Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli


It is generally supposed that where there is no QUOTATION, there will be found most originality. Our writers usually furnish their pages rapidly with the productions of their own soil: they run up a quickset hedge, or plant a poplar, and get trees and hedges of this fashion much faster than the former landlords procured their timber. The greater part of our writers, in consequence, have become so original, that no one cares to imitate them; and those who never quote, in return are seldom quoted!

This is one of the results of that adventurous spirit which is now stalking forth and raging for its own innovations. We have not only rejected AUTHORITY, but have also cast away EXPERIENCE; and often the unburthened vessel is driving to all parts of the compass, and the passengers no longer know whither they are going. The wisdom of the wise, and the experience of ages, may be preserved by QUOTATION.

It seems, however, agreed, that no one would quote if he could think; and it is not imagined that the well-read may quote from the delicacy of their taste, and the fulness of their knowledge. Whatever is felicitously expressed risks being worse expressed: it is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us. We quote to save proving what has been demonstrated, referring to where the proofs may be found. We quote to screen ourselves from the odium of doubtful opinions, which the world would not willingly accept from ourselves; and we may quote from the curiosity which only a quotation itself can give, when in our own words it would be divested of that tint of ancient phrase, that detail of narrative, and that naïveté which we have for ever lost, and which we like to recollect once had an existence.

The ancients, who in these matters were not, perhaps, such blockheads as some may conceive, considered poetical quotation as one of the requisite ornaments of oratory. Cicero, even in his philosophical works, is as little sparing of quotations as Plutarch. Old Montaigne is so stuffed with them, that he owns, if they were taken out of him little of himself would remain; and yet this never injured that original turn which the old Gascon has given to his thoughts. I suspect that Addison hardly ever composed a Spectator which was not founded on some quotation, noted in those three folio manuscript volumes which he previously collected; and Addison lasts, while Steele, who always wrote from first impressions and to the times, with perhaps no inferior genius, has passed away, insomuch that Dr. Beattie once considered that he was obliging the world by collecting Addison’s papers, and carefully omitting Steele’s.

Quotation, like much better things, has its abuses. One may quote till one compiles. The ancient lawyers used to quote at the bar till they had stagnated their own cause. “Retournons à nos moutons,” was the cry of the client. But these vagrant prowlers must be consigned to the beadles of criticism. Such do not always understand the authors whose names adorn their barren pages, and which are taken, too, from the third or the thirtieth hand. Those who trust to such false quoters will often learn how contrary this transmission is to the sense and the application of the original. Every transplantation has altered the fruit of the tree; every new channel the quality of the stream in its remove from the spring-head. Bayle, when writing on “Comets,” discovered this; for having collected many things applicable to his work, as they stood quoted in some modern writers, when he came to compare them with their originals, he was surprised to find that they were nothing for his purpose! the originals conveyed a quite contrary sense to that of the pretended quoters, who often, from innocent blundering, and sometimes from purposed deception, had falsified their quotations. This is an useful story for second-hand authorities!

Selden had formed some notions on this subject of quotations in his “Table-talk,” art. ”Books and Authors;” but, as Le Clerc justly observes, proud of his immense reading, he has too often violated his own precept. “In quoting of books,” says Selden, “quote such authors as are usually read; others read for your own satisfaction, but not name them.” Now it happens that no writer names more authors, except Prynne,1 than the learned Selden. La Mothe le Vayer’s curious works consist of fifteen volumes; he is among the greatest quoters. Whoever turns them over will perceive that he is an original thinker, and a great wit; his style, indeed, is meagre, which, as much as his quotations, may have proved fatal to him. But in both these cases it is evident that even quoters who have abused the privilege of quotation are not necessarily writers of a mean genius.

The Quoters who deserve the title, and it ought to be an honorary one, are those who trust to no one but themselves. In borrowing a passage, they carefully observe its connexion; they collect authorities to reconcile any disparity in them before they furnish the one which they adopt; they advance no fact without a witness, and they are not loose and general in their references, as I have been told is our historian Henry so frequently, that it is suspected he deals much in second-hand ware. Bayle lets us into a mystery of author-craft. “Suppose an able man is to prove that an ancient author entertained certain particular opinions, which are only insinuated here and there through his works, I am sure it will take him up more days to collect the passages which he will have occasion for, than to argue at random on those passages. Having once found out his authorities and his quotations, which perhaps will not fill six pages, and may have cost him a month’s labour, he may finish in two mornings’ work twenty pages of arguments, objections, and answers to objections; and consequently, what proceeds from our own genius sometimes costs much less time than what is requisite for collecting. Corneille would have required more time to defend a tragedy by a great collection of authorities, than to write it; and I am supposing the same number of pages in the tragedy and in the defence. Heinsius perhaps bestowed more time in defending his Herodes infanticida against Balzac, than a Spanish (or a Scotch) metaphysician bestows on a large volume of controversy, where he takes all from his own stock.” I am somewhat concerned in the truth of this principle. There are articles in the present work occupying but a few pages, which could never have been produced had not more time been allotted to the researches which they contain than some would allow to a small volume, which might excel in genius, and yet be likely not to be long remembered! All this is labour which never meets the eye. It is quicker work, with special pleading and poignant periods, to fill sheets with generalising principles; those bird’s -eye views of philosophy for the nonce seem as if things were seen clearer when at a distance and en masse, and require little knowledge of the individual parts. Such an art of writing may resemble the famous Lullian method, by which the doctor illuminatus enabled any one to invent arguments by a machine! Two tables, one of attributes, and the other of subjects, worked about circularly in a frame, and placed correlatively to one another produced certain combinations; the number of questions multiplied as they were worked! So that here was a mechanical invention by which they might dispute without end, and write on without any particular knowledge of their subject!

But the painstaking gentry, when heaven sends them genius enough, are the most instructive sort, and they are those to whom we shall appeal while time and truth can meet together. A well-read writer, with good taste, is one who has the command of the wit of other men;2 he searches where knowledge is to be found; and though he may not himself excel in invention, his ingenuity may compose one of those agreeable books, the deliciæ of literature, that will outlast the fading meteors of his day. Epicurus is said to have borrowed from no writer in his three hundred inspired volumes, while Plutarch, Seneca, and the elder Pliny made such free use of their libraries; and it has happened that Epicurus, with his unsubstantial nothingness, has “melted into thin air,” while the solid treasures have buoyed themselves up amidst the wrecks of nations.

On this subject of quotation, literary politics — for the commonwealth has its policy and its cabinet-secrets — are more concerned than the reader suspects. Authorities in matters of fact are often called for; in matters of opinion, indeed, which perhaps are of more importance, no one requires any authority. But too open and generous a revelation of the chapter and the page of the original quoted has often proved detrimental to the legitimate honours of the quoter. They are unfairly appropriated by the next comer; the quoter is never quoted, but the authority he has afforded is produced by his successor with the air of an original research. I have seen MSS. thus confidently referred to, which could never have met the eye of the writer. A learned historian declared to me of a contemporary, that the latter had appropriated his researches; he might, indeed, and he had a right to refer to the same originals; but if his predecessor had opened the sources for him, gratitude is not a silent virtue. Gilbert Stuart thus lived on Robertson: and as Professor Dugald Stewart observes, “his curiosity has seldom led him into any path where the genius and industry of his predecessor had not previously cleared the way.” It is for this reason some authors, who do not care to trust to the equity and gratitude of their successors, will not furnish the means of supplanting themselves; for, by not yielding up their authorities, they themselves become one. Some authors, who are pleased at seeing their names occur in the margins of other books than their own, have practised this political management; such as Alexander ab Alexandro, and other compilers of that stamp, to whose labours of small value we are often obliged to refer, from the circumstance that they themselves have not pointed out their authorities.

One word more on this long chapter of QUOTATION. To make a happy one is a thing not easily to be done.3 Cardinal du Perron used to say, that the happy application of a verse from Virgil was worth a talent; and Bayle, perhaps too much prepossessed in their favour, has insinuated, that there is not less invention in a just and happy application of a thought found in a book, than in being the first author of that thought. The art of quotation requires more delicacy in the practice than those conceive who can see nothing more in a quotation than an extract. Whenever the mind of a writer is saturated with the full inspiration of a great author, a quotation gives completeness to the whole; it seals his feelings with undisputed authority. Whenever we would prepare the mind by a forcible appeal, an opening quotation is a symphony preluding on the chords whose tones we are about to harmonise. Perhaps no writers of our times have discovered more of this delicacy of quotation than the author of the “Pursuits of Literature;” and Mr. Southey, in some of his beautiful periodical investigations, where we have often acknowledged the solemn and striking effect of a quotation from our elder writers.

1 It was said of Prynne, and his custom of quoting authorities by hundreds in the margins of his books to corroborate what he said in the text, that “he always had his wits beside him in the margin, to be beside his wits in the text.” This jest is Milton’s .

2 Southey says —“A quotation may be likened to a text on which a sermon is preached.”

3 Hone had this faculty in a large degree, and one of his best political satires, the “Political Showman at Home,” is entirely made out of quotations from older authors applicable to the real or fancied characteristics of the politicians he satirized.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53