The Ethics of Misquotation

THERE are certain persons abroad in the critical land who are bold to insist that the practice of misquotation has a charm not connected with the more scholarly habit of transcribing exactly whatever words of another may be used in an essay or bit of informal scripture. When Montaigne, bathed in the Pierian springs of Latin literature from his youth on, turns his back upon duty to his readers and misquotes Lucretius or Livy; when Lamb, a very spirit of the fountain of Elizabethan drama, shortens at his sweet wayward will a passage from The Mourning Wife ; when Hazlitt, that learned Gentile, plays pitch-and-toss with lines from Chaucer or Wordsworth, the contention is, that these stumblings are not the fault of absconded memory, but the smile-provoking, friendliness-encouraging oversight of minds in which great familiarity has bred a scorn of carefulness. O Accuracy, how art thou relegated to the cold study of the scholar, and asked to dwindle, peak, and die in attendance upon his studious pale! How art thou despised upon the public mountains where roving winds do shrilly pipe! Would that he might come who would chant thee a song of fullest praise!

If it should happen, indeed, that an essayist, some Robinson Crusoe of letters, were immured in a lodge in a vast desert, he might be forgiven for misquoting. For that matter, it is not impossible to allege on behalf of Montaigne and Lamb and Hazlitt and others who err, that they could not always verify the suggestions of a drowsy recollection. But for those who, in our day, steal phrases from their proper locality, unhinge the skeleton of sentence, — in short, transfer white gems to Ethiop ears, there can be no such defense. Is not Bartlett’s Quotations in every library ? Do not concordances spread like the banyan (the only genuine roof-) tree? No; misquotation will never do.

Even quotation is a dangerous expedient, and, as a result of its undue use, authors are becoming workmen in mosaic; but misquotation is a damsel who, as in Jenny’s case, ought hardly to be named. Yet that she may not suffer summary salvation in both soul and body, it were well to indicate very soberly the point of ethics involved. Quotation can be introduced only to serve one of two purposes: either to adorn the discourse with borrowed plumes, or to give readers the pleasure of recognition, — the source, as Plato says, of joy in art. In neither case need barriers be raised to the practice, if it exists only in a moderate degree.

A wise modern, who has no very handsome wit, but a servant memory, can often make his pages glow with the Orient pearl-and-gold of the masters who had a crown prince’s share of both. When he finds the iron of his thought too cold to be hammered to the cutting edge that good phraseology demands, he can borrow. If his sentence will not soar, his rhythm will not heave, with the slow grandeur of multitudinous seas, or pant with the sweet unrest of “ my fair love’s budding breast,” then he can seek aid in the prose of Milton or the verse of Shelley. If his thoughts grow prosy under a flagging afflatus, he can bring in the stimulus of a pungent stranger jest, or the magic of a jewel four words long. He must know his limitations well, and be a worthy pioneer “in the morose voyage of discovery for virtues which he assumes, having not; thus he may achieve prose of distinction. The unique desideratum is a slender thread of something to say, with which he may begin. After that, his thoughts — or rather, the thoughts of his essay — will vary directly in excellence as his power to ransack. It is then a manifest presumption if he misquote. He thus advertises his belief that the emendation is a betterment. But he chose it because it was better than he could do. Sad, fatal inconsistency!

Or if, on the other hand, he will to present to his readers old precious stones in a new setting that they may joy in the re-vision, he is still within the bounds of propriety. However suggestive his own words may be, he knows that they have not the mellow ring of age, or the green ivy of familiarity that ancient saws possess. When his words are read, they do not conjure up the attendant fantasies that wait on the words of mighty poets now long dead. When we read these, we remember pleasant orchards, or sleepy gardens, or cobwebby garrets, or arboreal sieges, or leather-smelling libraries, where our reading hours were spent, long ago. Once more we hear the tinkling bridles of old romance, the horns of hunters on the hill, the songs of bearded sailors home from the Spanish Main. We, we — half-scornful boys again, or girls whose foolish little hearts go jumping at the brave words spoken,—stand looking on at Henry and Emma plighting an endless troth under an aged oak. There are odors of Araby the Blest, the incense of heroism and devotion. At intervals come faintly through this murmuring seashell of the past which reminiscence has set to our ears, the part-discordance of merriment — for the gentlest humor was not always all welcome, — or the droning maxims of that sage experience which in subsequent events often proved to have had a prophetic strain.

Reading to-day as we do in this smart new book from the most modern press, we catch sight, through the sober words, — now all that restraint allows, — of older books and older pictures; and they are seasoned with the best sauce, the hunger with which we read when we did it still for pleasure, and were not doctors of philosophy who must perforce plough, wade, or swim through all the works of this or that dull poetaster whom it is our fate to explain to an age quite passive in the matter, already languid from much perusal. O ye who quote for recognition’s sake, if ye would lift the drooping head of our interest again, tamper not, I pray, with those winged words that hover about the gates of the field where we once wandered, all readers, and none bored. Only for our sake do ye quote, that we, seeing again old familiar faces, may live again old familiar days! But if ye bring those faces masked or distorted, ye admit the wicked fairy to an otherwise perfect festival. When ye quote, be this your whole commandment: —

Thou shall quote with all thy care, and with all thy skill, and with all thy judgment; and thou shalt not misquote, lest thou in turn shalt have visited upon thy head the like iniquity.