Your Manuscript Is Good and Original, But What is Original Is Not Good; What Is Good Is Not Original

Samuel Johnson? Martin Sherlock? Johann Heinrich Voss? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Daniel Webster? Samuel Wilberforce?

samvoss10Dear Quote Investigator: The great lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson is credited with a famously devastating remark about a book he was evaluating:

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

I have never found a source for this quotation in the writings of Johnson, and I have become skeptical about this attribution. Do you know if he wrote this?

Quote Investigator: No substantive evidence has emerged to support the ascription to Samuel Johnson. In this article QI will trace the evolution of this saying and closely related expressions which have been attributed to a variety of prominent individuals. The following four statements have distinct meanings, but they can be clustered together semantically and syntactically.

  • What is new is not good; and what is good is not new.
  • What is new is not true; and what is true is not new.
  • What is original is not good; what is good is not original.
  • What is new is not valuable; what is valuable is not new.

The earliest evidence known to QI of a member of this cluster appeared in 1781 and was written by Reverend Martin Sherlock who was reviewing a popular collection of didactic letters published in book form. Lord Chesterfield composed the letters and sent them to his son with the goal of teaching him to become a man of the world and a gentleman. Sherlock was highly critical: 1

His principles of politeness are unexceptionable; and ought to be adopted by all young men of fashion; but they are known to every child in France; and are almost all translated from French books. In general, throughout the work, what is new is not good; and what is good is not new.

This expression was similar to the one attributed to Samuel Johnson. The word “new” was used instead of “original”. Yet, this passage did not include the humorous prefatory phrase which would have labeled the work “both new and good” before deflating it.

In the 1790s a German version of the saying using “new” and “true” was published in a collection by the translator and poet Johann Heinrich Voss. This instance did include a prefatory phrase stating that the “book teaches many things new and true”: 2 3

Dein redseliges Buch lehrt mancherlei Neues und Wahres,
Wäre das Wahre nur neu, wäre das Neue nur wahr!

Here is an English translation:

Your garrulous book teaches many things new and true,
If only the true were new, if only the new were true!

In 1800 a reviewer in “The British Critic” lambasted a book using a version of the brickbat with “new” and “good”: 4

In this part there are some good and some new things; but the good are not new, and the new are not good. Much time is employed in considering the opinion of the poet du Belloy, at present forgotten and of little consequence, who professed to prefer the French to the ancient languages.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Your Manuscript Is Good and Original, But What is Original Is Not Good; What Is Good Is Not Original

Notes:

  1. 1781, Letters on Several Subjects by The Rev. Martin Sherlock [Chaplain to the Right Honourable The Earl of Bristol], Volume 2, Letter XIV, Start Page 123, Quote Page 128 and 129, Printed for J. Nichols, T. Cadell, P. Elmsly, H. Payne and N. Conant, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1796, Gedichte, Johann Heinrich Voss, Volume 2, Section: Epigramme [Epigrams], (Standalone short saying titled “XVI: An mehrere Bücher” [16: Of several Books]), Quote Page 281, Frankfurt und Leipzig. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Harold MacMillan, Quote Page 305 and 306, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) (This reference gives the following citation for the J. H. Voss quotation: Vossischer Musenalmanach (1792; some references give a date of 1772 which appears to be inaccurate)
  4. 1800 June, The British Critic, Foreign Catalogue: France, Article 56: (Review of Book: Lycée, ou, Cours de littérature ancienne et moderne, Book Author: J. F. Laharpe [Jean-Francois de La Harp]), Start Page 695, Quote Page 696, Printed for F. and C. Rivington, London. (Google Books full view) link