One Man’s Poetry Is Another Man’s Poison

Oscar Wilde? Titus Lucretius Carus? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: One person may enjoy a food or activity that another person finds repellent. A well-known adage expresses this notion:

One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

The following funny variant has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:

One man’s poetry is another man’s poison.

Did Wilde really craft this statement? Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1895 the trial of The Crown versus Oscar Wilde occurred in London. Wilde was asked to comment on some verses written by his friend and companion Lord Alfred Douglas. In the following passage “Mr. Gill” referred to prosecutor Charles Gill, and “Witness” referred to Oscar Wilde. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Mr. Gill. — “You can, perhaps, understand that such verses as these would not be acceptable to the reader with an ordinarily balanced mind?”

Witness. — “I am not prepared to say. It appears to me to be a question of taste, temperament and individuality. I should say that one man’s poetry is another man’s poison!” (Loud laughter.)

The text above is from “The Trial of Oscar Wilde: From the Shorthand Reports” privately published in 1906 as a limited edition. Hence, this is not an official transcript, but it provides substantive evidence that Wilde made the remark.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

“The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs” includes the adage “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”. The provenance is traced back to the ancient Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus who included the following line in his poem “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”): 2

Quod ali cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum
What is food to one person may be bitter poison to others

Oscar Wilde participated in three trials in 1895, and portions of his testimony were published in 1906 as noted previously. Wilde delivered the line during his first prosecution according to the 1906 transcription.

In 1910 “The Oscar Wilde Calendar” was published in London, and it presented a quotation from Wilde for every day of the year. Each quotation had been selected by Stuart Mason. The quotation under examination appeared on June 30th: 3

One man’s poetry is another man’s poison.

In 1920 a correspondent writing in a Todmorden, England newspaper employed a slightly different version of the saying without attribution: 4

The poet who is most likely to live longest amongst his people is the man who writes in plain English which every plain Englishman can understand and appreciate without the help of a dictionary or an interpreter.

What is one man’s meat in poetry is another man’s poison. We are told that Milton only realised the sum of ten pounds for “Paradise Lost.” Personally I think he got £9 19s. 10d. too much.

In 1923 the poetry editor of “Overland Monthly” of San Francisco, California employed the saying without attribution: 5

And for himself the Poetry Editor reserves the privilege of discussing other periodicals as they come to his desk. No doubt his opinion is faulty. Possibly you had best read these other periodicals and check up. The worst of it is that definitions of poetry—and things—vary. What is one man’s poetry is another man’s poison.

In 1949 quotation collector Evan Esar ascribed the quotation to Wilde in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”: 6

WILDE, Oscar, 1856-1900, British wit, poet, and dramatist.
One man’s poetry is another man’s poison.

In 2006 “Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms” included the quotation: 7

I should say that one man’s poetry is another man’s poison!
The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (UB, p235)

In conclusion, QI believes that Oscar Wilde should receive credit for this quotation based on the 1906 book presenting Wilde’s testimony at his 1895 trial. The book was based on shorthand notes taken during the trial.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person who inquired about two quotations attributed to Oscar Wide. One of these requests led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1906, The Trial of Oscar Wilde: From the Shorthand Reports, Limited edition number 184 of 550, Preface signed by C. G., Quote Page 58, Privately Printed, Paris, France. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1984 (1982 Copyright), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Edited by John A. Simpson, Proverb: One man’s MEAT is another man’s poison, Quote Page 149, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1910, The Oscar Wilde Calendar: A Quotation from the Works of Oscar Wilde for Every Day in the Year with Some Unrecorded Sayings, Selected by Stuart Mason, Date: June Thirty, Quote Page 48, Frank Palmer, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1920 September 10, Todmorden Advertiser and Hebden Bridge Newsletter, The Sinn Feiners in America and The Calder Valley Poets, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  5. 1923 November, Overland Monthly and The Out West Magazine, Poets and Things, Quote Page 41, Column 1, Overland Monthly and The Out West Magazine Consolidated, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 221, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  7. 2006, Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms, Topically Arranged with Attributions, Compiled and edited by Tweed Conrad, Chapter 52: Poets and Poetry, Quote Page 164, McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)