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Literary Composition
by [?]

The MSS. of Tasso, still preserved, are illegible from the vast number of their corrections. I have given a fac-simile, as correct as it is possible to conceive, of one page of Pope’s MS. Homer, as a specimen of his continual corrections and critical erasures. The celebrated Madame Dacier never could satisfy herself in translating Homer: continually retouching the version, even in its happiest passages. There were several parts which she translated in six or seven manners; and she frequently noted in the margin–I have not yet done it.

When Pascal became warm in his celebrated controversy, he applied himself with incredible labour to the composition of his “Provincial Letters.” He was frequently twenty days occupied on a single letter. He recommenced some above seven and eight times, and by this means obtained that perfection which has made his work, as Voltaire says, “one of the best books ever published in France.”

The Quintus Curtius of Vaugelas occupied him thirty years: generally every period was translated in the margin five or six different ways. Chapelain and Conrart, who took the pains to review this work critically, were many times perplexed in their choice of passages; they generally liked best that which had been first composed. Hume had never done with corrections; every edition varies from the preceding ones. But there are more fortunate and fluid minds than these. Voltaire tells us of Fenelon’s Telemachus, that the amiable author composed it in his retirement, in the short period of three months. Fenelon had, before this, formed his style, and his mind overflowed with all the spirit of the ancients. He opened a copious fountain, and there were not ten erasures in the original MS. The same facility accompanied Gibbon after the experience of his first volume; and the same copious readiness attended Adam Smith, who dictated to his amanuensis, while he walked about his study.

The ancients were as pertinacious in their corrections. Isocrates, it is said, was employed for ten years on one of his works, and to appear natural studied with the most refined art. After a labour of eleven years, Virgil pronounced his AEneid imperfect. Dio Cassius devoted twelve years to the composition of his history, and Diodorus Siculus, thirty.

There is a middle between velocity and torpidity; the Italians say, it is not necessary to be a stag, but we ought not to be a tortoise.

Many ingenious expedients are not to be contemned in literary labours. The critical advice,

To choose an author as we would a friend,

is very useful to young writers. The finest geniuses have always affectionately attached themselves to some particular author of congenial disposition. Pope, in his version of Homer, kept a constant eye on his master Dryden; Corneille’s favourite authors were the brilliant Tacitus, the heroic Livy, and the lofty Lucan: the influence of their characters may be traced in his best tragedies. The great Clarendon, when employed in writing his history, read over very carefully Tacitus and Livy, to give dignity to his style; Tacitus did not surpass him in his portraits, though Clarendon never equalled Livy in his narrative.

The mode of literary composition adopted by that admirable student Sir William Jones, is well deserving our attention. After having fixed on his subjects, he always added the model of the composition; and thus boldly wrestled with the great authors of antiquity. On board the frigate which was carrying him to India, he projected the following works, and noted them in this manner:–

1. Elements of the Laws of England.
Model --The Essay on Bailments. ARISTOTLE.

2. The History of the American War.

3. Britain Discovered, an Epic Poem. Machinery–Hindu Gods.
Model –HOMER.

4. Speeches, Political and Forensic.

5. Dialogues, Philosophical and Historical.
Model –PLATO.
And of favourite authors there are also favourite works, which we love to be familiarised with. Bartholinus has a dissertation on reading books, in which he points out the superior performances of different writers. Of St. Austin, his City of God; of Hippocrates, Coacae Praenotiones; of Cicero, De Officiis; of Aristotle, De Animalibus; of Catullus, Coma Berenices; of Virgil, the sixth book of the AEneid, etc. Such judgments are indeed not to be our guides; but such a mode of reading is useful, by condensing our studies.