Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

On Puck the Commentator.

Literary forgeries recently have been frequently indulged in, and it is urged that they are of an innocent nature; but impostures more easily practised than detected leave their mischief behind, to take effect at a distant period; and as I shall show, may entrap even the judicious! It may require no high exertion of genius to draw up a grave account of an ancient play-wright whose name has never reached us, or to give an extract from a volume inaccessible to our inquiries and, as dulness is no proof of spuriousness, forgeries, in time, mix with authentic documents.1

We have ourselves witnessed versions of Spanish and Portuguese poets, which are passed on their unsuspicious readers without difficulty, but in which no parts of the pretended originals can be traced; and to the present hour, whatever antiquaries may affirm, the poems of Chatterton2 and Ossian3 are veiled in mystery!

If we possessed the secret history of the literary life of George Steevens, it would display an unparalleled series of arch deception and malicious ingenuity. He has been happily characterised by Gifford as “the Puck of Commentators!” Steevens is a creature so spotted over with literary forgeries and adulterations, that any remarkable one about the time he flourished may be attributed to him. They were the habits of a depraved mind, and there was a darkness in his character many shades deeper than belonged to Puck; even in the playfulness of his invention there was usually a turn of personal malignity, and the real object was not so much to raise a laugh, as to “grin horribly a ghastly smile,” on the individual. It is more than rumoured that he carried his ingenious malignity into the privacies of domestic life; and it is to be regretted that Mr. Nichols, who might have furnished much secret history of this extraordinary literary forger, has, from delicacy, mutilated his collective vigour.

George Steevens usually commenced his operations by opening some pretended discovery in the evening papers, which were then of a more literary cast than they are at present; the St. James’s Chronicle, the General Evening Post, or the Whitehall, were they not dead in body and in spirit, would now bear witness to his successful efforts. The late Mr. Boswell told me, that Steevens frequently wrote notes on Shakspeare, purposely to mislead or entrap Malone, and obtain for himself an easy triumph in the next edition! Steevens loved to assist the credulous in getting up for them some strange new thing, dancing them about with a Will-o’-the-wisp — now alarming them by a shriek of laughter! and now like a grinning Pigwigging sinking them chin-deep into a quagmire! Once he presented them with a fictitious portrait of Shakspeare, and when the brotherhood were sufficiently divided in their opinions, he pounced upon them with a demonstration, that every portrait of Shakspeare partook of the same doubtful authority! Steevens usually assumed a nom de guerre of Collins, a pseudo-commentator, and sometimes of Amner, who was discovered to be an obscure puritanic minister who never read text or notes of a play-wright, whenever he explored into a “thousand notable secrets” with which he has polluted the pages of Shakspeare! The marvellous narrative of the upas-tree of Java, which Darwin adopted in his plan of “enlisting imagination under the banner of science,” appears to have been another forgery which amused our “Puck.” It was first given in the London Magazine, as an extract from a Dutch traveller, but the extract was never discovered in the original author, and “the effluvia of this noxious tree, which through a district of twelve or fourteen miles had killed all vegetation, and had spread the skeletons of men and animals, affording a scene of melancholy beyond what poets have described, or painters delineated,” is perfectly chimerical. A splendid flim-flam! When Dr. Berkenhout was busied in writing, without much knowledge or skill, a history of our English authors, Steevens allowed the good man to insert a choice letter by George Peele, giving an account of a “merry meeting at the Globe,” wherein Shakspeare said Ben Jonson and Ned Alleyne are admirably made to perform their respective parts. As the nature of the “Biographia Literaria” required authorities, Steevens ingeniously added, “Whence I copied this letter I do not recollect.” However, he well knew it came from the “Theatrical Mirror,” where he had first deposited the precious original, to which he had unguardedly ventured to affix the date of 1600; unluckily, Peele was discovered to have died two years before he wrote his own letter! The date is adroitly dropped in Berkenhout! Steevens did not wish to refer to his original, which I have often seen quoted as authority. One of these numerous forgeries of our Puck appears in an article in Isaac Reed’s catalogue, art. 8708. “The Boke of the Soldan, conteyninge strange matters touchynge his lyfe and deathe, and the ways of his course, in two partes, 12mo,” with this marginal note by Reed —“The foregoing was written by George Steevens, Esq., from whom I received it. It was composed merely to impose on ‘a literary friend,’ and had its effect; for he was so far deceived as to its authenticity, that he gave implicit credit to it, and put down the person’s name in whose possession the original books were supposed to be.”

One of the sort of inventions which I attribute to Steevens has been got up with a deal of romantic effect, to embellish the poetical life of Milton; and unquestionably must have sadly perplexed his last matter-of-fact editor, who is not a man to comprehend a flim-flam! — for he has sanctioned the whole fiction, by preserving it in his biographical narrative! The first impulse of Milton to travel in Italy is ascribed to the circumstance of his having been found asleep at the foot of a tree in the vicinity of Cambridge, when two foreign ladies, attracted by the loveliness of the youthful poet, alighted from their carriage, and having admired him for some time as they imagined unperceived, the youngest, who was very beautiful, drew a pencil from her pocket, and having written some lines, put the paper with her trembling hand into his own! But it seems — for something was to account how the sleeping youth could have been aware of these minute particulars, unless he had been dreaming them — that the ladies had been observed at a distance by some friends of Milton, and they explained to him the whole silent adventure. Milton on opening the paper read four verses from Guarini, addressed to those “human stars,” his own eyes! On this romantic adventure, Milton set off for Italy, to discover the fair “incognita,” to which undiscovered lady we are told we stand indebted for the most impassioned touches in the Paradise Lost! We know how Milton passed his time in Italy, with Dati, and Gaddi, and Frescobaldi, and other literary friends, amidst its academies, and often busied in book-collecting. Had Milton’s tour in Italy been an adventure of knight-errantry, to discover a lady whom he had never seen, at least he had not the merit of going out of the direct road to Florence and Rome, nor of having once alluded to this Dame de ses pensées, in his letters or inquiries among his friends, who would have thought themselves fortunate to have introduced so poetical an adventure in the numerous canzoni they showered on our youthful poet.

This historiette, scarcely fitted for a novel, first appeared where generally Steevens’s literary amusements were carried on, in the General Evening Post, or the St. James’s Chronicle: and Mr. Todd, in the improved edition of Milton’s Life, obtained this spurious original, where the reader may find it; but the more curious part of the story remains to be told. Mr. Todd proceeds, “The preceding highly-coloured relation, however, is not singular; my friend, Mr. Walker, points out to me a counterpart in the extract from the preface to Poésies de Marguerite-Eleanore Clotilde, depuis Madame de Surville, Poète François du XV. Siècle. Paris, 1803.

And true enough we find among “the family traditions” of the same Clotilde, that Justine de Levis, great-grandmother of this unknown poetess of the fifteenth century, walking in a forest, witnessed the same beautiful spectacle which the Italian Unknown had at Cambridge; never was such an impression to be effaced, and she could not avoid leaving her tablets by the side of the beautiful sleeper, declaring her passion in her tablets by four Italian verses! The very number our Milton had meted to him! Oh! these four verses! they are as fatal in their number as the date of Peele’s letter proved to George Steevens! Something still escapes in the most ingenious fabrication which serves to decompose the materials. It is well our veracious historian dropped all mention of Guarini — else that would have given that coup de grace — a fatal anachronism! However, his invention supplied him with more originality than the adoption of this story and the four verses would lead us to infer. He tells us how Petrarch was jealous of the genius of his Clotilde’s grandmother, and has even pointed out a sonnet which, “among the traditions of the family,” was addressed to her! He narrates, that the gentleman, when he fairly awoke, and had read the “four verses,” set off for Italy, which he run over till he found Justine, and Justine found him, at a tournament at Modena! This parallel adventure disconcerted our two grave English critics — they find a tale which they wisely judge improbable, and because they discover the tale copied, they conclude that “it is not singular!” This knot of perplexity is, however, easily cut through, if we substitute, which we are fully justified in, for “Poète du XV. Siècle”—“du XIX. Siècle.” The “Poésies” of Clotilde are as genuine a fabrication as Chatterton’s; subject to the same objections, having many ideas and expressions which were unknown in the language at the time they are pretended to have been composed, and exhibiting many imitations of Voltaire and other poets. The present story of the four Italian verses, and the beautiful Sleeper, would be quite sufficient evidence of the authenticity of “the family traditions” of Clotilde, depuis Madame de Surville, and also of Monsieur De Surville himself; a pretended editor, who is said to have found by mere accident the precious manuscript, and while he was copying from the press, in 1793, these pretty poems, for such they are, of his grande tante, was shot in the Reign of Terror, and so completely expired, that no one could ever trace his existence! The real editor, who we must presume to be the poet, published them in 1803.

Such, then, is the history of a literary forgery! A Puck composes a short romantic adventure, which is quietly thrown out to the world in a newspaper or a magazine; some collector, such as the late Mr. Bindley, who procured for Mr. Todd his original, as idle at least as he is curious, houses the forlorn fiction — and it enters into literary history! A French Chatterton picks up the obscure tale, and behold, astonishes the literary inquirers of the very country whence the imposture sprung! But the four Italian verses, and the Sleeping Youth! Oh! Monsieur Vanderbourg! for that gentleman is the ostensible editor of Clotilde’s poesies of the fifteenth century, some ingenious persons are unlucky in this world! Perhaps one day we may yet discover that this “romantic adventure” of Milton and Justine de Levis is not so original as it seems — it may lie hid in the Astrée of D’Urfé, or some of the long romances of the Scuderies, whence the English and the French Chattertons may have drawn it. To such literary inventors we say with Swift:—

——— Such are your tricks;

But since you hatch, pray own your chicks!

Will it be credited that for the enjoyment of a temporary piece of malice, Steevens would even risk his own reputation as a poetical critic? Yet this he ventured, by throwing out of his edition the poems of Shakspeare, with a remarkable hyper-criticism, that “the strongest act of parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service.” Not only he denounced the sonnets of Shakspeare, but the sonnet itself, with an absurd question, “What has truth or nature to do with sonnets?” The secret history of this unwarrantable mutilation of a great author by his editor was, as I was informed by the late Mr. Boswell, merely done to spite his rival commentator Malone, who had taken extraordinary pains in their elucidation. Steevens himself had formerly reprinted them, but when Malone from these sonnets claimed for himself one ivy leaf of a commentator’s pride, behold, Steevens in a rage would annihilate even Shakspeare himself, that he might gain a triumph over Malone! In the same spirit, but with more caustic pleasantry, he opened a controversy with Malone respecting Shakspeare’s wife! It seems that the poet had forgotten to mention his wife in his copious will; and his recollection of Mrs. Shakspeare seems to mark the slightness of his regard, for he only introduced by an interlineation, a legacy to her of his “second best bed with the furniture”— and nothing more! Malone naturally inferred that the poet had forgot her, and so recollected her as more strongly to mark how little he esteemed her. He had already, as it is vulgarly expressed, “cut her off, not indeed with a shilling, but with an old bed!”4 All this seems judicious, till Steevens asserts the conjugal affection of the bard, tells us, that the poet having, when in health, provided for her by settlement, or knowing that her father had already done so (circumstances entirely conjectural), he bequeathed to her at his death not merely an old piece of furniture, but, perhaps, as a mark of peculiar tenderness,

The very bed that on his bridal night

Received him to the arms of Belvidera!

Steevens’ severity of satire marked the deep malevolence of his heart; and Murphy has strongly pourtrayed him in his address to the Malevoli.

Such another Puck was Horace Walpole! The King of Prussia’s “Letter” to Rousseau, and “The Memorial” pretended to have been signed by noblemen and gentlemen, were fabrications, as he confesses, only to make mischief. It well became him, whose happier invention, the Castle of Otranto, was brought forward in the guise of forgery, so unfeelingly to have reprobated the innocent inventions of a Chatterton.

We have Pucks busied among our contemporaries: whoever shall discover their history will find it copious though intricate; the malignity at least will exceed tenfold the merriment.

1 A remarkable instance is afforded in the present work; see the note to the article on Newspapers, in Vol. I., detailing one which has spread falsity to an enormous extent throughout our general literature.

2 The pretended “antique manuscripts” preserved among the Chatterton papers in the British Museum, as well as the fac-simile of the “Yellow Roll,” published in the Cambridge edition of Chatterton’s works, are, however, so totally unlike the writing of the era to which they purport to belong, that no doubt need be entertained as to their falsity.

3 They are, however, so far determined by the fragments of Gaelic originals, since published by Scottish antiquaries, that the amplifications of Macpherson can be detected.

4 Mr. Charles Knight, in his edition of Shakspeare, first clearly pointed out the true nature of the bequest. The great poet’s estates, with the exception of a copyhold tenement, expressly mentioned in the will, were freehold. His wife was entitled to dower, or a life interest of one-third of the proceeds arising from lands or tenements the property of Shakspeare, and which were of considerable value, she was thus amply provided for by the clear and undeniable operation of the law of England. Mr. Halliwell has further proved that such bequests were the constant modes of showing regard to such relatives as were well provided for by the usual legal course of events; and he adds, “so far from this bequest being one of slight importance, and exhibiting small esteem, it was the usual mode of expressing a mark of great affection.”

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