LONDON, November 24, O. S. 1749.
DEAR Boy: Every rational being (I take it for granted) proposes to himself some object more important than mere respiration and obscure animal existence. He desires to distinguish himself among his fellow- creatures; and, 'alicui negotio intentus, prreclari facinoris, aut artis bonae, faman quaerit'. Caesar, when embarking in a storm, said, that it was not necessary he should live; but that it was absolutely necessary he should get to the place to which he was going. And Pliny leaves mankind this only alternative; either of doing what deserves to be written, or of writing what deserves to be read. As for those who do neither, 'eorum vitam mortemque juxta aestumo; quoniam de utraque siletur'. You have, I am convinced, one or both of these objects in view; but you must know and use the necessary means, or your pursuit will be vain and frivolous. In either case, 'Sapere est princihium et fons'; but it is by no means all. That knowledge must be adorned, it must have lustre as well as weight, or it will be oftener taken, for lead than for gold. Knowledge you have, and will have: I am easy upon that article. But my business, as your friend, is not to compliment you upon what you have, but to tell you with freedom what you want; and I must tell you plainly, that I fear you want everything but knowledge.
I have written to you so often, of late, upon good-breeding, address, 'les manieres liantes', the Graces, etc., that I shall confine this letter to another subject, pretty near akin to them, and which, I am sure, you are full as deficient in; I mean Style.
Style is the dress of thoughts; and let them be ever so just, if your style is homely, coarse, and vulgar, they will appear to as much disadvantage, and be as ill received as your person, though ever so well proportioned, would, if dressed in rags, dirt, and tatters. It is not every understanding that can judge of matter; but every ear can and does judge, more or less, of style: and were I either to speak or write to the public, I should prefer moderate matter, adorned with all the beauties and elegancies of style, to the strongest matter in the world, ill-worded and ill-delivered. Your business is negotiation abroad, and oratory in the House of Commons at home. What figure can you make, in either case, if your style be inelegant, I do not say bad? Imagine yourself writing an office-letter to a secretary of state, which letter is to be read by the whole Cabinet Council, and very possibly afterward laid before parliament; any one barbarism, solecism, or vulgarism in it, would, in a very few days, circulate through the whole kingdom, to your disgrace and ridicule. For instance, I will suppose you had written the following letter from The Hague to the Secretary of State at London; and leave you to suppose the consequences of it:
MY LORD: I HAD, last night, the honor of your Lordship's letter of the 24th; and will SET ABOUT DOING the orders contained THEREIN; and IF so BE that I can get that affair done by the next post, I will not fail FOR TO give your Lordship an account of it by NEXT POST. I have told the French Minister, AS HOW THAT IF that affair be not soon concluded, your Lordship would think it ALL LONG OF HIM; and that he must have neglected FOR TO have wrote to his court about it. I must beg leave to put your Lordship in mind AS HOW, that I am now full three quarter in arrear; and if SO BE that I do not very soon receive at least one half year, I shall CUT A VERY BAD FIGURE; FOR THIS HERE place is very dear. I shall be VASTLY BEHOLDEN to your Lordship for THAT THERE mark of your favor; and so I REST or REMAIN, Your, etc.
You will tell me, possibly, that this is a caricatura of an illiberal and inelegant style: I will admit it; but assure you, at the same time, that a dispatch with less than half these faults would blow you up forever. It is by no means sufficient to be free from faults, in speaking and writing; but you must do both correctly and elegantly. In faults of this kind, it is not 'ille optimus qui minimis arguetur'; but he is unpardonable who has any at all, because it is his own fault: he need only attend to, observe, and imitate the best authors.
It is a very true saying, that a man must be born a poet, but that he may make himself an orator; and the very first principle of an orator is to speak his own language, particularly, with the utmost purity and elegance. A man will be forgiven even great errors in a foreign language; but in his own, even the least slips are justly laid hold of and ridiculed.
A person of the House of Commons, speaking two years ago upon naval affairs; asserted, that we had then the finest navy UPON THE FACE OF THE YEARTH. This happy mixture of blunder and vulgarism, you may easily imagine, was matter of immediate ridicule; but I can assure you that it continues so still, and will be remembered as long as he lives and speaks. Another, speaking in defense of a gentleman, upon whom a censure was moved, happily said that he thought that gentleman was more LIABLE to be thanked and rewarded, than censured. You know, I presume, that LIABLE can never be used in a good sense.