Sold His Soul for a Pot of Message

Critic: Max Beerbohm? G. K. Chesterton? Hugh Walpole? C. L. Edson? Piccolo? Maurice Francis Egan? John Cournos? Sara Henderson Hay? Theodore Sturgeon? Anonymous?

Person Being Criticized: H. G. Wells? John Galsworthy? William Lafayette Strong? Douglas Goldring? Margaret Halsey?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Bible tells the story of Esau who made a foolishly impulsive decision when he was hungry. His younger brother, Jacob, offered Esau a dish of lentils in exchange for his birthright, and Esau accepted. The phrase “mess of pottage” is used to describe the dish in the Geneva Bible of 1560 and other editions. 1 The following idiom refers to giving up something of great value or importance in return for something of little value:

Sell your birthright for a mess of pottage.

This statement inspired a spoonerism:

Sell your birthright for a pot of message.

This style of wordplay has been used in literary criticism. For example, barbs of the following type have been aimed at writers who employed crudely didactic themes and plots:

  • H. G. Wells sold his soul for a pot of message.
  • John Galsworthy sold his artistic birthright for a pot of message.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The phrase “pot of message” was circulating in the 1800s as discussed further below. The first evidence located by QI of the wordplay employed in the criticism of a significant literary figure occurred by 1919 in “The Sun” newspaper of New York. Novelist and lecturer Hugh Walpole aimed a jibe at science fiction author and social activist H. G. Wells; however, the attribution was anonymous. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

It is this passionate longing for a less muddled world that has reduced the Wells of the most recent period, the Wells who has “sold his soul for a pot of message,” as some one put it the other day. The war only increased and stimulated the propagandist energy that had always been there.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Sold His Soul for a Pot of Message


  1. 2005 (2006 online Version), The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Second Edition), Entry: mess of pottage, Oxford University Press. (Oxford Reference Online; accessed April 15, 2019)
  2. 1919 December 28, The Sun, Section: Books and the Book World of The Sun, On Wells–Early, Mediaeval and Modern: A London Letter from Hugh Walpole in America, Quote Page 7, Column 3 and 4, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)

Love: It Is a Sort of Divine Accident

Hugh Walpole? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Radiant love displays “depth, beauty, and joy”, but achieving this extraordinary relationship is challenging. The bestselling English novelist Hugh Walpole apparently said:

It is a sort of Divine accident.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: The book “What is Happiness?” consists of essays by ten writers including Sir Hugh Walpole. The collection appeared in London in 1938 and in New York in 1939. Walpole began his reply to the title question by stating: “This is a dangerous question to ask, partly because there is no real answer to it”. Yet, he recognized the centrality of love. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But the most wonderful of all things in life, I believe, is the discovery of another human being with whom one’s relationship has a glowing depth, beauty, and joy as the years increase. This inner progressiveness of love between two human beings is a most marvellous thing; it cannot be found by looking for it or by passionately wishing for it. It is a sort of Divine accident.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Love: It Is a Sort of Divine Accident


  1. 1939, What Is Happiness? by Martin Armstrong et al, (A collection of ten essays by different authors: J. B. Priestley, Martin Armstrong, Storm Jameson, V. S. Pritchett, Bertrand Russell, Sir Hugh Walpole, Eric Linklater, Gerald Bullett, John Hilton, Havelock Ellis), Chapter by Sir Hugh Walpole, Start Page 67, Quote Page 74, H. C. Kinsey & Company, Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)