Category Archives: Ogden Nash

I Think that I Shall Never See a Billboard Lovely as a Tree

Joyce Kilmer? Ogden Nash? Confucious? Anonymous?

freeway10Dear Quote Investigator: April is National Poetry Month in the U. S., and Arbor Day also occurs in this month. A famous poem by Joyce Kilmer begins with the following couplet: 1

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A comical riff on this work begins with the following lines:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.

I have seen multiple versions of this humorous poem that criticizes the massive signs next to highways. Would you please determine the proper text and the creator’s identity?

Quote Investigator: The October 15, 1932 issue of “The New Yorker” published a poem titled “Song of the Open Road” by Ogden Nash who was a popular wordsmith of light verse. This was the earliest publication known to QI: 2

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
—OGDEN NASH

Over the decades, variants of the text have evolved. By 1940 Ogden Nash had produced a modified version of his own verse. He published a collection of works titled “The Face is Familiar” containing an instance of the poem that replaced the word “perhaps” with the word “indeed”. This made the point of the poem more emphatic.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. Date: 1913 October, Periodical: Boys’ Life, Poem title: Trees, Poem author: Joyce Kilmer, Quote Page 2, Publisher: Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Date: 1932 October 15, Periodical: The New Yorker, Poem title: Song of the Open Road, Poem author: Ogden Nash, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Publisher: F.R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online Archive of page scans of The New Yorker; accessed archives.newyorker.com April 11, 2015)

Not a Shred of Evidence Exists in Favor of the Argument That Life Is Serious

Joseph Campbell? Ogden Nash? Brendan Gill? Anonymous?

evidence02Dear Quote Investigator: Here is a quick question. Which of the following quotations is accurate?

There is not one shred of evidence that life is serious. —Joseph Campbell

There is not a shred of evidence that life is serious —Ogden Nash

Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious. —Brendan Gill

Not one shred of evidence supports the notion that life is serious. —Anonymous

If each of these four quotes is inaccurate can you determine the original quotation and coiner? My friend has some magnets that credit the poet and humorist Ogden Nash.

Quote Investigator: Brendan Gill wrote for The New Yorker magazine for six decades. In 1975, near the four decade mark, he published a memoir titled “Here at The New Yorker” that included the following passage: 1

In fact, not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the argument that life is serious, though it is often hard and even terrible. And saying that, I am prompted to add what follows out of it: that since everything ends badly for us, in the inescapable catastrophe of death, it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time; and that the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so. There is no third rule.

Gill’s actual statement is very similar to the one given by the questioner but not identical. The word “argument” is used instead of “idea”. This altered version has become more popular over time. In 1979 the compilation “1,001 Logical Laws” gathered by John Peers included the following instance with the word “idea”: 2

Gill’s Law:
Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1975, Here at The New Yorker by Brendan Gill, Chapter: 6, Quote Page 49, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 120, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)

Hogamous, Higamous, Man is Polygamous, Higamous, Hogamous, Woman is Monagamous

William James? Dorothy Parker? Ogden Nash? Mrs. Amos Pinchot? Alice Duer Miller? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I read a wild story about William James, the prominent psychologist, educator, and philosopher. One night he experimented with the psychoactive gas nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas. While experiencing a reverie James became convinced that he had developed a profound insight into the universe. The next day when he examined the paper on which he scrawled his precious wisdom he read this bit of doggerel:

Hogamous, Higamous,
Man is polygamous,
Higamous, Hogamous,
Woman is monagamous.

Could this comical tale about the famous psychologist be correct?

Quote Investigator: Probably not. This poem has been attributed to Mrs. Amos Pinchot, William James, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and others. The earliest citation located by QI appeared in 1939 and credited Pinchot, but a cite in 1942 claimed that she denied the attribution. No decisive candidate for authorship has yet emerged in QI’s opinion.

William James did experiment with psychoactive agents, but his name was not connected to this verse until many years after his death. The earliest attribution to James located by QI was dated 1953, yet his life ended in 1910.

The first known evidence of this unusual anecdote appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in November 1939. The article “Thanksgiving Nightmare” by Claire MacMurray discussed dreams and not drugs. MacMurray presented a supposed episode in the mental life of a person named Mrs. Amos Pinchot [APCM]:

She dreamed one night that she had written a poem so beautiful, so wise, so close to the ultimate truth of life that she was immediately acclaimed by all the peoples on the earth as the greatest poet and philosopher of all the ages. Still half asleep as the dream ended, she stumbled out of bed and scribbled the poem down, realizing that she must take no risk of forgetting such deathless lines. She awoke in the morning with the feeling that something wonderful was about to happen—oh, yes! Her poem.

She clutched the precious paper and, tense with excitement, read the words she had written. Here they are:

Hogamus Higamus
Men are Polygamous
Higamus Hogamus
Women Monogamous

The spelling and wording of this poem do differ from the most common modern versions, but QI believes that the words above likely correspond to the ancestral verse. The dream state is certainly an altered state, and it does generate insights, both genuine and spurious. But it is a relatively conventional mental excursion.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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America Is the Only Country That Went from Barbarism to Decadence Without Civilization In Between

Ogden Nash? George Bernard Shaw? James Agate? La Liberté? Winston Churchill? Henry James? Oscar Wilde? Georges Clemenceau?

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Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous humorous saying about the United States that has been credited to four celebrated wits: George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and Georges Clemenceau:

America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.

Could you reduce the uncertainty and determine who coined this acerbic comment?

Quote Investigator: A partial match of the quotation appeared in a French history text in 1841 which stated that the ruler of Russia pushed the country without transition from barbarism to decadence. Thanks to Dan Bye and the volunteer editors of Wikiquote for this citation: 1

… il fit passer son pays sans transition de la barbarie à la décadence, de l’enfance à la caducité.

In 1878 the prominent literary figure Henry James published a short story with a German character who remarked on the cultural evolution of the United States using a simile based on the maturation of fruit. The following passage is conceptually similar to the quotation, but the vocabulary is different. Thanks to correspondent Rand Careaga for this citation: 2

… unprecedented and unique in the history of mankind; the arrival of a nation at an ultimate stage of evolution without having passed through the mediate one; the passage of the fruit, in other words, from crudity to rottenness, without the interposition of a period of useful (and ornamental) ripeness. With the Americans, indeed, the crudity and the rottenness are identical and simultaneous;…

The earliest evidence known to QI of a close match for this expression was published in 1926 in The Sunday Times of London. Interestingly, the country being lacerated was Russia and not the United States. In addition, none of the four gentlemen mentioned by the questioner was credited with the words.

The theatre reviewer, James Agate, saw a production of the work “Katerina” by Andreyev, and he was deeply unsympathetic to the behaviors displayed by the characters. Boldface has been added below: 3 4

Everything that happens to Andreyev’s characters is repugnant to the English sense of what would, should, or could happen to people laying claim to ordinary, i.e. English sanity. This being so, the temptation is to cast about for excuses, to pity Russia for having been left out of the Roman march, and so passing from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilisation, or to talk about “retrogressive metamorphism” and the way this country has been steadily breaking Europe down ever since, in the time of Peter the Great, she first began to absorb European culture.

Special thanks to correspondent Robert Rosenberg who identified this pivotal early instance.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1841, Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand, Volume 6, Quote Page 72, Chez L. Hachette. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1881, Washington Square; The Pension Beaurepas; A Bundle of Letters by Henry James, Volume 2, (A Bundle of Letters; short story reprinted from The Parisian, 1878), Start Page 198, Quote Page 266, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1926 April 4, The Sunday Times (UK), The Dramatic World: Those Russians Again by James Agate, (Review of the play Katerina by Andreyev performed on March 31), Quote Page 4, London, England. (Gale’s Sunday Times Digital Archive; thanks to Fred Shapiro and Dan J. Bye for accessing this database)
  4. 1944, Red Letter Nights by James Agate, (Review by James Agate of the play Katerina by Leonid Andreyev; starring John Gielgud and Frances Carson; Review is dated April 3, 1926 in book), Start Page 112, Quote Page 113, Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, UK. (Internet Archive) link

Progress May Have Been All Right Once, But It Went On Too Long

Ogden Nash? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Jeopardy is my favorite game show, and I recently watched in amazement as an IBM computer named Watson beat the two best human players in the history of the trivia tournament. I was reminded of the classic one-line observation made by the brilliantly humorous poet Ogden Nash:

Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long.

This epigram is listed in the Wikipedia entry for Ogden Nash, and I found it in some quotation references, but no one seems to know where it appeared initially. I searched the archive of The New Yorker because that magazine published many of his poems, but I could not find the phrase. Could you determine its origin?

Quote Investigator: The primary obstacle to tracing this saying is the inaccuracy of its wording. The phrasing specified in your question, which is common online and appears in many books, differs from the original text used by Ogden Nash when he published the line as part of the poem “Come, Come, Kerouac! My Generation is Beater Than Yours” in the 1950s. This is a common problem in quotation research that complicates database searches. Even when the phrasing is very similar and the semantics are nearly equivalent the rigorous word-for-word and letter-for-letter matching may fail.

Your idea to search the New Yorker database was an excellent one. The poem appeared in the April 4, 1959 issue of that magazine, but you may have missed it because your search query was based on the incorrect wording. The fourteen-line composition begins as follows [NYCK]:

My dictionary defines progress as an advance toward perfection.

There has been lots of progress during my lifetime, but I’m afraid it’s been heading in the wrong direction.

The poem ends with the following two lines:

Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long;

I think progress began to retrogress when Wilbur and Orville started tinkering around in Dayton and at Kitty Hawk, because I believe that two Wrights made a wrong.

This saying is a favorite of the prominent political pundit George Will who first used a version of it in his doctoral thesis. Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

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