—Dr. Holmes tells a charming story of how, having once made a bright impromptu to a lady whose guest he was, on a lecturing tour, he, to his great consternation, caught himself repeating it to the same person at the same place and on a like visit, long afterwards. He had never thought of the remark since he first uttered it, till, through some occult trick of association, the identical words slipped again from his lips ; but he records his conviction that the lady undoubtedly supposed him to be in the perennial habit of getting off the saying wherever he went.
I have always been grateful to the Autocrat for this confession, because it enabled me to receive as true the well-known Joe Miller of the gentleman who asked his servant, as they rode over abridge, “John, do you like eggs ? ” “ Yes, sir,” was the reply. A year after, coming to the same spot, the master simply said, “How ?” and instantly received the answer, “ Poached, sir,” This ancient chestnut became to me no longer a preposterous invention, but a profound illustration of the principle of recurrent ideas.
Self-plagiarism is of two Sorts, the deliberate and the accidental. The former is like the familiar features in some of the old painters, who when they got a good thing clung to it, and when they considered that they did a thing well could not feel that they could do it too frequently. Witness for this the white horse of Wouverman, the satin robe of Gerard Terburg, the haunting face of his wife which looks out of Andrea del Sarto’s canvases.
So it can hardly be by accident that two horsemen trot into so many opening chapters of Mr. G. P. R. James. This name, by the way, suggests (digressively) the distinction a friend of mine is wont to use. He is not a youthful friend, but is able to remember as far back as the days when we read Darnley and Morley Ernstein, as well as the later times when we took delight in Daisy Miller and other international episodes. We asked him how one could speak of our two authors without implying a comparison. Should it be as James the First and James the Second ? “ By no means,” was the reply. “James the First (of England) was a consummate idiot, and James the Second an obstinate ass, and I would not wish to link even in a moment’s thought the names of these regal dunces with my beloved authors. No, I distinguish by emphasis. I say ‘ James the novelist, and James the novelist.’ ” “And which is which ? ” we his admiring hearers asked. “ Ah, that is precisely what I leave you to find out.”
Commending this to my reader’s sagacity, I return to my southdowns. No one can forget that Lord Macaulay’s schoolboy was flung at many heads on whom he pronounced the sentence of inexcusable and egregious blundering. In fact, all style is more or less akin to self-plagiarism. It is the repetition of familiar terms by which the reader comes to feel the author’s originality and individual lines of expression. Macaulay has a favorite trick of comparison of which one could give a dozen instances, The formula of it is that Smith is as much superior to Brown as Brown is to Jones. Carlyle’s mannerisms crop up in every page. Thackeray is never tired of illustrating by images and metaphors drawn from the stage.
There is another form of this where the writer recasts his earlier work. One instance is Charlotte Brontë’s revision of the Professor in Villette. Another is Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and Elaine. Bulwer amplified an earlier sketch into the powerful story of Zanoni. Thackeray made several shots at the burlesque story of Richard Cœur de Lion before he struck the bull’s eye in Rebecca and Rowena. I suppose The Origin of Epping Hunt is known to but few of his admirers, but it is unquestionably the germ of the clever continuation of Ivanhoe. He having failed also to win the queen’s cup by his farce of the Wolf and the Lamb, changed, in yachting parlance, his cutter into a schooner, and made much better sailing in Lovel the Widower.
But the unconscious repetition of self is of course the proper theme of this paper. The author who is simply an author is less exposed to this peril, for the reason that he seldom forgets the children of his brain. On the other hand, men who do much of their work for special occasions, who compose sermons, make speeches in debate, lecture, write leaders for a daily journal, and who often have to get up their matter when by no means in training, can hardly help the occasional repetition of what they have said. The makers of afterdinner speeches and the tellers of postprandial stories are, it is said, obliged to keep a sort of ledger, in which their bon mots are duly entered, with dates and names. No memory can stand the strain of recalling when and where a story has been told, if one is in the habit of firing the convivial rocket whenever the demand for fireworks is made.
Indeed, it is possible for a man to forget his own brilliancies. Some one quoted to Crabbe a passage of his on old age. “ Ha ! very good ! ” exclaimed the bard. “ Whose is it ? ” This is the more remarkable since the six lines in question are quite vigorous enough to stay in the memory even of a casual reader. Had it been any other than George Crabbe, the guileless and revered clergyman of the Church of England, one would have called this affectation, instead of crediting it to the score of a psychological curiosity.
The real source, however, of self-plagiarism is that the author remembers the thing said, but not who said it. This can hardly come from want, but rather is the sign of excess, of mental wealth. Fox and Pitt might well be excused for not remembering all that they had spoken in the debates of the House of Commons, but “ SingleSpeech Hamilton ” could hardly have forgotten his first and last display of oratory. It is said Sir Walter Scott did not recognize one of his own songs as he heard it sung ; but the disguise of music to one who was no musician may have been enough to account for this.
There is still another element which enters into the case. The author remembers the thing said, forgets who said it, but likes it well enough on its own merits to adopt it. This is the voice of nature crying out to the long-lost child while ignorant of its parentage. This does happen in the working of what is called (most unphilosophically) absent-mindedness. It was Lord Ward, I think, — at any rate it was an English nobleman who was given to talking to himself,— of whom it was told that he once rode up to London in his chariot in that sort of self-communing, and ended by inviting himself to dinner, as the pleasantest fellow he had met with in the whole season. There was here, not absence of mind, but clearly mind enough for two. Like Alice in Wonderland, we all do something of this in dreams, but we quickly learn in our waking hours that we shall pass for being beside ourselves, and so the trick which solitary children almost always develop is brought to an end.
The point I make is, then, that it is not objectionable, under certain circumstances, to repeat one’s self. This must not be the babble of childhood which comes from the activity of a brain that has not yet laid in an adequate store of material, but sings out of sheer inability to keep still. Nor is it to arise from the self-conceit of youth holding all its utterances for oracles. Still less should it proceed from the hardened egotism of middle age, which, having passed the pupil stage of life, is incapable of aught beyond its “ little hoard of maxims ” and its formulas of enlightened ignorance. Least of all may it be meaningless and servile prattle of the breaking mind, which forgets the phrase it has spoken but a moment agone, and saddens us with its importunate iteration.
It must spring from exuberance of strength, from the flush of life and the desire of doing so masterful as to shut out egotism which has
Love language is self-plagiarism, the countless conjugatings of the verb “ amo,” which weary not the wooer to speak nor the wooed to hear, so long as the sense of self is absorbed in the presence of the beloved. When that begins to pall, it is a sure sign that Damon or Phyllis, or both, are resuming the consciousness of their own personality.
It is the effacement of egotism which lies at the root of all true and noble work, but in most of the great achievements of earth that effacement is by no means incompatible with the intensest feeling of personality. “ My lord,” said the great commoner in the crisis of Britain’s fate, “ I believe that I can save this country, and that no one else can.” This is true because the highest sacrifice is the most voluntary ; the most perfect valor is where the peril to be dared is most plainly perceived. Hence it is generally impossible for the man who most entirely forgets himself in his work to forget that it is his work. It is in the rare case where the work is of a sort to possess the man utterly with the delight of doing that he ceases to remember what he has done. And since most human work is imperfect, and the better it is the more the true worker is aware of the imperfection, the less likely is he to forget himself in replica of his art or copies of his literary performances.
Nevertheless there is a danger, and since this paper is written under the sense of deserved critical correction, permit me to suggest a remedy which the legislature of the republic of letters will kindly consider, if it please.
The Bank of England has an inflexible rule that no note of its making shall ever be reissued. If a customer changes his mind on receiving his notes, and passes them back to be replaced by coin, the bank paper which has barely left the teller’s hands, and has not gone out of his sight, is consigned to inexorable cremation. Let a like law govern the world of letters and art. Whatever ceases from circulation must die. No reissuing of thoughts and fancies shall be permissible.
How this law is to be enacted and enforced concerns the critics who have not failed in literature and art, and they, of course, will discover and decide.