Sorrow Is the Mere Rust of the Soul. Activity Will Cleanse and Brighten It

Samuel Johnson? Frances Burney? Hester Lynch Piozzi? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The superlative English lexicographer Samuel Johnson once defined sorrow as the rust of the soul which could be scoured away by engaging with life and becoming active. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: In 1750 Samuel Johnson began to publish a periodical called “The Rambler”. He penned the following passage for the August 28, 1750 issue. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in it’s passage to scour away. It is the putrefaction of stagnant life, and is remedied by exercise and motion.

Samuel Johnson’s friend Hester Lynch Piozzi heard a similar remark from the dictionary maker, and she repeated it within a letter she wrote in 1821. See the citation further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The distinctive phrase “rust of the soul” was in circulation before Johnson employed it. For example, in 1724 the religious figure Robert South applied the phrase to “idleness” instead of “sorrow” within a discourse he published: 2

. . . Action both perfects Nature and ministers to Grace; whereas Idleness, like the Rust of the Soul, by its long lying still, first soils the Beauty, and then eats out the Strength of it.

In 1765 Reverend Richard Pearsall applied the phrase to sin and carnality: 3

Sin and Carnality are the Impurity and Rust of the Soul. It is God’s great Aim to purify; for this End the Word is commissioned, and Prophets and Ministers sent, yet sent to some in vain.

In 1819 the “Lancaster Journal” of Pennsylvania echoed the words of Samuel Johnson, but the newspaper did not specify an attribution: 4

The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment. Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away. It is the putrescence of stagnant life, and is remedied by exercise and motion.

Hester Lynch Piozzi was a friend of Samuel Johnson. She socialized with him at soirées, and Johnson often stayed at her home. In 1821 Piozzi sent a letter to the author Frances Burney who was also her friend. She shared a remark made by Johnson that was similar to his statement from 1750: 5

Sorrow, as Dr. Johnson said, is the mere rust of the soul. Activity will cleanse and brighten it.

The 1821 letter excerpted above was published many years later within the 1842 book “Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay” edited by her niece. Frances Burney was Madame D’Arblay.

In 1937 “Letters to Young Men Preparing for the Christian Ministry” by William Cogswell printed a statement about sloth enclosed in quotation marks: 6

Your habits of study should be zealously active. Indolence is incompatible with good scholarship. “Sloth is the rust of the soul.”

In 1841 the novel “Modern Flirtations: or, A Month at Harrowgate” by Catherine Sinclair included a comment echoing Johnson although no acknowledgement was given: 7

As sorrow is the rust of the soul, everything that traverses the surface, has a tendency to scour it away . . .

In 1888 the “Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson” edited by George Birkbeck Hill contained an entry for the saying with a citation pointing to the 1821 letter published in 1842 mentioned previously: 8

‘”Sorrow,” as Dr. Johnson said, “is the mere rust of the soul. Activity will cleanse and brighten it.”‘
Mme. D’Arblay’s Diary, vii. 357.

In 1911 a different compilation of Samuel Johnson’s bon mots included an instance of the remark without citation: 9

Sorrow is the rust of the soul; activity will cleanse and brighten it.

In 1957 “The Book of Unusual Quotations” included an instance based on the Johnson’s 1750 quotation: 10

Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away.
Samuel Johnson

In conclusion, Samuel Johnson deserves credit for the words he wrote in “The Rambler” in 1750. He may also be credited with the statement attributed to him by Hester Lynch Piozzi in her 1821 letter although the fidelity of this second version depends on the accuracy of her memory.

Notes:

  1. 1785, Harrison’s Edition: The Rambler by Samuel Johnson, Volume One of Four, Issue Number 47, Issue Date: August 28, 1750, (Filler item), Quote Page 111, Column 2, Printed for Harrison and Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1724, Twelve Sermons and Discourses On Several Subjects and Occasions by Robert South (Late Prebendary of Westminster and Canon of Christ-Church, Oxon), Volume 6, Chapter: The Seventh Discourse, Quote Page 343 and 344, Printed for Jonah Bowyer, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1765, Reliquae Sacae: or, Sacred Dialogues Between a Father and His Children by the Reverend Richard Pearsall (Late Minister of Taunton Somersetshire), Chapter: The Sixth Dialogue, Quote Page 118, Printed for J. Buckland, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1819 December 7, Lancaster Journal, Employment, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (In the original text the first “and” was repeated; “antidote” was spelled “andidote”) (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1842, Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay, Edited by Her Niece, Volume 2 of 2, Letter from Mrs. H. L. Piozzi (Hester Lynch Piozzi), Letter to Madame D’Arblay (Frances Burney), Location of Sender: Penzance Date of Letter: Thursday January 18, 1821, Start Page 729, Quote Page 729, Carey and Hart, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1837, Letters to Young Men Preparing for the Christian Ministry by William Cogswell, Letter 9: Habits of Study, Quote Page 92, Perkins & Marvin, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1841, Modern Flirtations: or, A Month at Harrowgate by Catherine Sinclair, Volume 3 of 3, Chapter 13, Quote Page 276 and 277, William Whyte and Company, Edinburgh, Scotland. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  8. 1888, Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson, Selected and Arranged by George Birkbeck Hill, Topic: Sorrow, Quote Page 270, Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1911, “‘Sir,’ Said Dr. Johnson—”: Some Sayings Arranged by H. C. Biron, Topic: Happiness, Quote Page 129, Duckworth and Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  10. 1957, The Book of Unusual Quotations, Compiled by Rudolf Flesch, Topic: New Idea, Quote Page 188, Column 1, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)