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Cambridge Pieces   By: (1835-1902)

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This etext was produced from the 1914 A. C. Fifield edition by David Price, email


by Samuel Butler

Contents: On English Composition and Other Matters Our Tour Translation from an Unpublished Work of Herodotus The shield of Achilles, with variations Prospectus of the Great Split Society Powers A skit on examinations An Eminent Person Napoleon at St. Helena THE TWO DEANS The Battle of Alma Mater On the Italian Priesthood Samuel Butler and the Simeonites


This essay is believed to be the first composition by Samuel Butler that appeared in print. It was published in the first number of the EAGLE, a magazine written and edited by members of St. John's College, Cambridge, in the Lent Term, 1858, when Butler was in his fourth and last year of residence.

[From the Eagle, Vol. 1, No. 1, Lent Term, 1858, p. 41.]

I sit down scarcely knowing how to grasp my own meaning, and give it a tangible shape in words; and yet it is concerning this very expression of our thoughts in words that I wish to speak. As I muse things fall more into their proper places, and, little fit for the task as my confession pronounces me to be, I will try to make clear that which is in my mind.

I think, then, that the style of our authors of a couple of hundred years ago was more terse and masculine than that of those of the present day, possessing both more of the graphic element, and more vigour, straightforwardness, and conciseness. Most readers will have anticipated me in admitting that a man should be clear of his meaning before he endeavours to give to it any kind of utterance, and that having made up his mind what to say, the less thought he takes how to say it, more than briefly, pointedly, and plainly, the better; for instance, Bacon tells us, "Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark"; he does not say, what I can imagine a last century writer to have said, "A feeling somewhat analogous to the dread with which children are affected upon entering a dark room, is that which most men entertain at the contemplation of death." Jeremy Taylor says, "Tell them it is as much intemperance to weep too much as to laugh too much"; he does not say, "All men will acknowledge that laughing admits of intemperance, but some men may at first sight hesitate to allow that a similar imputation may be at times attached to weeping."

I incline to believe that as irons support the rickety child, whilst they impede the healthy one, so rules, for the most part, are but useful to the weaker among us. Our greatest masters in language, whether prose or verse, in painting, music, architecture, or the like, have been those who preceded the rule and whose excellence gave rise thereto; men who preceded, I should rather say, not the rule, but the discovery of the rule, men whose intuitive perception led them to the right practice. We cannot imagine Homer to have studied rules, and the infant genius of those giants of their art, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven, who composed at the ages of seven, five, and ten, must certainly have been unfettered by them: to the less brilliantly endowed, however, they have a use as being compendious safeguards against error. Let me then lay down as the best of all rules for writing, "forgetfulness of self, and carefulness of the matter in hand." No simile is out of place that illustrates the subject; in fact a simile as showing the symmetry of this world's arrangement, is always, if a fair one, interesting; every simile is amiss that leads the mind from the contemplation of its object to the contemplation of its author. This will apply equally to the heaping up of unnecessary illustrations: it is as great a fault to supply the reader with too many as with too few; having given him at most two, it is better to let him read slowly and think out the rest for himself than to surfeit him with an abundance of explanation... Continue reading book >>

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