12 Things You Say Without Realizing You're Quoting Poetry

iStock
iStock

Last year, we collected 21 idioms and expressions that have entered everyday language from Shakespeare's works, from the original “wild goose chase” in Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth’s "be-all and end-all." But the connection between everyday idioms and literature doesn’t end there—if you’ve ever talked about “the birds and the bees” or referenced "the best laid plans of mice and men," then you've inadvertently quoted some of the English language’s most famous poets.

1. No Man Is An Island

Used as a proverbial reminder that no one is entirely independent and that everyone relies in some way on other people, the phrase no man is an island comes from “Meditation XVII,” part of the metaphysical poet John Donne’s prose-poem Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

Donne wrote his Devotions, a series of 23 essays on life, death, health, and sickness while recovering from a near-fatal illness in the early 1620s and published them in 1624. The seventeenth of his devotions also includes another famous line …

2. For Whom the Bell Tolls (It Tolls For Thee)

Continue reading "Meditation XVII," and you’ll get to this line, which Ernest Hemingway took as the title of his 1940 novel:

… Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

3. An Albatross Around Your Neck

Dismissing something as an albatross around your neck implies that it is an annoying or burdensome problem or curse. The expression comes from the famous scene in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the eponymous seafarer shoots and kills an albatross—a sign of good luck or providence in naval folklore—after which his ship and its crew suffer a terrible series of mishaps:

Ah! well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

4. The Birds and the Bees

The origins of this phrase are obscure, but it’s generally believed to have been heavily inspired by Coleridge, who wrote in his 1825 poem "Work Without Hope":

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!

5. Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Lord Byron is credited both with popularizing the phrase carpe diem in English (a line he stole from the Roman lyric poet Horace), and with the earliest use of Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo as a metaphor for any similarly substantial loss or setback. But in the fourteenth canto of his epic poem Don Juan (c. 1823), Byron also gave us the proverb that “truth is stranger than fiction”:

’Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!

6. A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

The proverb a thing of beauty is a joy forever is actually the first line of John Keats’s poem "Endymion" (1818):

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Referring to autumn as “the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” is also direct quote from Keats, and comes from the opening line of his 1820 ode "To Autumn."

7. Red in Tooth and Claw

If something is "red in tooth and claw," then it’s savagely or mercilessly brutal. The phrase has been used allusively to describe intensely competitive or clashing situations ever since Alfred, Lord Tennyson included the line in his 1850 poem, "In Memoriam A.H.H.":

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed—
Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

8. Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

According to Dante’s "Inferno," the words "abandon hope all ye who enter here" comprise the last of nine lines inscribed above the entrance to Hell. The phrase has existed in a number of different guises and wordings over the years, ever since parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy were first translated into English from the original 14th century Italian in the late 1700s; back then, this famous line was rendered as a less memorable, "Ye who here enter to return despair." But in 1814, the renowned English translator Henry Francis Cary finally gave us the template for the version we know today:

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov’d:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

9. Trip the Light Fantastic

The idiom trip the light fantastic is based on a line from John Milton’s 1645 poem, "L'Allegro":

Come, and trip it, as you go,
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;

The "trip" of trip the light fantastic doesn’t mean “stumble,” but rather “dance” or “move nimbly,” which was the word’s original meaning when it first appeared in English in the 14th century. The “light fantastic,” however, is entirely Milton’s invention and is meant to allude to the fantastical movements and gyrations made by divinely inspired dancers—he used it eight years earlier in "Comus" (1637), a verse “masque” that is also responsible (albeit in a fairly roundabout way) for the saying that “every cloud has a silver lining.”

10. Never the Twain (Shall Meet)

Commenting that never the twain shall meet implies that two things are polar opposites—so different, and so mutually opposed, that they will never reconcile or come together. The phrase is a direct quotation from the opening line of Rudyard Kipling’s "Ballad of East and West" (1889):

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

11. Less is More

It might sound like an old adage, but the widespread use of the phrase less is more is credited to the poet Robert Browning, who used it in his poem "Andrea del Sarto" (published 1855):

Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

12. The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

As well as giving John Steinbeck the title for his 1937 novella, the Scots poet Robert Burns gave us the phrase the best laid plans—or, in his original line, schemes—of mice and men in his 1785 poem, "To A Mouse":

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 agley, [Often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The phrase has been used ever since as a proverbial reminder that things don't often go to plan.

This piece was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Sony

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

10 Famous Writers’ Houses Worth Visiting

Robert E. Nylund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Robert E. Nylund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A writer’s home is a kind of autobiography, and visiting the place where a great work of literature was written gives you a deeper understanding of both the book and the person who wrote it. Here are some notable writers’ houses to check out.

1. Jack London’s Ranch // Glen Ellen, California

Besides being one of the most successful writers of his day, Call of the Wild author Jack London was also a dedicated rancher. London bought 1400 acres near Sonoma, California, and set up an experimental farm. He planted spineless cacti to feed his livestock, put in grain silos, and built a piggery so grand he called it the “pig palace.” You can visit the house where London lived and died, as well as the ruins of the three-story mansion that burned down just before he was set to move in. (The rock walls still stand in a redwood grove, not far from London's grave.)

2. John Steinbeck’s House // Salinas, California

Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men author Steinbeck grew up in this Victorian home and lived here as an adult in 1934 to care for his ailing mother. During that time, his successful novella The Red Pony was published. A restless child, Steinbeck never seemed comfortable with his middle-class upbringing and empathized with the migrant workers he saw in the vegetable fields around Salinas. The town appeared as the setting in many of his works, most notably East of Eden. Today, the home holds a restaurant located in what used to be Steinbeck’s parlor; the walls are decorated with Steinbeck family photos.

3. Mark Twain’s House // Hartford, Connecticut

Twain spent the happiest years of his life in this house with his wife and three daughters. He wrote seven major works here, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The house, which feels reminiscent of a Mississippi steamboat, cost a great deal of money and contributed to Twain’s financial problems late in life. The interior was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and has more than 10,000 objects from the Victorian era. There’s even a pool table in the study, right by Twain’s writing desk.

4. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s House // Concord, Massachusetts

Emerson lived in this house for 46 years until his death in 1882, and it acted as a transcendentalist headquarters. Visitors like Henry David Thoreau went in and out, sometimes staying in the guest room nicknamed the “Pilgrim’s Chamber.” Emerson wrote his essays Nature and Self-Reliance in a study on the first floor, although his son later said that Emerson’s “real study” was nearby Walden Woods.

5. Emily Dickinson House // Amherst, Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson was known as a recluse whose poetry was largely discovered after her death. But the house where she spent her life is a pleasant and bright one, with big windows and high ceilings. While most of the poet’s activities remain a mystery even today, you can see her bedroom where she wrote many of her nearly 2000 poems.

6. Edith Wharton’s Estate // Lenox, Massachusetts

Edith Wharton was rich. Very rich. The Mount, her palatial home, has 35 rooms, four floors, and acres of lush gardens. Wharton helped design the house according to the principles she laid out in her best-selling book The Decoration of Houses. Her good friend Henry James was a frequent guest. Wharton wrote The House Of Mirth at The Mount, usually working in the morning while lying in bed.

7. Margaret Mitchell’s Apartment // Atlanta, Georgia

The ultimate pilgrimage for Gone With The Wind fans has to be Margaret Mitchell’s house. Mitchell moved into Apartment Number 1 of this building—which she called "The Dump"—as a newlywed in 1925 and lived there for seven years. She worked on her epic novel on a table in the living room alcove that overlooks Crescent Avenue. Few people knew she was writing a book, which she considered a personal project. She worked on it sporadically until it was accepted for publication in 1935, forcing her to finish it up. The novel was a runaway hit.

8. Flannery O'Connor’s Andalusia Farm // Milledgeville, Georgia

Flannery O’Connor wanted to move away from the South, but when she was diagnosed with lupus, she moved to her mother’s dairy farm in 1951 and lived there until her death in 1964 at age 39. Since it was difficult for her to climb stairs, she slept in the downstairs living room, where she also wrote most of her published work. You can still see her manual typewriter and her crutches in the house. The more than 520 acre farm, with its ever-present peacocks, served as the setting for many of her short stories.

9. William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak // Oxford, Mississippi

Few authors are as known for evoking place as Faulkner is for writing about Oxford, Mississippi. Rowan Oak, his home for over 30 years, is where he wrote many of his major works, including Light in August. When Faulkner bought the house, it didn’t have running water or electricity. He spent many afternoons on home improvement projects, wiring the house himself and building the brick terrace outside. In his study, he sometimes wrote his complicated plot structures on the wall, then painted over them when he finished the book. In fact, you can still see the plot for his novel A Fable penciled on the wall right where he left it.

10. Ernest Hemingway’s House // Key West, Florida

Ernest Hemingway lived in this house from the time he married his second wife, Pauline, to when he ran off to Cuba with his third wife, Martha. It was the most productive eight years of his life. He wrote most of his major works in his office, which you could only get to by walking across a bridge that extended from the upstairs bedroom. Almost everything in the house had a story, from the urinal garden fountain to the monastery gate he used as a headboard to the six-toed cats he collected because he thought they were good luck. Today, over 40 cats still live on the estate, all said to be descendants of Hemingway’s original pets.