12 Things You Say Without Realizing You're Quoting Poetry
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.