Melancholy Is the Pleasure of Being Sad

Victor Hugo? H. L. Mencken? Anonymous?

hugo11Dear Quote Investigator: Melancholy is a complex and sometimes puzzling emotion. The composite nature of the sensation is expressed by the following:

Melancholia is the joy of feeling sad.
Melancholy is the happiness of being sad.
Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad.

I believe that this statement was crafted by a prominent author, but I cannot remember his or her name. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1866 the major French literary figure Victor Hugo published “Les Travailleurs de la Mer” which was later released under the English title “The Toilers of the Sea”. This work included the saying under investigation. Here is an excerpt in French followed by a translation from 1888. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

Le désespoir a des degrés remontants. De l’accablement on monte à l’abattement, de l’abattement à l’affliction, de l’affliction à la mélancolie. La mélancolie est un crépuscule. La souffrance s’y fond dans une sombre joie.
La mélancolie, c’est le bonheur d’être triste.

Despair has ascending degrees. From prostration one mounts to despondency, from despondency to affliction, from affliction to melancholy. Melancholy is a twilight. Suffering melts into it in sombre joy.
Melancholy is the happiness of being sad.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

H. L. Mencken included a set of quotations about melancholy in his remarkable reference “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”. Below are three entries. Mencken used a different translation for Hugo’s statement: 3

Aristotle said melancholy men of all others are the most witty.
ROBERT BURTON: The Anatomy of Melancholy, I, 1621

He is a fool that is not melancholy once a day.
ENGLISH PROVERB, traced by Smith to 1678

Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad.
VICTOR HUGO: The Toilers of the Sea, III, 1866

A 2002 translation by James Hogarth employed a different phrasing for the saying: 4

Despair has steps leading upward. From total depression we rise to despondency, from despondency to affliction, from affliction to melancholy. Melancholy is a twilight state in which suffering transmutes into a somber joy.
Melancholy is the enjoyment of being sad.

In conclusion, Victor Hugo should be credited with this statement which was originally constructed in French by 1866. A few different translations into English have been produced.

Image Notes: Study of Melancholy Girl by Joseph Wright circa 1775 from the British Museum, London. Image from wikiart.org has been cropped. Portrait of Victor Hugo by Étienne Carjat circa 1876 via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped.

(Great thanks to Sonia Mansour Robaey and Earl Appleby whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1866, Les Travailleurs de la Mer by Victor Hugo, (The Toilers of the Sea), Volume 2, Part 3, Section: La Cloche du Port, Quote Page 154, Librairie Internationale, A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1888, The Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo, Translator: Isabel F. Hapgood, Volume 1, Section: The Bell of the Port, Quote Page 196, Published by Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken [Henry Louis Mencken], Section: Melancholy, Quote Page 777, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 2002, The Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo, Translator: James Hogarth, Quote Page 379, Modern Library Paperback Edition, Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview)