Quotations often misquoted
“There but for the grace of God go I.”
John Bradford (c.1510–1555)
When British religious leader John Bradford saw a group of criminals being led to their execution, he actually said, “But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.” Chaplain to King Edward VI (1537-1553), Bradford was accused of sedition by the king’s successor, his elder half-sister Mary (1516–1558). Condemned as a heretic, he and some 290 other Protestant martyrs perished under the persecution of the Catholic monarch labeled “Bloody Mary” prior to modern revisionist accounts of her eventful life and tragic death.
“Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.”
William Congreve (1670–1729)
British playwright William Congreve penned The Mourning Bride in 1697, in which the famous quote appears in Act I, Scene 1. In Congreve’s tragedy, the title character mourns the death of the king of Valencia in Spain, who has been buried in Granada as a captive. The king is secretly her father-in-law, and her husband is presumed dead as well. The bride says,
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have moved,
And, as with living Souls, have been informed,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
The quotation is frequently heard as, “Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast,” which, though technically inaccurate, conveys a similar meaning.
“Nothing is easy for a dying man.”
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
Ben Franklin uttered these dying words after his doctor advised him to turn on his side to make breathing easier. “A dying man can do nothing easily” was his reply. Franklin died on April 17, 1790, three months into his 84th year.
“Nothing is certain but death and taxes.”
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
Benjamin Franklin is famous for so many things, not least of which are the hundreds of colorful aphorisms he popularized in his Poor Richard’s Almanack during the mid-eighteenth century. His most enduring remarks were made as an octogenarian during the great debates of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. The famous remark, now one of the most widely used clichés in American discourse, traces its origin to a speech written by the ailing Dr. Franklin before final ratification of the constitution. The complete excerpt reads, “Our new constitution is now established and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain but death and taxes.”
“Master of all he surveys.”
William Cowper (1731–1800)
Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk (1676–1721), following a rancorous quarrel with his captain, was cast ashore alone on a desert island where he was marooned five years. His adventure became the basis for Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719). British poet William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) penned the following lines in 1782 on behalf of the unfortunate seaman, who longs for home and human contact.
I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is not to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea,
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
“The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”
Robert Burns (1759–1796)
Robert Burns, the son of a farmer, wrote most of his poetry in the country idiom and dialect of Scots-English. Throughout his works he displays a great love for all the creatures of the earth, even the very humblest. The famous line is found in his short poem, To a Mouse: On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough. The poet is sorry to have disturbed the mouse and mutters,
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [not alone],
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.
“I regret that I have but one life to give my country.”
Nathan Hale (1755–1776)
A school teacher commissioned in the Connecticut militia, Nathan Hale achieved martyrdom after being summarily hanged as a spy by the British during the American Revolutionary War. His fame is largely the consequence of his last words, attributed to him by a British colonel who was impressed by the young man’s patriotic zeal. In a statement before being executed on September 22, 1776, Hale reportedly said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” The statement quickly became an inspiration for the rebellious colonists.
“A sharp tongue grows sharper with constant use.”
Washington Irving (1783–1859)
“Time grew worse and worse with Rip Van Winkle as years of matrimony rolled on; a tart temper never mellows, and a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows sharper with constant use.” Thus wrote American author Washington Irving in describing “the furnace of domestic tribulation” that his most famous character escaped by his twenty-year-long snooze. The sharp tongue belonged to Van Winkle’s wife, whose knack for
complaining was matched only by her husband’s knack for avoiding gainful employment. The expression was popularized by Joseph Jefferson, who played Rip Van Winkle for almost forty years in a traveling dramatization of the story following the U.S. Civil War.
“A woman of a certain age.”
George Gordon Byron (1788–1824)
Although this quote is usually associated with the French male and his eminently sensible appreciation for middle-aged women, it was British poet Lord Byron, no slacker in his appreciation for women of all ages, who penned these well known words. In stanza 22 of his satire Beppo (1817), Byron describes Laura, whose husband and lover sort out their differences over coffee.
She was not old, nor young,
nor at the years
which people call a certain age,
which yet the most uncertain age appears.
“There’s an exception to every rule.”
Margaret Fuller (1810–1850)
Author and social reformer Margaret Fuller was one of the most forward-thinking women of the nineteenth century. Her writings constitute some of the earliest examples of feminist thought. She founded the Boston Conversationalists in 1838, a club wherein women engaged in lively discussions on all the important issues of the day. An intimate of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Amos Bronson Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, she was also an active Transcendentalist. She was the founding editor of The Dial, the primary organ of Transcendentalism, where her many essays espoused the pursuit of freedom, reason and the democratic process. The well known quote, as it appears in her 1843 essay, The Great Lawsuit, Man Versus Men, Woman Versus Women, was originally written, “Nature provides exceptions to every rule.”
“The best is yet to come.”
Robert Browning (1812–1889)
Deriving from the poem Rabbi Ben Ezra (1864), English poet Robert Browning instills hope in the aging with this commonly heard, but often misquoted, phrase. Refuting the belief that youth is the best time of life, the rabbi explains that life is a growing process, that God wants life to thrive and develop as time goes on. Instead of wallowing in the concept of age, the rabbi encourages the world to drink life in, saying, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.”
“All is fair in love and war.”
Ellen Wood (1813–1887)
When the saying appeared in Ellen Wood’s novel, East Lynne, the line was, “All stratagems are fair in love and war.” When the novel was adapted into a play, the character Levison spoke those exact words in Act III, scene ii. Through time, however, stratagems have commonly been dropped in favor of the simpler and more direct pronouncement we know today.
“Give him enough rope and he will hang himself.”
Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855)
In a political debate between a Whig and a Tory, Mr. Moore, the Whig, exclaims, “If I judged them, I’d give them short shrift! …but I mean to let them quite alone in this bout, to give them rope enough, certain that in the end they will hang themselves.” Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Shirley (1847), in which the original quote appears in chapter three, involves several debates between Moore and his Tory opponent Mr. Helstone. Over time, the true quote has metamorphosed into the short but powerful saying we now frequently hear.
“It’s like playing tennis without a net.”
Robert Frost (1874–1963)
Robert Frost, who captured perhaps more than any other American poet the love and admiration of common and uncommon readers alike, was also reckoned to be one of the meanest men who ever lived by those who knew him, especially other poets. What he actually said, in a reference to writing blank verse, was, “I’d rather play tennis with the net down” (Newsweek, 1961).
“Rose is a rose is a rose.”
Gertrude Stein (1874–1946)
One of the most controversial writers of the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein’s best-known quote is often heard incorrectly as, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” However, she is not speaking about a flower, but a person. The line appears in her 1913 novel, Sacred Emily. Stein’s literary achievements may be questionable, but during her career she wrote novels, plays, verse, prose poems and even an opera, and she was one of the first writers to experiment with the non-narrative style associated with her close friend Ernest Hemingway.
“I must go down to the sea again.”
John Masefield (1878–1957)
This is the opening line of John Masefield’s most popular poem, Sea Fever (1902). When Masefield became England’s poet laureate he unfortunately felt obliged to write everything in verse. “I must go down to the sea again” is the way the line is most often quoted, but it is not the way it is usually printed. “I must go down to the seas again” is the way it first appeared in print, but this was a typographical error. In spite of Masefield’s attempts to correct later reprints, the error persisted. However, most people remember the line the way the poet wanted it.
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Neil Armstrong (1930– 2013)
It was July 21, 1969, when this famous U.S. astronaut stepped down from the ladder of the lunar module Eagle to become the first human being to walk on the moon. Uncounted millions watching the event on television or listening on the radio heard him say, “That’s one small step for man.” They did not hear the carefully prepared phrase, “for a man.” Armstrong later stated that he had not flubbed the message and had properly said “a man,” but that the immense distance and radio static had erased the small word for the listening audience.
“Play it again, Sam.”
Attributed to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942); Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, et. al.
Though it’s one of the most celebrated lines in motion picture history, film devotees are astonished to learn that “Play it again, Sam” is never actually said in Casablanca, the popular film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Set in French Morocco in the midst of World War II, Bogart plays American nightclub owner Rick Blaine, who is trying to forget the pain of Ilse, his unrequited love. He has given a standing order to Sam, the house pianist, never to play a certain song that was always Ilse’s favorite. Soon, however, events unexpectedly bring Ilse to Casablanca, and one night she appears at Rick’s Café Américain. Not finding Rick there, Ilse says to the pianist, “Play it once, Sam, for old time’s sake.” Sam, played characteristically by Dooley Wilson, reluctantly agrees, but the song attracts Rick’s attention and he puts a stop to it. Later, after closing for the night, Rick and Sam are the only two people in the café. Rick says, “You played it for her, you can play it for me.” When Sam protests, Rick becomes insistent. “If she can stand it, I can. Play it!” Incidentally, the film contains many popular remarks that have become popularly known, among them: “Here’s looking at you kid;” “This is the start of a beautiful friendship;” “Of all the gin joints in the world, she had to walk into mine.”