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. 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 will only 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 by 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 with but 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 extravagances, 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 minutiae 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, did not grudge to expend a week on a page, 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.