Brander Matthews.

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as useful and quite as moral as some of the Inter
national Exhibitions we have had of late years. I
think I should spend most of my time in the Retro
spective Section studying the antique jests. " Old
as a circus joke" might be a proverb, and the
Christmas pantomime and the Christy Minstrel
can supply jokes both practical and otherwise,
quite as fatigued and as hoary with age as those
of the circus. Among its many advantages this
International Exhibition of Jokes would have one
of great importance it would forever dispel the
belief in the saying of one of old that there were
only thirty-eight good stories in existence, and
that thirty-seven of these could not be told
before ladies. There might have been some
foundation for this saying in the days when the
ladies had to leave the table after dinner because
the conversation of the gentlemen then became
unfit for their ears. While a good joke should
be like a pin, in that it should come to a head
soon and be able to stand on its point, yet only
too many sorry jests are rather to be defined
as unlike a mathematical line, in that they have
breadth as well as length.


It is perhaps owing to the existence of stories
of this sort that woman has lost the faculty of
story-telling. Of course, I do not mean that the
fair sex are not felicitous at fiction ; the Schehera-
zades of the serials would confute me at once. I
mean that women do not amuse each other by the
exchange of anecdote as men are wont to do.
They do not retail the latest good thing. They
chat, gossip, giggle, converse, talk, and amuse
themselves easily together, but they do not swop
stories in man-fashion. Where man is objective,
woman is subjective. She is satisfied with her own
wit, without need of colporting the humor of a
stranger. Woman's wit has sex. It is wholly dif
ferent from man's wit. From Beatrice (though
she was said to take hers from the 'C. Merry
Tales') to Mrs. Poyser (who gave us that marvel
lous definition of a conceited man as one who was
like the cock that thought the sun rose to hear him
crow), the bright women of fiction have been witty
rather than humorous. It may be that the dis
tinction between wit and humor is one of sex after
all. I have a friend he is an editor who de
clares that the difference between wit and humor,
and again between talent and genius, is only the
difference between the raspberry and the straw
berry. Doubtless God might have made a better
berry than the strawberry, and doubtless God


might have given man a better gift than humor
but he never did. Woman has not the full gift;
she has wit and some humor, it is true, but she
has only a slighter sense of humor, whence comes
much marital unhappiness. As George Eliot tells
us, "a difference of taste in jests is a great strain
of the affections. "

It is said that the rustic, both the male and the
female of that peculiar species, has a positive hos
tility to a new joke. I do not believe this. Of a
certainty it is not true of the American of New
England, who is as humorous in his speech as he
is shrewd in his business dealings, and the more
humor he has the less sharp he is in trade and the
less severe in his views as to the necessity of work.
We may cite in proof of this Mrs. Stowe's delight
ful portrait of that village ne'er-do-well, Sam Law-
son. And I doubt if it is true of the English rustic
as he really is, for we know it is not true of him as
he appears in the pages of George Eliot and of Mr.
Thomas Hardy. There he has a mother-wit of his
own, and although fond of the old joke, the mean
ing of which has been fully fathomed, he is not
intolerant of a new quip or a fresh gibe. What he
cannot abide is a variation in the accepted form
of an accepted anecdote. This he will none of as
a child resolutely rejects the slightest deviation


from the canonical version of the fairy-tale with
which she is fondly familiar. The rustic and the
child are loyal to old friends, whether it be The
Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, or Brer Rabbit and
the Tar-Baby, or Old Grouse in the Gunroom, at
which honest Diggory had laughed these twenty
years, and which now, alas ! is utterly lost to the
knowledge of man, even Goldsmith's latest and
most learned biographer confessing perforce that
he has been wholly unable to recover it from out
the darkness of the past.



HEN Sir Walter Scott came to consider
' Gil Bias/ and the alleged plagiarisms
it contains from the Spanish story
tellers, he spoke with the frankness
and sturdy sense which were two of
chief characteristics. "Le Sage's claim to
originality in this delightful work," he wrote,
"has been idly, I had almost said ungratefully,
contested by those critics who conceive they de
tect a plagiarist wherever they see a resemblance
in the general subject of the work to one which
has been before treated by an inferior artist. It is
a favorite theme of laborious dulness to trace out
such coincidences ; because they appear to reduce
genius of the higher order to the usual standard
of humanity, and, of course, to bring the author
nearer a level with his critics. It is not the mere
outline of a story, not even the adopting some
details of a former author, which constitutes the


literary crime of plagiarism. The proprietor of the
pit from whence Chantrey takes his clay might as
well pretend to a right in the figure into which it
is moulded under his plastic fingers ; and the ques
tion is in both cases the same not so much from
whom the original substance came, as to whom
it owes that which constitutes its real merit and

In his delightful paper on Gray, Mr. Lowell de
clares that "we do not ask where people got their
hints, but what they made out of them." Mr.
Lowell, I doubt me, is speaking for himself alone,
and for the few others who attempt the higher
criticism with adequate insight, breadth, and
equipment. Only too many of the minor critics
have no time to ask what an author has done, they
are so busy in asking where he may have got his
hints. Thus it is that the air is full of accusations
of plagiary, and the bringing of these accusations is
a disease which bids fair to become epidemic in
literary journalism. Perhaps this is a sign, or at
least a symptom, of the intellectual decadence of
our race which these same critics sometimes vent
ure to announce. In the full flood of a creative
period people cannot pause to consider petty
charges of plagiarism. Greene's violent outbreak
against the only Shakescene of them all, who had


decked himself out in their feathers, seems to have
excited little or no attention. Nowadays, a pam
phlet like Greene's last dying speech and confes
sion would serve as a text for many a leading article
and for many a magazine essay.

"There is, I fear," wrote Lord Tennyson to Mr.
Dawson, a year or two ago, "a prosaic set grow
ing up among us, editors of booklets, bookworms,
index-hunters, or men of great memories and no
imagination who impute themselves to the poet,
and so believe that he, too, has no imagination,
but is forever poking his nose between the pages
of some old volumes in order to see what he can
appropriate. " A pleasant coincidence of thought is
to be noted between these words of Lord Tenny
son and the remarks of Sir Walter Scott about ' Gil
Bias/ Both poets think ill of the laborious dulness
of the literary detective, and suggest that he is actu
ated by malice in judging others by himself. The
police detective is akin to the spy, and although
his calling is often useful, and perhaps even neces
sary, we are not wont to choose him as our bosom
friend ; the amateur literary detective is an almost
useless person, who does for pleasure the dirty
work by which the real detective gets his bread.

The great feat of the amateur literary detective
is to run up parallel columns, and this he can ac-


complish with the agility of an acrobat. When
first invented, the setting of parallel passages side
by side was a most ingenious device, deadly to an
impostor or to a thief caught in the very act of
literary larceny. But these parallel passages must
be prepared with exceeding care, and with the
utmost certainty. Unless the matter on the one
side exactly balance the matter on the other side,
like the packs on a donkey's back, the burden is
likely to fall about the donkey's feet, and he may
chance to break his neck. Parallel columns should
be most sparingly used, and only in cases of abso
lute necessity. As they are employed now only
too often, they are quite inconclusive ; and it has
been neatly remarked that they are perhaps like
parallel lines, in that they would never meet,
however far produced. Nothing can be more
puerile, childish, infantine even, than the eager
ness with which the amateur literary detective
shows, to his own complete satisfaction, that two
of the most original authors who ever wrote
Shakspere and Moliere were barefaced borrowers
and convicted plagiarists. There are not a few
other of his deeds almost as silly as this. I won
der that the secure ass (the phrase is from the
' Merry Wives of Windsor,' and not mine, I regret
to say) who thinks that Sheridan took his ' Rivals'


from Smollett's ' Humphrey Clinker ' and his
' School for Scandal ' from his mother's ' Memoirs
of Miss Sydney Biddulph ' the absurd persons
who have gravely doubted whether Mr. Stevenson
did not find the suggestion of his ' Strange Case
of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ' in Hawthorne's ' Dr.
Grimshawe's Secret' and the malicious folk who
have been accusing Mr. Haggard with filching the
false teeth and lifting the white calves of other
African explorers who were not in search of King
Solomon's mines I wonder that the amateur lit
erary detective of this sort has never seen what a
strong case can be made out against M. Alphonse
Daudet (a notorious imitator of Dickens, it may be
remembered) for having extracted the ' Rois en
Exile ' from the third paragraph of the first chapter
of the * History of Henry Esmond,' and against Mr.
Thackeray for having derived this passage from
his recollections of a scene in Voltaire's ' Candide.'
It was the original owner of King Solomon's
mines who asserted that there was nothing new
under the sun ; and after the lapse of hundreds of
years one may suggest that a ready acceptance of
the charge of plagiarism is a sign of low culture,
and that a frequent bringing of the accusation is
a sign of defective education and deficient intelli
gence. Almost the first discovery of a student of


letters is that the history of literature is little more
than a list of curious coincidences. The folk-tales
which lie at the foundation of all fiction are almost
the same the wide world over, from the Eskimo
at the top of North America to the Zulu at the tip of
South Africa ; they can hardly have had a common
source, and there are few traces of conscious bor
rowing or of unconscious lending.

These folk-tales are as ancient as they are wide
spread, and when Uncle Remus relates the advent
ures of Brer Rabbit and Brer Terrapin, he is re
peating a variant of adventures which were told
in Greece before Homer sang. And as these folk
tales were made each by itself and yet alike, in
many places and at all ages of the world, so in
more formal literature do we find stories strangely
similar one to another, and yet independently in
vented. People have always been ready, like the
Athenians of old, to hear or to tell some new
thing and the new thing, when dissected, is
soon seen to be an old thing. The tales have all
been told. If we were to take from the goodman
La Fontaine the contes which had had another
owner before he found them by the highway, he
would be left like a Manx cat or the flock of Little
Bo-Peep. There are some situations, primitive
and powerful, which recur in all literatures with


the inevitable certainty of the fate which domi
nates them. What is the ' Hamlet ' of Shakspere,
in its essence, but the ' Orestes ' trilogy of -/Eschy-
lus ? And what man shall be bold enough to claim
for himself or for another the first use of the Hidden
Will, of the Infants-changed-at-Nurse, or of the
After recording a slight similarity of subject and
of point of view between the 'Famille Benoiton'
of M. Victorien Sardou and the 'Young Mrs. Win-
throp' of Mr. Bronson Howard, Mr. William
Archer remarks pertinently that " in the domain
of the drama there is no such thing as private
property in the actual soil ; all that the playwright
can demand is security for his improvements," and
he adds that "were tenure in fee-simple permis
sible, the whole cultivable area would long ago
have been occupied by a syndicate of pestilent
land-grabbers, named Menander, Calderon, Shak
spere & Co., and the dramatist of to-day would
have had no resource save emigration to some
other planet." I have read that Schiller in the last
century, and Scribe in this, made out a list of all
the possible dramatic situations, and that both lists
were surprisingly brief. M. Zola's admirable defi
nition of art is "Nature seen through a tempera
ment" ; and the most a man may bring nowadays


is his temperament, his personal equation, his
own pair of spectacles, through which he may
study the passing show in his own way.

As it is with situations which are the broad
effects of the drama or the novel or the poem, so
it is with the descriptions and the dialogue which
make the smaller effects. Words are more abun
dant than situations, but they are wearing out
with hard usage. Language is finite, and its com
binations are not countless. "It is scarcely pos
sible for any one to say or write anything in this
late time of the world to which, in the rest of the
literature of the world, a parallel could not be
found somewhere," so Lord Tennyson declared in
the letter from which I have already quoted.
"Are not human eyes all over the world looking
at the same objects, and must there not conse
quently be coincidences of thought and impres
sions and expressions?" The laureate was not at
all surprised to be told that there were two lines
in a certain Chinese classic (of which he had never
heard) exactly like two of his. Once I found an
exceedingly close translation of one of Lord Tenny
son's lines in a French comedy in verse, and when
I asked the dramatist about it, I soon saw that he
did not know anything about the English poem,
or even about the English poet.


In cases like these there is no need to dispute
the good faith of the author who may chance to be
later in point of time. ' ' When a person of fair char
acter for literary honesty uses an image such as
another has employed before him, the presump
tion is that he has struck upon it independently,
or unconsciously recalled it, supposing it his
own," said the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.
After this dictum in ethics, Dr. Holmes enunciated
a subtle psychologic truth, which is known to all
conscientious writers, and which should be made
known to all amateur literary detectives: "It is
impossible to tell, in a great many cases, whether
a comparison which suddenly suggests itself is a
new conception or a recollection. I told you the
other day that I never wrote a line of verse that
seemed to me comparatively good but it appeared
old at once, and often as if it has been borrowed."
Sheridan bears witness to the same effect in the
preface to the ' Rivals/ when he says that " faded
ideas float in memory like half-forgotten dreams ;
and the imagination in its fullest enjoyments be
comes suspicious of its offspring, and doubts
whether it has created or adopted." Perhaps the
testimony of Sheridan is not altogether beyond
suspicion ; he had an easy conscience and a mar
vellous faculty of assimilation, and it may be that

34 1>EN AND INK.

he was apologetically making the plea of con
fession and avoidance, as the lawyers call it.
But I think that Lord Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott,
and Mr. Lowell are unimpeachable witnesses. It
is with malice prepense that I have quoted from
them frequently and at length, and perhaps in
excess, that I might establish my case not out of
my own mouth, but out of theirs.

After all, there is little need to lay stress on the
innocence of many if not most of the coincidences
with which the history of literature is studded.
The garden is not large, and those who cultivate it
must often walk down the same path, sometimes
side by side, and sometimes one after another,
even though the follower neither wishes nor in
tends to tread on his predecessor's heels or to
walk in his footsteps. They may gather a nose
gay of the same flowers of speech. They may
even pluck the same passion-flower, not knowing
that any one has ever before broken a blossom
from that branch. Indeed, when we consider
how small the area is, how few are the possible
complications of plot, how easily the poetic vocab
ulary is exhausted, the wonder is really, not that
there are so many parallel passages, but that there
are so few. In the one field which is not circum
scribed there is very little repetition : human


nature is limitless, and characters comparatively
rarely pass from one book to another. The
dramatists and the romancers have no choice but
to treat anew as best they may the well-worn
incidents and the weary plots ; the poets happen
on the same conceits generation after generation ;
but the dramatists and the romancers and the
poets know that there is no limit to the variety of
man, and that human nature is as deep and as
boundless and as inexhaustible as the ocean. No
matter how heavy a draft Shakspere and Moliere
may have made, no matter how skilfully and how
successfully Dickens and Thackeray may have
angled, no matter how great the take of Haw
thorne and Poe, there are still as good fish in the
sea of humanity as ever were caught. And I
offer this fact, that we do not find the coincidence
in character which we cannot help seeing in plot
and in language, as a proof that most apparent
plagiarism is quite unconscious and due chiefly to
the paucity of material.

Hitherto I have considered only the similarity
which was unconscious. Originality is difficult;
it is never accidental ; and it is to be obtained only
by solitary confinement and hard labor. To make
his fiction out of whole cloth, to spin his net,
spider-like, out of himself, is one of the highest


achievements of the intellect. Only a rare genius
may do this, and he must do it rarely. A man
may always draw from the common stock without
compunction, and there are many circumstances
under which he may borrow unhesitatingly from
other authors. For example, Mr. Haggard has
recently been encompassed about by a cloud of
false witnesses, accusing him of having plagiarized
certain episodes of his story, ' King Solomon's
Mines,' from a certain book of travels. He prompt
ly denied the charge, and of course it fell to the
ground at once. But had he done what he was
accused of doing, there would have been no harm
in it. Mr. Haggard, in writing a romance of Africa,
would have been perfectly justified in using the
observations and experiences of African travellers.
Facts are the foundation of fiction, and the novelist
and the romancer, the dramatist and the poet, may
make free with labors of the traveller, the his
torian, the botanist, and the astronomer. Within
reason, the imaginative author may help himself
to all that the scientific author has stored up. One
might even go so far as to say that science in
which I include history exists to supply facts for
fiction, and that it has not wholly accomplished its
purpose until it has been transmuted in the im
agination of the poet. If Mr. Haggard had made



use of a dozen books of African travel in the com
position of that thrilling and delightful romance of
adventure, 'King Solomon's Mines,' there would
have been no more taint of plagiary about it than
there was in Shakspere's reworking of the old
chronicles into his historical plays.

Shakspere and Moliere borrowed from Plautus,
as Plautus had borrowed from Menander ; and this
again is not plagiarism. Every literary worker has
a right to draw from the accumulated store of the
past, so long as he does not attempt to conceal
what he has done nor to take credit for what is not
his own invention, and so long as he has wholly
absorbed and assimilated and steeped in his own
gray matter what he has derived from his prede
cessors. The elder Dumas has told us how he
found some of the scattered elements of his virile
and vigorous drama ' Henri III.' in Anquetil and in
Scott and in Schiller; but the play is his, none the
less ; and this was no plagiarism, for he had mixed
himself, with what he borrowed, "an incalculable
increment," as Mr. Lowell said of Gray. ' Henri III.'
lives with its own life, which Dumas gave it, and
which is as different as possible from the life of
the fragments of Anquetil, Scott, and Schiller, each
of these again differing one from the other. It
was as unlike as may be to that merely literary


imitation which Hawthorne compared to a plaster

Another French dramatist, M. Sardou, had prof
ited by the reading of Poe's 'Purloined Letter'
when he sat down to plan his ' Pattes de Mouche';
but it is absurd to talk of plagiary here, and to call
M. Sardou's charming comedy a dramatization of
Poe's short story, for, although the bare essential
idea is the same, the development is radically dif
ferent. And in like manner Poe found an incident
in Mr. Mudford's 'Iron Shroud' which probably
suggested to him his own appalling tale of the
'Pit and the Pendulum/ Here what Poe took from
Mr. Mudford was very little compared with what
he contributed himself; and in any discussion of
plagiarism quite the most important question is
the relative value to the borrower of the thing
borrowed. If he has flocks of his own, he may
lift the ewe lamb of his neighbor, and only labori
ous dulness will object. The plagiarist, in fact, is
the man who steals his brooms ready made, be
cause he does not know how to make them.
Dumas and M. Sardou and Poe were men having
a highly developed faculty of invention, and seek
ing originality diligently. Those from whom they
borrowed have no more right to claim the resulting
works than has the spectator who lends a coin to a


conjurer a right to consider himself a partner in the
ingenious trick the conjurer performs with it. If
this be plagiary, make the most of it. Let us all
wish for more of it. And this reminds me of a
little story, as Lincoln used to say : in the darkest
days of our war, when defeat followed defeat, and
Grant alone was victorious at Vicksburg, some
busybody went to Lincoln and told him that Grant
drank whiskey. "Does he ? " said the President,
gravely. "Do you happen to know what kind of
whiskey it is ? Because I should like to send a
barrel of it to some of the other generals."

"Far indeed am I from asserting that books, as
well as nature, are not, and ought not to be, sug
gestive to the poet," wrote Lord Tennyson. "I am
sure that I myself and many others find a peculiar
charm in those passages of such great masters as
Virgil or Milton, where they adopt the creation of
a bygone poet, and reclothe it, more or less, ac
cording to their fancy." Wordsworth said that
Gray helped himself from everybody and every
where ; but what Gray made out of these old bits
borrowed from others was a new poem, and it was
his own. In the latest editions of Gray's poems, as
Mr. Lowell has put it picturesquely, "The thin line
of text stands at the top of the page like cream,
and below it is the skim-milk drawn from many


milky mothers of the herd out of which it has
risen." It was because the author of 'Evangeline'
followed the example of the author of the 'Elegy'
that Poe was able to write his foolish paper on
'Mr. Longfellow and other Plagiarists' a wanton
attack which Longfellow bore with beautiful seren
ity. One must set a plagiarist to cry "Stop thief! "
and Poe was not above stealing his brooms, or at
least his smaller brushes, ready made. We may
absolve him for levying on Mudford for the 'Pit and

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Online LibraryBrander MatthewsPen and ink; papers on subjects of more or less importance → online text (page 2 of 14)