Forgiveness Is the Fragrance the Violet Sheds on the Heel That Has Crushed It

Mark Twain? George Roemisch? Sophia May Eckley? Ella A. Giles? Elizabeth Reeves Humphreys? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following evocative metaphorical definition of forgiveness is often attributed to Mark Twain:

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

But I have seen the quotation below credited to someone named George Roemisch in the popular advice column “Dear Abby”:

Forgiveness is the fragrance of the violet which still clings fast to the heel that crushed it.

I find this example of figurative speech fascinating. Is the ascription to Twain accurate? Would you explore the history of this type of saying?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said or wrote this statement. It is not listed on the TwainQuotes.com website edited by Barbara Schmidt, an important reference tool for checking expressions ascribed to the humorist. Also, it does not appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”. The unsupported linkage to Twain was printed in newspapers by the 1970s. See details further below.

This metaphor does have a very long history and a variety of plants with aromas have been substituted into its framework. In 1794 a prominent scholar of ancient India and languages named Sir William Jones delivered a lecture titled “The Philosophy of the Asiaticks”.

Jones discussed the topic of forgiveness and its figurative representation in a work he credited to a pandit. The sandalwood tree has a close-grained wood that is prized for its long-lasting fragrance. In the following passage the destructive force was provided by an axe and not a foot: 1

…the beautiful Aryá couplet, which was written at least three centuries before our era, and which pronounces the duty of a good man, even in the moment of his destruction to consist not only in forgiving, but even in a desire of benefiting, his destroyer, as the Sandal-tree, in the instant of its overthrow, sheds perfume on the axe, which fells it…

An 1812 a book by Reverend Charles Colton discussed forgiveness and employed the same metaphor while citing the words of Sir William Jones in a footnote. Colton presented a “sandal-tree” as an example of a plant which had been “wronged” but reacted with “forgiveness” and “kindness”: 2

The falling Sandal-Tree sheds fragrance round,
Perfumes the axe that fells it to the ground;
Some through their tortured trunks a balm supply,
And to give life to their destroyer—die;

In 1845 a poem titled “Father! Forgive Them!” used the symbol of a “floweret” which had been crushed beneath a foot to represent forgiveness. The overall context of the work was Christian: 3

“Father, forgive them!” As a floweret fair,
When crushed beneath some rude and careless tread,
Breathes forth its fragrance on the balmy air,
Regaling him who hath its beauties shed

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Forgiveness Is the Fragrance the Violet Sheds on the Heel That Has Crushed It

Notes:

  1. 1807, The Works of Sir William Jones in Thirteen Volumes, Volume 3, Discourse The Eleventh on The Philosophy of the Asiaticks, (Lecture delivered on February 20, 1794), Start Page 229, Quote Page 243, Printed for John Stockdale and John Walker, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1812, Hypocrisy: A Satire, in Three Books: Book the First by Rev. C. Colton (Charles Caleb Colton), Quote Page 235 to 237, Printed and Sold by T. Smith, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1845 August 2, The Literary Museum: A Repository of the Useful and Entertaining, Volume 2, Number 15, “Father! Forgive Them!”, (Acknowledgement: From “The Covenant”), Quote Page 116, Column 3, Published by John B. Hall & Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link