« The Fathers of the Church | ‘Lost Articles’ | The Belles Lettres »

Severe Criticism

AN unmerciful Critic observes, that there are few books to which an Author can prefix his name, without trespassing upon his veracity: for there is not one work which is the labour of a single person.

When a Poet was reproached for his Plagiarisms, (which he probably called Classical Imitations) he defended himself in this manner—That a painter was not less a painter, nor an architect lets an architect, because the one purchased his colours, and the other his building materials. “It is all pouring out of one bottle into another,” exclaimed Sterne;—who himself stole this thought, with others, from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The original Sterne is himself frequently a Plagiarist; but the plagiarisms of a man of genius cease to be such. He is not a little indebted to Gallic authors.

An ingenious writer justly enough observes, that the ancients had stolen all his best thoughts from him.

Another exclaims—Pereant, qui ante, nos nostra dixerunt! Perish those, who, before us, have said, what we say!

All is said, (writes La Bruyere) and we come too late; since it is more than seven thousand years that so many men have reflected. We only glean after the Ancients, and the most skilful of the Moderns.

D’Ablancourt was an admirable translator; his versions were free, and masterly. He who reads the copy, has the pleasure of tasting the original. This lively and elegant writer confined himself to translation, though he possessed talents which would have distinguished him as an original author. To one who asked him, why he, who wrote so well, should prefer to be a Translator rather than an Author? he answered—“That the greater part of modem works were only repetitions of the ancients; and that, to be serviceable to his country, it was better to translate good books, than to make new ones, which in general convey no new information.” This criticism of D’Ablancourt is not less just than severe.

Editor’s Notes

 § This article was expanded for the 1807 fifth edition of the Curiosities, only to be cut by the time of the seventh edition of 1823. D’Israeli added the following two paragraphs for the 5th ed.:

The reason which Dr. Bentley gave his daughter for not himself becoming an original writer instead of wasting his talents on the works of authors, is, I have no doubt, the cause of many not attempting original composition. Dr. Bentley seemed embarrassed at her honest question, and remianed for a considerable time thoughtful—at length he observed—“Child, I am sensible I have not always turned my talents to the proper use for which they were given to me; yet I have done something: but the wit and genius of of old authors beguiled me, and I despaired of raising myself up to their standard upon fair ground, I thought the only chance I had of looking over their heads was to get upon their shoulders.”
I have my doubts whether, after all, this is any thing more than an ingenious consolation—for in spite of these idolised ancients, worshipped with superstitious rites—have we not had since Bentley’s time the finest geniuses, rivals at least of these ancients? Bentley might have been a great critic for the dead languages; he has shewn he had no genius for the living.