Bloggers Confused Like Novelists of Old

Hogarth, "The Distressed Poet"

Hogarth, “The Distressed Poet”

In Tom Jones, which I am currently teaching, Fielding reflects (in book XII, chapter 1) upon the way he freely includes quotations from other literary authors in his novel. Since I freely include quotations from literary authors in this blog, today I use Fielding’s passage to reflect on my own enterprise. As it turns out, novelists in the 18th century, no less than bloggers today, were trying to figure out the rules of a chaotic new medium.

Fielding’s novel is filled with classical quotations, which (in his tongue-in-cheek manner) he justifies on the grounds that they provide the imprimatur of quality. He also quotes a number of contemporary authors, most notably Alexander Pope. In discussing his practice, he uses the analogy of the commons.

The commons were common land that everyone in the village had access to, generally for grazing their livestock. In the 18th century, many of these lands were being gobbled up by the gentry class, to the consternation of those who had used them for centuries. In Fielding’s analogy, he and other authors are the poor who believe that they should have free use of the classical canon, which they regard as their rightful property. Fielding, who is of the gentry class, reveals his class prejudices when he says that the ancient authors are like the squires to whom the land belongs but whose rights are set at naught. (The villagers would not agree that the commons belonged to the squires.)

The ancients may be considered as a rich common, where every person who hath the smallest tenement in Parnassus hath a free right to fatten his muse. Or, to place it in a clearer light, we moderns are to the ancients what the poor are to the rich. By the poor here I mean that large and venerable body which, in English, we call the mob. Now, whoever hath had the honor to be admitted to any degree of intimacy with this mob, must well know that it is one of their established maxims to plunder and pillage their rich neighbors without any reluctance; and that this is held to be neither sin nor shame among them. And so constantly do they abide and act by this maxim, that, in every parish almost in the kingdom, there is a kind of confederacy ever carrying on against a certain person of opulence called the squire, whose property is considered as free-booty by all his poor neighbors; who, as they conclude that there is no manner of guilt in such depredations, look upon it as a point of honor and moral obligation to conceal, and to preserve each other from punishment on all such occasions.

In like manner are the ancients, such as Homer, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, and the rest, to be esteemed among us writers, as so many wealthy squires, from whom we, the poor of Parnassus, claim an immemorial custom of taking whatever we can come at.

So that’s the first way that I am like Fielding’s mob-like modern writers: I make free use of classic texts.

Fielding has different words for those who borrow material from contemporary authors. While it’s okay to graze on the squire’s land, it is not all right to plunder and pillage fellow villagers. A special honesty—no plagiarizing—is required in this instance. “Spittal” in the following quotation means land that has been set aside to support a hospital for the poor or other charitable endeavor and so doesn’t fall under the same category as the village commons:

This liberty I demand, and this I am as ready to allow again to my poor neighbors in their turn. All I profess, and all I require of my brethren, is to maintain the same strict honesty among ourselves which the mob show to one another. To steal from one another is indeed highly criminal and indecent; for this may be strictly styled defrauding the poor (sometimes perhaps those who are poorer than ourselves), or, to set it under the most opprobrious colors, robbing the spittal.

Looking at his own practice, Fielding acknowledges he is guilty of the first kind of plundering but not the second. With regard to the classic authors, he uses them freely and sometimes without attribution. (Those with a classic education, however, will recognize the quotations.) As for the work of his contemporaries, however, he is careful to put their mark on any of their material that he borrows:

I preserve strict honesty towards my poor brethren, from whom, if ever I borrow any of that little of which they are possessed, I shall never fail to put their mark upon it, that it may be at all times ready to be restored to the right owner.

This, as it so happens, is what I do as well—when I quote contemporary authors, I of course cite them. I am not like the “highly blamable” Mr. Moore, who transcribed six Pope lines in his play The Rival Modes. His punishment, Fielding notes, was very apt:

Mr Pope, however, very luckily found them in the said play, and, laying violent hands on his own property, transferred it back again into his own works; and, for a further punishment, imprisoned the said Moore in the loathsome dungeon of the Dunciad, where his unhappy memory now remains, and eternally will remain, as a proper punishment for such his unjust dealings in the poetical trade.

While I don’t pass off the work of others as my own in this blog, I’m afraid that I’m not entirely in the legal clear. Nor would Fielding have been were he writing today. Last month a renowned copyright specialist, Kenneth D. Crews of Columbia University Libraries and Columbia Law School, visited our campus and I learned what I was doing right and what wrong.

I learned that a blog like Betterlivingthroughbeowulf has some leeway insofar as it is educational and non-profit. The short excerpts from articles and books that I use are also permissible if I note or link to the authors.  But that being said, I (along with tens of thousands of others) am in violation of copyright law whenever I transcribe contemporary images and contemporary poems into my posts.

Since Dr. Crews’ visit, I have changed some of my practices, but not all of them. My visuals have become less interesting because I have started confining myself to older paintings (which are in the public domain) and images found on Wikimedia Commons (note the analogy) and other such sites. I am no longer featuring the work of contemporary artists because I don’t have the staff or the time to ask them for permission to use their images.

In the past, I reassured myself with the idea that I was helping them get their artwork out in the world, but I acknowledge that that was a rationalization. So I’ve stopped, although I admit that I haven’t gone back and scrubbed past posts.

Where I am still in violation is in running contemporary poems and contemporary translations. I am loathe to confine myself only to older works—literature, after all, is constantly renewing itself—so in this area I will continue with my current practice. I’m pretty sure that I am not depriving anyone of any money, which is one of the concerns that Dr. Crews alerted us about, so at least there’s that. But if any poet objects, I will apologize profusely, express my admiration for his or her work (since I only include work that I admire), and remove it instantly from the blog.

Stepping back, I am struck by how the free-for-all internet is not unlike the free-for-all novel in its early days. No one was sure what the rules of the literary form were, which is why Fielding is so concerned with figuring out what is permissible. In fact, even to call it a form was to stretch the meaning of the word form. After all, it is infinitely expandable, it is written in prose, and an author can dump anything he or she wants into it. Novels owe their name to the fact that they were, well, novel. No one had seen anything like them before.

The same can be said of blogs. So maybe my last defense is that we’re not entirely sure if the rules that apply to commercial publishing are true here. Like Fielding, we’re feeling our way.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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