You Yourself May Serve To Show It, That Every Fool Is Not a Poet

Jonathan Swift? Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Alexander Pope? Théophile de Viau? Matthew Prior? Pierre de Ronsard? Scévole de Sainte-Marthe? Anonymous?

pope08Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a famous literary figure was accosted by a philistine who exclaimed that all poets were fools. The adroit spontaneous response provided a humorous comeuppance:

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may prove to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

These words have been credited to Jonathan Swift who wrote “Gulliver’s Travels”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote “Kubla Khan”, and Alexander Pope who write “The Dunciad”. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match in English known to QI appeared in the third volume of a collection called “Miscellanies” published in 1733. The preface was dated May 27, 1727 and signed by Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) and Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744). The following piece was labeled “Epigram from the French”: 1

SIR, I admit your gen’ral Rule
That every Poet is a Fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every Fool is not a Poet.

Top modern references such as “The Yale Book of Quotations” 2 and the “Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” have credited Alexander Pope, 3 but these references also presented the label which suggested that Pope was translating a pre-existing French verse. Indeed, QI has located an earlier French citation as shown further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1707 a collection of “Select Proverbs” from multiple languages was published in London. The following verse was credited to the prominent English poet Matthew Prior (1664 – 1721): 4

YES, ev’ry Poet is a Fool:
By Demonstration Ned can show it:
Happy, cou’d Ned’s inverted Rule
Prove ev’ry Fool to be a Poet.

This poem comically illustrated an invalid logical rule that reversed an implication. The poem under investigation and this work shared several points of similarity. It was possible that one poem inspired the construction of the other poem, but the chronological precedence remains uncertain.

In 1715 a collection titled “Le Passe-Tems Agreable” included a French version of the work being explored: 5

On rapporte du Poête Theophile, qu étant allé chez un grand Seigneur, il y avoit un homme qu’on disoit fou, & par conséquent Poête, & que Théophile fit cèt inpromptu.

J’Avoûera avec vous
Que tous les Poëtes sont fous;
Mais sachant ce que vous êtes,
Tous les fous ne sont pas Poëtes.

Here is one possible English translation. The term “fous” has been rendered as “fools”, although “lunatics” is also possible:

It is said about the poet Theophile that he was once at the house of a great lord where there was a man who was said to be a fool, and thus a poet. And Theophilus devised this impromptu verse.

I will grant you
That all poets are fools;
But having come to know you,
Not all fools are poets.

The name “Theophile” probably referred to Théophile de Viau (1590 – 1626). This ascription occurred many years after his death; hence, its probative value was considerably reduced.

The 1719 collection “Poems on Several Occasions” by Matthew Prior included an instance of the 1707 poem. The text was slightly different, e.g., “ev’ry” appeared as “every”: 6

YES, every Poet is a Fool:
By Demonstration Ned can show it:
Happy, cou’d Ned’s inverted Rule
Prove every Fool to be a Poet.

In 1733 the poem being traced was printed in volume three of “Miscellanies” as mentioned previously:

SIR, I admit your gen’ral Rule
That every Poet is a Fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every Fool is not a Poet.

In 1737 the piece appeared in volume two of “A Collection of Epigrams” printed in London. No ascription was listed, but the connection to French was mentioned: 7

From the French.

Sir, I admit your gen’ral rule,
That every poet is a fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

In 1746 a different French instance appeared in “Bibliothèque de Cour, de Ville, et de Campagne” edited by François Gayot de Pitaval. The accompanying note stated that the work was written in the manner of “Ronsard”, i.e., Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585): 8

Je tombe d’accord avec vous,
Que tous les Poëtes sont fous;
Mais puisque Poëte vous n’êtes,
Tous les fous ne sont pas Poëtes.

Ce Quatrain est de la façon de Ronsard.

The poem has often been included in large Swiftian compilations. For example in 1751 volume 7 of “The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin” included the 1733 instance of the work. Unsurprisingly, Swift has often received credit for the verse. 9

In 1755 Samuel Johnson published his magnificent benchmark work “A Dictionary of the English Language”. He selected Matthew Prior’s poem to illustrate the verb “to invert”: 10

To INVERT
2. To place the last first.

Yes, every poet is a fool;
By demonstration Ned can show it:
Happy, could, Ned’s inverted rule
Prove every fool to be a poet.

In 1806 “The Emerald”, a journal in based in Boston, Massachusetts, printed a different French version of the poem together with a translation: 11

Impromptu.

J’avouerai sans peine avec vous
Que tous les poetes sont fous,
Mais sachant bien ce que vous êtes,
Tous les fous ne sont pas poetes

The above has been happily translated as follows:

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

In 1871 the linkage to Théophile was recalled in a Dublin, Ireland journal called “The Shamrock”: 12

Theophile, a witty poet of the seventeenth century, was remarkable for the pointedness of his epigrams. He composed the following impromptu upon a man who was said to be a fool, and consequently a poet:-

“I’ll acknowledge as but true,
Poets are fools–too well I know it:
But I say that, knowing you,
Every fool is not a poet.”

In 1876 the London scholarly journal “Notes and Queries” published a note from a correspondent who ascribed the work to the French poet Scévole de Sainte-Marthe (1536 – 1623): 13

SWIFT’S EPIGRAM.—The following has always passed with me for an original epigram by Swift, and I imagine it has done so with thousands of readers. I am not aware that the originality has ever been challenged.—

“Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool;
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.”

It is clearly taken from the following, by Scévole de Sainte-Marthe, the friend of Henry IV of France:—

“Je confesse bien comme vous,
Que tous les poètes sont fous;
Mais puisque poète vous n’êtes,
Tous es fous ne sont pas poètes.”

After this, Swift can only enjoy the credit of having accomplished a most perfect rendering into the raciest and freshest of English.

In 1895 “Books Fatal to Their Authors” by P. H. Ditchfield attributed another French variant to Théophile: 14

The poet’s real surname was Viaud. The following impromptu is attributed to Théophile, who was asked by a foolish person whether all poets were fools:—

“Oui, je l’avoue avec vous,
Que tous les poètes sont fous;
Mais sachant ce que vous êtes,
Tous les fous ne sont pas poètes.”

His poems are a mere collection of impieties and obscenities, published with the greatest impudence, and well deserved their destruction.

In 1907 “Sunshine All the Year; or, Life at Its Happiest and Best” by James Henry Potts credited the verse directly to Alexander Pope: 15

Pope replied to a critic who ridiculed his verse in this severe way:

“Sir, I admit the general rule,
That every poet is a fool;
But you yourself may serve to show it —
Every fool is not a poet.

In 1912 “The Home Book of Verse” compiled by Burton Egbert Stevenson implausibly ascribed the piece to the well-known poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: 16

SIR, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge [1772–1834]

In conclusion, QI conjectures that the French poem was in circulation before the English poems. If that is true then Matthew Prior’s poem was probably influenced by the French work. In addition, QI believes that Alexander Pope translated an instance of the French poem into English. The ascription of the French poem to Théophile de Viau is possible, but the evidence is weak because he died in 1626 and the pertinent citation appeared in 1715. The other ascriptions were also weak. Perhaps future research will clarify this topic.

Image Notes: Portrait of Alexander Pope circa 1727 by Michael Dahl; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Word collage constructed by QI at wordclouds.com. Fountain pen from Unsplash at Pixabay. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(Great thanks to Theric Jepson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to S. M. Colowick, Tim Stewart, Margaret Winters, and Laurence Horn for their French translation knowledge. Any errors are the responsibility of QI.)

Notes:

  1. 1733, Miscellanies: the Last Volume, (Preface by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope dated May 27, 1727), Epigram from the French, Quote Page 57, Printed for Benjamin Motte, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Alexander Pope, Quote Page 599, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 8th Edition, Editor Elizabeth Knowles, Entry: Alexander Pope 1688–1744, Oxford Reference Online, Print Publication Date: 2014, Oxford University Press. (Accessed November 21, 2016)
  4. 1707, Select Proverbs, Italian, Spanish, French, English, Scotish, British, &c., Chiefly Moral, The Foreign Languages done into English, Number 404 (CCCCIV) by M. Prior, Quote Page 118, Printed by J. H. for Philip Monckton at the Star in St. Paul’s Church-yard, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1715, Le Passe-Tems Agreable, ou Noveaux Choix de Bons-Mots, de Pensees Ingenieuses, de Rencontres Plaisantes, Third Edition, Quote Page 267, Jean Hofhout, Rotterdam. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1719, Poems on Several Occasions by Matthew Prior, Quote Page 138, Printed for J. Hyde, R. Gunne, R. Owen, and E. Dobson, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1737, A Collection of Epigrams, Volume 2, Epigram Number 146 (CXLVI), Unnumbered Page, Printed for J. Waltrop, Sold by J. Osborn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1746, Bibliothèque de Cour, de Ville, et de Campagne, Edited by François Gayot de Pitaval, Volume 7, Quote Page 126, Publisher Information: A Paris: Chez The´odore Le Gras, au troisie´me Pilier de la Grand-Sale, a` l’L couronne´e. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1751, The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, Volume 7: Consisting of Miscellanies in Verse by Dr. Swift, Dr. Arbuthnot, Mr. Pope, and Mr. Gay, Printed for C. Bathurst, Fleet-Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1755, A Dictionary of the English Language, Compiled by Samuel Johnson, Volume 1 of 2, Entry: To INVERT, Quote Page 1123, Printed by W. Strahan, For J. and P. Knapton et al, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1806 May 31, The Emerald, Or, Miscellany of Literature, Number 5, Impromptu, Quote Page 56, Belcher & Armstrong, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1871 June 17, The Shamrock, Volume 8, Rambling Readings by Killeen, Quote Page 565, Column 2, Irish National Newspaper and Publishing Company, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1876 July 22, Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers Etc., Fifth Series, Volume 6, Quote Page 67, Published by John Francis at the Office of Notes and Queries, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  14. 1895, Books Fatal to Their Authors by P. H. Ditchfield (Peter Hampson Ditchfield), Quote Page 181, A. C. Armstrong and Son, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  15. 1907, Sunshine All the Year; or, Life at Its Happiest and Best by James Henry Potts, Fondness for Epigram, Start Page 316, Quote Page 317, P. W. Ziegler Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust Full View)
  16. 1912, The Home Book of Verse, Compiled by B. E. G. (Burton Egbert Stevenson), Epigrams, Quote Page 1849, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link