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Literary Composition
by [?]

Evelyn, who has written treatises on several subjects, was occupied for years on them. His manner of arranging his materials, and his mode of composition, appear excellent. Having chosen a subject, he analysed it into its various parts, under certain heads, or titles, to be filled up at leisure. Under these heads he set down his own thoughts as they occurred, occasionally inserting whatever was useful from his reading. When his collections were thus formed, he digested his own thoughts regularly, and strengthened them by authorities from ancient and modern authors, or alleged his reasons for dissenting from them. His collections in time became voluminous, but he then exercised that judgment which the formers of such collections are usually deficient in. With Hesiod he knew that “half is better than the whole,” and it was his aim to express the quintessence of his reading, but not to give it in a crude state to the world, and when his treatises were sent to the press, they were not half the size of his collections.

Thus also Winkelmann, in his “History of Art,” an extensive work, was long lost in settling on a plan; like artists, who make random sketches of their first conceptions, he threw on paper ideas, hints, and observations which occurred in his readings–many of them, indeed, were not connected with his history, but were afterwards inserted in some of his other works.

Even Gibbon tells us of his Roman History, “at the outset all was dark and doubtful; even the title of the work, the true aera of the decline and fall of the empire, the limits of the introduction, the division of the chapters, and the order of the narration; and I was often tempted to cast away the labour of seven years.” Akenside has exquisitely described the progress and the pains of genius in its delightful reveries: Pleasures of Imagination, b. iii. v. 373. The pleasures of composition in an ardent genius were never so finely described as by Buffon. Speaking of the hours of composition he said, “These are the most luxurious and delightful moments of life: moments which have often enticed me to pass fourteen hours at my desk in a state of transport; this gratification more than glory is my reward.”

The publication of Gibbon’s Memoirs conveyed to the world a faithful picture of the most fervid industry; it is in youth the foundations of such a sublime edifice as his history must be laid. The world can now trace how this Colossus of erudition, day by day, and year by year, prepared himself for some vast work.

Gibbon has furnished a new idea in the art of reading! We ought, says he, not to attend to the order of our books, so much as of our thoughts. “The perusal of a particular work gives birth perhaps to ideas unconnected with the subject it treats; I pursue these ideas, and quit my proposed plan of reading.” Thus in the midst of Homer he read Longinus; a chapter of Longinus led to an epistle of Pliny; and having finished Longinus, he followed the train of his ideas of the sublime and beautiful in the Inquiry of Burke, and concluded with comparing the ancient with the modern Longinus. Of all our popular writers the most experienced reader was Gibbon, and he offers an important advice to an author engaged on a particular subject: “I suspended my perusal of any new book on the subject till I had reviewed all that I knew, or believed, or had thought on it, that I might be qualified to discern how much the authors added to my original stock.”

These are valuable hints to students, and such have been practised by others.[1] Ancillon was a very ingenious student; he seldom read a book throughout without reading in his progress many others; his library-table was always covered with a number of books for the most part open: this variety of authors bred no confusion; they all assisted to throw light on the same topic; he was not disgusted by frequently seeing the same thing in different writers; their opinions were so many new strokes, which completed the ideas which he had conceived. The celebrated Father Paul studied in the same manner. He never passed over an interesting subject till he had confronted a variety of authors. In historical researches he never would advance, till he had fixed, once for all, the places, time, and opinions–a mode of study which appears very dilatory, but in the end will make a great saving of time, and labour of mind: those who have not pursued this method are all their lives at a loss to settle their opinions and their belief, from the want of having once brought them to such a test.