YOU desire my sentiments concerning the method of study you should pursue, in that retirement which you have long enjoyed. It is a very advantageous practice (and what many recommend) to translate either from Greek into Latin, or from Latin into Greek. By this sort of exercise one acquires noble and proper expressions, variety of figures, and a forcible turn of exposition. Besides, to imitate the most approved authors, gives one aptitude to invent after their manner, and at the same time, things which you might have overlooked in reading cannot escape you in translating: and this method will open your understanding and improve your judgement.
It may not be amiss when you have read only so much of an author at once, as to carry in your head his subject and argument, to turn, as it were, his rival, and write something on the same topic; then compare your performance and his, and minutely examine in what points either you or he most happily succeeded. It will be a matter of very pleasing congratulation to yourself, if you shall find that in some things you have the advantage of him, as it will be a great mortification if he should rise above you in all.
You may sometimes venture to pick out and try to emulate the most shining passages of an author. Such a contest is, indeed, something bold; but as it passes in secret, it cannot be taxed with presumption. Not but that we see many persons enter this sort of lists with great applause, and because they do not despair of themselves, advance before those whom they thought it sufficient honour to follow.
Again, after laying aside a composition until it is no longer fresh in your memory, you may revise it; retaining several things but rejecting still more; inserting a passage here, and rewriting one there. It is a laborious and tedious task, I own, thus to reenflame the mind after the first heat is over, to recover an impulse when its force has been checked and spent, in a word, to interweave new parts into the texture of a composition without disturbing or confounding the original plan; but the very difficulty of this method renders it a profitable one.
I know your main bent at present is towards forensic oratory; but I would not for that reason advise you always to wield the controversial and, so to say, militant pen. As land is improved by sowing it with various crops in rotation so is the mind by exercising it with different studies. I would have you, therefore, sometimes single out a fine passage of history, and practice epistolary composition. For in pleading one has frequently occasion to use not only the historical, but an almost poetical style for descriptions; while a succinct and chaste style is cultivated by letterwriting. It is well also to unbend your mind with poetry; I do not mean of the long and sustained order (for that can only be achieved by men of leisure), but those little witty pieces which serve as proper reliefs to every degree of care and occupation. They commonly go under the title of amusements; but these amusements have sometimes gained as much fame as works of a more serious nature; and indeed (for while I am exhorting you to poetry, why should I not be poetical myself ?)
"As wax by pliancy our praise commands, Submissive shap'd beneath the Artist's hands, Now Mars' or chaste Minerva's form puts on, Now moulds the charms of Venus, or her son; As not alone to quench the raging flame The sacred fountain pours her friendly stream; But sweetly gliding through the flow'ry green, Spreads glad refreshment o'er the smiling scene: So, wisely ductile, should man's reasoning part Receive the impress of each various art."
In this manner the greatest orators, and the greatest men as well, used either to exercise or amuse themselves, or rather did both. The mind is surprisingly entertained and enlivened by these little compositions, for they turn upon subjects of gallantry, antipathies, quarrels, pity, politeness, and everything, in short, that concerns daily life and even the forensic sphere. Besides, the same advantage attends these as every other sort of poems; that we delight in prose after being fettered by numbers, and more willingly employ what comparison shows to be the easier form of composition.
And now, perhaps, I have more than satisfied your demands; however, there is one thing which I have omitted: I have not told you what books I think you should read, though indeed, that was implied by my telling you what you should write. Pray remember to select with care the standard authors on each subject; for, as the saying is, "though we should read much, we should not read many books." Who those authors are is so clearly settled, and so generally known, that I need not point them out to you; besides, I have already extended this letter to such an immoderate length, that I have curtailed the time, by recommending the course, of your studies. Back, then, to your writingtablets, and either write something from the hints I have now given you, or continue the composition on which you were already engaged. Farewell.