Sunday, 24 January 2010

Anatomy of a misattribution

Interesting misattribution spotted via Yahoo! Answers
Children wish fathers looked but with their eyes; fathers that children with their judgment looked; and either may be wrong.
- Shakespeare
A quick Google finds it widely attributed to Shakespeare on the web via the many quotation websites that don't vet quotes, but never with citation. It should be a matter for instant suspicion that it isn't in iambic parameter, and apart from my not recognising it, Google further confirms it's not in any Shakespeare play.

Google Books, however, reveals all. The first occurrence is in Capel Lofft's 1 1812 book Aphorisms from Shakespeare (foot of page 269, where it's cited to A Midsummer Night's Dream). It was a momentary puzzle that it definitely isn't in that play, but a closer look at the Introduction in Aphorisms from Shakespeare finds the explanation, that Lofft has in many cases rewritten the Shakespeare source material in aphoristic form, to make invented soundbites that Shakespeare never wrote.

This quotation, then, is ripped from the exchange between Hermia and Theseus.
Hermia: I would my father look'd but with my eyes.
Theseus: Rather your eyes must with his judgment look.
Lofft's aphorised form then got on to the quotation circuit via anthologisers, notably Tryon Edwards, who repeated it (for instance, in The world's laconics: or, The best thoughts of the best authors, Tryon Edwards, William Buell Sprague) while losing the crucial detail of it being altered.

1. Interesting guy, who wrote a deal himself as well as being patron of the poets Robert Bloomfield, Henry Kirke White and Bernard Barton. See bibliography.

Update, 24 March 2015:
It would be nice to think this kind of thing to be an aberration of Capel Lofft, but I just ran into a recent example of exactly the same phenomenon with the works of Tennyson, where the author of an educational worksheet has reworked a line from his poem On Poesy into the bogus quotation "I wish my poetry to startle the dull ears of humankind". See Tennyson: an educational compendium of misquotation.

- Ray

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