In Praise of Quoters
IN a very serious and amusing book on etiquette, I once read something like this; “ Never quote Shakespeare in conversation ; it is bad form to quote what every one is familiar with.” Perhaps it would be safe to say that most so-called society people pretty scrupulously follow this advice, though probably not for the reason given. Certainly it is a very bad reason, and we may charitably hope that people who never quote Shakespeare have a much better one. Of course I am thinking of conscious quotation ; for everybody whose mother tongue is English quotes Shakespeare sometimes, whether he knows it or not. But expressions like “ Patience on a monument " are not real quotations; they are mere proverbs.
The power of apt quotation is a gift from heaven. The quoter is born, not made. In a restaurant where I was taking supper one evening there was a table full of college boys whose discussion over their beer was waxing pretty noisy. During a brief lull, a stately old gentleman sitting alone at the next table leaned over and said distinctly to the noisiest of the youngsters, “ Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.” The effect was instantaneous.
My friend V. professes to be a confirmed bachelor and misogynist. When he heard that I was about to be married, he congratulated me in these terms: —
It were done quickly.
Nothing else could have expressed his attitude so aptly.
As a rule I believe it is true that the most quotable writers are also the best quoters. An instance in point is Montaigne, the prince of all quoters, and one of the most quoted men that ever wrote. No one has spoken better than he on the art of quotation. “ I go here and there,” he says, “ culling out of several books the sentences that best please me.” “ I make others say for me, not before me but after me, what either for want of language or want of sense I cannot so well express.” He admits that he does not always acknowledge his debts. Sometimes “ I purposely conceal the author, to awe the temerity of those precipitate censors who fall upon all sorts of writers, particularly the late ones, of men yet living. . . . I will have them give Plutarch a fillip on my nose, and rail at Seneca when they think they rail at me.” And again: “ Amongst so many borrowed things, I am glad if I can steal one, disguising and altering it for some new service.”
This power to force old phrases into new service is one of the marks of the master of quotation. Montaigne’s quotations are a source of endless delight, partly on account of their freshness of application. This is the extrinsic, and as it were accidental, charm of his pilferings. But they are also delightful in and of themselves. They give us a comfortable sense of the continuity and friendly society of wit. It is the fashion nowadays to hold secondhand knowledge in scorn; but it is far better than no knowledge at all. We may not have an acquaintance as intimate as we could wish with those charming gentlemen of antiquity, Horace and Plutarch; still, it is pleasant to be able to say, “ I am well acquainted with
a close friend of theirs, the Lord of Montaigne, and I have met them occasionally at his table.” Some of these great ancients I do not care to visit in their own halls; they are too harsh, like Cato, or too lofty and austere, like Lucretius. But Montaigne is so admirable a host that in his company the sternest relax, and the harshest become gracious.
In what I have said in praise of quotation I would not be understood as lauding, or even excusing, those foolish little gift-books called “ The Wisdom of Soand-So ” or “ The Pocket So-and-So,” containing disjecta membra auctoris in alphabetically arranged lists of passages, on subjects from Adversity to Zeal. Let Montaigne speak for me here; he is properly scornful of such compilations, which however he condescends occasionally to use. “ I can borrow if I please from a dozen such scrap-gatherers, people about whom I do not much trouble myself. . . . These lumber-piles of commonplaces are of little use but to common subjects . . . a ridiculous fruit of learning.” Elsewhere he says the same thing more concisely : ” Every abridgment of a good book is a foolish abridgment.”
In another of his obiter dicta Montaigne goes to the marrow of the whole question of quotation. The charm of skillful quotation lies not merely in its aptness: there is such a thing as being too apt; that is the trouble with all the threadbare maxims and proverbs. The real beauty lies in a certain degree of aptness, combined with suggestiveness. A quotation should carry the flavor of the soil from which it sprang. Thus when my friend congratulated me on my marriage in the grim words of Macbeth, the peculiar savor of the quotation was due to the fact that the original occasion of the words was so startlingly diverse. Let me give another instance. I was once talking with V. about a common friend, a very correct and dignified young Scotsman, who had the misfortune to be in debt to his Jewish landlord. ” I should like to be in the audience when the Hebrew duns the Scot,” I said. “ How will A. take it ? ” “ Oh, ” said V., “ he will wave him to a more removed ground.” But I am forgetting Montaigne, who says what I have been aiming at : “ My quotations do not always serve simply for example, authority or ornament; they carry sometimes, besides what I apply them to, the seed of a more rich and a bolder matter, and sometimes collaterally a more delicate sound, both to myself and to others who shall be of my humor.”