Oscar Wilde? Francis Douglas? 11th Marquess of Queensberry? Percy Colson? Mark Twain? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The Book of Genesis describes the creation of the world and the formation of Adam and Eve. The actions of this couple in the Garden of Eden quickly revealed behavioral defects. A sardonic commentator has suggested that God overestimated his capabilities when he synthesized humankind.
This remark is usually attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wide. Would you please help me to find a citation?
Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest match known to QI occurred decades later in the 1940 book “Oscar Wilde and the Black Douglas” by Francis Douglas, 11th Marquess of Queensberry in collaboration with Percy Colson. The following passage mixes commentary about Wilde together with quotations attributed to him. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Art and religion had much in common, he thought; both give an enhanced sense of living. St. Francis of Assisi, and Jeanne d’Arc were artists in their way, and he loved tradition. “Never try to pull down public monuments such as the Albert Memorial and the Church,” he said. “You are sure to be damaged by the falling masonry.”
But the Creator as an artist did not meet with his whole-hearted admiration. “I sometimes think that God in creating man, somewhat over-estimated his ability,” he remarked to a friend.
The friend was unidentified, and the long delay between 1900 and 1940 reduced the evidentiary value of this citation. Yet, QI is unaware of any other candidate creator with substantive support.
Francis Douglas was the nephew of Lord Alfred Douglas who was the lover and repudiator of Wilde. In addition, Francis Douglas was the grandchild of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry who was Wilde’s nemesis. Interestingly, the book is sympathetic to Wilde.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Humorist Mark Twain made a thematically related remark when he suggested that God was fatigued before he embarked on the arduous task of creating humankind. The following statement circa 1903 was penned by Twain in a notebook and printed in the 1912 biography by Albert Bigelow Paine: 2
Man was made at the end of the week’s work when God was tired.
In 1949 the quotation under examination appeared in “Oscar Wilde and the Black Douglas” as noted previously.
In 1952 “The Epigrams Of Oscar Wilde” compiled by Alvin Redman included the quotation without a supporting citation: 3
I sometimes think that God in creating man, somewhat overestimated His ability. In Conversation.
In 1954 the quotation was further distributed when it appeared in the “Saturday Review” magazine of New York within a piece titled “Oscarisms for Today” which reprinted items from Redman’s compilation: 4
In 1957 the quotation ascribed to Wilde appeared in “The Book of Unusual Quotations” compiled by Rudolf Flesch. No citation was listed. 5
In 1999 the quotation appeared in “Murphy’s Law 2000: What else can go wrong in the 21st century!” edited by Arthur Bloch: 6
WILDE ON MAN AND GOD:
God in creating man somewhat overestimated his ability.
In conclusion, this quotation was ascribed to Oscar Wilde four decades after his death by Francis Douglas who was the grandson of his nemesis John Douglas. The lengthy delay entails uncertainty, yet no one else has been strongly linked to the remark. Perhaps future researchers will locate an earlier citation.
Image Notes: Picture of the fresco “Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Mr. Chee whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. A follow-up message from Mr. Chee helpfully reported that the quotation had appeared in “Oscar Wilde and The Black Douglas”. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake who accessed scans of “Oscar Wilde And The Black Douglas” to verify the citation.)
- 1949, Oscar Wilde and the Black Douglas by The Marquess of Queensberry (Francis Douglas) in collaboration with Percy Colson, Chapter 2: Oscar Wilde’s Parentage and Youth, Quote Page 20, Hutchinson & Company, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1912, Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine, Volume 3, Chapter 227: The Second Riverdale Winter, Quote Page 1195, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1962 (First Printing 1952), The Epigrams Of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Alvin Redman, Chapter 1: Men, Quote Page 31, Alvin Redman Limited, London, England. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1954 October 16, Saturday Review, Oscarisms for Today, (Quotations selected from “The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde” compiled by Alvin Redman), Quote Page 23, Column 2, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) ↩
- 1957, The Book of Unusual Quotations, Compiled by Rudolf Flesch, Topic: Man, Quote Page 161, Column 2, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1999, Murphy’s Law 2000: What else can go wrong in the 21st century! by Arthur Bloch, Chapter: Transcendental Murphology, Quote Page 86, Price Stern Sloan: Penguin Putnam, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩