—Moveat cornicula risum
Furtivis nudata coloribus.— HOR. Lib. i. Ep. i. 19.
Lest when the birds their various colours claim,
Stripp’d of his stolen pride, the crow forlorn
Should stand the laughter of the publick scorn. FRANCIS.
Among the innumerable practices by which interest or envy have taught those who live upon literary fame to disturb each other at their airy banquets, one of the most common is the charge of plagiarism. When the excellence of a new composition can no longer be contested, and malice is compelled to give way to the unanimity of applause, there is yet this one expedient to be tried, by which the author may be degraded, though his work be reverenced; and the excellence which we cannot obscure, may be set at such a distance as not to overpower our fainter lustre.
This accusation is dangerous, because, even when it is false, it may be sometimes urged with probability. Bruyere declares, that we are come into the world too late to produce any thing new, that nature and life are preoccupied, and that description and sentiment have been long exhausted. It is indeed certain, that whoever attempts any common topick, will find unexpected coincidences of his thoughts with those of other writers; nor can the nicest judgment always distinguish accidental similitude from artful imitation. There is likewise a common stock of images, a settled mode of arrangement, and a beaten track of transition, which all authors suppose themselves at liberty to use, and which produce the resemblance generally observable among contemporaries. So that in books which best deserve the name of originals, there is little new beyond the disposition of materials already provided; the same ideas and combinations of ideas have been long in the possession of other hands; and, by restoring to every man his own, as the Romans must have returned to their cots from the possession of the world, so the most inventive and fertile genius would reduce his folios to a few pages. Yet the author who imitates his predecessors only by furnishing himself with thoughts and elegancies out of the same general magazine of literature, can with little more propriety be reproached as a plagiary, than the architect can be censured as a mean copier of Angelo or Wren, because he digs his marble from the same quarry, squares his stones by the same art, and unites them in the columns of the same orders.
Many subjects fall under the consideration of an author, which, being limited by nature, can admit only of slight and accidental diversities. All definitions of the same thing must be nearly the same; and descriptions, which are definitions of a more lax and fanciful kind, must always have in some degree that resemblance to each other which they all have to their object. Different poets describing the spring or the sea would mention the zephyrs and the flowers, the billows and the rocks; reflecting on human life, they would, without any communication of opinions, lament the deceitfulness of hope, the fugacity of pleasure, the fragility of beauty, and the frequency of calamity; and for palliatives of these incurable miseries, they would concur in recommending kindness, temperance, caution, and fortitude.
When therefore there are found in Virgil and Horace two similar passages—
Hæ tibi erunt artes—
Parcere subjectis, et debellare superbos. VIRG.
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee. DRYDEN.
Imperet bellante prior, jacentem
Lenis in hostem. HOR.
Let Cæsar spread his conquests far,
Less pleas’d to triumph than to spare—
it is surely not necessary to suppose with a late critick, that one is copied from the other, since neither Virgil nor Horace can be supposed ignorant of the common duties of humanity, and the virtue of moderation in success.
Cicero and Ovid have on very different occasions remarked how little of the honour of a victory belongs to the general, when his soldiers and his fortune have made their deductions; yet why should Ovid be suspected to have owed to Tully an observation which perhaps occurs to every man that sees or hears of military glories?
Tully observes of Achilles, that had not Homer written, his valour had been without praise:
Nisi Ilias illa extitisset, idem tumulus qui corpus ejus contexerat,
nomen ejus obruisset.
Unless the Iliad had been published, his name had been lost in the
tomb that covered his body.
Horace tells us with more energy that there were brave men before the wars of Troy, but they were lost in oblivion for want of a poet:
Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona
Multi; sed omnes illachrymabiles
Urgentur, ignotique longá
Nocte, carent quia vate sacro.
Before great Agamemnon reign’d,
Reign’d kings as great as he, and brave,
Whose huge ambition’s now contain’d
In the small compass of a grave:
In endless night they sleep, unwept, unknown:
No bard had they to make all time their own. FRANCIS.
Tully inquires, in the same oration, why, but for fame, we disturb a short life with so many fatigues?
Quid est quod in hoc tam exiguo vitae curriculo et tam brevi, tantis
nos in laboribus exerceamus?
Why in so small a circuit of life should we employ ourselves in so
Horace inquires in the same manner,
Quid brevi fortes jaculamur aevo
Why do we aim, with eager strife,
At things beyond the mark of life? FRANCIS.
when our life is of so short duration, why we form such numerous designs? But Horace, as well as Tully, might discover that records are needful to preserve the memory of actions, and that no records were so durable as poems; either of them might find out that life is short, and that we consume it in unnecessary labour.
There are other flowers of fiction so widely scattered and so easily cropped, that it is scarcely just to tax the use of them as an act by which any particular writer is despoiled of his garland; for they may be said to have been planted by the ancients in the open road of poetry for the accommodation of their successors, and to be the right of every one that has art to pluck them without injuring their colours or their fragrance. The passage of Orpheus to hell, with the recovery and second loss of Eurydice, have been described after Boetius by Pope, in such a manner as might justly leave him suspected of imitation, were not the images such as they might both have derived from more ancient writers.
Quae sontes agitant metu,
Ultrices scelerum deæ
Jam masta: lacrymis madent,
Non Ixionium caput
Velox præcipitat rota.
The pow’rs of vengeance, while they hear,
Touch’d with compassion, drop a tear:
Ixion’s rapid wheel is bound,
Fix’d in attention to the sound. F. LEWIS.
Thy stone, O Sysiphus, stands still,
Ixion rests upon the wheel,
And the pale spectres dance!
The furies sink upon their iron beds. POPE
Tandem, vincimur, arbiter
Umbrarum, miserans, ait—
Donemus, comitem viro,
Emtam carmine, conjugem.
Subdu’d at length, Hell’s pitying monarch cry’d,
The song rewarding, let us yield the bride. F. LEWIS.
He sung; and hell consented
To hear the poet’s prayer;
Stern Proserpine relented,
And gave him back the fair. POPE
Heu, noctis prope terminos
Orpheus Eurydicen suam
Vidit, perdidit, occidit.
Nor yet the golden verge of day begun,
When Orpheus, her unhappy lord,
Eurydice to life restor’d,
At once beheld, and lost, and was undone. F. LEWIS.
But soon, too soon, the lover turns his eyes:
Again she falls, again she dies, she dies! POPE.
No writer can be fully convicted of imitation, except there is a concurrence of more resemblance than can be imagined to have happened by chance; as where the same ideas are conjoined without any natural series or necessary coherence, or where not only the thought but the words are copied. Thus it can scarcely be doubted, that in the first of the following passages Pope remembered Ovid, and that in the second he copied Crashaw:
Saepe pater dixit, studium quid inutile tentas?
Maeonides nullas ipse reliquit opes—
Sponte suâ carmen numeros veniebat ad aptos,
Et quod conabar scribere, versus erat. OVID.
Quit, quit this barren trade, my father cry’d:
Ev’n Homer left no riches when he dy’d—
In verse spontaneous flow’d my native strain,
Forc’d by no sweat or labour of the brain. F. LEWIS.
I left no calling for this idle trade;
No duty broke, no father disobey’d;
While yet a child, ere yet a fool to fame,
I lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came. POPE.
—This plain floor,
Believe me, reader, can say more
Than many a braver marble can,
Here lies a truly honest man. CRASHAW.
This modest stone, what few vain marbles can,
May truly say, Here lies an honest man. POPE.
Conceits, or thoughts not immediately impressed by sensible objects, or necessarily arising from the coalition or comparison of common sentiments, may be with great justice suspected whenever they are found a second time. Thus Wallar probably owed to Grotius an elegant compliment:
Here lies the learned Savil’s heir,
So early wise, and lasting fair,
That none, except her years they told,
Thought her a child, or thought her old. WALLER.
[Transcriber’s note: Inconsistency in spelling Waller/Wallar in original]
Unica lux saecli, genitoris gloria, nemo
Quem puerum, nemo credidit esse senem. GROT.
The age’s miracle, his father’s joy!
Nor old you would pronounce him, nor a boy. F. LEWIS.
And Prior was indebted for a pretty illustration to Alleyne’s poetical history of Henry the Seventh:
For nought but light itself, itself can shew,
And only kings can write, what kings can do. ALLEYNE.
Your musick’s pow’r, your musick must disclose,
For what light is, ’tis only light that shews. PRIOR.
And with yet more certainty may the same writer be censured, for endeavouring the clandestine appropriation of a thought which he borrowed, surely without thinking himself disgraced, from an epigram of Plato:
[Greek: Tae Paphiae to katoptron, epei toiae men orasthai
Ouk ethelo, oiae d’ aen paros, ou dunamai.]
Venus, take my votive glass,
Since I am not what I was;
What from this day I shall be,
Venus, let me never see.
As not every instance of similitude can be considered as a proof of imitation, so not every imitation ought to be stigmatized as plagiarism. The adoption of a noble sentiment, or the insertion of a borrowed ornament, may sometimes display so much judgment as will almost compensate for invention: and an inferior genius may, without any imputation of servility, pursue the path of the ancients, provided he declines to tread in their footsteps.