“As a good housewife out of divers fleeces weaves one piece of cloth (saith Saevius Nicanor), I have laboriously collected this Cento out of divers Writers, and that sine injuria, I have wronged no authors, but given every man his own; which Sosimenes so much commends in Nicanor, he stole not whole verses, pages, tracts, as some do nowadays, concealing their Authors’ names, but still said this was Cleophantus’, that Philistion’s, that Mnesides’, so said Julius Bassus, so Timaristus, thus far Ophelion: I cite and quote mine own Authors (which howsoever some illiterate scribblers account pedantical, as a cloak of ignorance and opposite to their affected fine style, I must and will use) sumpsi, non surripui, and what Varro de re rustica speaks of bees, minime malificae quod nullius opus vellicantes faciunt deterius, I can say of myself no less heartily than Sosimenes his laud of Nicanor.”
Nec caput habentia, nec caudam
“I had a little husband,
no bigger than my thumb,
I put him in my pint-pot, and there I bid him drum.”
Pre-eminently the most engaging feature of a topic which pure chance and impure idiocy have of late conspired to pull about in the public prints,—I mean the question of “indecency” in writing,—is the patent ease with which this topic may be disposed of. Since time’s beginning, every age has had its literary taboos, selecting certain things—more or less arbitrarily, but usually some natural function—as the things which must not be written about. To violate any such taboo so long as it stays prevalent is to be “indecent”: and that seems absolutely all there is to say concerning this topic, apart from furnishing some impressive historical illustration....
The most striking instance which my far from exhaustive researches afford, sprang from the fact, perhaps not very generally known, that the natural function of eating, which nowadays may be discussed intrepidly anywhere, was once regarded by the Philistines, of at all events the Shephelah and the deme of Novogath, as being unmentionable. This ancient tenet of theirs, indeed, is with such clearness emphasized in a luckily preserved fragment from the Dirghic, or pre-Ciceronian Latin, of Saevius Nicanor that the readiest way to illustrate the chameleon-like traits of literary indecency appears to be to record, as hereinafter is recorded, what of this legend survives.
Buelg and Vanderhoffen, be it said here, are agreed that it is to this legend Milton has referred in his Areopagitica, in a passage sufficiently quaint-seeming to us (for whom a more advanced civilization has secured the right of free speech) to warrant an abridged citation:—
“What advantage is it to be a man, over it is to be a boy at school, if serious and elaborate writings, as if they were no more than the theme of a grammar lad under his pedagogue, must not be uttered without the cursory eyes of a temporizing and extemporizing licenser? whenas all the writer teaches, all he delivers, is but under the tuition, under the correction of his patriarchal licenser, to blot or alter what precisely accords not with the hide-bound humor which he calls his judgment? What is it but a servitude like that imposed by the Philistines?”