Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Theory of Quotation

The nobler method of quotation is not to quote at all. For why should
one repeat good things that are already written? Are not the words in
their fittest context in the original? Clearly, then, your new setting
cannot be quite so congruous, which is, forthwith, an admission of
incongruity. Your quotation is evidently a plug in a leak, an apology
for a gap in your own words. But your vulgar author will even go out of
his way to make the clothing of his thoughts thus heterogeneous. He
counts every stolen scrap he can work in an improvement--a literary
caddis worm. Yet would he consider it improvement to put a piece of even
the richest of old tapestry or gold embroidery into his new pair of
breeks?

The passion for quotation is peculiar to literature. We do not glory to
quote our costume, dress in cast-off court robes, or furnish our houses
from the marine store. Neither are we proud of alien initials on the
domestic silver. We like things new and primarily our own. We have a
wholesome instinct against infection, except, it seems, in the matter of
ideas. An authorling will deliberately inoculate his copy with the
inverted comma bacillus, till the page swims unsteadily, counting the
fever a glow of pure literary healthiness. Yet this reproduction,
rightly considered, is merely a proof that his appetite for books has
run beyond his digestion. Or his industry may be to seek. You expect an
omelette, and presently up come the unbroken eggs. A tissue of quotation
wisely looked at is indeed but a motley garment, eloquent either of a
fool, or an idle knave in a fool's disguise.

Nevertheless at times--the truth must be told--we must quote. As for
admitting that we have quoted, that is another matter altogether. But
the other man's phrase will lie at times so close in one's mind to the
trend of one's thoughts, that, all virtue notwithstanding, they must
needs run into the groove of it. There are phrases that lie about in the
literary mind like orange peel on a pavement. You are down on them
before you know where you are. But does this necessitate acknowledgment
to the man, now in Hades, who sucked that orange and strewed the peel in
your way? Rather, is it not more becoming to be angry at his careless
anticipation?

One may reasonably look at it in this way. What business has a man to
think of things right in front of you, poke his head, as it were, into
your light? What right has he to set up dams and tunnel out
swallow-holes to deflect the current of your thoughts? Surely you may
remove these obstructions, if it suits you, and put them where you will.
Else all literature will presently be choked up, and the making of books
come to an end. One might as well walk ten miles out of one's way
because some deaf oaf or other chose to sit upon a necessary stile.
Surely Shakespeare or Lamb, or what other source you contemplate, has
had the thing long enough? Out of the road with them. Turn and turn
about.

And inverted commas are so inhospitable. If you _must_ take in another
man's offspring, you should surely try to make the poor foundlings feel
at home. Away with such uncharitable distinctions between the children
of the house and the stranger within your gates. I never see inverted
commas but I think of the necessary persecuted mediŠval Jew in yellow
gabardine.

At least, never put the name of the author you quote. Think of the
feelings of the dead. Don't let the poor spirit take it to heart that
its monumental sayings would pass unrecognised without your
advertisement. You mean well, perhaps, but it is in the poorest taste.
Yet I have seen Patience on a Monument honourably awarded to William
Shakespeare, and fenced in by commas from all intercourse with the
general text.

There is something so extremely dishonest, too, in acknowledging
quotations. Possibly the good people who so contrive that such
signatures as "Shakespeare," "Homer," or "St. Paul," appear to be
written here and there to parts of their inferior work, manage to
justify the proceeding in their conscience; but it is uncommonly like
hallmarking pewter on the strength of an infinitesimal tinge of silver
therein. The point becomes at once clear if we imagine some obscure
painter quoting the style of Raphael and fragments of his designs, and
acknowledging his indebtedness by appending the master's signature.
Blank forgery! And a flood of light was thrown on the matter by a chance
remark of one of Euphemia's aunts--she is a great reader of pure
fiction--anent a popular novel: "I am sure it must be a nice book," said
she, "or she could not get all these people to write the mottoes for the
chapters."

No, it is all very well to play with one's conscience. I have known men
so sophisticated as to assert that unacknowledged quotation was wrong.
But very few really reasonable people will, I think, refuse to agree
with me that the only artistic, the only kindly, and the only honest
method of quotation is plagiary. If you cannot plagiarise, surely it
were better not to quote.

H.G. Wells