Category Archives: Samuel Wilberforce

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

Thank You for the Gift Book. I Shall Lose No Time In Reading It

Benjamin Disraeli? William Gladstone? William Makepeace Thackeray? Moses Hadas? A celebrated botanist? A Scotchman? Thomas Bailey Aldrich? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.? Samuel Wilberforce? Max O’Rell?

disraeliholmes04Dear Quote Investigator: Aspiring authors sent numerous manuscripts to the statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli. Reportedly, he would send back a wittily ambiguous response:

Many thanks; I shall lose no time in reading it.

This statement might mean that Disraeli would immediately start to read the volume, or it might mean that he would never read the book. A similar response has been credited to William Makepeace Thackeray. Also, I have seen the following variant phrasing:

Your book has arrived, and I shall waste no time reading it.

Could you determine who is responsible for this type of quip?

Quote Investigator: This amusing remark has been attributed to a large and varied collection of individuals over the past 140 years including: French comedian Max O’Rell, author William Makepeace Thackeray, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, statesman Benjamin Disraeli, and his opposition William Gladstone.

First, QI notes that the phrase can be used in a straight-forward manner without a comical overlay. For example, a letter dated September 11, 1784 from the poet William Cowper used the phrase with the assumption that the text would indeed be read quickly: 1

I know that you will lose no time in reading it, but I must beg you likewise to lose none in conveying it to Johnson, that if he chuses to print it, it may go to the press immediately…

The earliest instance located by QI of an individual wielding the phrase with a humorous intent appeared in an 1871 issue of the British Quarterly Review. The quipster was identified as a botanist, but no name was given: 2

A celebrated botanist used to return thanks somewhat in the following form:—’I have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it.’ The unfortunate author might put his own construction on this rather ambiguous language.

In 1883 a travel book titled “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” printed the joke and referred to it as “the old equivoque”. The word “equivoque” meant a pun or a phrase with a double meaning: 3

…they may adopt the old equivoque—”We have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it!”

Also, in 1883 the witticism was printed in the science periodical Nature. The context was an article critical of testimonial letters which clearly indicated that the saying was being used sarcastically. The phrase was called a “well-known formula”: 4

Many testimonials are framed after that well-known formula for acknowledging the receipt of pamphlets which runs as follows:—”Dear Sir,—I beg to thank you for the valuable pamphlet which you have so kindly sent me, and which I will lose no time in reading.” And I heard the other day a testimonial praised because it showed the electors whom not to elect.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1805, The Port – Folio (1801-1827), Volume 5, Issue 45, Original Letters from Cowper to the Rev. William Unwin, Page 354, (Letter to Rev. William Unwin dated September 11, 1784), Published by H. Maxwell, Philadelphia. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  2. 1871 October 1, The British Quarterly Review, Article V, Letters and Letter Writing, Start Page 392, Quote Page 411, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1883, “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” by J. Fox Turner [John Fox Turner], Section: Preface, Quote Page vii, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., London. (Google Books full view; Thanks to Victor Steinbok for locating this citation) link
  4. 1883 August 9, Nature (Weekly), A Result of our Testimonial System, Start Page 341, Quote Page 342, Column 1, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view; HathiTrust) link

Darwinism: Let Us Hope It is Not True, But If It is, Let Us Pray It Does Not Become Widely Known

Wife of the Bishop of Worcester? Wife of the Bishop of Birmingham? Wife of Samuel Wilberforce? Wife of an English Canon? A Decorous Spinster? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a remarkable quotation that dramatically highlights the controversial intersection between science and religion in the nineteenth century. The words were attributed to a Bishop’s wife in an anecdote in the book “Origins” by the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey and the science writer Roger Lewin: 1

On hearing, one June afternoon in 1860, the suggestion that mankind was descended from the apes, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester is said to have exclaimed, ‘My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.’ As it turns out, she need not have been quite so worried: we are not descended from the apes, though we do share a common ancestor with them. Even though the distinction may have been too subtle to offer her much comfort, it is nevertheless important.

This mordant tale has always deeply impressed me. So, I was rather confused when I came across another version of the anecdote from Nicholas Humphrey, a Professor at the London School of Economics: 2

When, in the 1880s, the Bishop of Birmingham’s wife received information that Charles Darwin was claiming that human beings were descended from monkeys, she is reported to have said to her husband, ‘My dear, let us hope it is not true; but, if it is true, let us hope it will not become generally known.’

Worcester or Birmingham? 1860 or 1880s? Could you resolve these discrepancies and find the historically accurate version of this quote? My research only left me more puzzled.

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this popular, colorful, and didactic tale is apocryphal. When QI began exploring this quotation he quickly located another inconsistent version of the story in a book titled “The Altruistic Species” which mentions “the famous response of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s wife upon learning of Darwin’s theory: ‘Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us hope it does not become widely known'”. 3

Samuel Wilberforce was a well-known orator who engaged in a famous debate concerning evolution at Oxford. He was the Bishop of Oxford and then of Winchester, but he was never the Bishop of Worcester or Birmingham. 4

Charles Darwin’s monumental work On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. QI has located no evidence for the existence of this quotation in the 1860s, 1870s, or 1880s. The earliest citation known to QI appeared in an 1893 text titled “Verbum Dei: The Yale Lectures on Preaching”. In this volume a variant of the quote appeared within a lecture written by a British pastor named Robert Forman Horton. The words were attributed to a spinster and not to a married woman: 5

The Church swarms with people who have no spiritual sinew, and whose lungs cannot breathe the invigorating air of Truth: they take up the cry of that timid and decorous spinster who, on hearing an exposition of the Darwinian theory that men are descended from apes, said, “Let us hope it is not true, or if it is, let us hush it up.”

QI believes that this basic anecdote was incrementally transformed over many decades to generate multiple modern instantiations of the story. The details of these tales change over time, but they do not appear to be based on firm historical evidence.

Conceivably there exists a diary entry or newspaper account that is contemporaneous with the 1860s or 1880s, but QI has not yet found it. None of the modern accounts examined by QI provide citations to data of the relevant period. The preponderance of evidence indicates that current narratives for this tale have been heavily fictionalized.

Here is a selected subset of citations arranged in chronological order.
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Notes:

  1. 1977, Origins: What New Discoveries Reveal About the Emergence of our Species and Its Possible Future by Richard E. Leakey and Roger Lewin, Page 21, E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1996 (UK Publish 1995), Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation by Nicholas Humphrey, Page 7, BasicBooks Division of HarperCollins, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2007, The Altruistic Species: Scientific, Philosophical, and Religious Perspectives of Human Benevolence” by Andrew Michael Flescher and Daniel L. Worthen, Page 130, Templeton Foundation Press, Philadelphia and London. (Verified on paper)
  4. 2006, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church Ed. E. A. Livingstone, “Wilberforce, Samuel”, Oxford University Press. (Oxford Reference Online; Accessed 2011 February 7)
  5. 1893, Verbum Dei: The Yale Lectures on Preaching by Robert Forman Horton, Lecture IV: The Bible and the Word of God, Page 132, Macmillan and Co., New York and London. (Google Books full view) link