Vicissitudes of Verse

— Evidence of what may be called the intellectual depravity of human nature is found in the tendency to follow errors of citation, even from well-known authors.

Some one happens to blunder into a misquotation, and the incorrect version is sure, in a little while, to drive out the correct one from the minds of many persons who ought to know better. A few instances of misquotation occur to me, which I have myself noted, and the list might no doubt be easily lengthened. The first that comes to mind is Milton’s line at the conclusion of the Lycidas, " To-morrow to fresh woods and pastures new,” where fields is commonly substituted for woods.

So slight a change as that of a preposition puts a somewhat different meaning into Ben Jonson’s memorial verse, “ He was not of an age, but for all time.” Here for is often made to replace of, in the first clause.

We are all supposed to know our Shakespeare, but in fact a good many persons’ knowledge is of the second-hand sort that does not enable them to detect a misquotation. When Mr. Booth or Mr. Irving delivers the “ To be, or not to be” soliloquy, some who hear him speak of “ the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to ” may be surprised into fancying that the actor is making a slip, the substitution of ills for shocks being so common that the right word sounds strangely. In speech and writing how often mention is made of the “ bourn whence no traveler returns. Shakespeare wrote of the “ undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.” These misquotations are from one of the best known plays, oftenest acted on the modern stage, and from the most hackneyed lines in it. Again, people cite from The Merchant of Venice “ The man that hath no music in his soul,” where the text has “ in himself.”

It is curious to note that certain verses, very familiar to us in their present shape, are plagiarisms — or allowable borrowings, if you please — from older authors. The modification of the original has sometimes been an improvement, sometimes not, but in either case the newer form has supplanted the old. The modern author gets that possession of the poetical property which is nine points of the law, as Campbell has done with the well-known line, “ Like angels’ visits, few and far between.” This is tautological, for if the visits are far between, it is needless to say they are few. John Norris, who in the latter half of the seventeenth century compared the “ joys most exquisite and strong,” which soonest take their flight, to “ angels’ visits, short and bright,” may never have written anything else worth the stealing, so it seems rather cruel that he should lose the credit of his happiest thought. Later Robert Blair helped himself to Norris’s verse, altering “ bright ” into “ far between.” It is probable, therefore, that Campbell “conveyed” from Blair rather than from the original writer. In like manner, Pope made himself free with Dryden’s verse, “ From grave to light,

from pleasant to severe,” changing light into gay, and pleasant into lively ; and with Prior’s “ Fine by degrees and beautifully less,” in this instance altering the sense as well as the words. But “ fine by defect and delicately weak” is an unmistakable imitation of Prior. No doubt the same thought may occur to more than one man, and since human experience repeats itself, reflections on life are likely to resemble each other. Gray wrote, “ Where ignorance is bliss, ’t is folly to be wise.” Prior, before him, made the proposition a universal one when he asserted that “ from ignorance our comfort flows, the only wretched are the wise ; ” and centuries before Prior, a nameless Jew had set it down in his book that “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

If a writer can add something to another’s thought, or greatly better its expression, he need not fear to take the liberty, and borrowing of this sort does not appear to have lain on the conscience of authors at any age of the world. It was easier for the ancient classic writers to be original than for us nowadays. Many of the sayings of famous Greeks and Romans, which, sound trite in our ears, were striking novelties of thought to their contemporaries. Of course many old - time proverbial expressions have been a common stock, whence any writer might draw at will without being called up for petty larceny. A score of lines might be cited from as many different writers as variations of the same line. “ But me no buts ” is Fielding’s version, and the best known of all. Ben Jonson, Massinger, and Beaumont and Fletcher have the same phrase in other words, and which was the first to find or invent it we cannot tell.

When, however, a writer appropriates and reproduces in slightly altered shape the thought of some comparatively littleknown author, it is more than likely that he is simply stealing another man’s thunder. There is something amusing in Macaulay’s frank audacity in borrowing the rhetorical sentence about the traveler from New Zealand sketching the ruins of St. Paul’s, from the broken arch of London Bridge. He was so pleased with it as to employ it three times, in his reviews of Ranke’s History of the Popes, Mitford’s Greece, and Mill’s Essay on Government. It is not possible that a man of such omnivorous reading and phenomenal power of memory was unaware that a similar phrase had been made use of by four preceding writers. Volney’s paragraph upon the traveler who sits solitary amid silent ruins, to weep a people inurned and their greatness changed into an empty name, is to my mind the finest. Horace Walpole’s traveler was to come from Lima; H. K. White’s was simply “ a savage ; ” and Shelley leaves the traveler out altogether, and the shadows on the Thames are cast by the “ broken arches ” of Waterloo, not London Bridge.