Quote Origin: I Can’t Write a Book Commensurate with Shakespeare, But I Can Write a Book by Me

Sir Walter Raleigh? Walter Alexander Raleigh? Dale Carnegie? Andrew McAleer?

Question for Quote Investigator: Creating an artwork or writing a book requires audacity. The existing trove of high-quality art and literature is humbling in its size and magnificence. The newcomer must wonder whether it is possible to equal or surpass previous achievements. Here are two versions of a pertinent remark:

(1) I can’t write a book commensurate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me.
(2) I cannot write a book commensurate to Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me.

This statement has been attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh which is an ambiguous name. Sir Walter Raleigh of the Elizabethan era was an English statesman and explorer who died in 1618. A different Sir Walter Raleigh was a Professor of English Literature at Oxford University who died in 1922. I have been unable to find a citation for this quotation. Would you please help me?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Sir Walter Raleigh (Walter Alexander Raleigh) authored a well-received book about Shakespeare in 1907. During that year he sent a letter to Thomas Herbert Warren, President of Magdalen College, Oxford. The letter was published posthumously by Lady Raleigh in 1926. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1926, The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh (1879-1922), Edited by Lady Raleigh (Lucie Gertrude Jackson Raleigh), Second Edition, Volume 2, Letter From: Walter Alexander Raleigh, Letter To: T. H. Warren (Thomas Herbert Warren, President of Magdalen College, Oxford), Letter Date: April 28, 1907, Start Page 314, Quote Page 314, Methuen & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Everyone says it was a horribly difficult thing to write on Shakespeare. So it was and is, I suppose, but I didn’t think of it that way, or I couldn’t have written.

I can’t write a book commensurate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me,—which is all that any one can do. I feel as free to think about Shakespeare as to think about the moon, without putting myself into competition. So I was not conscious of impudence, or even of ambition.

Thus, Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh deserves credit for the quotation under examination. Additional selected citations are available in the article on the Medium platform which is available here.

Image Notes: Public domain depiction of William Shakespeare known as the Chandos portrait. This artwork is dated 1610 and attributed to the painter John Taylor.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to quotation expert Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe’s latest wondrous project is the website “A Celebration of Great Opening Lines in World Literature”.

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