What Is Written Without Effort Is In General Read Without Pleasure

Samuel Johnson? Apocryphal?

johnson09Dear Quote Investigator: Whenever I experience difficulties while writing I recall a remark attributed to Samuel Johnson that is both cautionary and encouraging:

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.

I have not been able to find this statement in a book written by Johnson or by his biographer James Boswell. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: Samuel Johnson died in 1784, and the earliest known evidence linking him to this adage was published fifteen years after his demise. An industrious collector of anecdotes named William Seward released “Biographiana” in 1799. This two volume work of short biographical sketches contained an entry for a translator known as Abbé Marolles who was criticized by Seward for the poor quality of his translations and verses. A footnote within the entry attributed the saying under investigation to Johnson: 1

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”—Dr. Johnson.

Interestingly, an important precursor of this adage was published many years earlier in 1764 when “The Scots Magazine” published a biographical profile of the poet and satirist Charles Churchill. The work “The Prophecy of Famine” was a great success for Churchill, and the author of the profile contended that his subsequent poems were of low quality. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

(The Prophecy of Famine) had accordingly a rapid and extensive sale; and it was often asserted by his admirers that Mr Churchill was a better poet than Mr Pope. This exaggerated adulation, as it had before corrupted his morals, now began to impair his mind: several succeeding pieces were published, which, being written without effort, are read without pleasure.

The above critical expression was applied to a specific set of poems, and syntactically it did not precisely fit the form of an adage. Nevertheless, the conversion of the phrase into an adage would have been effortless. The writer of the words above was not listed in the magazine.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1772 a three volume edition of “The Poetical Works of Charles Churchill” was released with a prefatory short biographical section based on the text in “The Scots Magazine”; hence, the passage above was further disseminated. 3

In 1781 “The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets” by Samuel Johnson was published, and the first poet profiled was Alexander Pope. Johnson noted that Pope wrote some works that were designed to imitate the famous Roman poet Horace, but Johnson felt those pieces were inferior. In the following passage Johnson employed a concise adage that semantically overlapped the saying under investigation: 4

The Imitations of Horace seem to have been written as relaxations of his genius. This employment became his favourite by its facility; the plan was ready to his hand, and nothing was required but to accommodate as he could the sentiments of an old author to recent facts or familiar images; but what is easy is seldom excellent

In 1793 an edition of “The Poetical Works of Charles Churchill” from “John Bell Bookseller to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales” was released, and the phrasing from 1772 was slightly altered: 5

. . . several succeeding pieces were published, which being written without effort were read without pleasure.

In 1799 “Biographiana” by William Seward was released, and as noted previously the adage was printed and attributed to Samuel Johnson: 6

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”—Dr. Johnson.

In 1897 a compilation titled “Johnsonian Miscellanies” edited by George Birkbeck was published. The maxim was attributed to Samuel Johnson, but the supporting reference note simply pointed to the 1799 instance in “Biographiana”: 7

‘What is written without effort (said Dr. Johnson) is in general read without pleasure.’ Ib. p. 260.

In 1949 the “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” selected by Burton Stevenson included the saying and credited Johnson. The supporting reference note pointed to the 1897 instance in “Johnsonian Miscellanies “: 8

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
SAMUEL JOHNSON, Miscellanies. Vol. II, p. 309.

Three important modern references list the saying with an ascription to Samuel Johnson: “The Yale Book of Quotations”, 9 “Oxford Dictionary of Quotations”, 10 and “The Times Book of Quotations”, 11 All three works point to the 1799 book listed above.

In conclusion, QI believes that the evidentiary support for the ascription to Samuel Johnson is not very strong because the earliest linkage occurred rather late after the death of Johnson. In addition, some credit should be apportioned to the unidentified author of the 1764 magazine piece. On the other hand, QI encountered no other individuals with substantive ascriptions during this exploration.

The reader may be interested in another similar saying “Easy writing’s vile hard reading” analyzed here.

Image Notes: Picture of bust of Samuel Johnson by Joseph Nollekens at the Yale Center for British Art obtained via Wikimedia Commons. Hand writing from ShirleyO at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Laurelyn Collins and Eric Feezell whose inquiries led QI to initiate three explorations of interlinked sayings. Special thanks to Frank Lynch proprietor of a valuable Samuel Johnson quotation website who pointed out the relevance of Johnson’s remark: “what is easy is seldom excellent”.)

Notes:

  1. 1799, Biographiana, “By the Compiler of Anecdotes of Distinguished Person”, (William Seward), Footnote, Quote Page 260, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1764 December, The Scots Magazine, Volume 26, Memoirs of Mr Charles Churchill, Start Page 649, Quote Page 651, Printed for W. Sands, A Murray, and J Cochran, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1772, The Poetical Works of Charles Churchill, Complete, In Three Volumes, Volume 1, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Mr. Charles Churchill (From the Annual Register), Start Page i, Quote Page xi, Printed for J. Wilkes in the Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1781, The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; With Critical Observations on Their Works by Samuel Johnson, Volume 4, Pope, Start Page 1, Quote Page 206, Printed for C. Bathurst, J. Buckland, W. Strahan, and more, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1793, Bell’s Edition” The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill, The Poetical Works of Charles Churchill With the Life of the Author, In Three Volumes, Volume 1, The Life of Charles Churchill, Start Page v, Quote Page xii, Printed under the direction of John Bell, Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1799, Biographiana, “By the Compiler of Anecdotes of Distinguished Person” (William Seward), Entry for: Abbe Marolles, Footnote, Quote Page 260, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1897, Johnsonian Miscellanies, Arranged and edited by George Birkbeck, Volume 2 of 2, Section: Anecdotes by William Seward, F.R.S., Quote Page 309, Section: Dicta Philosophi, Quote Page 517, Published by Oxford, Printed at the Clarendon Press, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Section: Writing, Quote Page 2254, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org)
  9. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Samuel Johnson, Quote Page 405, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  10. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 8th Edition, Editor Elizabeth Knowles, Entry: Samuel Johnson 1709-1784, Oxford Reference Online, Print Publication Date: 2014, Published Online: 2014, Oxford University Press. (Accessed November 6, 2014)
  11. 2000, The Times Book of Quotations, Section: Samuel Johnson, Quote Page 770, HarperCollins, Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Verified on paper)