[This is taken from Books and Bookmen, by Andrew Lang.]
In the whole amusing history of impostures, there is no more diverting chapter than that which deals with literary frauds. None contains a more grotesque revelation of the smallness and the complexity of human nature, and none—not even the records of the Tichborne trial, nor of general elections—displays more pleasantly the depths of mortal credulity. The literary forger is usually a clever man, and it is necessary for him to be at least on a level with the literary knowledge and critical science of his time. But how low that level commonly appears to be! Think of the success of Ireland, a boy of eighteen; think of Chatterton; think of Surtees of Mainsforth, who took in the great Sir Walter himself, the father of all them that are skilled in ballad lore. How simple were the artifices of these ingenious impostors, their resources how scanty; how hand-to-mouth and improvised was their whole procedure! Times have altered a little. Joseph Smith’s revelation and famed ‘Golden Bible’ only carried captive the polygamous populus qui vult decipi, reasoners a little lower than even the believers in Anglo-Israel. The Moabite Ireland, who once gave Mr. Shapira the famous MS. of Deuteronomy, but did not delude M. Clermont-Ganneau, was doubtless a smart man; he was, however, a little too indolent, a little too easily satisfied. He might have procured better and less recognizable materials than his old “synagogue rolls;” in short, he took rather too little trouble, and came to the wrong market. A literary forgery ought first, perhaps, to appeal to the credulous, and only slowly should it come, with the prestige of having already won many believers, before the learned world. The inscriber of the Phoenician inscriptions in Brazil (of all places) was a clever man. His account of the voyage of Hiram to South America probably gained some credence in Brazil, while in England it only carried captive Mr. Day, author of ‘The Prehistoric Use of Iron and Steel.’ But the Brazilians, from lack of energy, have dropped the subject, and the Phoenician inscriptions of Brazil are less successful, after all, than the Moabite stone, about which one begins to entertain disagreeable doubts.
The motives of the literary forger are curiously mixed; but they may, perhaps, be analyzed roughly into piety, greed, “push,” and love of fun. Many literary forgeries have been pious frauds, perpetrated in the interests of a church, a priesthood, or a dogma. Then we have frauds of greed, as if, for example, a forger should offer his wares for a million of money to the British Museum; or when he tries to palm off his Samaritan Gospel on the “Bad Samaritan” of the Bodleian. Next we come to playful frauds, or frauds in their origin playful, like (perhaps) the Shakespearian forgeries of Ireland, the supercheries of Prosper Merimee, the sham antique ballads (very spirited poems in their way) of Surtees, and many other examples. Occasionally it has happened that forgeries, begun for the mere sake of exerting the imitative faculty, and of raising a laugh against the learned, have been persevered with in earnest. The humorous deceits are, of course, the most pardonable, though it is difficult to forgive the young archaeologist who took in his own father with false Greek inscriptions. But this story may be a mere fable amongst archaeologists, who are constantly accusing each other of all manner of crimes. Then there are forgeries by “pushing” men, who hope to get a reading for poems which, if put forth as new, would be neglected. There remain forgeries of which the motives are so complex as to remain for ever obscure. We may generally ascribe them to love of notoriety in the forger; such notoriety as Macpherson won by his dubious pinchbeck Ossian. More difficult still to understand are the forgeries which real scholars have committed or connived at for the purpose of supporting some opinion which they held with earnestness. There is a vein of madness and self-deceit in the character of the man who half-persuades himself that his own false facts are true. The Payne Collier case is thus one of the most difficult in the world to explain, for it is equally hard to suppose that Mr. Payne Collier was taken in by the notes on the folio he gave the world, and to hold that he was himself guilty of forgery to support his own opinions.
The further we go back in the history of literary forgeries, the more (as is natural) do we find them to be of a pious or priestly character. When the clergy alone can write, only the clergy can forge. In such ages people are interested chiefly in prophecies and warnings, or, if they are careful about literature, it is only when literature contains some kind of title-deeds. Thus Solon is said to have forged a line in the Homeric catalogue of the ships for the purpose of proving that Salamis belonged to Athens. But the great antique forger, the “Ionian father of the rest,” is, doubtless, Onomacritus. There exists, to be sure, an Egyptian inscription professing to be of the fourth, but probably of the twenty-sixth, dynasty. The Germans hold the latter view; the French, from patriotic motives, maintain the opposite opinion. But this forgery is scarcely “literary.”
I never can think of Onomacritus without a certain respect: he began the forging business so very early, and was (apart from this failing) such an imposing and magnificently respectable character. The scene of the error and the detection of Onomacritus presents itself always to me in a kind of pictorial vision. It is night, the clear, windless night of Athens; not of the Athens whose ruins remain, but of the ancient city that sank in ashes during the invasion of Xerxes. The time is the time of Pisistratus the successful tyrant; the scene is the ancient temple, the stately house of Athene, the fane where the sacred serpent was fed on cakes, and the primeval olive-tree grew beside the well of Poseidon. The darkness of the temple’s inmost shrine is lit by the ray of one earthen lamp. You dimly discern the majestic form of a venerable man stooping above a coffer of cedar and ivory, carved with the exploits of the goddess, and with boustrophedon inscriptions. In his hair this archaic Athenian wears the badge of the golden grasshopper. He is Onomacritus, the famous poet, and the trusted guardian of the ancient oracles of Musaeus and Bacis.
What is he doing? Why, he takes from the fragrant cedar coffer certain thin stained sheets of lead, whereon are scratched the words of doom, the prophecies of the Greek Thomas the Rhymer. From his bosom he draws another thin sheet of lead, also stained and corroded. On this he scratches, in imitation of the old “Cadmeian letters,” a prophecy that “the Isles near Lemnos shall disappear under the sea.” So busy is he in this task, that he does not hear the rustle of a chiton behind, and suddenly a man’s hand is on his shoulder! Onomacritus turns in horror. Has the goddess punished him for tampering with the oracles? No; it is Lasus, the son of Hermiones, a rival poet, who has caught the keeper of the oracles in the very act of a pious forgery. (Herodotus, vii. 6.)
Pisistratus expelled the learned Onomacritus from Athens, but his conduct proved, in the long run, highly profitable to the reputations of Musaeus and Bacis. Whenever one of their oracles was not fulfilled, people said, “Oh, THAT is merely one of the interpolations of Onomacritus!” and the matter was passed over. This Onomacritus is said to have been among the original editors of Homer under Pisistratus. He lived long, never repented, and, many years later, deceived Xerxes into attempting his disastrous expedition. This he did by “keeping back the oracles unfavorable to the barbarians,” and putting forward any that seemed favorable. The children of Pisistratus believed in him as spiritualists go on giving credit to exposed and exploded “mediums.”
Having once practiced deceit, it is to be feared that Onomacritus acquired a liking for the art of literary forgery, which, as will be seen in the case of Ireland, grows on a man like dram-drinking. Onomacritus is generally charged with the authorship of the poems which the ancients usually attributed to Orpheus, the companion of Jason. Perhaps the most interesting of the poems of Orpheus to us would have been his ‘Inferno,’ or [Greek text], in which the poet gave his own account of his descent to Hades in search of Eurydice. But only a dubious reference to one adventure in the journey is quoted by Plutarch. Whatever the exact truth about the Orphic poems may be (the reader may pursue the hard and fruitless quest in Lobeck’s ‘Aglaophamus’, it seems certain that the period between Pisistratus and Pericles, like the Alexandrian time, was a great age for literary forgeries. But of all these frauds the greatest (according to the most “advanced” theory on the subject) is the “Forgery of the Iliad and Odyssey!” The opinions of the scholars who hold that the Iliad and Odyssey, which we know and which Plato knew, are not the epics known to Herodotus, but later compositions, are not very clear nor consistent. But it seems to be vaguely held that about the time of Pericles there arose a kind of Greek Macpherson. This ingenious impostor worked on old epic materials, but added many new ideas of his own about the gods, converting the Iliad (the poem which we now possess) into a kind of mocking romance, a Greek Don Quixote. He also forged a number of pseudo-archaic words, tenses, and expressions, and added the numerous references to iron, a metal practically unknown, it is asserted, to Greece before the sixth century. If we are to believe, with Professor Paley, that the chief incidents of the Iliad and Odyssey were unknown to Sophocles, Aeschylus, and the contemporary vase painters, we must also suppose that the Greek Macpherson invented most of the situations in the Odyssey and Iliad. According to this theory the ‘cooker’ of the extant epics was far the greatest and most successful of all literary impostors, for he deceived the whole world, from Plato downwards, till he was exposed by Mr. Paley. There are times when one is inclined to believe that Plato must have been the forger himself, as Bacon (according to the other hypothesis) was the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Thus “Plato the wise, and large-browed Verulam,” would be “the first of those who” forge! Next to this prodigious imposture, no doubt, the false ‘Letters of Phalaris’ are the most important of classical forgeries. And these illustrate, like most literary forgeries, the extreme worthlessness of literary taste as a criterion of the authenticity of writings. For what man ever was more a man of taste than Sir William Temple, “the most accomplished writer of the age,” whom Mr. Boyle never thought of without calling to mind those happy lines of Lucretius, -
Quem tu, dea, tempore in omni
Omnibus ornatum voluisti excellere rebus.
Well, the ornate and excellent Temple held that “the Epistles of Phalaris have more race, more spirit, more force of wit and genius, than any others he had ever seen, either ancient or modern.” So much for what Bentley calls Temple’s “Nicety of Tast.” The greatest of English scholars readily proved that Phalaris used (in the spirit of prophecy) an idiom which did not exist to write about matters in his time not invented, but “many centuries younger than he.” So let the Nicety of Temple’s Tast and its absolute failure be a warning to us when we read (if read we must) German critics who deny Homer’s claim to this or that passage, and Plato’s right to half his accepted dialogues, on grounds of literary taste. And farewell, as Herodotus would have said, to the Letters of Phalaris, of Socrates, of Plato; to the Lives of Pythagoras and of Homer, and to all the other uncounted literary forgeries of the classical world, from the Sibylline prophecies to the battle of the frogs and mice.
Early Christian frauds were, naturally, pious. We have the apocryphal Gospels, and the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, which were not exposed till Erasmus’s time. Perhaps the most important of pious forgeries (if forgery be exactly the right word in this case) was that of ‘The False Decretals.’ “Of a sudden,” says Milman, speaking of the pontificate of Nicholas I. (ob. 867 A.D.), “Of a sudden was promulgated, unannounced, without preparation, not absolutely unquestioned, but apparently over-awing at once all doubt, a new Code, which to the former authentic documents added fifty-nine letters and decrees of the twenty oldest Popes from Clement to Melchiades, and the donation of Constantine, and in the third part, among the decrees of the Popes and of the Councils from Sylvester to Gregory II., thirty-nine false decrees, and the acts of several unauthentic Councils.” “The whole is composed,” Milman adds, “with an air of profound piety and reverence.” The False Decretals naturally assert the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. “They are full and minute on Church Property” (they were sure to be that); in fact, they remind one of another forgery, pious and Aryan, ‘The Institutes of Vishnu.’ “Let him not levy any tax upon Brahmans,” says the Brahman forger of the Institutes, which “came from the mouths of Vishnu,” as he sat “clad in a yellow robe, imperturbable, decorated with all kinds of gems, while Lakshmi was stroking his feet with her soft palms.” The Institutes took excellent care of Brahmans and cows, as the Decretals did of the Pope and the clergy, and the earliest Popes had about as much hand in the Decretals as Vishnu had in his Institutes. Hommenay, in ‘Pantagruel,’ did well to have the praise of the Decretals sung by filles belles, blondelettes, doulcettes, et de bonne grace. And then Hommenay drank to the Decretals and their very good health. “O dives Decretales, tant par vous est le vin bon bon trouve”—“O divine Decretals, how good you make good wine taste!” “The miracle would be greater,” said Pantagruel, “if they made bad wine taste good.” The most that can now be done by the devout for the Decretals is “to palliate the guilt of their forger,” whose name, like that of the Greek Macpherson, is unknown.
If the early Christian centuries, and the Middle Ages, were chiefly occupied with pious frauds, with forgeries of gospels, epistles, and Decretals, the impostors of the Renaissance were busy, as an Oxford scholar said, when he heard of a new MS. of the Greek Testament, “with something really important,” that is with classical imitations. After the Turks took Constantinople, when the learned Greeks were scattered all over Southern Europe, when many genuine classical manuscripts were recovered by the zeal of scholars, when the plays of Menander were seen once, and then lost for ever, it was natural that literary forgery should thrive. As yet scholars were eager rather than critical; they were collecting and unearthing, rather than minutely examining the remains of classic literature. They had found so much, and every year were finding so much more, that no discovery seemed impossible. The lost books of Livy and Cicero, the songs of Sappho, the perished plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus might any day be brought to light. This was the very moment for the literary forger; but it is improbable that any forgery of the period has escaped detection. Three or four years ago some one published a book to show that the ‘Annals of Tacitus’ were written by Poggio Bracciolini. This paradox gained no more converts than the bolder hypothesis of Hardouin. The theory of Hardouin was all that the ancient classics were productions of a learned company which worked, in the thirteenth century, under Severus Archontius. Hardouin made some exceptions to his sweeping general theory. Cicero’s writings were genuine, he admitted, so were Pliny’s, of Virgil the Georgics; the satires and epistles of Horace; Herodotus, and Homer. All the rest of the classics were a magnificent forgery of the illiterate thirteenth century, which had scarce any Greek, and whose Latin, abundant in quantity, in quality left much to be desired.
Among literary forgers, or passers of false literary coin, at the time of the Renaissance, Annius is the most notorious. Annius (his real vernacular name was Nanni) was born at Viterbo, in 1432. He became a Dominican, and (after publishing his forged classics) rose to the position of Maitre du Palais to the Pope, Alexander Borgia. With Caesar Borgia it is said that Annius was never on good terms. He persisted in preaching “the sacred truth” to his highness and this (according to the detractors of Annius) was the only use he made of the sacred truth. There is a legend that Caesar Borgia poisoned the preacher (1502), but people usually brought that charge against Caesar when any one in any way connected with him happened to die. Annius wrote on the History and Empire of the Turks, who took Constantinople in his time; but he is better remembered by his ‘Antiquitatum Variarum Volumina XVII. cum comment. Fr. Jo. Annii.’ These fragments of antiquity included, among many other desirable things, the historical writings of Fabius Pictor, the predecessor of Livy. One is surprised that Annius, when he had his hand in, did not publish choice extracts from the ‘Libri Lintei,’ the ancient Roman annals, written on linen and preserved in the temple of Juno Moneta. Among the other discoveries of Annius were treatises by Berosus, Manetho, Cato, and poems by Archilochus. Opinion has been divided as to whether Annius was wholly a knave, or whether he was himself imposed upon. Or, again, whether he had some genuine fragments, and eked them out with his own inventions. It is observed that he did not dovetail the really genuine relics of Berosus and Manetho into the works attributed to them. This may be explained as the result of ignorance or of cunning; there can be no certain inference. “Even the Dominicans,” as Bayle says, admit that Annius’s discoveries are false, though they excuse them by averring that the pious man was the dupe of others. But a learned Lutheran has been found to defend the ‘Antiquitates’ of the Dominican.
It is amusing to remember that the great and erudite Rabelais was taken in by some pseudo-classical fragments. The joker of jokes was hoaxed. He published, says Mr. Besant, “a couple of Latin forgeries, which he proudly called ‘Ex reliquiis venerandae antiquitatis,’ consisting of a pretended will and a contract.” The name of the book is ‘Ex reliquiis venerandae antiquitatis. Lucii Cuspidii Testamentum. Item contractus venditionis antiquis Romanorum temporibus initus. Lugduni apud Gryphium (1532).’ Pomponius Laetus and Jovianus Pontanus were apparently authors of the hoax.
Socrates said that he “would never lift up his hand against his father Parmenides.” The fathers of the Church have not been so respectfully treated by literary forgers during the Renaissance. The ‘Flowers of Theology’ of St. Bernard, which were to be a primrose path ad gaudia Paradisi (Strasburg, 1478), were really, it seems, the production of Jean de Garlande. Athanasius, his ‘Eleven Books concerning the Trinity,’ are attributed to Vigilius, a colonial Bishop in Northern Africa. Among false classics were two comic Latin fragments with which Muretus beguiled Scaliger. Meursius has suffered, posthumously, from the attribution to him of a very disreputable volume indeed. In 1583, a book on ‘Consolations,’ by Cicero, was published at Venice, containing the reflections with which Cicero consoled himself for the death of Tullia. It might as well have been attributed to Mrs. Blimber, and described as replete with the thoughts by which that lady supported herself under the affliction of never having seen Cicero or his Tusculan villa. The real author was Charles Sigonius, of Modena. Sigonius actually did discover some Ciceronian fragments, and, if he was not the builder, at least he was the restorer of Tully’s lofty theme. In 1693, Francois Nodot, conceiving the world had not already enough of Petronius Arbiter, published an edition, in which he added to the works of that lax though accomplished author. Nodot’s story was that he had found a whole MS. of Petronius at Belgrade, and he published it with a translation of his own Latin into French. Still dissatisfied with the existing supply of Petronius’ humor was Marchena, a writer of Spanish books, who printed at Bale a translation and edition of a new fragment. This fragment was very cleverly inserted in a presumed lacuna. In spite of the ironical style of the preface many scholars were taken in by this fragment, and their credulity led Marchena to find a new morsel (of Catullus this time) at Herculaneum. Eichstadt, a Jena professor, gravely announced that the same fragment existed in a MS. in the university library, and, under pretence of giving various readings, corrected Marchena’s faults in prosody. Another sham Catullus, by Corradino, a Venetian, was published in 1738.
The most famous forgeries of the eighteenth century were those of Macpherson, Chatterton, and Ireland. Space (fortunately) does not permit a discussion of the Ossianic question. That fragments of Ossianic legend (if not of Ossianic poetry) survive in oral Gaelic traditions, seems certain. How much Macpherson knew of these, and how little he used them in the bombastic prose which Napoleon loved (and spelled “Ocean”), it is next to impossible to discover. The case of Chatterton is too well known to need much more than mention. The most extraordinary poet for his years who ever lived began with the forgery of a sham feudal pedigree for Mr. Bergum, a pewterer. Ireland started on his career in much the same way, unless Ireland’s ‘Confessions’ be themselves a fraud, based on what he knew about Chatterton. Once launched in his career, Chatterton drew endless stores of poetry from “Rowley’s MS.” and the muniment chest in St. Mary Redcliffe’s. Jacob Bryant believed in them and wrote an ‘Apology’ for the credulous. Bryant, who believed in his own system of mythology, might have believed in anything. When Chatterton sent his “discoveries” to Walpole (himself somewhat of a mediaeval imitator), Gray and Mason detected the imposture, and Walpole, his feelings as an antiquary injured took no more notice of the boy. Chatterton’s death was due to his precocity. Had his genius come to him later, it would have found him wiser, and better able to command the fatal demon of intellect, for which he had to find work, like Michael Scott in the legend.
The end of the eighteenth century, which had been puzzled or diverted by the Chatterton and Macpherson frauds, witnessed also the great and famous Shakespearian forgeries. We shall never know the exact truth about the fabrication of the Shakespearian documents, and ‘Vortigern’ and the other plays. We have, indeed, the confession of the culprit: habemus confitentem reum, but Mr. W. H. Ireland was a liar and a solicitor’s clerk, so versatile and accomplished that we cannot always trust him, even when he is narrating the tale of his own iniquities. The temporary but wide and turbulent success of the Ireland forgeries suggests the disagreeable reflection that criticism and learning are (or a hundred years ago were) worth very little as literary touchstones. A polished and learned society, a society devoted to Shakespeare and to the stage, was taken in by a boy of eighteen. Young Ireland not only palmed off his sham prose documents, most makeshift imitations of the antique, but even his ridiculous verses on the experts. James Boswell went down on his knees and thanked Heaven for the sight of them, and, feeling thirsty after these devotions, drank hot brandy and water. Dr. Parr was not less readily gulled, and probably the experts, like Malone, who held aloof, were as much influenced by jealousy as by science. The whole story of young Ireland’s forgeries is not only too long to be told here, but forms the topic of a novel (‘The Talk of the Town’) by Mr. James Payn. The frauds in his hands lose neither their humor nor their complicated interest of plot. To be brief, then, Mr. Samuel Ireland was a gentleman extremely fond of old literature and old books. If we may trust the ‘Confessions’ (1805) of his candid son, Mr. W. H. Ireland, a more harmless and confiding old person than Samuel never collected early English tracts. Living in his learned society, his son, Mr. W. H. Ireland, acquired not only a passion for black letters, but a desire to emulate Chatterton. His first step in guilt was the forgery of an autograph on an old pamphlet, with which he gratified Samuel Ireland. He also wrote a sham inscription on a modern bust of Cromwell, which he represented as an authentic antique. Finding that the critics were taken in, and attributed this new bust to the old sculptor Simeon, Ireland conceived a very low and not unjustifiable opinion of critical tact. Critics would find merit in anything which seemed old enough. Ireland’s next achievement was the forgery of some legal documents concerning Shakespeare. Just as the bad man who deceived the guileless Mr. Shapira forged his ‘Deuteronomy’ on the blank spaces of old synagogue rolls, so young Ireland used the cut-off ends of old rent rolls. He next bought up quantities of old fly-leaves of books, and on this ancient paper he indicted a sham confession of faith, which he attributed to Shakespeare. Being a strong “evangelical,” young Mr. Ireland gave a very Protestant complexion to this edifying document. And still the critics gaped and wondered and believed.
Ireland’s method was to write in an ink made by blending various liquids used in the marbling of paper for bookbinding. This stuff was supplied to him by a bookbinder’s apprentice. When people asked questions as to whence all the new Shakespeare manuscripts came, he said they were presented to him by a gentleman who wished to remain anonymous. Finally, the impossibility of producing this gentleman was one of the causes of the detection of the fraud. According to himself, Ireland performed prodigies of acuteness. Once he had forged, at random, the name of a contemporary of Shakespeare. He was confronted with a genuine signature, which, of course, was quite different. He obtained leave to consult his “anonymous gentleman,” rushed home, forged the name again on the model of what had been shown to him, and returned with this signature as a new gift from his benefactor. That nameless friend had informed him (he swore) that there were two persons of the same name, and that both signatures were genuine. Ireland’s impudence went the length of introducing an ancestor of his own, with the same name as himself, among the companions of Shakespeare. If ‘Vortigern’ had succeeded (and it was actually put on the stage with all possible pomp), Ireland meant to have produced a series of pseudo-Shakespearian plays from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth. When busy with ‘Vortigern,’ he was detected by a friend of his own age, who pounced on him while he was at work, as Lasus pounced on Onomacritus. The discoverer, however, consented to “stand in” with Ireland, and did not divulge his secret. At last, after the fiasco of ‘Vortigern,’ suspicion waxed so strong, and disagreeable inquiries for the anonymous benefactor were so numerous, that Ireland fled from his father’s house. He confessed all, and, according to his own account, fell under the undying wrath of Samuel Ireland. Any reader of Ireland’s confessions will be likely to sympathize with old Samuel as the dupe of his son. The whole story is told with a curious mixture of impudence and humor, and with great plausibility. Young Ireland admits that his “desire for laughter” was almost irresistible, when people—learned, pompous, sagacious people—listened attentively to the papers. One feels half inclined to forgive the rogue for the sake of his youth, his cleverness, his humor. But the ‘Confessions’ are, not improbably, almost as apocryphal as the original documents. They were written for the sake of money, and it is impossible to say how far the same mercenary motive actuated Ireland in his forgeries. Dr. Ingleby, in his ‘Shakespeare Fabrications,’ takes a very rigid view of the conduct, not only of William, but of old Samuel Ireland. Sam, according to Dr. Ingleby, was a partner in the whole imposture, and the confession was only one element in the scheme of fraud. Old Samuel was the Fagin of a band of young literary Dodgers. He “positively trained his whole family to trade in forgery,” and as for Mr. W. H. Ireland, he was “the most accomplished liar that ever lived,” which is certainly a distinction in its way. The point of the joke is that, after the whole conspiracy exploded, people were anxious to buy examples of the forgeries. Mr. W. H. Ireland was equal to the occasion. He actually forged his own, or (according to Dr. Ingleby) his father’s forgeries, and, by thus increasing the supply, he deluged the market with sham shams, with imitations of imitations. If this accusation be correct, it is impossible not to admire the colossal impudence of Mr. W. H. Ireland. Dr. Ingleby, in the ardor of his honest indignation, pursues William into his private life, which, it appears, was far from exemplary. But literary criticism should be content with a man’s works; his domestic life is matter, as Aristotle often says, “for a separate kind of investigation.” Old Ritson used to say that “every literary impostor deserved hanging as much as a common thief.” W. H. Ireland’s merits were never recognized by the law.
How old Ritson would have punished “the old corrector,” it is “better only guessing,” as the wicked say, according to Clough, in regard to their own possible chastisement. The difficulty is to ascertain who the apocryphal old corrector really was. The story of his misdeeds was recently brought back to mind by the death, at an advanced age, of the learned Shakespearian, Mr. J. Payne Collier. Mr. Collier was, to put it mildly, the Shapira of the old corrector. He brought that artist’s works before the public; but WHY? how deceived, or how influenced, it is once more “better only guessing.” Mr. Collier first introduced to the public notice his singular copy of a folio Shakespeare (second edition), loaded with ancient manuscript emendations, in 1849. His account of this book was simple and plausible. He chanced, one day, to be in the shop of Mr. Rudd, the bookseller, in Great Newport Street, when a parcel of second-hand volumes arrived from the country. When the parcel was opened, the heart of the Bibliophile began to sing, for the packet contained two old folios, one of them an old folio Shakespeare of the second edition (1632). The volume (mark this) was “much cropped,” greasy, and imperfect. Now the student of Mr. Hamilton’s ‘Inquiry’ into the whole affair is already puzzled. In later days, Mr. Collier said that his folio had previously been in the possession of a Mr. Parry. On the other hand, Mr. Parry (then a very aged man) failed to recognize his folio in Mr. Collier’s, for HIS copy was “cropped,” whereas the leaves of Mr. Collier’s example were NOT mutilated. Here, then (‘Inquiry,’ pp. 12, 61), we have two descriptions of the outward aspect of Mr. Collier’s dubious treasure. In one account it is “much cropped” by the book-binder’s cruel shears; in the other, its unmutilated condition is contrasted with that of a copy which has been “cropped.” In any case, Mr. Collier hoped, he says, to complete an imperfect folio he possessed, with leaves taken from the folio newly acquired for thirty shillings. But the volumes happened to have the same defects, and the healing process was impossible. Mr. Collier chanced to be going into the country, when in packing the folio he had bought of Rudd he saw it was covered with manuscript corrections in an old hand. These he was inclined to attribute to one Thomas Perkins, whose name was written on the fly-leaf, and who might have been a connection of Richard Perkins, the actor (flor. 1633) The notes contained many various readings, and very numerous changes in punctuation. Some of these Mr. Collier published in his ‘Notes and Emendations’ (1852), and in an edition of the ‘Plays.’ There was much discussion, much doubt, and the folio of the old corrector (who was presumed to have marked the book in the theatre during early performances) was exhibited to the Society of Antiquaries. Then Mr. Collier presented the treasure to the Duke of Devonshire, who again lent it for examination to the British Museum. Mr. Hamilton published in the Times (July, 1859) the results of his examination of the old corrector. It turned out that the old corrector was a modern myth. He had first made his corrections in pencil and in a modern hand, and then he had copied them over in ink, and in a forged ancient hand. The same word sometimes recurred in both handwritings. The ink, which looked old, was really no English ink at all, not even Ireland’s mixture. It seemed to be sepia, sometimes mixed with a little Indian ink. Mr. Hamilton made many other sad discoveries.
He pointed out that Mr. Collier had published, from a Dulwich MS., a letter of Mrs. Alleyne’s (the actor’s wife), referring to Shakespeare as “Mr. Shakespeare of the Globe.” Now the Dulwich MS. was mutilated and blank in the very place where this interesting reference should have occurred. Such is a skeleton history of the old corrector, his works and ways. It is probable that—thanks to his assiduities—new Shakespearian documents will in future be received with extreme skepticism; and this is all the fruit, except acres of newspaper correspondence, which the world has derived from Mr. Collier’s greasy and imperfect but unique “corrected folio.”
The recency and (to a Shakespearian critic) the importance of these forgeries obscures the humble merit of Surtees, with his ballads of the ‘Slaying of Antony Featherstonhaugh,’ and of ‘Bartram’s Dirge.’ Surtees left clever lacunae in these songs, ‘collected from oral tradition,’ and furnished notes so learned that they took in Sir Walter Scott. There are moments when I half suspect “the Shirra himsel” (who blamelessly forged so many extracts from ‘Old Plays’) of having composed ‘Kinmont Willie.’ To compare old Scott of Satchell’s account of Kinmont Willie with the ballad is to feel uncomfortable doubts. But this is a rank impiety. The last ballad forgery of much note was the set of sham Macedonian epics and popular songs (all about Alexander the Great, and other heroes) which a schoolmaster in the Rhodope imposed on M. Verkovitch. The trick was not badly done, and the imitation of “ballad slang” was excellent. The ‘Oera Linda’ book, too, was successful enough to be translated into English. With this latest effort of the tenth muse, the crafty muse of Literary Forgery, we may leave a topic which could not be exhausted in a ponderous volume. We have not room even for the forged letters of Shelley, to which Mr. Browning, being taken in thereby, wrote a preface, nor for the forged letters of Mr. Ruskin, which occasionally hoax all the newspapers.
See also: Forty Centuries of Ink
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved