Leave Him With a Favorable Opinion of Himself

Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Tryon Edwards? Apocryphal?

coleridge07Dear Quote Investigator: My favorite poem is “Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I love the poem’s opium inspired image of a “stately pleasure dome”. Serendipitously, I came across an insightful remark ascribed to Coleridge that contrasted different types of intellects:

If you would stand well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable impression of yourself; if with a little mind, leave him with a favorable impression of himself.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find this in Coleridge’s oeuvre. Is this attribution accurate?

Quote Investigator: The acclaimed poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge did pen a very similar remark within his critical analysis of a book by Sir Thomas Browne. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The difference between a great mind’s and a little mind’s use of history is this. The latter would consider, for instance, what Luther did, taught, or sanctioned: the former, what Luther,—a Luther,—would now do, teach, and sanction. This thought occurred to me at midnight, Tuesday, the 16th of March, 1824, as I was stepping into bed,—my eye having glanced on Luther’s Table Talk.

If you would be well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable impression of you;—if with a little mind, leave him with a favorable opinion of himself.

Coleridge died in 1834, and the excerpt above appeared in a posthumous 1836 collection titled “The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge” edited by his uncle, Henry Nelson Coleridge.

The modern saying provided by the questioner evolved from the original statement. The phrase “be well” was changed to “stand well”; “you” was changed to “yourself”; and “opinion” was changed to “impression”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Almanacs are usually published during the final months before the beginning of the cover year; hence, “The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1839” first appeared in 1838. The tome included an accurate version of Coleridge’s adage contrasting the great mind and the little mind. 2

If you would be well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable impression of you; — if with a little mind, leave him with a favorable opinion of himself. — Coleridge.

“The Merchants’ and Farmers’ Provincial Almanac for the Year of Our Lord 1841” included an odd version of the saying. The two parts were collapsed to generate a single statement that did not reflect the clever insight of Coleridge: 3

If you would be well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable opinion of himself.

In 1884 “Treasury of Thought: Forming an Encyclopedia of Quotations from Ancient and Modern Authors” by Maturin M. Ballou included an accurate instance of Coleridge’s statement. 4

In 1891 “A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern” by Tryon Edwards included an inaccurate version of the saying that contained the phrase “stand well” instead of “be well”: 5

If you would stand well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable impression of yourself; if with a little mind, leave him with a favorable opinion of himself.—Coleridge.

The popular compilation edited by Tryon Edwards appeared in multiple editions over a period of many decades, and it functioned as an important locus for the distribution of incorrect instances of the quotation.

In 1916 “The Editor & Publisher” journal published an altered instance of the saying that employed the phrase “fare well” instead of “be well” and used “favorable impression” twice: 6

If you would fare well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable impression of you; if with a little mind, leave him with a favorable impression of himself.
—Coleridge.

In 2008 the high-profile website Goodreads shared another flawed variant of the quotation: 7

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“If you would stand well with a great mind, leave him with a favorable impression of yourself; if with a little mind, leave him with a favorable impression of himself.”

In conclusion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge may properly be credited with the statement in the 1836 citation. Several faulty variants have evolved over the decades, and the task of tracing a quotation is complicated when multiple versions proliferate.

Image Notes: Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge circa 1795 by Pieter van Dyke; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of a dome in Dubai from shbsul at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Hugh Hyatt who sent another interesting inquiry which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Hyatt did not mention “Kubla Khan” or opium.)

Notes:

  1. 1836, The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Collected and Edited by Henry Nelson Coleridge, Volume 2, Notes on Sir Thomas Browne’s Vulgar Errors, Address to the Reader, Start Page 406, Quote Page 411, William Pickering, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1838 Copyright, The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1839, Select Scraps, Start Page 77, Quote Page 78, Charles Bowen, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1840, The Merchants’ and Farmers’ Provincial Almanac for the Year of Our Lord 1841, A great and a little mind, Quote Page 68, Printed at the Brunswick Press, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1884, Treasury of Thought: Forming an Encyclopedia of Quotations from Ancient and Modern Authors by Maturin M. Ballou, Tenth Edition, Topic: Influence, Quote Page 262, Column 1, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1891 Copyright, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, Topic: Impressions, Quote Page 250, Cassell Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1916 August 26, The Editor & Publisher, Personals (Epigraph in a box), Quote Page 17, Column 1, The Editor & Publisher Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. Website: Goodreads, Samuel Taylor Coleridge > Quotes > Quotable Quote, Timestamp on first ‘Like’: Dec 23, 2008 01:51AM, Website description: Goodreads is a large community for readers that provides book recommendations; the site is owned by Amazon. (Accessed goodreads.com on October 23, 2016) link