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Professors of Plagiarism and Obscurity

AMONG the most singular characters in literature may be ranked those who do not blush to profess publicly its most dishonourable practices. The first vender of printed sermons imitating manuscript was, I think, Dr. Trusler. He to whom the following anecdotes relate had superior ingenuity. Like the famous orator Henley, he formed a school of his own. The present lecturer openly taught not to imitate the best authors, but to steal from them!

Richesource, a miserable declaimer, called himself “Moderator of the Academy of Philosophical Orators.” He taught in what manner a person destitute of literary talents might become eminent for literature. He published the principles of his art under the title of “The Mask of Orators; or the manner of disguising with ease all kinds of composition; briefs, sermons, panegyrics, funeral orations, dedications, speeches, letters, passages,” &c. I will give a notion of the work:—

The author very truly observes, that all who apply themselves to polite literature do not always find from their own funds a sufficient supply to insure success. For such he labours; and teaches to gather, in the gardens of others, those fruits of which their own sterile grounds are destitute; but so artfully to gather, that the pulbic shall not perceive their depredations. He dignifies this fine art by the title of PLAGIANISM, and he thus explains it:—

“The Plagianism of orators is the art, or an ingenious and easy mode, which some adroitly employ, to change, or disguise, all sorts of speeches of their own composition, or of that of other authors, for their pleasure, or their utility; in such a manner that it becomes impossible even for the author himself to recognise his own work, his own genius, and his own style, so skilfully shall the whole be disguised.”

Our professor proceeds to inform us in what manner we are to manage the whole economy of the piece which is to be copied or disguised; and which consists in giving a new order to the parts, changing the phrases, words, &c. An orator, for instance, having said that a plenipotentiary should possess three qualities,—probity, capacity, and courage; the plagiarist, on the contrary, may employ courage, capacity, and probity. This is only for a general rule, for it is too simple to practise frequently. To render the part perfect we must make it more complex, by changing the whole of the expressions. The plagiarist in place of courage will put force, constancy, or vigour. For probity he may say religion, virtue, or sincerity. Instead of capacity, he may substitute erudition, ability, or science. Or he may disguise the whole by saying that the plenipotentiary should be firm, virtuous, and able.

The rest of this uncommon work is composed of passages, extracted from celebrated writers, which are turned into a new manner by the plagiarist; their beauties, however, are never improved by their dress. Several celebrated writers when young, particularly the famous Flechier, who addressed verses to him, frequented the lectures of this professor!

Richesource became so zealous in the cause of literature, that he published a volume, entitled “The Art of Writing and Speaking; or a method of composing all sorts of letters, and holding a polite conversation.” He concludes his preface by advertising his readers, that authors who may be in want of essays, sermons, letters of all kinds, written pleadings and verses, may be accommodated on application to him.

Our professor was extremely fond of copious title-pages, which I suppose to be very attractive to certain readers; for it is a custom which the Richesources of the day fail not to employ. Are there persons who value books by the length of their titles; as formerly the ability of a physician was judged by the size of his wig?

To this article may be added an account of another singular school, where the professor taught obscurity in literary composition!

I do not believe, says Charpentier, that those who are unintelligible are very intelligent. Quintilian has justly observed, that the obscurity of a writer is generally in proportion to his incapacity. However, as there is hardly a defect which does not find partisans, the same author informs us of a rhetorician, who was so great an admirer of obscurity, that he always exhorted his scholars to preserve it; and made them correct, as blemishes, those passages of their works which appeared to him too intelligible. Quintilian adds, that the greatest panegyric they could give to a composition in that school was to declare, “I understand nothing of this piece.” Lycophron possessed this taste, and he protested that he would hang himself if he found a person who should understand his poem, called the “Prophecy of Cassandra.” He succeeded so well, that this piece has been the stumbling-block of all the grammarians, scholiasts, and commentators; and remains inexplicable to the present day. Such works Charpentier admirably compares to those subterraneous places, where the air is so thick and suffocating that it extinguishes all torches. A most sophistical dilemma, on the subject of obscurity, was made by Thomas Anglus, or White, an English Catholic priest, the friend of Sir Kenelm Digby. This learned man frequently wandered in the mazes of metaphysical subtilties; and became perfectly unintelligible to his readers. When accused of this obscurity, he replied, “Either the learned understand me, or they do not. If they understand me, and find me in an error, it is easy for them to refute me; if they do not understand me, it is very unreasonable for them to exclaim against my doctrines.”

This is saying all that the wit of man can suggest in favour of obscurity! Many, however, will agree with an observation made by Gravina on the over-refinement of modern composition, that “we do not think we have attained genius, till others must possess as much themselves to understand us.” Fontenelle, in France, followed by Marivaux, Thomas, and others, first introduced that subtilised manner of writing, which tastes more natural and simple reject; the source of such bitter complaints of obscurity.

Editor’s Notes

 ¶ This article is revised and slightly expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. In the initial versions of the piece, D’Israeli’s closing paragraph differs from the one given above:

On such singularities of taste, there in no reasoning; it is sufficient to record them.