Napoleon Bonaparte? J.T.R. of Baltimore? Apocryphal?
Able was I ere I saw Elba.
Supposedly Napoleon said this reversible phrase to Barry Edward O’Meara who was his physician during his captivity on the island of Saint Helena. Is there any truth to this entertaining piece of folklore?
Quote Investigator: Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821, and the earliest appearance of this palindrome located by QI was published in a U.S. periodical called “Gazette of the Union” in 1848. The article credited someone with the initials J.T.R residing in Baltimore, Maryland with the creation of the palindrome. Here is an extended excerpt discussing three palindromes. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Among other things worthy of note, our friend J.T.R. called our attention to the following ingenious though somewhat antique, arrangement of words by the “water poet,” Taylor:
“Lewd did I live & evil I did dwell.”
He remarked that this sentence had attracted considerable attention, and that challenges had been frequently given in the papers for the production of a combination of words, that would so perfectly “read backward and forward the same,” as this line does.
During some moments of leisure, he had produced the following line. In our opinion it is much more perfect than Taylor’s because there are no letters used or dispensed with, which are not legitimate, as in his, in the first and last letters—”lewd” and “dwell:”
“Snug & raw was I ere I saw war & guns.”
With the exception of the sign &, which is twice substituted for the properly spelt conjunction, which it represents, the sentence is perfect. By the way, there is couched in the sentence a fact, which many a soldier who has just returned from the battle fields of Mexico will fully appreciate.
But our friend was not satisfied with this near approach to perfection, but determined to produce a line which would require the aid of no sign to justify it as a correct sentence, and the following was the result of his endeavor:
“Able was I ere I saw Elba.”
Those who are acquainted with the career of Napoleon, will readily recognize the historical force of the sentence in its application to that distinguished warrior. Although our friend has cut more than one figure in the world, in all of which he brought credit to himself, we know he did not desire to figure in our paper to the extent we have caused him to do; he merely submitted the above sentences for our personal amusement, and we take the liberty of giving them to our readers; challenging any of them to produce lines of equal ingenuity of arrangement with the same amount of sense.
According to the text above, Napoleon did not construct the palindrome; however, the person who did craft the phrase employed the historical episode of exile as an inspiration for his wordplay.
Within a decade the palindrome had been reassigned directly to Napoleon Bonaparte. An illustrative citation in a Virginia newspaper in 1858 is given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A condensed version of the July 1948 article in “Gazette of the Union” was published in a Galveston, Texas newspaper in August 1848. Thus, the palindrome was disseminated to additional readers. The Texas newspaper acknowledged “The Golden Rule” because the full name of the originating periodical was “The Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule, and Odd-Fellows’ Family Companion”. In this short article the ascription to “J.T.R” was omitted: 2
Every one remembers the ingenious arrangement of words by Taylor the water Poet:
“Lewd did I live and evil I did dwell”
The Golden Rule gives two examples, even better than that, inasmuch as there is one letter too many in the above when read backward. Here they are:
“Snug & raw was I, ere I saw war & guns.”
“Able was I ere I saw Elba.”
The former, says the Golden Rule, will apply very well to some of the Mexico recruits, and the latter those acquainted with the career of Napoleon, will easily recognise.
In April 1851 the condensed article above was printed in “The Adams Sentinel” newspaper of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. So the palindrome continued to circulate. 3
In March 1858 the palindrome was attributed directly to Napoleon Bonaparte in an article published in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper. This is the earliest citation currently known to QI crediting Napoleon, but the linkage was tentative.
The excerpt below states that the palindrome was spoken to “Dr. O’Meara”. Barry Edward O’Meara acted as Napoleon’s personal physician on Saint Helena. Napoleon was exiled to Elba in 1814 and escaped in 1815. He surrendered to the British and was exiled to the island of Saint Helena in 1815 where he died in 1821: 4
AN EXTENDED ANAGRAM.—It is said that Napoleon, when he was asked by Dr. O’Meara, if he really thought that he could have invaded England at the time he threatened to do so, answered in the following extended anagram:
“Able was I ere I saw Elba.”
Whether this is true or not, we should like to see a more ingenious and extended anagram.
This tale of the palindrome origin was printed in other newspapers, e.g. “The San Antonio Ledger” of San Antonio, Texas in April 1858. 5
In July 1858 a newspaper in New Albany, Indiana printed two different versions of the same basic palindrome: 6
NAPOLEON BONAPARTE — The following sentence in reference to the great Napoleon makes sense whether read backwards or forwards, with only a little change of punctuation.
Elba saw I, ere I was able.
Able was I, ere I saw Elba.
In conclusion, based on current evidence this palindrome should be credited to a person with the initials J.T.R. in Baltimore, Maryland. The attribution to Napoleon is stimulating, but it appears to be spurious. English was not Napoleon’s native language and was an unlikely choice for wordplay. QI hypothesizes that the ascription to the Emperor was fabricated to generate an amusing anecdote. New information may emerge over time as more documents are digitized and more data is gathered.
(Special thanks to Stephen Goranson who located the earliest citation attributing the palindrome to Napoleon on March 22, 1858. Thanks also to American Dialect Society discussants.)
- 1848 July 8, “The Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule, and Odd-Fellows’ Family Companion”, Doings in Baltimore: Ingenious Arrangement of Words, Quote Page 30, Published for the Proprietors by J. R. Crampton, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1848 August 17, Civilian And Galveston Gazette, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Galveston, Texas. (The word “too” is used instead of “two” in the original text) (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1851 April 28, The Adams Sentinel (Gettysburg Adams Sentinel), (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1858 March 22, The Daily Dispatch (Richmond Dispatch), An Extended Anagram, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Richmond, Virginia. (Chronicling America; Thanks to Stephen Goranson for finding this citation) link ↩
- 1858 April 10, The San Antonio Ledger (Ledger and Texan), Volume 8, Number 16, An Extended Anagram, Quote Page 1, Column 2, San Antonio, Texas. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1858 July 9, New Albany Daily Ledger, Napoleon Bonaparte (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 1, New Albany, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩