William Butler Yeats? William B. Sprague? Benjamin Franklin? Richard Sharp? Charles Lamb? Charles Caleb Colton? Oliver Cromwell? Peleg Sprague? Ernest Hemingway? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A popular proverb highlights the limited duration of an opportunity:
Strike while the iron is hot.
This metaphor has been astutely extended with advice for greater challenges:
Make the iron hot by striking.
This full metaphor has been credited to the English military leader Oliver Cromwell, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The basic proverb appeared in one of “The Canterbury Tales” called “The Tale of Melibeus” by Geoffrey Chaucer written in the latter half of the 1300s. Here is the original spelling together with a modern rendition. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
…whil that iren is hoot men scholden smyte…
…while the iron is hot men should smite…
The earliest full match known to QI appeared in a 1782 letter from the famous statesman Benjamin Franklin to Reverend Richard Price about using the press to spread ideas. The letter was included in “Memoirs of the Life of The Rev. Richard Price” published in 1815: 2
The facility with which the same truths may be repeatedly enforced by placing them daily in different lights in newspapers which are every where read, gives a great chance of establishing them. And we now find, that it is not only right to strike while the iron is hot, but that it may be very practicable to heat it by continually striking.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The book about the life of Price was reviewed in the September 1815 issue of “The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature” and the letter with the passage above was reprinted; 3 hence, it reached a wider audience. The letter was also included in “The Works of Benjamin Franklin” edited by Jared Sparks and published in 1839. 4
An 1806 letter from Richard Sharp to an unidentified friend attending college included an exhortation based on the metaphor. The private letter was published in 1835: 5
We must not only strike the iron while it is hot, but strike it till “it is made hot.”
In 1821 the English cleric Charles Caleb Colton published “Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words; Addressed to Those Who Think”. Colton mentioned Cromwell when he presented the metaphor, but he did not ascribe the words to Cromwell; nevertheless, in subsequent years the military man has often received credit: 6
That policy that can strike only while the iron is hot, will be overcome by that perseverance, which like Cromwell’s, can make the iron hot by striking; and he that can only rule the storm, must yield to him who can both raise and rule it.
In 1824 “Southern Patriot” newspaper Charleston, South Carolina printed an instance while acknowledging a nearby periodical called the “Charleston Courier”: 7
“Is not he that can make an opportunity superior to him that takes it; and is not he that strikes only when the iron is hot likely to be outdone by him, that makes the iron hot by striking?”
In 1838 a meeting of education proponents occurred in Washington D.C. Professor J. Orville Taylor spoke about the need for schools: 8
We must agitate—agitate. The cause of education is like a top; the moment you cease to whip, it falls.—We must not only “strike while the iron is hot,” but we must make it hot, and keep it hot by striking.
In 1850 the “Fayetteville Observer” of Fayetteville, North Carolina printed a filler item that credited Peleg Sprague. The word “perseverance” was spelled “perseverence”: 9
The policy which strikes only while the iron is hot, will in the end be exceeded by the perseverence which makes the iron hot by striking.—Peleg Sprague.
In 1853 Tryon Edwards using the pseudonym Everard Berkeley published a compilation titled “The World’s Laconics: Or, The Best Thoughts of the Best Authors” with an introduction by William B. Sprague. No attribution was given for the saying, but it was later incorrectly ascribed to Sprague: 10
Promptness and Energy.—Do not wait to strike, till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.
In 1878 “The Bee-Keeper’s Magazine: Devoted Exclusively to Bee Culture” ascribed the saying to Cromwell: 11
A report of the committee on the best interests of the Society was called for, and the Secretary read the following from one member of the committee:
“Strike while the iron is hot,” is a common saying, and a very good one. It indicates the danger of delay and the importance of prompt action; but Cromwell said, “Make the iron hot by striking,”—thus enforcing another thought, that “Where there is a will there is a way;” that to good sense, industry and perseverance, no right thing is impossible!
In 1886 the quotation collection “Edge-Tools of Speech” implausible credited Sir Walter Scott and Cromwell for the basic and extended saying, respectively: 12
Strike while the iron is hot. — Sir Walter Scott.
Not only strike while the iron is hot, but make it hot by striking. — Cromwell.
In 1895 a trade journal for dentists ascribed the saying to English essayist Charles Lamb: 13
Charles Lamb was the author of many wise and consistent sayings, and when he penned, “Not only strike when the iron is hot, but make it hot by striking,” he changed an ancient proverb, which was growing too old for the advancing age, and made it fitting to these days of advancement and of ambition.
In 1964 “Playboy” magazine printed an article of dubious provenance titled “Advice to a Young Man: Aphorisms” by Ernest Hemingway which included an instance: 14
It is good policy to strike while the iron is hot. It is better still to make the iron hot by striking.
In 1989 William Safire and Leonard Safir published “Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice” which included the following: 15
Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.
—William B. Sprague
In 1997 a message in the Usenet newsgroup alt.quotations improbably ascribed an instance to William Butler Yeats: 16
Creative Quotations for Jun 13 from William Butler Yeats
Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.
In 2000 a newspaper columnist in Appleton, Wisconsin also credited Yeats: 17
As the Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats, once said, “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”
In conclusion, this full metaphor is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. Currently, the earliest instance appeared in a letter from Benjamin Franklin in 1782. The second earliest occurred in an 1806 letter from Richard Sharp. The second statement was a closer fit to the form of a proverb as a general injunction. In subsequent years many names have been linked to the saying, but the supporting evidence has been scanty.
Image Notes: Picture of a red hot piece of iron being hammered. Portrait of Benjamin Franklin circa 1778 by Jean-Antoine Houdon held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Alexis Adair whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Adair located most of the key citations, e.g., the 1782 letter from Benjamin Franklin, the 1806 letter from Richard Sharp, and the 1853 book by Tryon Edwards with an introduction by William B. Sprague. Additional thanks to Ellen G. Kempler who tweeted an inquiry on this topic.)
- 1860, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Edited by Thomas Wright, The Tale of Melibeus, Start Page 150, Quote Page 152, Richard Griffin and Company, London and Glasgow. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1815, Memoirs of the Life of The Rev. Richard Price by William Morgan, Volume 5, (Letter within footnote), Letter from: Benjamin Franklin, Letter to: Richard Price, Letter date: June 13, 1782, Start Page 95, Quote Page 96, Printed for R. Hunter, Successor to J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1815 September, The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature, Volume 10, Review: Morgan’s Life of Price, Letter from Dr. Benjamin Franklin to Dr. Richard Price, Date: June 13, 1782, Quote Page 582, Published by Sherwood, Neely and Jones, at Hackney, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1839, The Works of Benjamin Franklin: Containing Several Political and Historical Tracts Not Included in Any Former Edition, and Many Letters Official and Private Not Hitherto Published, Edited by Jared Sparks, Volume 9, Letter from: Benjamin Franklin, Letter to: Richard Price, Letter date: June 13, 1782, Letter title: Effect of Dr. Price’s Writings — Influence of the Press, Start Page 231, Quote Page 232, Published by Hilliard, Gray, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1835, Letters and Essays in Prose and Verse by Richard Sharp, First American Edition, Letter to: A Young Friend at College, Letter from: Richard Sharp, Latter date: August 3, 1806, Start Page 35, Quote Page 37, (1834 edition published by Edward Moxon, London), Published by E. L. Carey & A. Hart, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1821, Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words; Addressed to Those Who Think by Rev. C. C. Colton (Charles Caleb Colton), Seventh Edition, Section: LXVIII, Quote Page 48, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1824 April 15, Southern Patriot, Communication, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1839, Documents on the Subject of Common Schools, Prepared and Published in Obedience to a Resolution of the Last General Assembly of the Legislature of North Carolina, Section: Proceedings of a Meeting at the Capitol of the United States, On the 13th day of December 1838, called to consider the subject of Common School Education, reported for the National Intelligencer, Start Page 69, Quote Page 84, Printed by Thos. J. Lemay, Raleigh, North, Carolina. (Google Boks Full View) link ↩
- 1850 March 26, Fayetteville Observer, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 6, Fayetteville, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1853, The World’s Laconics: Or, The Best Thoughts of the Best Authors, Compiled by Everard Berkeley (Tryon Edwards), Introduction by William B. Sprague (William Buell Sprague), Quote Page 227, M. W. Dodd, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1878 December, The Bee-Keeper’s Magazine: Devoted Exclusively to Bee Culture, Volume 6, Number 12, Election of Officers of the N.A.B.A. for 1879, Start Page 254, Quote Page 254, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1886, Edge-Tools of Speech, Selected and arranged by Maturin M. Ballou, Topic: Opportunity, Quote Page 342 and 344, Ticknor and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1895 September, Items of Interest: A Monthly Magazine of Dental Art, Science and Literature, Volume 17, Number 9, Current Thoughts, (Acknowledgement to “Power”), Quote Page 555, The Wilmington Dental Manufacturing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1964 January, Playboy, Volume 11, Number 1, Advice to a Young Man: Aphorisms by Ernest Hemingway, Start Page 153, Quote Page 226, Column 2, HMH Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1989, Words of Wisdom: More Good Advice, Compiled and edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir, Topic: Opportunity, Quote Page 267, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1997 June 7, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.quotations, From: fcb…@shentel.net (FRANK), Subject: Creative Quotations for Jun 13 from William Butler Yeats. (Google Groups Search; Accessed May 30, 2017) link ↩
- 2000 February 28, The Post-Crescent, Section: Fox Valley Inc.: The Post-Crescent Weekly Business Magazine, Modern-day tips for traditional media buying by Katherine Allen, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Appleton, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩