Nothing is more idle, and, what is less to be forgiven in a writer, more tedious, than minute and lengthened descriptions of localities; where it is very doubtful whether the writers themselves had formed any tolerable notion of the place they describe — it is certain their readers never can! These descriptive passages, in which writers of imagination so frequently indulge, are usually a glittering confusion of unconnected things; circumstances recollected from others, or observed by themselves at different times; the finest are thrust in together. If a scene from nature, it is possible that all the seasons of the year may be jumbled together; or if a castle or an apartment, its magnitude or its minuteness may equally bewilder. Yet we find, even in works of celebrity, whole pages of these general or these particular descriptive sketches, which leave nothing behind but noun substantives propped up by random epithets. The old writers were quite delighted to fill up their voluminous pages with what was a great saving of sense and thinking. In the Alaric of Scudery sixteen pages, containing nearly five hundred verses, describe a palace, commencing at the façade, and at length finishing with the garden; but his description, we may say, was much better described by Boileau, whose good taste felt the absurdity of this “abondance stérile,” in overloading a work with useless details,
Un auteur, quelquefois, trop plein de son objet,
Jamais sans l’épuiser n’abandonne un sujet.
S’il rencontre un palais il m’en dépeint la face,
Il me promène après de terrasae en terrasse.
Ici s’offre un perron, là règne un corridor;
Là ce balcon s’enferme en un balustre d’or;
Il compte les plafonds, les ronds, et les ovales —
Je saute vingt feuillets pour en trouver la fin;
Et je me sauve à peine au travers du jardin!
And then he adds so excellent a canon of criticism, that we must not neglect it:—
Tout ce qu’on dit de trop est fade et rébutant;
L’esprit rassasié le rejette à l’instant,
Qui ne sait se borner, ne sut jamais écrire.
We have a memorable instance of the inefficiency of local descriptions in a very remarkable one by a writer of fine genius, composing with an extreme fondness of his subject, and curiously anxious to send down to posterity the most elaborate display of his own villa — this was the Laurentinum of Pliny. We cannot read his letter to Gallus, which the English reader may in Melmoth’s elegant version,1 without somewhat participating in the delight of the writer in many of its details; but we cannot with the writer form the slightest conception of his villa, while he is leading us over from apartment to apartment, and pointing to us the opposite wing, with a “beyond this,” and a “not far from thence,” and “to this apartment another of the same sort,” &c. Yet, still, as we were in great want of a correct knowledge of a Roman villa, and as this must be the most so possible, architects have frequently studied, and the learned translated with extraordinary care, Pliny’s Description of his Laurentinum. It became so favourite an object, that eminent architects have attempted to raise up this edifice once more, by giving its plan and elevation; and this extraordinary fact is the result — that not one of them but has given a representation different from the other! Montfaucon, a more faithful antiquary, in his close translation of the description of this villa, in comparing it with Felibien’s plan of the villa itself, observes, “that the architect accommodated his edifice to his translation, but that their notions are not the same; unquestionably,” he adds, “if ten skilful translators were to perform their task separately, there would not be one who agreed with another!”
If, then, on this subject of local descriptions, we find that it is impossible to convey exact notions of a real existing scene, what must we think of those which, in truth, describe scenes which have no other existence than the confused makings-up of an author’s invention; where the more he details the more he confuses; and where the more particular he wishes to be, the more indistinct the whole appears?
Local descriptions, after a few striking circumstances have been selected, admit of no further detail. It is not their length, but their happiness, which enters into our comprehension; the imagination can only take in and keep together a very few parts of a picture. The pen must not intrude on the province of the pencil, any more than the pencil must attempt to perform what cannot in any shape be submitted to the eye, though fully to the mind.
The great art, perhaps, of local description, is rather a general than a particular view; the details must be left to the imagination; it is suggestion rather than description. There is an old Italian sonnet of this kind which I have often read with delight; and though I may not communicate the same pleasure to the reader, yet the story of the writer is most interesting, and the lady (for such she was) has the highest claim to be ranked, like the lady of Evelyn, among literary wives.
Francesca Turina Bufalini di Citta di Castello, of noble extraction, and devoted to literature, had a collection of her poems published in 1628. She frequently interspersed little domestic incidents of her female friend, her husband, her son, her grandchildren; and in one of these sonnets she has delineated her palace of San Giustino, whose localities she appears to have enjoyed with intense delight in the company of “her lord,” whom she tenderly associates with the scene. There is a freshness and simplicity in the description, which will perhaps convey a clearer notion of the spot than even Pliny could do in the voluminous description of his villa. She tells us what she found when brought to the house of her husband:—
Ampie salle, ampie loggie, ampio cortile
E stanze ornate con gentil pitture,
Trovai giungendo, e nobili sculture
Di marmo fatte, da scalpel non vile.
Nobil giardin con un perpetuo Aprile
Di varij fior, di frutti, e di verdure,
Ombre soavi, acque a temprar l’arsure
E strade di beltà non dissimile;
E non men forte estel, che per fortezza
Ha il ponte, e i fianchi, e lo circonda intorno
Fosso profundo e di real larghezza.
Qui fei col mio Signore dolce soggiorno
Con santo amor, con somma contentezza
Onde ne benedico il mese e il giorno!
Wide halls, wide galleries, and an ample court,
Chambers adorn’d by pictures’ soothing charm,
I found together blended; noble sculpture
In marble, polish’d by no chisel vile;
A noble garden, where a lasting April
All-various flowers and fruits and verdure showers;
Soft shades, and waters tempering the hot air;
And undulating paths in equal beauty!
Nor less the castled glory stands in force,
And bridged and flanked. And round its circuit winds
The deepened moat, showing a regal size.
Here with my lord I cast my sweet sojourn,
With holy love, and with supreme content;
And hence I bless the month, and bless the day!
1 Book ii. lett. 17.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53