Genius Is Born, Not Paid

Oscar Wilde? Frank Harris? Apocryphal?

genius09Dear Quote Investigator: The following passage from a philosophical magazine of 1815 asserts that intellectual gifts are innate: 1

That genius is born, is a trite truth; education never creates, it only cultivates and directs the faculties.

An ancient adage states this controversial thesis concisely for the realm of poetry:

A poet is born, not made.

There are many examples of great poets and other geniuses such as Vincent van Gogh and Nikola Tesla who died in poverty. Oscar Wilde who was also financially strapped at the end of his life was aware of the pitfalls of brilliance, so he modified an adage with acerbic wordplay:

Genius is born, not made.
Genius is born, not paid.

Would you please examine this expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the 1916 biography “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions” by Frank Harris. A section about Wilde’s last year of life in 1900 described a party during which the witticism was delivered. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2 3

The entertainment usually started with some humorous play on words. One of the company would say something obvious or trivial, repeat a proverb or commonplace tag such as, “Genius is born, not made,” and Oscar would flash in smiling, “not ‘paid,’ my dear fellow, not ‘paid.'”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Another article on this website discussed the following pair of sayings. The first was ancient and the second was in circulation by 1881:

A poet is born, not made.
A poet is born, not paid.

Frank Harris credited Oscar Wilde with sharing the jest about genius in 1900. But it may have been constructed with knowledge of the preexisting poet remark.

In 1918 a periodical based in Chicago, Illinois called “The Musical Leader” printed the quip without attribution: 4

Stephen Phillips, a true poet, died miserably poor. Alfred Noyes, a wretched poetaster, pays a heavy income tax. We shall have to invert the old tag, “genius is born, not made,” into “genius is born, not paid.”

In 1946 a biography by Hesketh Pearson titled “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit” presented a set of Wilde-isms that included the following: 5

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”
“I can resist everything except temptation
“The English have a miraculous power of turning wine into water.”
“Genius is born, not paid.”

In 1985 the bon mot was printed in “Money Talks: The 2500 Greatest Business Quotes from Aristotle to DeLorean”: 6

Genius is born, not paid.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

In conclusion, there is substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde employed this saying in 1900 based on the biography by Frank Harris. The support was weakened because it was published many years after Wilde’s death. In addition, a similar quip was already in circulation.

Image Notes: Cropped portion of the Benjamin West painting Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce via WikiArt.org.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to explore two sayings: “Genius is born, not paid” and “A poet is born, not paid”.)

Notes:

  1. January 1815, The Philosophical Magazine And Journal, Volume 45, Dr. Spurzheim’s demonstrative Course of Lectures, Start Page 50, Quote Page 52, Printed by Richard and Arthur Taylor, Shoe Lane, London. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1916, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, Frank Harris, Volume 2, Quote Page 412, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1916 October, The Phoenix, Volume 5, Number 5, Oscar Wilde as a Talker, (Excerpt from Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris), Start Page 146, Quote Page 147, Published by Michael Monahan, South Norwalk, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1918 December 12, The Musical Leader, Volume 36, Number 24, Major and Minor, Quote Page 565, Musical Leader Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Quote Page 170, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1985, Money Talks: The 2500 Greatest Business Quotes from Aristotle to DeLorean, Edited by Robert W. Kent, Section: Bottom Line, Quote Page 315, Facts on File Publications, New York. (Verified on paper)