Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Thomas De Quincey > Text of Anecdotes--Juvenal

An essay by Thomas De Quincey


Title:     Anecdotes--Juvenal
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

All anecdotes, as I have often remarked in print, are lies. It is painful to use harsh words, and, knowing by my own feelings how much the reader is shocked by this rude word _lies_, I should really be much gratified if it were possible to supplant it by some gentler or more courteous word, such as _falsehoods_, or even _fibs_, which dilutes the atrocity of untruth into something of an amiable weakness, wrong, but still venial, and natural (and so far, therefore, reasonable). Anything for peace: but really in this instance I cannot indulge the reader. The instincts of morality will not allow of it, and still less the passion which made Juvenal a poet,[1] viz., the passion of enormous and bloody indignation. From the beginning of this century, with wrath continually growing, I have laid it down as a rule, and if the last year of it, viz., A. D. 1900, should overhear _my_ voice amongst the babblings that will then be troubling the atmosphere--in that case it will hear me still reaffirming, with an indignation still gathering strength, and therefore approaching ever nearer and nearer to a Juvenalian power of versification, so that perhaps I shall then speak in rhymed couplets--that all anecdotes pretending to be _smart_, but to a dead certainty if they pretend to be _epigrammatic_, are and must be lies. There is, in fact, no security for the truth of an anecdote, no guarantee whatever, except its intense stupidity. If a man is searched at a police-office, on the ground that he was caught trying the window-shutters of silversmiths; then, if it should happen that in his pockets is found absolutely nothing at all except one solitary paving-stone, in that case Charity, which believeth all things (in fact, is credulous to an anile degree), will be disposed to lock up the paving-stone, and restore it to the man on his liberation as if it were really his own, though philosophy mutters indignantly, being all but certain that the fellow stole it. And really I have been too candid a great deal in admitting that a man may appropriate an anecdote, and establish his claim to it by pleading its awful stupidity. That might be the case, and I believe it _was_, when anecdotes were many and writers were few. But things are changed now. Fifty years ago, if a man were seen running away with the pace of a lunatic, and you should sing out, 'Stop that fellow; he is running off with the shin-bone of my great-grandmother!' all the people in the street would have cried out in reply, 'Oh, nonsense! What should he want with your great-grandmother's shin-bone?' and that would have seemed reasonable. But now, to see how things are altered, any man of sense would reply, 'What should he want with my great-grandmother's shin-bone? Why, he'll grind it, and then he'll mix it with guano.' This is what he and the like of him have actually done by shiploads of people far more entitled to consideration than any one of my four great-grandmothers (for I had _four_, with eight shin-bones amongst them). It is well known that the field of Waterloo was made to render up all its bones, British or French, to certain bone-mills in agricultural districts. Borodino and Leipzig, the two bloodiest of modern battlefields, are supposed between them--what by the harvest of battle, what by the harvest of neighbouring hospitals--to be seized or possessed of four hundred thousand shin-bones, and other interesting specimens to match. Negotiations have been proceeding at various times between the leading bone-mills in England and the Jews in Dresden or in Moscow. Hitherto these negotiations have broken down, because the Jews stood out for 37 per shent., calculated upon the costs of exhumation. But of late they show a disposition to do business at 33 per shent.: the contract will therefore move forwards again; it will go ahead; and the dust of the faithful armies, together with the dust of their enemies, will very soon be found, not in the stopper of a bunghole (as Prince Hamlet conceived too prematurely), but in an unprecedented crop of Swedish turnips.

Bones change their value, it seems thus clearly; and anecdotes change their value; and in that proportion honesty, as regards one or the other, changes the value of its chances. But what has all this to do with 'Old Nick'? Stop: let me consider. That title was placed at the head of this article, and I admit that it was placed there by myself. Else, whilst I was wandering from my text, and vainly endeavouring to recollect what it was that I had meant by this text, a random thought came over me (immoral, but natural), that I would charge the heading of _Old Nick_ upon the compositor, asserting that he had placed it there in obstinate defiance of all the orders to the contrary, and supplications to the contrary, that I had addressed to him for a month; by which means I should throw upon _him_ the responsibility of accounting for so portentous an ensign.

* * * * *

EDITOR'S NOTE.--It is evident that De Quincey meditated a much longer essay on anecdotes as false, in which Niccolo Machiavelli would have come in for notice--hence the playful references in the close.


[1] '_The passion which made Juvenal a poet_.' The scholar needs no explanation; but the reader whose scholarship is yet amongst his futurities (which I conceive to be the civilest way of describing an _ignoramus_) must understand that Juvenal, the Roman satirist, who was in fact a predestined poet in virtue of his ebullient heart, that boiled over once or twice a day in anger that could not be expressed upon witnessing the enormities of domestic life in Rome, was willing to forego all pretensions to natural power and inspiration for the sake of obtaining such influence as would enable him to reprove Roman vices with effect.

[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's essay: Anecdotes--Juvenal