“The itch of scribbling seizes wise and fool,
And they must teach who scarce have been at school.”
John Majorbanks, Trifles in Verse (1784)
These lines paraphrase a tag drawn from the Epistles of Horace (1).
Scribimus indocti, doctique
Which has been more faithfully rendered as,
“Both the wise and the witless scribble” (2).
When Romans in the days of Horace scribbled, be they wise or witless, they scribbled poetry. For as Horace went on to say,
Scribimus indocti, doctique, poemata passim.
Poemata passim means poetry all over the place.
Most of this omnipresent poetry was, needless to say, bad poetry, because bad poetry is of all forms of literature the easiest to write. It is easy to write because writing it requires so little knowledge, even of poetry. To write bad poetry, one needs only literacy and leisure, and a very impressive output can be maintained with only a modicum of these.
Thus, the general increase in literacy and leisure that occurred as Rome became an empire had the predictable consequence of bad poetry all over the place.
As, Richard Hurd, one time Anglican Bishop of Worcester, explained:
“By the decay of the old frugal spirit, the necessary effect of overflowing plenty and ease, they began, at length, to seek out the elegancies of life; and a fit of versifying, the first of all liberal amusements that usually seizes an idle people, had come upon them” (3).
An empire gives birth to a moderately literate mob of mostly idle people. They are the children of “overflowing plenty,” and from their modest liberal education they have imbibed a hankering for liberal “elegancies” and “amusements.” The predictable result is “a fit of versifying,” philosophizing, and cracker-barrel speculation.
I say this without condescension or scorn, for I am myself a cracker-barrel scribbler raised to a modicum of literacy and leisure by the overflowing plenty of the American empire. In any normal society, I would likely have been, like my eponymous forebear, a village smithy, swinging my hammer beneath some spreading chestnut tree, the muscles of my brawny arms as strong as iron bands.
* * * * *
“It is true indeed, that the fungous production of the modern scribbler, appears with a splendor of paper, and brilliancy of type, unknown in the fifteenth century” (4).
This line is from Vicesimus Knox. At the turn of the eighteenth century, he was headmaster at an English public school and he scribbled the sort of essays you would expect from a man in that position. Knox called the productions of the modern scribbler fungous because they were ephemeral as mushrooms that sprout and die in a single day. He elsewhere applied the word to the work of “the common novel-wright,” and I do no doubt that he would have applied it even more assuredly to the common blog-wright of today.
A web posting is, alas, a growth than which none could be more fungous.
But the point of Knox’s line is that, although scribblers remain scribblers, their scribblings are with every passing year burnished and glorified by improvements in the printer’s art. The distinction of a modern scribbler is that he serves his tripe on a silver platter. Even in Knox’s day, the witless not only scribbled, but saw their scribbling crisply printed on bond paper with steel type.
* * * * *
We are living in the Golden Age of Scribbling, where all conditions for perfection of the scribbler’s art have been met. Overflowing plenty has given birth to legions of scribblers, the printer’s art permits the meanest poetaster to unload his fungous productions on the world, and the works of our official scribes repel readers with their pungent stink of rank mendacity.
(1) 2, I, 117.
(2) Winthrop Mackworth Praed, Poems (1864).
(3) Richard Hurd, Works, vol. 1 (1811).
(4) Vicesimus Knox, Essays, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (1779).