Familiar Quotations: Being an Attempt to Trace to Their Source Passages and Phrases in Common Use
By Little, Brown, & Co.. Fifth Edition. Boston :
WE think this book may be accurately described as the book with which it is the easiest thing in the world to find fault. Every man has some passage of some author which, from long repetition and frequent quotation, he has come to consider a phrase in common use, and for him it is sufficient condemnation of Mr. Bartlett’s work not to find in it that line from The Columbiad, or whatever. Besides, the field of literature being so vast, it might well happen that phrases really in common use have been now and then omitted from the collection, which, being vainly sought there, appear the only quotations worth remembering. We confess that we imagine this case, and that we have not tried to think of any one familiar quotation with the purpose of convicting Mr. Bartlett of its omission. He has had the help of Mr. Rezin A. Wright of New York, in editing the present edition, and has greatly enlarged it since the last issue of the work in 1863, through the researches of others interested in its completeness. He and his assistants must of course be the judges of the degree of use in which a quotation becomes familiar. Completeness, which in this compilation is the great desideratum, can only be attained by frequent revision and addition; but the editors of the book might do much to effect it by inviting contribution from every one who considers himself the proprietor or repository of a familiar quotation. A good deal of trash would thus be got together, but it would be worth going over.
In the mean time, the book is a peculiarly entertaining as well as useful one, and has much of the strange fascination belonging to unabridged dictionaries, which, we maintain, are more agreeable reading than most modern romances and poems constructed from them. If there is a certain pleasant novelty in seeing for the first time a familiar quotation in the circumstances where its creator placed it, there is also something interesting in looking on a famous passage, hitherto known with the context, as a quotation. It is a very trifling enjoyment, but it is well not to reject any sort of small delight ; and the pursuit of this may lead one to some comparative observation of the amount of quotation from different authors in Mr. Bartlett’s ingenious volume. The passages are arranged chronologically, beginning with Chaucer and ending with Lowell, and including familiar quotations from a few un-English sources, though these are exceptional. Naturally, Shakespeare has the largest place, — a hundred and eighteen pages ; next to him is Milton, then Byron, then Pope, then Wordsworth, then Dryden, then Cowper, then Goldsmith. Humanity has given the first of these his great vogue in parlance ; but moods, sentiments, and conditions have had much to do with the familiarity of the others in quotation, and it is curious to find Milton and Wordsworth just holding their own against Pope and Byron. Cowper, Goldsmith, and Dryden are almost equally quoted, though the latter is probably far less read ; and Butler has furnished many weapons to those who never penetrated to his armory of wit, — or museum of armor as it has now wellnigh become.
Tennyson is first among quotation-bearing authors of our own time, and first after him is Longfellow, — neither being quoted at his best. We suppose it was in despair of representing Charles Dickens with any sort of adequacy that he was given only one page in this book. It is certain that he, more than any living author, — perhaps more than Shakespeare himself,—has supplied current phrases and expressions. He has, indeed, become so habitually quoted, that his phraseology has modified that of the whole English-speaking world, and his sayings are in every mouth; a book of “ Familiar Quotations,” conscious and unconscious, could be gathered from his romances alone.
The usefulness of Mr. Bartlett’s volume is greatly enhanced by the very complete index of subjects, and by the appendix, containing proverbial sayings and expressions, as well as the most-quoted passages from the Bible and Prayer-Book.