John Ward on Digression and Transition

Of Digression, Transition, and Amplification.
(from A System of Oratory)

The number, order, and nature of the parts, which constitute a complete and regular oration, I have endeavored to explain in several preceding lectures. But there are two or three things yet remaining, very necessary to be known by an orator, which seem most properly to come under the second branch of his art. And these are Digression, Transition, and Amplification, upon each of which I shall now treat; not that they are connected with each other, but because I think all, that is requisite to be said concerning them, may be comprised in one discourse.

Digression then, as defined by Quintilian, is, A going off from the subject we are upon to some different thing, which may however be of service to it. We have a very beautiful instance of this in Ciceros defence of Coelius, who was accused of having first borrowed money of Clodia, and then engaging her servants to poison her. Now as the proof of the fact depended upon several circumstances, the orator examines them separately; and shows them to be all highly improbable. 
How, says he, was the design of this poison laid? Whence came it f how did they get its by whose assistance, to whom, or where was it delivered? Now to the first of these queries he makes the accuser give this answer: They say Coelius had it at home, and tried the force of it upon a stave provided on purpose, whose sudden death proved the strength of the poison
Now, as Cicero represents the whole charge against Coelius as a fiction of Clodia, invented out of revenge for some flights he had put upon her; to make this the more probable he insinuates, that she had poisoned her husband, and takes this opportunity to hint it, that he might show how easy it was for her to charge another with poisoning a servant, who had done the same to her own husband. But not contented with this, he steps out of his way, and introduces some of the last words of her husband Metellus, to render the fact more barbarous and shocking, from the admirable character of the man. This digression is brought in immediately upon the words I last read from Cicero, in the following manner: 
O immortal gods, why do you sometimes wink at the greatest crimes of mankind, or delay the punishment of them to futurity! For I saw, I myself saw sand (it was the dolefulest scene of my whole life) when Metellus was taken from the bosom of his country; and when he, who thought himself born to be serviceable to this state, within three days after he had appeared with such advantage in the senate, in the forum, and every where in public, was snatched from us in the flower of his age, and prime of his strength and vigor. At which time, when he was about to expire, and his mind had lost the sense of other things, still retaining a concern for the public, he looked upon me, as I was all in tears, and intimated in broken and dying words, how great a storm hung over the city, and threatened the whole state, often striking the wall, which separated his house from that of Quintus Catulus, and frequently calling both upon him and me, and seeming, to grieve not so much at the approach of his own death, as that both his country and I should be deprived of his assistance. Had he not been wickedly taken off on a sudden, how would he after his consulship have withstood the fury of his kinsman, Publius Clodius, who, while in that office, threatened, in the hearing of the senate, to kill him with his own hand, when he first began to break out. And will this woman dare to come out of those doors, and talk of the force of poison? will not she fear, left the house itself should speak the villainy? will not She dread the conscious walls, nor that sad and mournful night? But I return to the accusation
And then he proceeds to consider, and refute the several circumstances of the accusation. What I have therefore cited here, was no part of his argument; but having mentioned the charge of poison, he immediately takes occasion to introduce it, in order to excite the indignation of the hearers against Clodia, and invalidate the prosecution, as coming from a person of her character. Digression cannot properly be said to be a necessary part of a discourse, but it may sometimes be very convenient, and that upon several accounts.
As first, where a subject is of itself flat and dry, or requires close attention, it is of use to relieve and unbend the mind by something agreeable and entertaining. For which reason Quintilian observes, that the orators of his time generally made an excursion in their harangues upon some pleasing topic, between the narration and the proof. But he condemns the practice, as too general; for while they seemed to think it necessary, it obliged them sometimes to bring in things trifling and foreign to the purpose. Besides, a Digression is confined to no one part of a discourse, but may come in any where, as occasion offers; provided it fall in naturally with the subject, and be made some way subservient to it. We never meet with it in Cicero, without some evident and good reason. I have already shown the use he makes of it, in the example above mentioned. So in his prosecution of Verres, for his barbarous and inhuman outrages against the Sicilians, he takes an occasion to launch out into a beautiful description of the island, and to recount the advantages, which accrued from it to the Romans. His subject did not necessarily lead him to this, but his view in it was to heighten and aggravate the charge against Verres .
Again, as a Digression ought not to be made without sufficient reason, so neither should it be too frequent. And he who never does it, but where it is proper and useful, will not often see occasion for it. Frequently to leave the subject, and go off to other things,, breaks the thread of the discourse, and is apt to introduce confusion. Indeed some kinds of writing admit of a more frequent use of digressions than others. In history they are often very serviceable. For as that consists of a series of facts, and a long continued narrative without variety is apt to grow dull and tedious; it is necessary at proper distances to throw in something entertaining, in order to enliven it, and keep up the attention. And accordingly we find the best historians often embellish their writings with descriptions of cities, rivers, and countries, as likewise with the speeches of eminent persons upon important occasions, and other ornaments, to render them the more pleasing and delightful. Poets still take a greater liberty in this respect; for as their principal view is most commonly to please, they do not attend so closely to connection; but as an image offers itself, which may be agreeably wrought up, they bring it in, and go off more frequently to different things, than other writers.

Another property of a Digression is, that it ought not to be too long, lest the hearers forget what preceded, before the speaker returns again to his subject. For a digression being no principal part of a discourse, nor of any further use, than as it serves some way or other to enforce, or , illustrate the main subject; it cannot answer this end, if it be carried to such a length, as to cause that either to be forgot, or neglected. And every ones memory will not serve him to connect together two parts of a discourse, which lie at a wide distance from each other. The better therefore to guard against this, it is not unusual with orators, before they enter upon a digression of any considerable length, to prepare their hearers, by giving them notice of it, and sometimes desiring leave to divert a little from the subject. And so likewise at the conclusion they introduce the subject again by a short transition. Thus Cicero in the example cited above, when he has finished his digression concerning the death of Metellus, proceeds to his subject again with these words: But I return to the accusation.
Indeed we find orators sometimes, when sore pressed, and the cause will not bear a close scrutiny, artfully run into digressions with a design to divert the attention of the hearers from the subject, and turn them to a different view. And in such cases, as they endeavor to be unobserved, so they do it tacitly without any transition, or intimation of their design; their business being only to get clear of a difficulty, till they have an opportunity of entering upon some fresh topic. I do not mention this as a conduct proper for imitation, though it is fit to be remarked, in order to guard against it.

But as Transitions are often used not only aster a Digression, but likewise upon other occasions, I shall explain the nature of them a little more particularly. A Transition therefore is, A form of speech, by which the speaker in a few words tells his hearers both what he has said already, and what he next designs lo say. Where a discourse consists of several parts, this is often very proper in passing from one to another, especially when the parts are of a considerable length; for it assists the hearers to carry on the series of the discourse in their mind, which is a great advantage to the memory. It is likewise a great relief to the attention, to be told when an argument is finished, and what is to be expected next. And therefore we meet with it very frequently in history. But I consider it at present only as made use of by orators. Cicero, as I have had occasion to observe formerly, divides his oration for the Manilian law into three parts, and pro poses to speak, first of the nature of the war against king Mithridates, then of its greatness, and lastly of the choice of a general. And when he has gone through the first head, which is pretty long, he connects it with the second, by this short transition: Having shown the nature of the war, I shall now speak a few things of its greatness. And again, at the conclusion of his second head, he reminds his hearers of his method in the following manner: I think I have sufficiently shown the necessity of this war from the nature of it, and the danger of it from its greatness. What remains is to speak concerning the choice of a general, proper to be entrusted with it. And in his second oration against Catiline, who had then left Rome, having at large described his conduct and designs, he adds: 
But why do I talk so long concerning one enemy, and such an one; who owns himself an enemy, and whom I do not fear, since, what I always desired, there is now a wall between us; and say nothing of those, who conceal themselves, who remain at Rome, and are among us
And then he proceeds to give an account of the other conspirators. But sometimes in passing from one thing to another, a general hint of it is thought sufficient to prepare the hearers, without particularly specifying what has been said, or is next to follow. Thus Cicero in his second Philippic says: But those things are old, this is yet fresh. And again But I have insisted too long upon trifles, let us come to things of greater moment. And at other times, for greater brevity, the transition is imperfect, and mention made only of the following head, without any intimation of what has been said already. As in Cicero's defence of Muraena, where he says: I must now proceed to the third part of my oration concerning the charge of bribery. And soon after: I come now to Cato, who is the support and strength of this charge.

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