve à peine au travers du jardin !
And then he adds so excellent a canon of criticism, that we must not neglect it :
Tout ce qu'on dit de trop est fade et rébutant;
Qui ne sait se borner, ne sut jamais écrire. We have a memorable instance of the inefficiency of local descriptions in a very remarkable one by a writer of fine genius, composing with an extreme fondness of his subject, and curiously anxious to send down to posterity the most elaborate display of his own villa—this was the Laurentinum of Pliny. We cannot read his letter to Gallus, which the English reader may in Melmoth’s elegant version, * without somewhat participating in the delight of the writer in many of its details ; but we cannot with the writer form the slightest conception of his villa, while he is leading us over from apartment to apartment, and pointing to us the opposite wing, with a beyond this," and a not far from thence,” and “to this apartment another of the same sort, &c.
Yet, still, as we were in great want of a correct knowledge of a Roman villa, and as this must be the most so possible, architects have frequently studied, and the learned translated with extraordinary care, Pliny's Description of his Laurentinum. It became so favourite an object, that eminent architects have attempted to raise up this edifice once more, by giving its plan and elevation; and this extraordinary fact is the result—that not one of them but has given a representation different from the other ! Montfaucon, a more faithful antiquary, in his close translation of the description of this villa, in comparing it with Felibien's plan of the villa itself, observes, " that the architect accommodated his edifice to his translation, but that their notions are not the same; unquestionably," he adds, “if ten skilful translators were to perform their task separately, there would not be one who agreed with another !"
If, then, on this subject of local descriptions, we find that it is impossible to convey exact notions of a real existing scene, what must we think of those which, in truth, describe scenes which have no other existence than the confused makings-up of an author's invention; where the more he details the more he confuses; and where the more particular he wishes to be, the more indistinct the whole appears ?
* Book ii. lett. 17.