Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Quote Unquote: A Tale of Misattribution

“I then remembered the primary rule of intellectual life: when puzzled, it never hurts to read the primary documents—a rather simple and self-evident principle that has, nonetheless, completely disappeared from large sectors of the American experience.” (Stephen Jay Gould)

I came across this rather wonderful quotation to use as my “and so to bed” quotation which I post at the end of each day on Facebook.

THE scene was more beautiful far to the eye
Than if day in its pride had arrayed it;
The land-breeze blew mild, and the azure, arched sky
Looked pure as the Spirit that made it.
The murmur rose soft, as I silently gazed
On the shadowy wave’s playful motion;
From the dim distant isle where the light-house fire blazed,
Like a star in the midst of the ocean.

No longer the joy of the sailor-boy's breast,
Was heard in his wildly—breathed numbers
The sea-bird had flown to her wave-guarded nest
And the fisherman sunk to his slumbers.

The hymnary gave this information about the author, and the title of the piece “The Lighthouse”:

"Moore, Thomas, son of John Moore, a small tradesman at Dublin, was born in that city, May 28, 1779, educated at a private school and Trinity College, Dublin; read at the Middle Temple for the Bar; held a post under the Government in Bermuda for a short time, and died Feb. 26, 1852."

"His connection with hymnody is confined to his Sacred Songs, which were published in 1816, and again in his Collected Works, 1866. These Songs were 32 in all, and were written to popular airs of various nations."

There are scans of the page, but I did begin to wonder because it did not seem to be referenced elsewhere. There is a Wikipedia page on:

"Thomas Moore (28 May 1779 – 25 February 1852) was an Irish poet, singer, songwriter, and entertainer, now best remembered for the lyrics of "The Minstrel Boy" and "The Last Rose of Summer". He was responsible, with John Murray, for burning Lord Byron's memoirs after his death. In his lifetime he was often referred to as Anacreon Moore."

And a page with works online, but the poem about the lighthouse appears missing!

Try as I might, I could not trace it. The works of hymns in which it was cited, from around 1950, are collections of hymns and I wondered if the hymn had been misattributed.

However, it also has an attribution that I discovered in Bartlett’s quotations from a poem called "The Beacon":

Paul Moon James. 1780-1854.

The scene was more beautiful far to the eye
Than if day in its pride had arrayed it.

And o'er them the lighthouse looked lovely as hope,
That star of life's tremulous ocean.

I tracked this writer down:

"Paul Moon James (1780–1854) was a successful English banker, as well as a poet, and lawyer, who also served for a time as magistrate of Worcestershire and later as High Bailiff of Birmingham, England."

"Birmingham Quaker, poet and banker. In 1808 he married Olivia Lloyd (1783–1854), sister of Charles Lloyd. He was also editor of the poems of the Bristol writer William Isaac Roberts. Southey was sympathetic to this project and promoted the book among his friends."

But could Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919) be trusted, especially as it only gave two separate verses and not the whole, and comes some time after the original text.

Then I came across this letter in “The Monthly Magazine”

The Monthly Magazine, Volume 41

To the Editor of the Monthly Magazine.


No apology will, I hope, be thought needful in my endeavouring to correct an error in your last. The song there inserted as a specimen of “ American Literature, beginning, “ The scene was more beautiful far to the eye,” is, I beg leave to inform you, the production of my much esteemed and learned friend, the Rev. J. Plumptre, B.D. late fellow of Clare-hall, in this university.

William Hornby

Cambridge; Feb. 12, 1816.

That would appear to settle the matter, but exactly what is the publication in question?

I tracked this down to “Letters to John Aikin, M. D” by James Plumptre, Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, Published originally by himself in the year 1772; and re-published by R. H. Evans, in the year 1810, Revised and Altered By The Editor With Some Original Songs.

The preamble to the work says:

“The Editor, in this volume, which is rather a new work than the re-publication of an old one, has made it his leading object to collect, from all the sources within his reach, those pieces of the song kind which seemed to him most deserving of a place in the mass of approved English poetry. And having with some care revised his notions respecting the character and distinctions of these compositions, etc”

So this is in fact a “production” by James Plumptre, but only in the sense that he was collecting existing hymns and poems, as well as adding some of his own.

It is in fact an extraordinary work. James Plumptre fulminates against “violations of decorum” and “licentiousness” and says that he “experienced considerable disappointment: as many of them did not appear to me to be merely harmless compositions, but to have a decidedly immoral tendency.”

He has therefore taken upon himself to, as the subtitle says, “rewrite them”, very much as Bowdlerised pieces. Exactly what he considered bad comes out in a scathing review of his work in “The Eclectic Review”:

“Few lovers of song will, we believe, become converts to the doctrines laid down by the reverend critic; who contends for the utter rejection of every piece in which mention is made of Venus, Cupid, or the Graces. He is equally displeased with any allusion to witches, ghosts, and fairies, to fate, fortune or the influence of the stars.”

“Of both rapturous and desponding lovers he is the declared enemy: affirming that for a man to give to his mistress the titles of lovely angel, dear idol, divine creature, adorable goddess, is unworthy of a rational being and a Christian; and that it is equally so to talk of despairing and dying, if his vows should be rejected, instead of resorting to the 'sacred volume,' and" learning resignation. In short, everything offends Mr. P. which does not perfectly accord with plain matter of fact, and the sober dictates of right reason. He seems to regard the fictions and colourings of a poetic fancy as serious violations of truth; and to be quite incapable of distinguishing between jest and earnest.”

Now the poem or hymn in question is listed without authorship under “Moral and Miscellaneous Songs”, so it is unclear whether or not it originated from him, but it seems unlikely that he would be able to pen such a poem himself.

In the USA, The Ione independent, giving Oregon News, in 1926 puts it as “anonymous”. And there are interesting variants. They have:

"From the dim distant hill, till the lighthouse fire blazed”, which accords with the Moore version, while the Plumptre / James version has “beacon” instead of lighthouse.

And also “And death stills the breasts last emotion,” rather than “And death stills the heart's last emotion”.

When I went looking for Paul Moon James, however, I did find “Poems” by Paul Moon James, London, 1821, with the first poem listed “The Beacon”:

THE scene was more beautiful far to mine eye,
Than if day in it's pride had array’d it;
The land-breeze blew mild and the azure arch'd sky,
Look’d pure as the spirit that made it.
The murmur rose soft as I silently gazed
On the shadowy wave's playful motion;
From the dim distant Isle till the beacon-fire blazed,
Like a star in the midst of the ocean.

No longer the joy of the sailor-boy's breast,
Was heard in his wildly-breathed numbers;
The sea-bird had flown to her wave-girdled nest,
The fisherman sunk to his slumbers.
One moment I gazed from the hill's gentle slope,
(All hush'd was the billow's commotion)
And thought that the beacon look'd lovely as hope,
That star of life’s tremulous ocean

The time is long past and the scene is afar,
Yet when my head rests on it’s pillow,
Will memory sometimes rekindle the star,
That blazed on the breast of the billow.
In life's closing hour when the trembling soul flies,
And death stills the heart's last emotion;
O then may the seraph of mercy arise,
Like a star on eternity's ocean'

Although this particular publication post-dates, the reference and book by James Plumptre, the style seems of a piece with other poems in the publication. One notable feature, present in the book, is the use of “it’s” rather than “its”, and the general style matches that of "The Beacon"..

Here is part of a poem entitled “Boat Song”:

Now white are the flocks on the mountain so green,
And the shepherd boy roves where 'twas death to be seen;
The hunter's loud horn and the hound's slim cheer,
Play round the rude cot of the bold mountaineer!

Yet the gale from the mountain, the roar from the river,
The voice from the fountain, flow wildly as ever;
The glooms and the caves hold their ancient controul,
And the shadows of ages rest dark on the soul.

Thus freighted with pleasure, thus sailing in pride,
Row gently, ye rowers! as lightly we glide;
Tell me not that the wave hath white foam on it's crest,
I love the dark lake with a storm on her breast !

It also appears that Paul Moon James usually hid behind his initials PMJ rather than publishing his work openly., and the rare collection of 1821 is probably the only collected edition of his poems. It is likely that Plumptre had come across it, either initialled, or as in the Oregon newspaper, anonymous, and gathered it into his collection.

When cited in the Magazine, Hornby remembered his friend Plumptre’s anthology, and mistakenly assumed it to be his work.

In a post-Gutenberg age, even with the advent of digitised copies of old books, it is still extraordinary difficult to prove the provenance of some quotations or poems or sayings. The internet helps with searches, but also causes problems – once a quotation has been misattributed, that follows around and spreads like a self-replicating virus.It is also notable how changes in the text also replicate, as long as they fit the basic meaning of the original.

With regard to ancient texts, how much more difficult must it be to be sure of attributions! If there is a lesson to this detective story, it is that nothing can be taken for granted, and it is only as we can approach as close to source as we can that we stand a chance of finding who wrote something.

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