The Worm Was Punished for Early Rising

John Godfrey Saxe? Frederick Locker-Lampson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: “The early bird catches the worm” has become an irritating cliché. I love this entertaining comical response:

But the worm was punished for getting up early.

Do you know who crafted this rejoinder?

Quote Investigator: The work “Early Rising” appeared in the 1876 collection “The Poems of John Godfrey Saxe”. The stanza below expressed the unhappiness of the author with leaving his bed early in the morning: 1

Yes — bless the man who first invented sleep
(I really can’t avoid the iteration);
But blast the man, with curses loud and deep,
Whate’er the rascal’s name, or age, or station,
Who first invented, and went round advising,
That artificial cut-off, — Early Rising!

The final stanza of the poem contained the quip. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

So let us sleep, and give the Maker praise.
I like the lad who, when his father thought
To clip his morning nap by hackneyed phrase
Of vagrant worm by early songster caught,
Cried, “Served him right! — it’s not at all surprising;
The worm was punished, sir, for early rising!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




The “early bird” proverb can be traced back to the 1600s. It was included in the 1636 edition of a reference work initiated by the English historian William Camden with this phrasing:

The early bird catcheth the worme.

More information about the adage is available here.

A joke similar to the one being explored appeared as a parenthetical remark within a poem titled “Arcadia” published in “A Selection from the Works of Frederick Locker” in 1865: 2

THE healthy-wealthy-wise affirm
That early birds secure the worm,
(The worm rose early too!)
Who scorns his couch should glean by rights
A world of pleasant sounds and sights
That vanish with the dew

An earlier version of Locker-Lampson’s “Arcadia” poem called “The Garter” appeared in 1857, but it did not include the crucial line: “The worm rose early too!” 3

In 1919 the tenth edition of the famous reference “Familiar Quotations” by John Bartlett included the stanza by Saxe containing the quip: 4

JOHN GODFREY SAXE 1816-1887

I like the lad, who when his father thought
To clip his morning nap by hackneyed phrase
Of vagrant worm by early songster caught
Cried, “Served him right! It’s not at all surprising
The worm was punished, Sir, for early rising!”

Bartlett’s reference also included a footnote that reprinted a slight variant of the words of Locker-Lampson:

FREDERICK LOCKER-LAMPSON:

The healthy-wealthy-wise affirm
That early birds obtain the worm —
(The worm rose early too!)

In 1940 “The Palladium-Item” of Richmond, Indiana printed a one-panel cartoon with the following caption: 5

The early bird gets his reward;
I know that saying’s true —
But seems to me it’s so unfair;
The worm rose early, too.

H. L. Mencken’s massive opus “A New Dictionary of Quotations” included a simplified version of the one-liner by Saxe: 6

The worm was punished for early rising.
J. G. SAXE: Early Rising, 1860

In conclusion, John Godfrey Saxe should be credited with the quip about the early worm being punished, and Frederick Locker-Lampson should be credited with the similar joke he crafted.

Image Notes: Illustration of a bird in a tree and a worm from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Portrait of John Godfrey Saxe published by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1898 accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes:

  1. 1876, The Poems of John Godfrey Saxe Complete in One Volume, Poem: Early Rising (Stanza Two and Final Stanza), Start Page 133, Quote Page 133 and 134, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1865, A Selection from the Works of Frederick Locker by Frederick Locker-Lampson, Series: Moxon’s Miniature Poets, Arcadia, Quote Page 140, Edward Moxon, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1857, London Lyrics by Frederick Locker, Quote Page 25, Chapman and Hall, London.(Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1919, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Tenth Edition, Revised and Enlarged by Nathan Haskell Dole, Quote Page 720, Blue Ribbon Books, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1940 April 4, The Palladium-Item, Caption of one-panel cartoon: Alec the Great, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Richmond, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Early Rising, Quote Page 1045, Column 2, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)