Thursday, November 30, 2017

`He Is One of the Most Useful Models'

The Rev. Hugh Blair (1718-1800) was a Presbyterian minister who taught rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. He was, with David Hume and Adam Smith, a member of that city’s Poker Club, one of the Scottish Enlightenment’s informal think tanks. Boswell reports Dr. Johnson saying of him: “I love Blair’s Sermons. Though the dog is a Scotchman and a Presbyterian, and everything he should not be, I was the first to praise them. Such was my candour, (smiling.)” Blair’s best-known work is Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), in which he vigorously commends the writing style of a fellow clergyman:

“Few writers have discovered more capacity. He treats every subject which he handles, whether serious or ludicrous, in a masterly manner. He knew, almost, beyond any man, the Purity, the Extent, the Precision of the English Language; and, therefore, to such as wish to attain a pure and correct Style, he is one of the most useful models. But we must not look for much ornament and grace in his Language. His haughty and morose genius, made him despise any embellishment of this kind as beneath his dignity. He delivers his sentiments in a plain, downright, positive manner, like the one who is sure he is in the right; and is very indifferent whether you be pleased or not.”

The “haughty and morose genius” is Jonathan Swift, whose 350th birthday we celebrate today. If we could still apprentice ourselves to master craftsmen, and our trade is writing, Swift is the sanest choice of mentors. Nothing in excess, no filigree or fluff, the object is always clarity and precision. The following passage is from the Sixth Letter in The Drapier’s Letters (1724-25). The issue will seem remote. Swift is objecting to the inferior quality of the coinage being forced on the people of Ireland by England. The Irish are his audience for these pamphlets. Swift was rousing the rabble, and his agitation was successful. The proposal was withdrawn and Swift, born in Dublin, became an Irish hero. Here is a sample:

“There is a vein of industry and parsimony, that runs through the whole people of England, which, added to the easiness of their rents, makes them rich and sturdy. As to Ireland, they know little more of it than they do of Mexico: farther than that it is a country subject to the king of England, full of bogs, inhabited by wild Irish papists, who are kept in awe by mercenary troops sent from thence: and their general opinion is, that it were better for England if this whole island were sunk into the sea: for they have a tradition, that every forty years there must be a rebellion in Ireland.”

Swift is popularly regarded as the author of one book, Gulliver’s Travels, which is like remembering Shakespeare solely for “Venus and Adonis.” His output was prolific and varied. Blair’s observation that Swift “delivers his sentiments in a plain, downright, positive manner” applies to his verse as well as his prose. This is from “On Poetry: A Rhapsody” (1733):

“In bulk there are not more degrees
From elephants to mites in cheese,
Than what a curious eye may trace
In creatures of the rhyming race.
From bad to worse, and worse they fall;
But who can reach the worst of all?”

One measure of Swift’s genius is the frequency with which his name is enlisted as a synonym for satire and irony: “Swiftian,” through laziness, has become a cliché. As the eminent literary critic Mickey Sabbath puts it: “The professors are always schlepping in Swift to defend some farshtunkeneh nobody.”

No comments: