Category Archives: Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Easy Reading Is Hard Writing

Maya Angelou? Nathaniel Hawthorne? Thomas Hood? Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Charles Allston Collins? Anthony Trollope? Lord Byron? William Makepeace Thackeray? Anonymous?

library11Dear Quote Investigator: Writers should strive to create texts that are informative, interesting, stimulating, and readable. But one of my favorite sayings reveals that this can be a remarkably difficult task:

Easy reading is damned hard writing.

I thought this adage was coined by the prominent author Maya Angelou, but recently I learned that she credited Nathaniel Hawthorne. Would you please explore this statement?

Quote Investigator: This topic is complicated by the existence of two complementary statements that are often confused. Many different versions of these statements have circulated over the years. Here are two expository instances:

1) Easy writing results in hard reading.
2) Easy reading requires hard writing.

An extended discussion of the first maxim is available under the title “Easy Writing’s Vile Hard Reading” located here. This entry will focus on the second maxim.

The earliest evidence of a strong match located by QI appeared in the London periodical “The Athenaeum” in 1837. The humorist, poet, and essayist Thomas Hood wrote a letter to the editor which was printed under the title “Copyright and Copywrong”. Hood commented on the process of writing. In the original text the word “damned” was partially censored to yield “d__d”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

And firstly, as to how he writes, upon which head there is a wonderful diversity of opinions; one thinks that writing is “as easy as lying,” and pictures the author sitting carefully at his desk “with his glove on,” like Sir Roger de Coverley’s poetical ancestor. A second holds that “the easiest reading is d__d hard writing,” and imagines Time himself beating his brains over an extempore.

Hood placed the adage between quotation marks suggesting that it was already in use. In fact, variant statements containing the phrases “hard reading” and “easy writing” were already being disseminated, and the expression probably evolved from those antecedents. Hence, apportioning credit for the formulation of this maxim is a difficult task.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1837 April 22, The Athenaeum: Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, Copyright and Copywrong, (Letter to the Editor of the Athenaeum from Thomas Hood), Start Page 285, Quote Page 286 and 287, Printed by James Holmes, London, Published at the Office of The Athenaeum, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Easy Writing’s Vile Hard Reading

Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Lord Byron? Ernest Hemingway? Anonymous?

reading15Dear Quote Investigator: There are two complementary and intertwined statements about reading and writing that I would like you to investigate:

1) Easy writing results in hard reading.
2) Easy reading requires hard writing.

Many different phrases have been used to express these two thoughts, and sometimes the phrases are confused with one another. The formulations above were selected to make the two concepts more straightforward. Here is my gloss of the first: If one composes a passage in an easygoing thoughtless manner then the result will be difficult to read. My gloss of the second is: One must work hard to compose a passage that a reader will be able to grasp readily.

Various well-known names have been connected to these adages including: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson, Maya Angelou, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hood, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ernest Hemingway, and Wallace Stegner. Would you please explore the provenance of these sayings?

Quote Investigator: This entry will focus on the first maxim listed above. A separate entry for the second maxim with the title “Easy Reading Is Hard Writing” is located here.

The prominent Irish poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan composed “Clio’s Protest or, the Picture Varnished” in 1771 and it was distributed in 1772. Sheridan’s name was not listed in the original publication which harshly satirized the efforts of a poetaster. The word “show” was spelled “shew” in the following excerpt: 1

You write with ease, to shew your breeding;
But easy writing’s vile hard reading.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. Year: 1772 (Date of introductory letter January 26, 1772), Title: The Rival Beauties; A Poetical Contest, Poem Information: Clio’s Protest; Or, The Picture Varnished, Addressed to The Honourable Lady M-rg-r-t F-rd-ce, Start Page: 5, Quote Page: 16, Imprint: London: Printed for W. Griffin, at Garrick’s Head, in Catharine-Street, Strand; and sold by R. Cruttwell, in St. James’s-Street, Bath, Database: ECCO Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Your Manuscript Is Good and Original, But What is Original Is Not Good; What Is Good Is Not Original

Samuel Johnson? Martin Sherlock? Johann Heinrich Voss? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Daniel Webster? Samuel Wilberforce?

samvoss10Dear Quote Investigator: The great lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson is credited with a famously devastating remark about a book he was evaluating:

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

I have never found a source for this quotation in the writings of Johnson, and I have become skeptical about this attribution. Do you know if he wrote this?

Quote Investigator: No substantive evidence has emerged to support the ascription to Samuel Johnson. In this article QI will trace the evolution of this saying and closely related expressions which have been attributed to a variety of prominent individuals. The following four statements have distinct meanings, but they can be clustered together semantically and syntactically.

What is new is not good; and what is good is not new.
What is new is not true; and what is true is not new.
What is original is not good; what is good is not original.
What is new is not valuable; what is valuable is not new.

The earliest evidence known to QI of a member of this cluster appeared in 1781 and was written by Reverend Martin Sherlock who was reviewing a popular collection of didactic letters published in book form. Lord Chesterfield composed the letters and sent them to his son with the goal of teaching him to become a man of the world and a gentleman. Sherlock was highly critical: 1

His principles of politeness are unexceptionable; and ought to be adopted by all young men of fashion; but they are known to every child in France; and are almost all translated from French books. In general, throughout the work, what is new is not good; and what is good is not new.

This expression was similar to the one attributed to Samuel Johnson. The word “new” was used instead of “original”. Yet, this passage did not include the humorous prefatory phrase which would have labeled the work “both new and good” before deflating it.

In the 1790s a German version of the saying using “new” and “true” was published in a collection by the translator and poet Johann Heinrich Voss. This instance did include a prefatory phrase stating that the “book teaches many things new and true”: 2 3

Dein redseliges Buch lehrt mancherlei Neues und Wahres,
Wäre das Wahre nur neu, wäre das Neue nur wahr!

Here is an English translation:

Your garrulous book teaches many things new and true,
If only the true were new, if only the new were true!

In 1800 a reviewer in “The British Critic” lambasted a book using a version of the brickbat with “new” and “good”: 4

In this part there are some good and some new things; but the good are not new, and the new are not good. Much time is employed in considering the opinion of the poet du Belloy, at present forgotten and of little consequence, who professed to prefer the French to the ancient languages.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1781, Letters on Several Subjects by The Rev. Martin Sherlock [Chaplain to the Right Honourable The Earl of Bristol], Volume 2, Letter XIV, Start Page 123, Quote Page 128 and 129, Printed for J. Nichols, T. Cadell, P. Elmsly, H. Payne and N. Conant, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1796, Gedichte, Johann Heinrich Voss, Volume 2, Section: Epigramme [Epigrams], (Standalone short saying titled “XVI: An mehrere Bücher” [16: Of several Books]), Quote Page 281, Frankfurt und Leipzig. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Harold MacMillan, Quote Page 305 and 306, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) (This reference gives the following citation for the J. H. Voss quotation: Vossischer Musenalmanach (1792; some references give a date of 1772 which appears to be inaccurate)
  4. 1800 June, The British Critic, Foreign Catalogue: France, Article 56: (Review of Book: Lycée, ou, Cours de littérature ancienne et moderne, Book Author: J. F. Laharpe [Jean-Francois de La Harp]), Start Page 695, Quote Page 696, Printed for F. and C. Rivington, London. (Google Books full view) link

The Only Unnatural Sex Act Is That Which One Cannot Perform

Alfred Kinsey? Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Xaviera Hollander? William Burroughs? Sigmund Freud? Anonymous?

kinsey02Dear Quote Investigator: Years ago I read a statement credited to the researcher Alfred Kinsey who was famous for producing the Kinsey Reports on sexual behavior. I do not remember the exact phrasing but the expression was similar to this:

The only unnatural act is one you cannot perform.

Kinsey’s book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” was released in 1948, and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” was published in 1953. Both of these books were very controversial when they were published. I looked through them but was unable to find the quotation. Could you explore this saying?

Quote Investigator:  A precursor to this statement appeared in a satirical comedy by the prominent Irish playwright and poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1779. “The Critic: or, A Tragedy Rehearsed” was first performed in London, and it included the following line in Act 2, Scene 1:

Certainly nothing is unnatural that is not physically impossible.

This statement appeared within the comedy when a character named Puff was explaining the plot of another play which contained a love match between two characters of different nationalities: 1 2

SNEER. No scandal about Queen Elizabeth, I hope?
PUFF. O Lud! no, no.—I only suppose the Governor of Tilbury Fort’s daughter to be in love with the son of the Spanish admiral.
SNEER. Oh, is that all?
DANGLE. Excellent, Efaith!—I see it at once.—But won’t this appear rather improbable?
PUFF. To be sure it will—but what the plague! a play is not to shew occurrences that happen every day, but things just so strange, that tho’ they never did, they might happen.
SNEER. Certainly nothing is unnatural, that is not physically impossible.

QI has not yet located the statement in a work written by Alfred Kinsey. The earliest evidence known to QI of a close match appeared in 1963 in an article in the Mattachine Review by Harold L. Call who was President of the Mattachine Society. The words were credited to Alfred Kinsey: 3

I suggest that the varied forms of sexual behavior are simply a part of nature. I urge others to regard them so. I remember Dr. Kinsey once said that the only unnatural sex act is that which one cannot perform. Then let’s start accepting the fact, and chuck into the rubbish can a lot of the prudish nonsense the anti-sexualists are feeding us.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1781, “The Critic Or a Tragedy Rehearsed: A Dramatic Piece in Three Acts as it is performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Quote Page 49, Printed for T. Becket, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. Oxford Reference Online, Quick Reference: The Critic by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Information from The Oxford Dictionary of Plays, Entry: The Critic, Oxford University Press. (Accessed oxfordreference.com on March 20, 2013)
  3. 1963 August, Mattachine Review, Volume 9, Number 8, The Hypocrisy of Sexual Morality by Harold L. Call, Start Page 4, Quote Page 12, Published by the Mattachine Society, San Francisco, California. (Reprint edition from Arno Press, New York, 1975) (Verified with scans; thanks to Stephen Goranson and Duke University library system)