Edna St. Vincent Millay? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: You have already examined the following mordant saying:
Life is just one damned thing after another.
Apparently, the prominent poet Edna St. Vincent Millay disagreed, and she offered her own alternative trenchant analysis of life. Here are three versions:
It’s one damn thing over and over.
It’s the same thing over and over again.
It’s the same damn thing over and over.
Would you please examine this saying?
Quote Investigator: Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a letter dated October 24, 1930 to friend and fellow poet Arthur Davison Ficke. She complained about her recurrent bouts of sickness: 1
It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another—it’s one damn thing over & over—there’s the rub—first you get sick—then you get sicker—then you get not quite so sick—then you get hardly sick at all—then you get a little sicker . . .
Although the letter was written in 1930 it was only released to the general public in 1952 with the publication of “Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay” edited by Allan Ross Macdougall.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Please note that QI has also examined another related saying: “History is just one damned thing after another”. The webpage is here.
In January and February 1931 several U.S. newspapers printed a short filler item that contrasted the two acerbic statements about repetition within life. The “Atlanta Constitution” paper often was acknowledged: 2
Be glad that life is just “one thing after another.” It would be frightful if it were “the same thing over and over again.”—Atlanta Constitution.
In 1934 a syndicated columnist named Dr. Joseph Fort Newton combined the two sayings into a single downbeat assessment: 3
For most of us most of the time life is a rather dun-colored affair. The grind of a machine age is in our ears. There is little wine of ecstasy, little adventure, just dull drab routine.
Just one thing after another, and, alas, it is the same thing over and over again, until the monotony irks us to madness. It needs, almost more than anything else, something to redeem it from a terrible tedium.
In 1962 a biography titled “Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay” by Miriam Gurko was published. The author mentioned the letter and presented a bowdlerized version with both occurrences of the word “damn” omitted: 4
And yet, with all her successes, there were periods when Edna felt depressed and helpless and ill. She suffered a great deal from poor health, and time after time some plan had to be abandoned or postponed because of an attack of flu or grippe. In a letter to Arthur Ficke she writes that life isn’t one thing after another, it’s the same thing over and over, “. . . first you get sick—then you get sicker—then you get not quite so sick—then you get hardly sick at all—then you get a little sicker—then you get a lot sicker. . . .”
In 1964 the syndicated columnist Hal Boyle printed a largely accurate instance credited to Millay: 5
It was Edna St. Vincent Millay who observed, “It is not true that life is one damn thing after another — it’s one damn thing over and over.”
In 1968 “20,000 Quips and Quotes” by Evan Esar included the saying above and ascribed the words to Millay. 6
In 1970 an unhappy pair of writers in “Billboard” magazine complained about the behavior of young people at music concerts and employed an unattributed instance of the saying: 7
What ever happened to the “love generation”? Who or what causes people to become unduly irate because the tickets are all sold out? Or when fans, overcome by excitement, storm the stage? Or to spit at the nearest cop just for the hell of it? Or the people who still haven’t learned to keep their trips at home? It’s not one damn thing after another, it’s the same damn thing over and over.
In 1986 a book reviewer in “The New York Times” noted that an instance was used at the beginning of a book. The statement was slightly modified via the inclusion of the word “same”: 8
Rebecca Hill’s first novel, “Blue Rise,” is prefaced by a quotation from Edna St. Vincent Millay that could apply to “Among Birches” as well: “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; life is the same damn thing over and over.”
In conclusion, Edna St. Vincent Millay did use the expression under investigation in a 1930 letter that was published in 1952. Over the years variants have appeared. Sometimes the word “damn” has been removed, and sometimes the word “same” has been added.
Image Notes: Photograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay circa 1914 from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons. Illustration of circular repetition from ClkerFreeVectorImages at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Bruce Miller who believed that the remark by Millay should be presented on this website. This request inspired the formulation of this question and the creation of this entry.)
- 1952, Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edited by Allan Ross Macdougall, (Letter from Edna St. Vincent Millay to “Artie” Arthur Davison Ficke; Date: October 24, 1930; Location: Steepletop), Quote Page 240, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1931 January 29, The Marietta Journal, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1934 July 11, The Charlotte Observer, Everyday Religion by Dr. Joseph Fort Newton, Section 2, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Charlotte, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1962, Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Miriam Gurko, Chapter: The Middle Years: Message to the World, Quote Page 197, Published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1964 July 27, State Times, Reporter’s Notebook: Many Animals Disappearing by Hal Boyle (Syndicated by Associated Press), Quote Page 2A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Section: Life, Quote Page 475, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1970 November 14, Billboard, Volume 82, Number 46, Whatever Happened to that Love Generation by Marge Pettyjohn and Jayne Ferguson, Start Page R54, Quote Page R54, Column 3, Published by Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (Google Books Full View) ↩
- 1986 April 27, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, That’s Aspera Testing the Ice by Rosemary Daniell, (Book Review of “Among Birches” by Rebecca Hill), Quote Page BR15, New York. (ProQuest) ↩