Literary Forgeries by Andrew Lang
See also Bible Hoaxes, Frauds and Forgeries - 40 Books on CDrom
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, and its results—reveals 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 Magician 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. Jo 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 lately gave Mr. Shapira the famous MS. of Deuteronomy. but did not elude M. Clermont Ganneau, was doubtless a smart man: he was, however, a little too indolent, a little too easy satisfied, He might have procured better and less recognizable materials than his old "synagogue roll;" 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 Phenician inscriptions in Brazil (off all places) was a clever man. His account of a voyage to South America probably gained some credence in Brazil while in England it only carried captive Mr. Day. author of “Pre-historic Use of Iron and Steel." But the Brazilians, from lack of energy, have dropped the subject, and the Phenician 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 Mérimée, the sham antique ballads (very spirited poems in their way) of Surtees, and many other examples. Occasionally it has happened that forgeries, begin 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. 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 motive is so complex to remain for ever obscure. We may generally ascribe them love of notoriety in the forger; such notoriety as Macpherson won by his dubious pinchbeck Ossian. More difficult to understand are the forgeries which real scholars have commited 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 with 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 magnificent 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 Athens, the fane where the sacred serpent was fed on cakes, and the primeval olive tree grew beside the well of Posidon. 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. You never saw a finer man. 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 thinned 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, an 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 their oracles were 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 one of 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 that whatt seemed favorable. The children of Pisistratus beheld in him, as spiritualists go on giving credit to exposed and established "mediums."
Having once practiced deceit, it is to be feared that Onomacritus acquired a liking for the practice 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,” 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 “Aglaophanus”, 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 Mcpherson. 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, Eschylus, 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 be 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 Shakspeare'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 be." 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 forgeries 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." “On 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 overawing 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 forget 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. 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 with classical imitations. After the Turks took Constantinople, when the learned Greeks were scattered all over Southern Europe, when many genuine classical MSS. 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 that all the ancient classics were productions of a learned company which worked, in the thirteenth century, under Severus Archontius. Hardouin made some exception to his sweeping general theory. Cicero’s writings were genuine, he admitted, so were Pliny's, or 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.
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