Absinthe: After the First Glass, You See Things As You Wish They Were

Oscar Wilde? Ada Leverson? Leslie Stokes? Violet Wyndham? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The alcoholic psychoactive drink absinthe was banned in the United States and many European countries in the previous century. But now it is legal again. Supposedly, the brilliant wit Oscar Wilde once discussed the phantasmagorical effects of the potion. His description began:

After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. …

Could you locate a full and accurate version of this quotation and tell me whether the words really should be attributed to Oscar Wilde?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this quote located by QI was printed in the book “Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde: With Reminiscences of the Author by Ada Leverson” published in 1930. Scholars consider the quotation credible even though Wilde died three decades earlier in 1900. Wilde and Leverson were good friends, and she supported him during his travails. Sphinx was the nickname that he gave to her. The book was printed in a limited edition impeding straightforward access.

The excellent Smathers Rare Book Library of the University of Florida holds number 240 of an edition containing 275 copies. On pages 39 and 40 of the volume Leverson described a conversation she had with the great wit [OWAL]:

One day he was talking of the effect of absinthe. “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean disassociated. Take a top-hat! You think you see it as it really is. But you don’t, because you associate it with other things and ideas. If you had never heard of one before, suddenly saw it alone, you’ld be frightened, or laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad.”

Here are additional excerpts and selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Absinthe: After the First Glass, You See Things As You Wish They Were

America Is the Only Country That Went from Barbarism to Decadence Without Civilization In Between

Ogden Nash? George Bernard Shaw? James Agate? La Liberté? Winston Churchill? Henry James? Oscar Wilde? Georges Clemenceau?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous humorous saying about the United States that has been credited to four celebrated wits: George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and Georges Clemenceau:

America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.

Could you reduce the uncertainty and determine who coined this acerbic comment?

Quote Investigator: A partial match of the quotation appeared in a French history text in 1841 which stated that the ruler of Russia pushed the country without transition from barbarism to decadence. Thanks to Dan Bye and the volunteer editors of Wikiquote for this citation: 1

… il fit passer son pays sans transition de la barbarie à la décadence, de l’enfance à la caducité.

In 1878 the prominent literary figure Henry James published a short story with a German character who remarked on the cultural evolution of the United States using a simile based on the maturation of fruit. The following passage is conceptually similar to the quotation, but the vocabulary is different. Thanks to correspondent Rand Careaga for this citation: 2

… unprecedented and unique in the history of mankind; the arrival of a nation at an ultimate stage of evolution without having passed through the mediate one; the passage of the fruit, in other words, from crudity to rottenness, without the interposition of a period of useful (and ornamental) ripeness. With the Americans, indeed, the crudity and the rottenness are identical and simultaneous;…

The earliest evidence known to QI of a close match for this expression was published in 1926 in The Sunday Times of London. Interestingly, the country being lacerated was Russia and not the United States. In addition, none of the four gentlemen mentioned by the questioner was credited with the words.

The theatre reviewer, James Agate, saw a production of the work “Katerina” by Andreyev, and he was deeply unsympathetic to the behaviors displayed by the characters. Boldface has been added below: 3 4

Everything that happens to Andreyev’s characters is repugnant to the English sense of what would, should, or could happen to people laying claim to ordinary, i.e. English sanity. This being so, the temptation is to cast about for excuses, to pity Russia for having been left out of the Roman march, and so passing from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilisation, or to talk about “retrogressive metamorphism” and the way this country has been steadily breaking Europe down ever since, in the time of Peter the Great, she first began to absorb European culture.

Special thanks to correspondent Robert Rosenberg who identified this pivotal early instance.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading America Is the Only Country That Went from Barbarism to Decadence Without Civilization In Between


  1. 1841, Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand, Volume 6, Quote Page 72, Chez L. Hachette. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1881, Washington Square; The Pension Beaurepas; A Bundle of Letters by Henry James, Volume 2, (A Bundle of Letters; short story reprinted from The Parisian, 1878), Start Page 198, Quote Page 266, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1926 April 4, The Sunday Times (UK), The Dramatic World: Those Russians Again by James Agate, (Review of the play Katerina by Andreyev performed on March 31), Quote Page 4, London, England. (Gale’s Sunday Times Digital Archive; thanks to Fred Shapiro and Dan J. Bye for accessing this database)
  4. 1944, Red Letter Nights by James Agate, (Review by James Agate of the play Katerina by Leonid Andreyev; starring John Gielgud and Frances Carson; Review is dated April 3, 1926 in book), Start Page 112, Quote Page 113, Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, UK. (Internet Archive) link

You Must Know Your Destination Port If You Wish to Catch A Favorable Wind

Oscar Wilde? Seneca the Younger? Leon Tec?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I came across a quotation in a pub in Germany that was credited to Oscar Wilde. Your help in tracing this expression would be greatly appreciated but there is a twist to this request that will probably increase the difficulty. I have not been able to find this quote in its original English language version. All I could find on the web was the German phrase as I saw it in the pub. Here is the saying together with a translation:

Günstige Winde kann nur der nutzen, der weiß, wohin er will.

Only he can make use of favourable winds who knows where he wants to go.

I know that Oscar Wilde attracts a large number of spurious attributions. Could you search for the original version of this aphorism and determine who said it?

Quote Investigator: QI has not located any substantive evidence connecting this saying to Oscar Wilde. Intriguingly, the earliest evidence points to a maxim that was written in Latin and not English. During classical antiquity Seneca the Younger wrote about ports and catching a favorable wind. Here is the Latin version of one of his adages together with an English translation [SYDC]:

Ignoranti quem portum petat, nullus suus ventus est.

If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him.

Seneca. Epistolae, LXXI., 3.

The wording and the emphasis in the above maxim differs somewhat from the content of the quotation provided by the questioner. However, over the years other writers have modified Seneca’s saying. Here is a modern example attributed to Seneca in a volume aimed at public speakers titled “The Speaker’s Sourcebook” which was published in 1988 [SYSP]:

You must know for which harbor you are headed if you are to catch the right wind to take you there. Seneca

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Must Know Your Destination Port If You Wish to Catch A Favorable Wind

The Play Was a Great Success, But the Audience Was a Total Failure

Oscar Wilde? William Collier? Daniel Frohman? George Bernard Shaw? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been involved in several theatrical productions and sometimes the response of an audience to a show is mystifying. A colleague told me that Oscar Wilde watched an early performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the reception was unenthusiastic. Later when he was asked about that night’s presentation he said:

The play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure.

I can easily envision Wilde uttering this response. When I used Google I found another version of the line:

The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster

Do you think this anecdote is true, and do you think either of these lines is accurate?

Quote Investigator: This is an entertaining quip that appeals to people who depend on the fickle reactions of audiences. However, there is little evidence that Wilde ever spoke this quotation. Lady Windermere’s Fan was a highly-successful and lucrative comedy for Wilde.  The earliest attribution to Wilde that QI has located appeared in the 1937 book “Encore” by the theatrical impresario Daniel Frohman who does not identify a specific play [OWDF]:

Oscar Wilde arrived at his club one evening, after witnessing a first production of a play that was a complete failure.

A friend said, “Oscar, how did your play go tonight?”

“Oh,” was the lofty response, “the play was a great success but the audience was a failure.”

In fact, the core of this joke was employed by another legendary Irish wit, George Bernard Shaw, in a review he wrote in 1892. Shaw’s commentary was published in “The World”, and recorded his unhappiness with his fellow viewers who reacted negatively to a dancer whose performance was deemed too provocative and suggestive [GBSD] [BSTD]:

Take notice, oh Senorita C. de Otero, Spanish dancer and singer, that I wash my hands of the national crime of failing to appreciate you. You were a perfect success: the audience was a dismal failure. I really cannot conceive a man being such a dull dog as to hold out against that dance.

Lady Windermere’s Fan premiered in 1892 and Oscar Wilde did directly address the audience from the stage after the initial performance. However, the production was a success and not a failure, and his words were precisely the opposite of those listed above.

Continue reading The Play Was a Great Success, But the Audience Was a Total Failure

“There is a Conspiracy of Silence Against Me. What Should I Do, Oscar?” “Join It.”

Oscar Wilde? Augustine Birrell? Lewis Morris? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular anecdote about Oscar Wilde that is very funny, but it is also implausible in my opinion. The story claims that Wilde was speaking with a terrible poet who had recently published a book of verse. The rhymer complained that no one was reviewing his work. He felt it was being deliberately ignored.

“There is a conspiracy of silence against my book, Oscar. What should I do?”

“Join it,” replied Oscar.

This is a cleverly cutting remark, but I do not believe that Wilde would have been that cruel. In my readings he always seemed to be a gracious conversationalist, and he would not issue this type of direct insult to someone. Could you research this anecdote and quotation?

Quote Investigator: This is an intriguing question but it is not an easy one to probe. QI has located strong evidence that some people who knew Wilde and knew about this incident expressed an opinion similar to yours. Friends of Wilde tell a version in which he did not directly insult the target of this comical barb.

Yet, the earliest published reports of this episode located by QI depict Wilde delivering the quip during a face-to-face encounter with the poet. For example, the following version of the story appeared in a review called “The Critic” on October 13, 1894, and this account was widely disseminated in other reviews and journals during the next few years [TCCS]:

The Bookman tells an amusing story of Mr. Oscar Wilde and a certain poet, who shall be nameless. The bard complained to the aesthete that a book of his had been practically ignored by certain critics. “There is a conspiracy of silence against my book,” he said. “What should you do about it, if you were I?” “Join it,” was the answer.

A very different account was presented by a biographer of Wilde named Robert Harborough Sherard in “The Real Oscar Wilde” in 1916. In this version, the poet, identified as Lewis Morris, asks for advice from the statesman Augustine Birrell. At a later time Birrell communicates the query to Wilde who responds acerbically [ROCS]:

Apropos of conspiracies of silence, there is a frequently told anecdote that the poet, Lewis Morris, having complained to Oscar that there was a conspiracy of silence against him was promptly advised to join it. I never believed that Oscar Wilde would have said such a thing to a brother poet, because I never knew him wilfully to hurt anybody’s feelings, and for another thing, this particular poet was an eminently well-meaning if tedious personage, insufficiently popular to excite anybody’s hostility. That I was right in doubting the accuracy of this story was proved to me by the following statement made by Mr Augustine Birrell, the present Secretary for Ireland, in the course of a conversation he had with Mr Herbert Vivian, who was writing a series of interviews, or Studies in Personality for The Pall Mall Magazine.

Birrell had been talking about a conversation he had had with Winston Churchill and remarked that, in answer to something that Winston had said, “I scarcely knew what to say to him, but I was profoundly impressed by his manner and earnestness.” Hereupon Vivian said: “I should not think that you often found yourself at a loss for an answer.”

To this Birrell answered, with a smile: “That reminds me of a certain poet who came to me once upon a time and complained that his works were neglected. He said there was a conspiracy of silence. Of course I felt very sorry for him, but I was really puzzled what to say. I mentioned this to a well-known wit, who exclaimed quite angrily: ‘You did not know what to say! Do you really mean to tell me that you did not know what to say?’ ‘No, upon my word I did not.’ ‘Of course, you should have said: “A conspiracy of silence! My dear fellow, join it at once.”’”

Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “There is a Conspiracy of Silence Against Me. What Should I Do, Oscar?” “Join It.”