Ralph Waldo Emerson? John Ruskin? Charles Kingsley? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Extraordinary scenes of beauty can uplift one’s spirit. The following remark is often attributed to the philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting.
I searched in a database of Emerson’s writings and was unable to locate this quotation. The words are sometimes credited to the influential art critic John Ruskin. Would you please examine the provenance of this expression?
Quote Investigator: In 1848 a new periodical called “Politics for the People” began to publish, and it included an article about the National Gallery in London. The authorship was cloaked by the pseudonym “Parson Lot”. Ultimately, the author was identified as Charles Kingsley, a member of the clergy who later became a Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge.
Kingsley believed that a gallery had the potential to brighten the lives of visitors by exposing them to lovely artworks: 1
Picture-galleries should be the workman’s paradise, and garden of pleasure, to which he goes to refresh his eyes and heart with beautiful shapes and sweet colouring, when they are wearied with dull bricks and mortar, and the ugly colourless things which fill the workshop and the factory.
Kingsley originated the quotation as a piece of advice to readers in this 1848 article. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
Those who live in towns should carefully remember this, for their own sakes, for their wives’ sakes, for their children’s sakes. Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful. Beauty is God’s hand-writing—a way-side sacrament; welcome it in every fair face, every fair sky, every fair flower, and thank for it Him, the fountain of all loveliness, and drink it in, simply and earnestly, with all your eyes; it is a charmed draught, a cup of blessing.
Over time this quotation has incorrectly been reassigned to other famous thinkers, e.g., Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ruskin. These misattributions have been in circulation for more than one hundred years. Details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Although the initial publication was under a pseudonym the passage was reprinted in later volumes collecting the works of Kingsley such as an 1873 edition titled “Selections from Some of the Writings of the Rev. C. Kingsley”. 2
In 1895 “A Nature Sermon” By Theodore F. Seward was printed in “The Outlook: A Family Paper”, and Seward attributed the remark about beauty to Ruskin. No first name was specified, but this was almost certainly a reference to John Ruskin, a prominent art critic of the 1800s: 3
Ruskin has given us one of his wise suggestions in the following words:
Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful. Beauty is God’s handwriting — a wayside sacrament: welcome it in every fair face, every fair sky, every fair flower…
In 1904 a teacher in New York City published a monograph about inspiring Manhattan children to love nature. She also attributed the remark about God’s handwriting to Ruskin: 4
Take this bit of advice from Ruskin: “Never lose an opportunity to see anything beautiful. Beauty is God’s handwriting.”
The linkage to Charles Kingsley was not forgotten. In 1905 a periodical called “School Work” published a collection of “Mottoes and Proverbs” that included an instance of the saying credited to Kingsley; however, the phrase “God’s handwriting” was changed to “God’s handiwork”: 5
Never lose an opportunity to see anything beautiful. Beauty is God’s handiwork.
In 1908 “A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations” was published by Tryon Edwards who included a version of the quotation under examination. The phrasing was altered, the passage was condensed, and the words were reassigned to the famous transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson: 6
Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting—a wayside sacrament.—Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.—Emerson.
In 1944 the compilation “What Is Truth” by Henry Powell Spring printed an instance in uppercase. The phrasing was comparable to that given in the 1908 citation, and the words were ascribed to Emerson: 7
NEVER LOSE AN OPPORTUNITY OF SEEING ANYTHING THAT IS BEAUTIFUL; FOR BEAUTY IS GOD’S HANDWRITING-A WAYSIDE SACRAMENT. WELCOME IT IN EVERY FAIR FACE, IN EVERY FAIR SKY, IN EVERY FAIR FLOWER, AND THANK GOD FOR IT AS A CUP OF BLESSING. —EMERSON.
In 1955 the “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes” by Jacob M. Braude ascribed the saying to Kingsley: 8
Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful. Beauty is God’s handwriting.
In conclusion, this quotation should be credited to Charles Kingsley, and the accurate version was given in the 1848 publication. Later attributions to Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ruskin have no substantive support and were mistaken.
Image Notes: Drawing of Charles Kingsley from Project Gutenberg via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of Mount Hood in Oregon from tpsdave at Pixabay. Handwriting/calligraphy image from ShirleyO at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Z who requested information about this saying.)
- 1848 May 6, Politics for the People, Number 1, “The National Gallery.—No. I.” by Parson Lot (Charles Kingsley), Start Page 5, Quote Page 5, Published by John W. Parker, West Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1873, Selections from Some of the Writings of the Rev. C. Kingsley, M.A. by Charles Kingsley, Section: Miscellaneous, Article: The National Gallery: Politics for the People, Start Page 361, Quote Page 362, Strahan and Company, Ludgate Hill, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1895 May 18, The Outlook: A Family Paper, Volume 51, Number 20, The American Defect: A Nature Sermon By Theodore F. Seward, Start Page 819, Quote Page 820, The Outlook Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1904 June, New York Teachers’ Monographs, How to Teach Children of the East-side to Love Nature: With Special Reference to the Lower Grammar Grades by Martha B. Bayles (P.S. 15 Manhattan), Start Page 65, Quote Page 69, New York Teachers’ Monographs Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- July 1905, School Work, Volume 4, Number 2, Mottoes and Proverbs Selected from Standard Sources of Literature and Arranged According to Grades (article continued from Vol. 4, No. 1 of School Work), Created by the teachers of P.S. 4 in Manhattan, Grade 6A, Start Page 196, Quote Page 200, Column 1, Published Quarterly by the Editor of School Work, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1908, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, Section: Beauty, Quote Page 37, column 1, Published by F. B. Dickerson Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1944, “What Is Truth” by (Henry) Powell Spring, Quote Page 367, The Orange Press, Winter Park, Florida. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1955, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes by Jacob M. Braude, Section: beauty, Quote Page 37, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper in third Printing of May 1956) ↩