Category Archives: Edna St. Vincent Millay

In Three Words, I Can Sum Up Everything I’ve Learned About Life. It Goes On

Robert Frost? Edna St. Vincent Millay? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The acclaimed American poet Robert Frost was asked as an octogenarian what he had learned about life, and he succinctly replied: It goes on.

I have been unable to find a contemporaneous citation, and a popular quotation website says that the attribution is disputed. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Robert Frost did utter this proverbial wisdom during his eightieth birthday celebration according to journalist and self-help writer Ray Josephs. In September 1954 the Sunday newspaper supplement “This Week Magazine” published “Robert Frost’s Secret” by Josephs which included the following exchange. Ellipses were in the original text. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“In all your years and all your travels,” I asked, “what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned about life?”

He paused a moment, then with the twinkle sparkling under those brambly eyebrows he replied: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on. In all the confusions of today, with all our troubles . . . with politicians and people slinging the word fear around, all of us become discouraged . . . tempted to say this is the end, the finish. But life — it goes on. It always has. It always will. Don’t forget that.

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  1. 1954 September 5, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Section: This Week Magazine, Robert Frost’s Secret by Ray Josephs, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)

It’s Not True That Life Is One Damn Thing After Another—It’s One Damn Thing Over and Over

Edna St. Vincent Millay? Apocryphal?

millay08Dear Quote Investigator: You have already examined the following mordant saying:

Life is just one damned thing after another.

Apparently, the prominent poet Edna St. Vincent Millay disagreed, and she offered her own alternative trenchant analysis of life. Here are three versions:

It’s one damn thing over and over.
It’s the same thing over and over again.
It’s the same damn thing over and over.

Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a letter dated October 24, 1930 to friend and fellow poet Arthur Davison Ficke. She complained about her recurrent bouts of sickness: 1

Dearest Artie:
It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another—it’s one damn thing over & over—there’s the rub—first you get sick—then you get sicker—then you get not quite so sick—then you get hardly sick at all—then you get a little sicker . . .

Although the letter was written in 1930 it was only released to the general public in 1952 with the publication of “Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay” edited by Allan Ross Macdougall.

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  1. 1952, Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edited by Allan Ross Macdougall, (Letter from Edna St. Vincent Millay to “Artie” Arthur Davison Ficke; Date: October 24, 1930; Location: Steepletop), Quote Page 240, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)

Life Is Just One Damn Thing After Another

Mark Twain? Lilian Bell? Elbert Hubbard? Frank Ward O’Malley? Bruce Calvert? H. L. Mencken? Charles Dickens? Edna St. Vincent Millay? Anonymous?

twisty10Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement of exasperation and resignation has been attributed to the luminary Mark Twain, the aphorist Elbert Hubbard, and the journalist Frank Ward O’Malley:

Life is just one damn thing after another.

This situation is confusing. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong evidence appeared in 1909 when several instances were published in periodicals. In addition, a book titled “The Concentrations of Bee” by Lilian Bell included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“Bob has a motto on his wall which says ‘Life is just one damned thing after another!'” said Jimmie. But I refused to smile. I was too distinctly annoyed.

The lead time for publishing a book has traditionally been lengthy; hence, Lilian Bell may have written her novel before 1909. Bell stated within the text that the adage was already being posted on walls.

On March 5, 1909 “The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader” of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania printed the small filler item shown below. 2 This was the earliest instance known to QI with a complete date; it was located by top researcher Bill Mullins, and it was included in the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”: 3

life350During the following weeks, months, and years the popular saying was widely disseminated. In December 1909 Elbert Hubbard printed the expression without attribution in a journal he was editing called “The Philistine”. In March 1910 a man named Bruce Calvert was credited with the saying. In 1919 the prominent cultural commentator H. L. Mencken ascribed the phrase to Mark Twain. After the death of Frank Ward O’Malley in 1932 some obituary notices credited him with the saying. In 1942 Mencken reconsidered his judgement and linked the saying to both O’Malley and Hubbard. Detailed information is given further below.

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  1. 1909, The Concentrations of Bee by Lilian Bell, Quote Page 241, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1909 March 5, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 5, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 144, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

A Person Who Publishes a Book Willfully Appears Before the Populace with His Pants Down

Edna St. Vincent Millay? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A recent controversial article about critics and criticism in the New York Times contained a refreshingly blunt two-part quotation [DGNY]:

To writers, Edna St. Vincent Millay offered the wisest counsel. It rings down the decades. “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down,” she said. “If it is a good book, nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.”

Did Millay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, write this in an essay or letter? Did she say it as an impromptu remark? I have not been able to find a precise reference.

Quote Investigator: These two statements can be traced back to a letter that Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote to her mother, Cora B. Millay, in 1927. However, the second statement has been modified in an interesting way.

In 1927 Kathleen Millay, the sister of Edna and daughter of Cora, was planning to publish a book of poetry titled “The Evergreen Tree”. Her mother was anxious about this event, and she wrote a letter to Edna who responded. Bold type has been added [ESVM]:

Kathleen is about to publish a book, as thousands have done before her. A person who publishes a book wilfully appears before the populace with his pants down. And there’s nothing you can do about that.

Note that Edna used “his”, a male possessive adjective, even though the topic of the letter was her sister. Edna was constructing an adage that applied to any person, and she followed the convention of using male pronouns and adjectives to designate persons of unspecified gender. Edna continued her letter by emphasizing the maturity of her sister:

Kathleen is not a baby. She is a grown-up person quite able to take care of herself. And she has been struggling for years to be allowed to manage her own affairs. If she knew the kind of letter you wrote me in her behalf, she’d froth at the mouth & spit brimstone.

The next section of the letter contained the second sentence that is often quoted. This time Edna used the female pronoun “her”. This is understandable because she was discussing her sister:

Kathleen is about to publish a book. If it’s a good book, nothing can harm her. If it’s a bad book, nothing can help her. And all your stewing & fretting will accomplish just one end: it will make you very sick, & a nuisance to yourself …

So the second sentence in the widely distributed quotation has been modified. The word “harm” has been changed to “hurt”. Also, the pronoun “her” has been replaced by “him” in two places. Summarizing, the quotation was written by one female writer about another female writer, but the most common version in circulation uses the words “his” and “him”.

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