Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterton? H. L. Mencken? Sebastian Melmoth?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following cryptic paradox has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:
Life is too important to be taken seriously.
Yet, I have not found this statement in Wilde’s plays or essays. Would you please examine its provenance?
Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde did not write or say the precise quip listed above; however, he did write something that was similar. In 1883 Wilde’s first play titled “Vera; or, The Nihilists” was staged in New York; it was unsuccessful, and the production closed quickly.
In 1902 the text of the play was printed in a private limited edition. The work included a line that partially matched the jest, but it used the phrase “talk seriously” which shifted the semantics. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
COUNT R.: There seems to be nothing in life about which you would not jest.
PRINCE PAUL: Ah! my dear Count, life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
Wilde apparently enjoyed this joke because he reused it in his successful comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which was staged in 1892 and published in 1893: 2
LADY WINDERMERE: Why do you talk so trivially about life, then?
LORD DARLINGTON: Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
DUCHESS OF BERWICK: What does he mean? Do, as a concession to my poor wits, Lord Darlington, just explain to me what you really mean.
LORD DARLINGTON: I think I had better not, Duchess. Now-a-days to be intelligible is to be found out. Good-bye!
The phrasing used by Wilde was remembered incorrectly by some playgoers. For example, in 1902 the influential writer and critic G. K. Chesterton penned a book which included a reference to Wilde’s comedy, but Chesterton simplified the humorous line by removing the reference to “talk”. Chesterton’s altered version was close to the popular modern expression: 3
Thus the brilliant author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in the electric glare of modernity, finds that life is much too important to be taken seriously.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1905 a book titled “Sebastian Melmoth”, a pseudonym used by Wilde, printed a collection of sayings and passages. Here were three examples: 4
If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.
Why do you talk so trivially about life? Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
What a pity that in life we only get our lessons when they are of no use to us.
In 1907 a monthly published in Sydney, Australia called “The Lone Hand” printed a collection of “Wit from Wilde” that included the following three items. This instance of the jest did not include the final “it”: 5
Arguments are to be avoided; they are always vulgar and often convincing.
Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.
Never speak disrespectfully of society. Only people who can’t get into it do that.
In 1909 G. K. Chesterton published “The Ball and the Cross” and included an instance of the simplified saying which he indirectly credited to Wilde: 6
Those who look at the matter most superficially regard paradox as something which belongs to jesting and light journalism. Paradox of this kind is to be found in the saying of the dandy, in the decadent comedy, “Life is much too important to be taken seriously.”
In 1910 a column in a religious periodical in Salt Lake City, Utah printed an instance of the adage that was attributed to Chesterton: 7
“Well,” returned the prelate, “just on general principles it reminds me of a paragraph I read in Chesterton, the London News man. It is something about life being too important and serious to be taken seriously. Chesterton is a brilliant fellow.
In 1932 a newspaper in Newport, Rhode Island linked the simplified saying to an unnamed editor: 8
“Life,” said a wise editor once, “is too important to be taken too seriously.”
In 1942 scholar and satirist H. L. Mencken released his opus “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources” which included an entry for Wilde’s epigram with the final “it” deleted: 9
Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.
OSCAR WILDE: Lady Windermere’s Fan, II, 1892
In 1967 a syndicated television critic mentioned an instance that matched the one given by the questioner; no attribution was given: 10
Covering television, one collects trivia. In fact, that is virtually all one collects. But it makes the work bearable. For, as has been said, life is too important to be taken seriously.
In 1975 a columnist in a Naples, Florida newspaper linked Wilde to a variant of the saying: 11
Some things, Oscar Wilde once remarked, are too important to be taken seriously.
In 1977 a Pittsfield, Massachusetts newspaper ascribed an instance to Wilde: 12
The very essence of Wilde’s style, both in his life and in his art, was an elaborate, studied refusal to be serious. Life, in his opinion, was too important to be taken seriously.
In conclusion, Oscar Wilde included two slightly different versions of this jest in his two plays “Vera; or, The Nihilists” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. But both versions included the phrase “talk seriously about it”.
A simplified version was popularized and incorrectly attributed to Wilde by G. K. Chesterton starting in 1902. Other variants have evolved over time, and QI believes that Wilde was the primordial source of this family of sayings.
Image Notes: Triptych from Ana_J at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Michael Denny whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1902, Vera; or, The Nihilists by Oscar Wilde, Act II, Quote Page 34, (Note in text: This Play was written in 1881, and is now published from the author’s own copy, showing his corrections of and additions to the original text), Privately Printed; Number 64 of 200 Copies. (Internet Archive) link ↩
- 1893, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane at the Sign of the Bodley Head in Vigo Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1902, Robert Louis Stevenson by G. K. Chesterton and W. Robertson Nicoll, Part II: The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson, Start Page 9, Quote Page 20 and 21, Published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1905, Sebastian Melmoth [Oscar Wilde], Quote Page 7, Published by Arthur L. Humphreys, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1907 September 2, The Lone Hand: An Illustrated Monthly, Wit from Wilde, Quote Page xlii (42), Printed and Published by William Macleod for “The Bulletin” Newspaper Company, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1909, The Ball and the Cross, Gilbert K. Chesterton, Quote Page 16, John Lane Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1910 September 17, The Intermountain Catholic, Archbishop Glennon and the Fashions, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1932 February 5, Newport Mercury and Weekly News, Laugh at Yourself, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Newport, Rhode Island. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Life, Quote Page 693, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1967 June 30, The Childress Index, Television in Review by Rick Du Brow (United Press International), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Childress, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1975 April 3, Naples Daily News, Along The Trail by Tony Weitzel, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Naples, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1977 August 19, The Berkshire Eagle, ‘Gay’ is a misnomer by John H. Rice, Quote Page 17, Column 1, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩