Tag Archives: William Hazlitt

There Is Less in This Than Meets the Eye

Tallulah Bankhead? Dorothy Parker? Robert Benchley? James Boswell? Richard Burke? William Hazlitt?

Dear Quote investigator: The actress Tallulah Bankhead was watching an ostentatious play, and she whispered to her companion a hilarious line based on an inverted cliché:

There is less in this than meets the eye.

This quip has also been attributed to two other witty people: Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote investigator: QI has located no substantive support for ascribing the comment to Parker or Benchley.

In 1922 the theater critic Alexander Woollcott invited Tallulah Bankhead to join him at a performance of Maurice Maeterlinck’s drama “Aglavaine and Selysette”. The following day Woollcott’s hostile review of the production in “The New York Times” credited the remark to a “beautiful lady”: 1

The civility of the spectators was really extraordinary. There was not so much as a snicker, for instance, when William Raymond, as Meleander, cried out anxiously: “What shall I be doing next year?” Not a ripple when Clare Eames, gazing severely at the audience, said: “It is sometimes better not to rouse those who slumber.” It is, it is, indeed. But after all the matinee was best summed up by the beautiful lady in the back row, who said: “There is less in this than meets the eye.”

Later in 1922 Woollcott published the book “Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights”. He discussed Maeterlinck’s play in a chapter called “Capsule Criticism” and credited the statement to Bankhead: 2

Two gifted young actresses and a considerable bit of scenery were involved, and much pretentious rumbling of voice and wafting of gesture had gone into the enterprise. Miss Bankhead, fearful, apparently, lest she be struck dead for impiety, became desperate enough to whisper, “There is less in this than meets the eye.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1922 January 4, New York Times, The Play by Alexander Woollcott, Quote Page 11, Column 1, New York, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1922, Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter 4: Capsule Criticism, Start Page 77, Quote Page 86, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

A Bird Doesn’t Sing Because It Has an Answer, It Sings Because It Has a Song

Maya Angelou? Joan Walsh Anglund? William Hazlitt? Alfred Lord Tennyson? Jimmie Allison? Lou Holtz?

bird07Dear Quote Investigator: In 2015 the U.S. Postal Service released a controversial commemorative stamp featuring the prominent author Maya Angelou which displayed the following words:

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

Angelou’s best-known work was titled “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, and the expression above seems to be thematically connected; however, the words were not originally crafted by Angelou. Would you please explore the provenance of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in “A Cup of Sun: A Book of Poems” by Joan Walsh Anglund, a popular children’s book author. The collection was published in 1967, and the following verse was printed by itself on a single page; note that the phrasing differed slightly from the words on the stamp because it used the identifier “he” instead of “it”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A bird does not sing because he has an answer.
He sings because he has a song.

The quotation was reassigned to the category Chinese proverb by 1984. In 1995 it was re-ascribed to someone named Howard Clemmons, and by 2001 it was reassigned to Maya Angelou. Detailed citations are given further below.

Speculations and pronouncements about the motivations of singing birds have a long and variegated history. The examples shown in this article will emphasize the internal wellsprings of avian desire instead of external goals.

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located valuable citations for this topic and shared them with QI for this article.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1967, A Cup of Sun: A Book of Poems by Joan Walsh Anglund, Quote Page 15 (also printed on inside front flap), Published by Harcourt, Brace & World, New York (Verified with scans)