Bertrand Russell? William Butler Yeats? Eden Phillpotts? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I adore the following quotation which is attributed to the philosopher Bertrand Russell:
The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
But recently I saw a different version in which two words had been changed:
The world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.
This saying was credited to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Now my confidence that either of these prominent intellectuals fashioned this quote has been diminished. Can you clear up the confusion?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Russell or Yeats created this saying. QI believes that the original statement was crafted by an English author and playwright named Eden Phillpotts who used the word “universe” instead of “world” [SPEP]:
The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
The best-known works by Phillpotts were part of a series set in Dartmoor, England. He was praised for writing convincing West Country dialect, sympathetic rural characters, and accurate descriptions of topography. He also wrote a popular and long-running play called “The Farmer’s Wife” [OXEP].
The quote appeared in a 1919 book titled “A Shadow Passes” that contained a collection of vignettes depicting scenes in nature. Phillpotts noted that a magnifying lens could heighten visual acuity such that the perceived beauty of some plants would be enhanced. The passage that included the saying was about the plant species Menyanthes trifoliate which is commonly known as buckbean [SPEP]:
In the marshes the buckbean has lifted its feathery mist of flower spikes above the bed of trefoil leaves. The fimbriated flowers are a miracle of workmanship and every blossom exhibits an exquisite disorder of ragged petals finer than lace. But one needs a lens to judge of their beauty: it lies hidden from the power of our eyes, and menyanthes must have bloomed and passed a million times before there came any to perceive and salute her loveliness. The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
The phrase “wits to grow sharper” referred to the development of sufficient knowledge by mankind to create and use a magnifying lens to reveal the splendor of the buckbean. Phillpotts was suggesting that there are many other “magical things” that will be revealed in the future as our knowledge and capabilities grow.
This post continues with the conclusion, acknowledgment, and bibliographical notes.