A. H. Reginald Buller? Resident of Brighton? E. V. Lucas? Carolyn Wells? Walter Winchell? Robert Conquest? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a comical limerick about a “family” named Stein. The three referents were prominent writer Gertrude Stein, influential sculpture Jacob Epstein, and famous scientist Albert Einstein. Wordplay was used to split “Stein” from “Gertrude”, “Ep”, and “Ein”. Would you please explore the provenance of this poem?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match for the limerick located by QI appeared in March 1931, and that citation is given further below.
An interesting precursor occurred in the London humor magazine “Punch” in September 1929. The poem was titled “Precious Steins”, and it employed the same splitting wordplay. These were the first three verses: 1
What with Gertrude, Ep and Ein,
When I hear the name of Stein,
I go creepy down the spine.
Ein has caught the ether bending,
Gert has sentences unending,
Ep is really most art-rending.
Ein’s made straight lines parabolic,
Eppie’s “Night” is alcoholic,
Gertie’s grammar has the colic.
The final fifth verse suggested that life and art were out of step, and the poem’s creator was down-hearted. No attribution was specified for the poem. Thus, it was either written by a staff member of “Punch”, or it was sent to the magazine by a reader who was compensated.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In March 1930 the poem “Precious Steins” appeared in “Gaylords’ Triangle”, a periodical published by a Syracuse, New York company that sold library furniture and supplies. The magazine stated that the author of the poem was a resident of Brighton, England, but it did not present a precise identity: 2
You would guess that this came from an English pen—it does, but all that we know about the author is that he lives in Brighton.
From this and also from some of the anecdotes brought back to us from the Brighton Library meeting in September, we gather that just as interesting people are there now as during the youthful days of E. V. Lucas.
QI believes that the verse was relayed to the editors of “Gaylords’ Triangle” by someone who had attended the meeting in Brighton. The editors were probably not told that the verse had appeared in “Punch”, or they would have acknowledged that magazine. Interestingly, the editors did recognize that the style of humor used in the poem was suitable for “Punch”. The editors mentioned humorist E. V. Lucas who grew up in Brighton before moving to London and becoming a long-time staff member of “Punch”. Yet, the editors did not credit Lucas with the verse.
“Precious Steins” was reprinted in other periodicals such as “The Ridgewood Herald” newspaper of Ridgewood, New Jersey in October 1930. The ascription was “Author Anonymous”. 3
“Precious Steins” also appeared in “The Spokesman-Review” of Spokane, Washington in February 1931 with the following acknowledgement. The apostrophe placement was incorrect: 4
Reprinted in the Wilson Bulletin for Librarians from Gaylord’s Triangle.
In March 1931 “The Charleston Daily Mail” of West Virginia printed a limerick under the title “Stein Song” containing the same wordplay. The paper acknowledged the “Boston Transcript” of Massachusetts: 5
There’s a notable family called Stein.
There’s Gertrude, there’s Ep–, and there’s Ein–,
Gert’s writings are punk,
Ep’s statues are junk.
Can’t make head or tail out of Ein–.
QI conjectures that the creator of the verse above was inspired by “Precious Steins” to construct a compressed and harsher piece expressing a similar idea. On the same day in March 1931 the limerick also appeared in “The Chillicothe Scioto Gazette” of Ohio although the “Boston Transcript” was not acknowledged. 6
In September 1931 “Gaylords’ Triangle” printed the limerick followed by a comment about its similarity to the longer poem which “Gaylords’ Triangle” had shared with its readers during the previous year. 7
During subsequent months and years the limerick evolved. The “Green Bay Press-Gazette” of Wisconsin printed the following version in September 1933: 8
Miss Stein’s salon, her life in Paris, and her writings have been exerting an incomparable influence on the growth of the new art, music, and literature. We see that “Time” has dug up the little doggerel which we have met with somewhere before:
“I don’t like the family Stein,
There is Gert, there is Ep, there is Ein:
Gert’s poems are bunk,
Ep’s statues are punk.
And nobody understands Ein.”
“Time” had It “Ed” Instead of “Ep.” We take the liberty of correction.
In December 1934 powerful columnist Walter Winchell printed the following instance which he attributed to the niece of a fellow gossip columnist: 9
The poker-kisser on Alice Hughes, whose niece wrote this:
“There’s a famous family named Stein.
There’s Gert, and there’s Ep and there’s Ein.
Gert’s writings are bunk;
Ep’s sculptures are junk —
and no one can understand Ein!”
In 1936 the well-known writer and poet Carolyn Wells published a compilation titled “The Book of Humorous Verse” which included another slightly different version of the limerick without attribution: 10
THE STEIN FAMILY
There’s a wonderful family, called Stein,
There’s Gert and there’s Epp and there’s Ein;
Gert’s poems are bunk,
Epp’s statues are junk,
And no one can understand Ein.
In 1938 the eleventh edition of the popular reference work “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” included an instance with two explanatory notes and an anonymous attribution: 11
There’s a notable family called Stein:
There’s Gertrude, there’s Ep, and there’s Ein.
Gert’s writings are punk,
Ep’s statues are junk,
And nobody understands Ein.
Anonymous: Stein Song
Ep = Jacob Epstein, sculptor.
Ein = Albert Einstein, mathematician.
In 1960 a columnist in the “Winnipeg Free Press” of Manitoba, Canada asserted that Arthur Henry Reginald Buller was the creator of the limerick. 12 Buller who died in 1944 had been a Professor of Botany at the University of Manitoba. He was the author of a different popular limerick that alluded to Einstein which appeared in “Punch” magazine in 1923. Buller did not mention Einstein directly in the 1923 verse; instead, he referred to the theory of relativity and a young lady named Bright. A separate Quote Investigator article about this limerick is available here.
The 1960 Winnipeg columnist stated that Buller had received credit for the limerick about the Steins within a collection of Canadian quotations compiled by Robert Hamilton. This compilation must have been published in 1960 or before, but QI has not yet seen it.
QI was able to access the 1982 edition of “The Dictionary of Canadian Quotations and Phrases” compiled by Hamilton and Dorothy Shields, and this reference did attribute the limerick about the Steins to Arthur H. R. Buller. Unfortunately, no supporting citation was listed. 13
Hence, Buller is an intriguing candidate for authorship, but the evidence is currently weak.
In 1971 Ronald W. Clark published a biography titled “Einstein: The Life and Times” which reported that Albert Einstein visited Jacob Epstein three times to facilitate the sculpting of his bust. The biography included the following anonymous variant of the limerick: 14
Three wonderful people called Stein;
There’s Gert and there’s Ep and there’s Ein.
Gert writes in blank verse
Ep’s sculptures are worse
And nobody understands Ein.
In 2020 the website of political magazine “National Review” printed an instance of the limerick with an ascription to historian Robert Conquest; however, no supporting citation was given. 15
In conclusion, QI believes that current evidence is inadequate to identify the creator of the “Stein Song” limerick. The attribution to A. H. Reginald Buller occurred many years after the earliest appearance of the limerick in 1931. Thus, the linkage to Buller is weak. QI conjectures that the splitting wordplay in “Stein Song” was inspired by the wordplay in the 1929 poem “Precious Steins”. Unfortunately, the author of “Precious Steins” is also unknown. Perhaps future researchers will be able to build on the information in this article and share their discoveries.
(Great thanks to BBC radio broadcaster and quotation expert Nigel Rees who discussed this topic in two issues of his quarterly newsletter in January 2017 and April 2020. Rees presented citations dated 1940 and 1969 while suggesting that the limerick was circulating by the 1920s.)
- 1929 September 11, Punch, Or The London Charivari, Volume 177, Precious Steins, Quote Page 282, Column 3, Published at the Office of Punch, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1930 March, Gaylords’ Triangle, Volume 9, Number 7, Precious Steins ,Quote Page 4, Column 2, Gaylord Brothers Inc., Syracuse, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1930 October 28, The Ridgewood Herald, Precious Steins by Author Anonymous, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Ridgewood, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1931 February 21, The Spokesman-Review, Precious Steins, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Spokane, Washington. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1931 March 2, The Charleston Daily Mail, Laughter and Jeers, Quote Page 6, Column 8, Charleston, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1931 March 2, The Chillicothe Scioto Gazette, Bits O’ Nonsense, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Chillicothe, Ohio. (Note: Header stated March 1, 1931 but front page stated March 2; also, day specified was Monday which was March 2) (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1931 September, Gaylords’ Triangle, Volume 11, Number 1, Old and New Ones, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Gaylord Brothers Inc., Syracuse, New York. (Google Books Full View) ↩
- 1933 September 16, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Kellogg Library Notes, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1934 December 11, Miami Beach Tribune, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Miami, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1936, The Book of Humorous Verse, Compiled by Carolyn Wells, Revised and Amplified Edition, Chapter 16: Immortal Stanzas, Quote Page 951, Garden City Publishing Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1938, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Eleventh Edition, Edited by Christopher Morley and Louella D. Everett, Entry: Gertrude Stein, Quote Page 836, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1960 October 10, Winnipeg Free Press, The Causerie by G. D., Quote Page 13, Column 7 and 8, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1982, The Dictionary of Canadian Quotations and Phrases: Revised and Enlarged Edition, Edited by Robert M. Hamilton and Dorothy Shields, Topic: Understanding, Quote Page 911, Column 2, McClelland and Stewart Limited, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1971, Einstein: The Life and Times by Ronald W. Clark (Ronald William Clark), Part 4: The Einstein Age, Chapter 18: Of No Address, Quote Page 497, The World Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- Website: National Review, Article title: Dick ’n’ Ted, &c., Article author: Jay Nordlinger, Date on website: May 28, 2020, Website description: Website of U.S. magazine of conservative news and commentary. (Accessed nationalreview.com on July 26, 2020) link ↩