Mark Twain? George Roemisch? Sophia May Eckley? Ella A. Giles? Elizabeth Reeves Humphreys? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following evocative metaphorical definition of forgiveness is often attributed to Mark Twain:
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.
But I have seen the quotation below credited to someone named George Roemisch in the popular advice column “Dear Abby”:
Forgiveness is the fragrance of the violet which still clings fast to the heel that crushed it.
I find this example of figurative speech fascinating. Is the ascription to Twain accurate? Would you explore the history of this type of saying?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said or wrote this statement. It is not listed on the TwainQuotes.com website edited by Barbara Schmidt, an important reference tool for checking expressions ascribed to the humorist. Also, it does not appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”. The unsupported linkage to Twain was printed in newspapers by the 1970s. See details further below.
This metaphor does have a very long history and a variety of plants with aromas have been substituted into its framework. In 1794 a prominent scholar of ancient India and languages named Sir William Jones delivered a lecture titled “The Philosophy of the Asiaticks”.
Jones discussed the topic of forgiveness and its figurative representation in a work he credited to a pandit. The sandalwood tree has a close-grained wood that is prized for its long-lasting fragrance. In the following passage the destructive force was provided by an axe and not a foot: 1
…the beautiful Aryá couplet, which was written at least three centuries before our era, and which pronounces the duty of a good man, even in the moment of his destruction to consist not only in forgiving, but even in a desire of benefiting, his destroyer, as the Sandal-tree, in the instant of its overthrow, sheds perfume on the axe, which fells it…
An 1812 a book by Reverend Charles Colton discussed forgiveness and employed the same metaphor while citing the words of Sir William Jones in a footnote. Colton presented a “sandal-tree” as an example of a plant which had been “wronged” but reacted with “forgiveness” and “kindness”: 2
The falling Sandal-Tree sheds fragrance round,
Perfumes the axe that fells it to the ground;
Some through their tortured trunks a balm supply,
And to give life to their destroyer—die;
In 1845 a poem titled “Father! Forgive Them!” used the symbol of a “floweret” which had been crushed beneath a foot to represent forgiveness. The overall context of the work was Christian: 3
“Father, forgive them!” As a floweret fair,
When crushed beneath some rude and careless tread,
Breathes forth its fragrance on the balmy air,
Regaling him who hath its beauties shed
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1847 a Sunday School lesson included rhyming verse that was based on the sandalwood tree example: 4
The sandal-tree perfumes, when riven,
The axe that laid it low;
Let him who hopes to be forgiven,
Forgive and bless his foe.
In 1848 the verse above was attributed to the “Persian poet Sadi”, but this ascription may have been based on a misreading of the lecture by Jones who mentioned Sadi but credited him with different words unrelated to the sandalwood tree: 5
FORGIVENESS.—One of the most beautiful gems of oriental literature is contained in a passage from the Persian poet Sadi, quoted by Sir William Jones, the sentiment of which is embodied in the following lines:—
The sandal-tree perfumes, when riven,
The axe that laid it low;
Let man who hopes to be forgiven,
Forgive and bless his foe.
In 1855 a metaphor employing trampled flowers appeared in a journal called “The Sacred Circle” which contained articles about spiritualism: 6
Forgiveness is the perfume which flowers give when trampled upon.
In 1863 a “poor mute” was credited with an instance of the figurative statement based on “a bruised flower”: 7
There is poetry in the answer of the poor mute, who, when asked for a definition of forgiveness, wrote on his slate, “Forgiveness is the fragrance which a bruised flower yields to him who tramples on it.” There is poetry, too, in the explanation which some one has given of the simple Christian precept, “Love your enemies.” He who loves his enemies is like “the sandal-tree, which sheds a perfume on the axe that fells it.”
In 1869 the poet Sophia May Eckley employed a geranium in her verse to illustrate forgiveness: 8
A Rose Geranium Sings
You may crush us and break us at will,
But forgiveness may hide in a grief;
Forgiveness! sweet unction of fragrance,
Bruised from a geranium leaf.
In 1890 the poem “Forgiveness” by the poet Ella A. Giles appeared in a compilation titled “Local and National Poets of America”: 9
Forgiveness is the fragrance, rare and sweet,
That flowers yield when trampled on by feet
That reckless tread the tender, teeming earth;
For blossoms crushed and bleeding yet give birth
To pardon’s perfume; from the stern decrees
Of unforgiveness. Nature ever flees.
In 1898 a Sunday School lesson plan credited a “little blind girl” with an instance of the metaphor: 10
Let the children tell you what they understand forgiveness to be. A little blind girl when asked what she thought it means said, “It is the fragrance of a flower after it is crushed!”
In 1916 a short item in “The Judge” magazine credited a “blind Indiana child’ with an instance of the popular saying that employed a violet: 11
If, as a blind Indiana child once wrote, “forgiveness is the perfume of the violet on the heel that crushed it,” gratitude may safely be characterized as the perfume of the rose on the hand that caressed it.
In 1935 an instance of the saying with a violet appeared in the syndicated newspaper column of O. O. McIntyre: 12
A recently headlined gentleman, unjustly bruised, sends this definition of forgiveness: “The fragrance of a violet lingering on the heel that crushed it.”
In 1954 “Think” the magazine of the International Business Machines Corporation printed a poem by Elizabeth Reeves Humphreys titled “The Fragrance of Forgiveness”. Here is an excerpt featuring a hyacinth: 13
Think on this saying from the East:
“Forgiveness is the fragrance
Of a trampled hyacinth.”
Repaying injury with the sweetness
Of a crushed flower.
In 1965 the widely distributed advice column “Dear Abby” printed the saying. The columnist Abigail Van Buren, a pen name, would reprint the statement several times in the upcoming years: 14
Confidential to Wronged in Fort Worth: Forgiveness is the fragrance of a violet on the heel of the one who crushed it.
By 1971 the saying had been reassigned to Mark Twain. An advertisement section called “Shop with Sue” in a Spokane, Washington newspaper printed the text below. The section contained more than a dozen adages, quips, and quotations most of which were unattributed: 15
Forgiveness: The fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. —Twain.
In 1973 the saying was linked to Mark Twain again. This time a syndicated columnist named Hal Boyle actually credited the phrase to “an asylum inmate”: 16
It was Mark Twain (quoting an asylum inmate) who observed, “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
In 1981 “Dear Abby” printed a note from “Donna Smith in the Bronx” who asserted that the statement about a crushed violet was contained in a poem by a schoolmate named George Roemisch. Smith sent the full poem to Abigail Van Buren who immediately published a section. In a later column the full poem was printed. Also, in future columns Roemisch was credited: 17
DEAR ABBY: You told ANONYMOUS in a recent column to resolve her anger, and then you quoted a line from a poem that was written by George Roemisch, a former schoolmate of mine. The quote: “Forgiveness is the fragrance of the violet on the heel of the one who crushed it.” That is only part of his poem titled “Forgiveness,” which I am enclosing in its entirety.
In conclusion, the metaphorical framework has an extensive history. The earliest examples known to QI were based on the sandalwood tree and an axe. In 1844 an instance with a floweret crushed by a “careless tread” was published. Multiple poets have been attracted to this imagery, and flowers such as geraniums, hyacinths, and violets have been featured in verses.
There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain crafted this metaphor. Poems using this symbolism are following a well-trodden flower-filled path. Please be careful where you step.
(Great thanks to Pamela Thompson whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to construct this question. In addition, Thompson identified the interesting 1916 citation. Thanks also to “eagle pelican” @pelicaneagle who asked about this saying.)
- 1807, The Works of Sir William Jones in Thirteen Volumes, Volume 3, Discourse The Eleventh on The Philosophy of the Asiaticks, (Lecture delivered on February 20, 1794), Start Page 229, Quote Page 243, Printed for John Stockdale and John Walker, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1812, Hypocrisy: A Satire, in Three Books: Book the First by Rev. C. Colton (Charles Caleb Colton), Quote Page 235 to 237, Printed and Sold by T. Smith, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1845 August 2, The Literary Museum: A Repository of the Useful and Entertaining, Volume 2, Number 15, “Father! Forgive Them!”, (Acknowledgement: From “The Covenant”), Quote Page 116, Column 3, Published by John B. Hall & Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1847, Second Series of Scripture Outlines: Comprising an Arrangement of Sunday Lessons on the Epistles and Gospels by John Montagu Randall, Third Sunday After Epiphany: Notes, Quote Page 19, Seeley, Burnside, and Seeley, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1848 July 8, The Literary American, Edited by G. P. Quackenbos, Volume 1, Number 1, Forgiveness, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Published by A. J. Townsend, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1855, The Sacred Circle, Edited by Judge Edmunds, Dr. Dexter, and O. G. Warren, Volume 1, Quote Page 410, Partridge & Brittan, New York. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1863, Miscellaneous Writings: Addresses, Lectures and Reviews by Joseph G. Hoyt, Section: Percy Bysshe Shelley, (Book review of “The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley”), Start Page 173, Quote Page 187, Crosby and Nichols, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1869, Minor Chords by Sophia May Eckley, (Collection of Poetry), The Flower Chorus, Start Page 203, Quote Page 209, Bell and Daldy, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1890, Local and National Poets of America: With Interesting Biographical Sketches, Edited and Compiled under the supervision of Thomas W. Herringshaw, Section: Ella A. Giles: (Born in Wisconsin on February 2, 1851), Poem: Forgiveness, Start Page 118, Quote Page 118, Column 2, American Publishers’ Association, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1898 April, Sunday School Journal for Teachers, Volume 30, Number 4, (Lesson IV: April 24), Start Page 254, Quote Page 255, Column 2, Eaton & Mains, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1916 January 8, The Judge, Volume 70, Definition Elaborated, Unnumbered Page, Published by Leslie Judge Company, New York. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1935 November 28, Greensboro Record, New York Day by Day by O. O. McIntyre, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1954 March, Think, Volume 20, Poetry, Quote Page 31, International Business Machines Corp., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1965 March 30, Plain Dealer, Dear Abby: Wants a Big-hearted Man by Abigail Van Buren, Quote Page 21, Column 7, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1971 September 16, Spokesman-Review, Advertisement: Shop with Sue, Quote Page 3, Column 6, Spokane, Washington. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1973 March 6, State Times Advocate, Reporter’s Notebook: Vampire Bats Are No Myth by Hal Boyle, Quote Page 8-A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1981 June 17, Times-Picayune, Dear Abby: ID tags spell the difference between lost, found by Abigail Van Buren, (Note from Donna Smith in the Bronx), Section: 3, Quote Page 5, (The original newspaper image has “violent” instead of “violet”), New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩