Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!


by [?]

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 deliciae 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.