Culture Does Not Consist in Acquiring Opinions, But in Getting Rid of Them

William Butler Yeats? Leonard A. G. Strong? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Too often classes in literature and the arts simply provide an encyclopedic recitation of previous opinions on a topic. The Nobel-Prize-winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats made a provocative remark about the desirability of getting rid of opinions. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: William Butler Yeats died in 1939. The literary journal “London Magazine” in 1955 printed “Yeats at His Ease” by critic and publisher Leonard A. G. Strong who was a long-time friend of the poet. Yeats came to live at Oxford in 1919, and Strong says that he was productive and happy there. The remark under examination was overheard by Strong. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Yeats in my hearing remarked to two English dons, ‘I can’t see what you think you are achieving. You seem to be busy with the propagation of second and third and fourth hand opinions upon literature. Culture does not consist in acquiring opinions, but in getting rid of them.’

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1968 “Vision and Image: A Way of Seeing” by James Johnson Sweeney included the following two compelling quotations. 2

In other words, the key to a lively and a vital appreciation of the arts in the fields of collecting and criticism is the willingness to keep doors open, an eagerness to venture into new fields for the sake of the enjoyment which a work of art can bring.

William Butler Yeats has expressed the heart of this viewpoint in his statement, “Culture does not consist in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them” and Plutarch in “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

The 1977 compilation “W. B. Yeats: Interviews and Recollections” included a piece by Monk Gibbon titled “The Yeats I Knew” with the following: 3

I was not there when he remarked to two English dons, ‘I can’t see what you think you are achieving. You seem to be busy with the propagation of second and third and fourth hand opinions upon literature. Culture does not consist in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them.‘ If I had been there I hope I should have applauded.

In conclusion, the words of W. B. Yeats were overheard by Leonard Strong when Yeats was at Oxford, and Strong shared the quotation in an article published many years later in 1955. The long delay detracts from the solidity of the testimony, but the vividness of the opinion may have produced a durable memory in Strong’s mind.

Image Notes: Portrait of W. B. Yeats before 1923; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture showing wooden letters used for printing from Unsplash at Pixabay.

(Thanks to Stephen Fahey and Andrew Old whose inquiry about a quotation attributed to Plato led to the saying by Plutarch and subsequently to the 1968 citation. This caused QI explore the provenance of the words attributed to Yeats.)

Notes:

  1. 1955 March, The London Magazine: A Monthly Review of Literature, Volume 2, Number 3, Yeats at His Ease by L. A. G. Strong (Leonard Alfred George Strong), Start Page 56, Quote Page 57, Chatto & Windus, Ltd, London. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1968, Vision and Image: A Way of Seeing by James Johnson Sweeney, Series: Credo Perspectives, Quote Page 119, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1977, W. B. Yeats: Interviews and Recollections, Edited by E. H. Mikhail, Volume 2, The Yeats I Knew by Monk Gibbon, Start Page 372, Quote Page 378, (Reprinted from “The Yeats We Knew” 1965 edited by Francis MacManus), Barnes & Noble Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)