Category Archives: Oscar Wilde

Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes

Oscar Wilde? Frank Harris? Irish Barrister? Wilton Lackaye? Margaret Waters? Well-Known Young Clubman? Gustav Traub? Mike Romanoff? Samuel George Blythe? Arthur M. Binstead? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The scintillating conversationalist Oscar Wilde enjoyed modifying dusty platitudes to construct comical alternatives. For example, he permuted an old complaint about the working class to yield:

Work is the curse of the drinking classes.

Oddly, I have not found a citation for this statement dated before the death of Wilde. Would you please examine the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in November 1900. The earliest published instance of this quip located by QI occurred in the caption of a newspaper cartoon in 1902. The details are given further below.

Yet there is good evidence that Oscar Wilde did craft this statement. In 1916 the writer and outsized personality Frank Harris who was a friend of Wilde’s published a biography titled “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions”. Harris described a party he threw during which Wilde delivered the remark. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

A little later I gave a dinner at the Savoy and asked him to come. He was delightful, his vivacious gaiety as exhilarating as wine. But he was more like a Roman Emperor than ever: he had grown fat: he ate and drank too much; not that he was intoxicated, but he became flushed, and in spite of his gay and genial talk he affected me a little unpleasantly; he was gross and puffed up. But he gave one or two splendid snapshots of actors and their egregious vanity. It seemed to him a great pity that actors should be taught to read and write: they should learn their pieces from the lips of the poet.

“Just as work is the curse of the drinking classes of this country,” he said laughing, “so education is the curse of the acting classes.”

Yet even when making fun of the mummers there was a new tone in him of arrogance and disdain. He used always to be genial and kindly even to those he laughed at; now he was openly contemptuous.

The accuracy of the above ascription to Wilde depends on the veracity of Harris who was a direct witness. Harris explained the long delay before the appearance of his book in the introduction. Wilde was a controversial figure and Harris’s sympathetic work condemned the harshness of Wilde’s punishment. Harris waited more than ten years hoping that someone else would write a comparable book. He acted when he finally felt compelled to present his own viewpoint.

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  1. 1916, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, Volume 1, Quote Page 166, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Dancing Is a Perpendicular Expression of a Horizontal Desire

George Bernard Shaw? George Melly? I. S. Johar? Ann Landers? Patrick Harte? Robert Frost? Winston Churchill? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

dancing07Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an adage highlighting the sensual aspects of popular gyrations:

  1. Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.
  2. Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal idea.

George Bernard Shaw, Ann Landers, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Frost have received credit for this saying. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the London periodical “New Statesman” in 1962. The musician and critic George Melly attributed the saying to the notable playwright George Bernard Shaw. Emphasis added by QI: 1

I have spent a certain amount of time lately watching people in London dance in the various new ways. I report what went on in three very different places where my fellow countrymen and women had come together to give what Shaw called ‘a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire’.

Shaw’s death in 1950 preceded Melly’s article by more than a decade, and the text provided no citation; hence, the evidence supporting the ascription was rather weak. Nevertheless, the citations for competing ascriptions are even less persuasive.

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  1. 1962 March 23, New Statesman, Late Perpendicular by George Melly, Start Page 426, Quote Page 426, Column 3, New Statesman Ltd., London. (ProQuest)

Genius Is Born, Not Paid

Oscar Wilde? Frank Harris? Apocryphal?

genius09Dear Quote Investigator: The following passage from a philosophical magazine of 1815 asserts that intellectual gifts are innate: 1

That genius is born, is a trite truth; education never creates, it only cultivates and directs the faculties.

An ancient adage states this controversial thesis concisely for the realm of poetry:

A poet is born, not made.

There are many examples of great poets and other geniuses such as Vincent van Gogh and Nikola Tesla who died in poverty. Oscar Wilde who was also financially strapped at the end of his life was aware of the pitfalls of brilliance, so he modified an adage with acerbic wordplay:

Genius is born, not made.
Genius is born, not paid.

Would you please examine this expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the 1916 biography “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions” by Frank Harris. A section about Wilde’s last year of life in 1900 described a party during which the witticism was delivered. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2 3

The entertainment usually started with some humorous play on words. One of the company would say something obvious or trivial, repeat a proverb or commonplace tag such as, “Genius is born, not made,” and Oscar would flash in smiling, “not ‘paid,’ my dear fellow, not ‘paid.'”

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  1. January 1815, The Philosophical Magazine And Journal, Volume 45, Dr. Spurzheim’s demonstrative Course of Lectures, Start Page 50, Quote Page 52, Printed by Richard and Arthur Taylor, Shoe Lane, London. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1916, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, Frank Harris, Volume 2, Quote Page 412, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1916 October, The Phoenix, Volume 5, Number 5, Oscar Wilde as a Talker, (Excerpt from Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris), Start Page 146, Quote Page 147, Published by Michael Monahan, South Norwalk, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link

If You Want To Tell People the Truth, You’d Better Make Them Laugh or They’ll Kill You

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Cecile Starr? Billy Wilder? Richard Pryor? James L. Brooks? Dustin Hoffman? Charles Ludlam?

masks09Dear Quote Investigator: Dramatists have discovered that challenging material often elicits hostility or boredom. This is dangerous for creators because jobs in the entertainment industry are precarious. Yet, a provocative production leavened with humor is often embraced by audiences. The following adage now circulates on Broadway and in Hollywood:

1) If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.
2) If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.

The playwrights George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Ludlam have all been credited with this saying. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1951 article in “The Saturday Review” by critic and film historian Cecile Starr discussing a documentary film festival. When Starr commented on the works of one filmmaker she mentioned the adage and ascribed it to George Bernard Shaw who had died a year earlier. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . Shaw’s lively aphorism, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you” . . .

QI has found no substantive support for crediting Oscar Wilde with the saying. He died in 1900 and the expression appeared decades afterwards. There is some good evidence that the well-known director Billy Wilder employed the saying, but the linkage occurred after it was attributed to Shaw. There was also some indirect evidence Charles Ludlam used the expression. The comedian Richard Pryor, actor Dustin Hoffman, and screenwriter James L. Brooks all delivered the line during interviews, but they spoke when it was already in circulation.

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  1. 1951 October 13, The Saturday Review, Ideas on Film: Edinburgh’s Documentary Festival by Cecile Starr, Start Page 60, Quote Page 60, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)

Obscene and Not Heard

Groucho Marx? Ethel Barrymore? Maurice Barrymore? Paul M. Potter? Gertrude Battles Lane? John Lennon? Joe E. Lewis? Robert Heinlein? Marilyn Manson? Augustus John? Oscar Wilde?

barrymore12Dear Quote Investigator: There is well-known and often repeated admonition directed at young people who are making too much noise:

Children should be seen and not heard.

Wordplay has produced multiple quips which transform the phrase “seen and not heard” into other similar sounding statements:

Back in our day sex was obscene and not heard.
The writing was obscene but not absurd.
Graffiti should be obscene and not heard.
Women should be obscene but not heard.

Instances of these statements have been attributed to Groucho Marx, John Lennon, Ethel Barrymore, Robert Heinlein, and Oscar Wilde. Attitudes have changed over the years and some statements in this family grate on many modern ears. Would you please examine this family of adages?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence found by QI appeared in 1908 in the entertainment trade journal “The Billboard” within an extremely hostile and sarcastic review of a Broadway musical-drama called “The Queen of the Moulin Rouge”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Another septic musical comedy has been ulcerated on Broadway, this time it’s the Circle that needs disinfection—the play being none other than The Moulin Rouge…

Richard F. Carroll, a man of many changes which are humorously called disguises —mentions benignly that “little girls should be obscene and not heard.” And straightaway a laughter pandemonium shrieks itself to hoarseness; of course, it’s funny and Broadway is so quick to see wit. Then Hattie Forsythe, while doing an excruciating wriggle, gasps—”I’m crazy about this,” hurrahs again, long, loud and merry.

The book of the Broadway show mentioned above was written by Paul M. Potter; hence, he may have created the joke. 2 Alternatively, the remark may already have been in circulation.

The second instance in this family of sayings located by QI appeared in an anecdote recounted in “Nat Goodwin’s Book” by Nathaniel Carl Goodwin. The quip was spoken by Maurice Barrymore who was the patriarch of the famous theater family that included his children John, Lionel, and Ethel. A fellow actor named Wilton Lackaye was denouncing as salacious a new show located in the Hammerstein Theater in New York City, and Barrymore was humorously defending the performance of the lead actress while mentioning the poor acoustics of the capacious venue: 3

“You call that art,” asked Lackaye, “a wanton, expounding her amorous successes? What edification can that give? I tell you, Barrymore, you may be all right in your argument but the performance was simply nauseating, nasty and suggestive. The whole thing reeked with filth!”

“I know,” said Barrymore, quickly but quietly, “but you fail to realize, my dear Lackaye, that Hammerstein’s is a theatre where one may be obscene and not heard.”

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  1. 1908 December 19, The Billboard, Volume 20, Greater New York News by Our New York Correspondent, (Review of the musical-drama “The Queen of the Moulin Rouge”), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Published by Billboard Publications. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Website: IBDB Internet Broadway Database, Entry Title: The Queen of the Moulin Rouge, Show Opening Date: Dec 07, 1908, Show Closing Date: Apr 24, 1909, Total Performances: 160, Website Description: Database of Broadway show information provided by The Broadway League in association with Theatre Development Fund and New York State. (Accessed on January 14, 2016) link
  3. 1914, Nat Goodwin’s Book by Nat C. Goodwin, (Nathaniel Carl Goodwin), Chapter 6: “Barry” and Jefferson, Quote Page 43, Published by Richard G. Badger: The Gorham Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust) link

Lovers: They Sing a Song Only You Can Hear

Oscar Wilde? CosmoGIRL? L. G. McVean? William J. Locke? Elizabeth Cooper? Holiday Mathis? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

swings08Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular saying about the intimate connection between people who are in love that has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. The closeness is expressed using an auditory metaphor:

You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.

Highlighting a “fancy car” in Wilde’s time period seems prochronistic. Did Wilde make this remark?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde spoke or wrote a statement of this type. It is not listed in the excellent compendium “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde” which was compiled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1

The earliest full match known to QI appeared relatively recently in the 2006 book “CosmoGirl!: Words to Live” from the editors of the now defunct magazine CosmoGIRL, and the attribution was anonymous. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

“You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.” —Anonymous

The notion of a song that is only audible to one’s lover has a long history, and QI has found citations beginning in 1888 although this trope is probably much older. Details are presented below.

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  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2006, Book Title: CosmoGirl!: Words to Live By from The Editors of CosmoGIRL, Chapter: Love Lines, Quote Page 52, Hearst Books: A Division of Sterling Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Preview)

I Spent All Morning Taking Out a Comma and All Afternoon Putting It Back

Oscar Wilde? Gustave Flaubert? Robert H. Sherard? Apocryphal?

comma07Dear Quote Investigator: A famous writer who was punctilious about punctuation described an arduous day of work as follows:

I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.

In some versions of the anecdote the operations were reversed:

I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in again.

This humorous remark has been attributed to the wit Oscar Wilde and the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Would you please determine the correct ascription?

Quote Investigator: Currently, there is no substantive evidence that Gustave Flaubert made this remark. He died in 1880, and the first linkage of the tale to him that QI has located was published in 1919. Details are given further below.

The earliest instance of this anecdote known to QI appeared on May 8, 1884 in “The Daily Graphic: An Illustrated Evening Newspaper” of New York City under the title “The Casual Observer”. The story was quickly reprinted in several other newspapers including “The Syracuse Standard” of New York under the title “Oscar’s Morning Work”, and “The Boston Sunday Globe” of Massachusetts under the title “A Fateful Comma”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2 3

Oscar Wilde, among his various stories told here of which he was always the aesthetic hero, related that once while on a visit to an English country house he was much annoyed by the pronounced Philistinism of a certain fellow guest, who loudly stated that all artistic employment was a melancholy waste of time.

“Well, Mr. Wilde,” said Oscar’s bugbear one day at lunch, “and pray how have you been passing your morning?” “Oh! I have been immensely busy,” said Oscar with great gravity. “I have spent my whole time over the proof sheets of my book of poems.” The Philistine with a growl inquired the result of that.

“Well, it was very important,” said Oscar. “I took out a comma.” “Indeed,” returned the enemy of literature, “is that all you did?” Oscar, with a sweet smile, said, “By no means; on mature reflection I put back the comma.” This was too much for the Philistine, who took the next train to London.

Many thanks to scholar John Cooper who for three decades has been studying Oscar Wilde with particular emphasis on Wilde’s excursions in the United States. Cooper identified the widely-reprinted story given above, and found the earliest citation. 4

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  1. 1884 May 8, The Daily Graphic (New York Graphic), The Casual Observer, Quote Page 506, Column 2, (Page 2 of May 8 Issue), New York, New York. (Old Fulton; Located by John Cooper)
  2. 1884 May 21, The Syracuse Standard, Oscar’s Morning Work (Acknowledgement to “New York Graphic”), Quote Page 2, Column 5, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1884 May 25, The Boston Sunday Globe (Sunday Morning), A Fateful Comma (Acknowledgement to “New York Graphic”), Quote Page 9, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. Website: Oscar Wilde in America, Article title: “QUOTATION: In the morning I took out a comma, but on mature reflection, I put it back again”, Author: John Cooper, Date on website: No date given, Website description: Information about Oscar Wilde’s visits to the United States assembled by John Cooper. (Accessed on October 25, 2015 and on January 1, 2015)link

Youth Is Wasted on the Young

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Irvin Cobb? Michel de Montaigne? Anonymous?

fountain07Dear Quote Investigator: A very popular acerbic adage combines wisdom and wistfulness together with a modicum of jealousy:

Youth is wasted on the young.

These words have been attributed to two famous Irish wits: George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Oddly, I have not seen any precise citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a syndicated newspaper column called “Cook-Coos” by Ted Cook in February 1931. 1 The expression was ascribed to George Bernard Shaw, and the central meaning was congruent to modern instances; however, the phrasing was quite different Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Someone asked Bernard Shaw what, in his opinion, is the most beautiful thing in this world.

“Youth,” he replied, “is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!”

QI has not yet identified an interview with Shaw containing the above remark; hence, the attribution was indirect. In the following months and years there was an efflorescence of similar statements linked to Shaw employing highly-variable phrasing. No closely matching written remark has been found in the corpus of Shaw; thus, residual uncertainty remains.

Attributions to Oscar Wilde were in circulation by 1963, but QI has found no substantive support for the linkage.

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  1. 1931 February 14, Rockford Register-Republic, Cook-Coos by Ted Cook (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1931 February 14, Nevada State Journal, Cook-Coos by Ted Cook (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 5, Column 2, Reno, Nevada. (Newspapers_com)

Missionaries and Cannibals

Oscar Wilde? Richard Le Gallienne? Reverend Sydney Smith? Apocryphal?

smith10Dear Quote Investigator: One of the more outrageous remarks attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde concerned missionaries, cannibals, and the supply of food. Did Wilde really make this facetious remark?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1907 when a posthumous multi-volume collection of his works was published. A friend of Wilde’s named Richard Le Gallienne wrote the introduction to one of the volumes, and he described a conversation he heard while dining with Wilde. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

To startle and shock the bourgeoisie was an amusement of which he never tired. He delighted to watch for the “Do you really mean it, Mr. Wilde?” look on the face of some guileless or stupid listener. I remember being at a dinner-party on one occasion when he gravely propounded the theory that missionaries were the divinely provided food for those desolate cannibal islands where other food was scarce. “O are you really serious, Mr. Wilde?” said an innocent young thing at his side. Anything more profoundly serious than Wilde’s expression in answer cannot be conceived.

Although this testimony was given after Wilde’s death QI believes the ascription was plausible. Le Gallienne later wrote that the remark was made by Wilde in the presence of his wife, and she responded with incredulity.

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  1. 1907, The Writings of Oscar Wilde: Uniform Edition, Poems: Including Ravenna, the Ballad of Reading Gaol, the Sphinx, Etc, Section: Introduction by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by A. R. Keller & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link

Life Is Too Important To Be Taken Seriously

Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterton? H. L. Mencken? Sebastian Melmoth?

serious07Dear Quote Investigator: The following cryptic paradox has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:

Life is too important to be taken seriously.

Yet, I have not found this statement in Wilde’s plays or essays. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde did not write or say the precise quip listed above; however, he did write something that was similar. In 1883 Wilde’s first play titled “Vera; or, The Nihilists” was staged in New York; it was unsuccessful, and the production closed quickly.

In 1902 the text of the play was printed in a private limited edition. The work included a line that partially matched the jest, but it used the phrase “talk seriously” which shifted the semantics. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

COUNT R.: There seems to be nothing in life about which you would not jest.

PRINCE PAUL: Ah! my dear Count, life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.

Wilde apparently enjoyed this joke because he reused it in his successful comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which was staged in 1892 and published in 1893: 2

LADY WINDERMERE: Why do you talk so trivially about life, then?

LORD DARLINGTON: Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.

DUCHESS OF BERWICK: What does he mean? Do, as a concession to my poor wits, Lord Darlington, just explain to me what you really mean.

LORD DARLINGTON: I think I had better not, Duchess. Now-a-days to be intelligible is to be found out. Good-bye!

The phrasing used by Wilde was remembered incorrectly by some playgoers. For example, in 1902 the influential writer and critic G. K. Chesterton penned a book which included a reference to Wilde’s comedy, but Chesterton simplified the humorous line by removing the reference to “talk”. Chesterton’s altered version was close to the popular modern expression: 3

Thus the brilliant author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in the electric glare of modernity, finds that life is much too important to be taken seriously.

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  1. 1902, Vera; or, The Nihilists by Oscar Wilde, Act II, Quote Page 34, (Note in text: This Play was written in 1881, and is now published from the author’s own copy, showing his corrections of and additions to the original text), Privately Printed; Number 64 of 200 Copies. (Internet Archive) link
  2. 1893, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane at the Sign of the Bodley Head in Vigo Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  3. 1902, Robert Louis Stevenson by G. K. Chesterton and W. Robertson Nicoll, Part II: The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson, Start Page 9, Quote Page 20 and 21, Published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books Full View) link