Category Archives: W. H. Auden

A False Enchantment Can All Too Easily Last a Lifetime

W. H. Auden? Apocryphal?

auden09Dear Quote Investigator: The following evocative statement has been attributed to the prominent poet W. H. Auden:

A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.

I find it so frustrating that people post and repost this quote without pointing to its precise source. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1970 W. H. Auden published “A Certain World: A Commonplace Book”. The term “commonplace book” referred to a personal journal in which quotations, comments, observations, and other documents were gathered together for preservation. Auden’s volume was organized into an alphabetically ordered sequence of topics. The section titled “Enchantment” presented a quotation followed by a commentary: 1

Where is your Self to be found? Always in the deepest enchantment that you have experienced.

The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.

The quotation appeared in Auden’s discussion of the divergence between true and false enchantments. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

All true enchantments fade in time. Sooner or later we must walk alone in faith. When this happens, we are tempted, either to deny our vision, to say that it must have been an illusion and, in consequence, grow hardhearted and cynical, or to make futile attempts to recover our vision by force, i.e., by alcohol or drugs.

A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1970, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book by W. H. Auden, Section: Enchantment, Start Page 149, Quote Page 150, A William Cole Book: Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

The Existence of Forgetting Has Never Been Proved

Friedrich Nietzsche? Thomas De Quincey? W. H. Auden? Louis Kronenberger? Apocryphal?

memory08Dear Quote Investigator: A provocative comment about human memory has been attributed to the controversial philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

The existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things do not come to mind when we want them.

This statement suggests that human memory is more capacious than we imagine, but recollection is hampered because retrieval is sometimes difficult. As an experimental psychologist researching the plasticity of human memory I find this perspective fascinating, and I would like to include the statement in an article under preparation. Unfortunately, the lack of a good citation is problematic. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1881 Friedrich Nietzsche released “Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile” which has been given the English title “The Dawn of Day”. The work consisted of more than 550 short numbered sections, and in the 126th Nietzsche discussed memory and forgetfulness. The beginning of this excerpt from a 1911 translation by J. M. Kennedy strongly matched the quotation under examination. The full passage was somewhat convoluted. Boldface has been added to excerpts 1 2

FORGETFULNESS.—It has never yet been proved that there is such a thing as forgetfulness: all that we know is that we have no power over recollection. In the meantime we have filled up this gap in our power with the word “forgetfulness,” exactly as if it were another faculty added to our list. But, after all, what is within our power? If that word fills up a gap in our power, might not the other words be found capable of filling up a gap in the knowledge which we possess of our power?

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1911, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Edited by Dr. Oscar Levy, Volume 9: The Dawn of Day, Translated by J. M. Kennedy, Section 126, Quote Page 131, Published by T. N. Foulis, Edinburgh. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  2. 1924 (Copyright 1911), The Dawn of Day by Friedrich Nietzsche, Translated by J. M. Kennedy, Section 126, Quote Page 131, Published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London. (Reprint of 1911 edition) (Internet Archive) link link

A Professor Is One Who Talks in Someone Else’s Sleep

W. H. Auden? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

lecture08Dear Quote Investigator: The acclaimed poet W. H. Auden popularized one of the funniest definitions for an academic:

A professor is one who talks in someone else’s sleep.

Do you know whether Auden crafted this quip?

Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence that W. H. Auden did employ this joke by 1940, and a detailed citation is given further below. However, the well-known literary figure did not originate the remark.

A nascent version of the jape was in circulation in 1900, and the expression evolved for decades. Instances of the barb have been aimed at preachers, bores, clergymen, professors, lecturers, politicians, and teachers.

The earliest evidence known to QI was a precursor printed in “The Evening Post” newspaper of New York which acknowledged the “Boston Transcript”. The following variant did not disparage any particular profession; instead, the punch line was self-deprecating: 1

Brown—”Do you ever talk in your sleep? ”
Town—”Not that I know of. I have sometimes talked in other people’s sleep”

In 1900 and 1901 this comical filler item was reprinted in multiple newspapers, e.g., “The Washington Post” of Washington, D.C., “Santa Fe New Mexican” of New Mexico, and “The Cato Citizen” of New York. 2 3 4

In 1906 the “Amsterdam Evening Recorder” of New York and other newspapers printed a version of the joke featuring a preacher’s wife under the title “When He Talked”: 5 6

Mrs. Newlywed—Does your husband ever talk in his sleep, Mrs. Longwed?
Mrs. Longwed—No, dear; he talks in other people’s sleep. He is a preacher, you know.
—Woman’s Home Companion.

Thus, ecclesiastics were chided before the quip metamorphosed to target educators. The existence of these early instances was discovered by top quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1900 August 29, The Evening Post (New York Evening Post), Newspaper Waifs, Quote Page 6, Column 7, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1900 August 31, Washington Post, Precise Speech, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  3. 1900 December 3, Santa Fe New Mexican, Precise Speech, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1901 January 26, The Cato Citizen, Precise Speech, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Cato, New York. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1906 October 10, Amsterdam Evening Recorder, When He Talked, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Amsterdam, New York. (Old Fulton)
  6. 1906 December 18, St. Lawrence Plaindealer, When He Talked, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Canton, New York. (Old Fulton)

If We Are Here to Help Others, I Often Wonder What the Others Are Here For

W. H. Auden? George Herbert Palmer? Young Boy? Thomas Robert Dewar? John Foster Hall? Anonymous?

auden09Dear Quote Investigator: Altruism is a cornerstone of many religions and philosophies. Here are two versions of a humorous comment on this topic:

If we are here to help others, I often wonder what the others are here for.

We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.

This quip has been attributed to the prominent poet W. H. Auden and the Scottish whisky distiller Thomas Dewar. Do you know who should be credited?

Quote Investigator: The first expression listed above was attributed to Thomas Robert Dewar in 1926. The joke was included in a set of sayings printed in a newspaper under the title “A Peer’s Epigrams” with a concluding ascription to “Lord Dewar”. The details for this cite are given further below

In addition, W. H. Auden did write the second expression in a 1942 essay, but the context indicated that he was repeating an existing joke. Details are further below.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared before the above two citations in the “Year Book of the Brookline Education Society” in1897. A lecture was delivered in Brookline, Massachusetts by a Harvard Professor named George Herbert Palmer, and he spoke about the complex nature of altruism:

We must be altruists—although I am not sure that altruism is not a sort of contradiction.

Palmer told a version of the joke in which a child spoke the punch line: 1

Professor Palmer here related an anecdote of two children who were overheard talking one night on the end of living. Such a narrow subject for children! The girl said that she knew what she was here for—”to help others.” “Well,” remarked the boy, “what are the others here for?” This is the weakness of altruism.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1897, Year Book of the Brookline Education Society, Second Year: 1896-1897, Third Lecture, January 27th: Subject: “The Profession of the Teacher”, (Date of lecture January 27, 1897), Start Page 14, Quote Page 16, Published by The Riverdale Press: C.A.W. Spencer, Brookline, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link