29 March 2013

A Limited and Unprofitable Craft

Modern scribblers have superseded all the good old authors. The writers whom you suppose in vogue, because they happened to be so when [an old edition was] last in circulation, have long since had their day. [One author’s work,] the immortality of which was so fondly predicted by his admirers, and which, in truth, is full of noble thoughts, delicate images, and graceful turns of language, is now scarcely ever mentioned. [Another] has strutted into obscurity; and even [one of significant renown,] though his writings were once the delight of a court, and apparently perpetuated by a proverb, is now scarcely known even by name.

A whole crowd of authors who wrote and wrangled at the time, have likewise gone down, with all their writings and their controversies. Wave after wave of succeeding literature has rolled over them, until they are buried so deep, that it is only now and then that some industrious diver after fragments of antiquity brings up a specimen for the gratification of the curious.

For my part, . . . I consider this mutability of language a wise precaution of Providence for the benefit of the world at large, and of authors in particular. To reason from analogy, we daily behold the varied and beautiful tribes of vegetables springing up, flourishing, adorning the fields for a short time, and then fading into dust, to make way for their successors. Were not this the case, the fecundity of nature would be a grievance instead of a blessing. The earth would groan with rank and excessive vegetation, and its surface become a tangled wilderness. In like manner the works of genius and learning decline, and make way for subsequent productions.

Language gradually varies, and with it fade away the writings of authors who have flourished their allotted time; otherwise, the creative powers of genius would overstock the world, and the mind would be completely bewildered in the endless mazes of literature.

Formerly there were some restraints on this excessive multiplication. Works had to be transcribed by hand, which was a slow and laborious operation; they were written either on parchment, which was expensive, so that one work was often erased to make way for another; or on papyrus, which was fragile and extremely perishable. Authorship was a limited and unprofitable craft, pursued chiefly by monks in the leisure and solitude of their cloisters. The accumulation of manuscripts was slow and costly, and confined almost entirely to monasteries. To these circumstances it may, in some measure, be owing that we have not been inundated by the intellect of antiquity; that the fountains of thought have not been broken up, and modern genius drowned in the deluge.

But the inventions of paper and the press have put an end to all these restraints. They have made everyone a writer, and enabled every mind to pour itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming. The stream of literature has swollen into a torrent—augmented into a river—expanded into a sea.

—Washington Irving; Essay; The Mutability of Literature; The Oxford Book of American Essays

Painting: Gabriel Metsu, Dutch Master (1629–1667)


  1. Goodness! If Washington Irving felt that way then, what would he make of today's flood of literature?

    1. It goes to show, Elizabeth, that the more things change the more they stay the same. Writing is still a limited and unprofitable craft and here I am, just like the monks of yore, pursuing it cloistered in leisure and solitude.

  2. You like the arts so much, do you like opera? If so, go see Quartet. (I posted about it a couple of days ago on my 4th Wish blog.) It's really quite funny, while giving you the glorious music that makes opera singers so other worldly. :-)


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