July 5, 2010

The Irregular Blather July 5, 1931

The Irregular Blather July 5, 1931

No Journal was published Sunday, July 5, 1931. Special reader response and historical sleuthing edition!

Onlooker wrote asking if he was accurate in remembering reading a lot about big companies building up cash earlier in the blog - in short, I think that is accurate and I'll try and track down more on that tomorrow.

However, today I'd like to highlight some fine detective work by davidlefool who did an interesting historical search on a joke from June 30:
Amateur poet - Dear Editor, will you please read the enclosed poem carefully and return it with your candid criticism as soon as possible, as I have other irons in the fire.
Editor - Dear Sir, please remove the irons and insert the poem.

David remembered a version of this joke in Reader's Digest, and found another in volume 4 of “The Unitarian” from 1889. Searching a bit futher, the “Handy-book of literary curiosities” has not one, not two, but three versions of the joke variously attributed to Samuel Johnson, to Johnson's contemporary Samuel Foote (a British dramatist), and to "the 'Nain Jaune,' a French collection of bon mots" ( actually a French satirical newspaper which was published in 1814-15 - apparently the expression “irons in the fire” is also used in French).

So far it appears the origin of the joke is even more confused. However, looking carefully at the last reference, it does appear that the Foote and French versions of the joke are curiously nonspecific about the identity of the unfortunate author, while the Johnson version specifies an author and even a title for the unwanted work. Following the trail a bit further, davidlefool found that the story actually appears in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson! Of course, the possibility remains that Boswell made up or misattributed the remark, but as far as is possible at this late date, I believe davidlefool has traced this mighty Amazon of an anecdote to its ultimate source.

This whole theme (or I believe the fancypants intellectual word would be meme) of the poet of doubtful quality inflicting his creations on an unreceptive world seems to be surprisingly old and widespread. In fact, in what seems to be the true story, the work in question was not a poem but a play (“The Siege of Sinope”) but all the other versions of the joke have it changed to a poem. And, yet another of Samuel Johnson's contemporaries, the great artist and social satirist William Hogarth, has a pretty funny picture on the topic called “The Distrest Poet” in which a poet scribbles away, apparently dreaming of riches and oblivious to his wife, who is left to deal with a bare cupboard and an insistent bill collector. (Also check out the rest of the fine Hogarth gallery at that site - and, for those of you who may be in London in the future there's a great little museum which is actually in Hogarth's house there, but it unfortunately appears to be closed for renovations now).

1 comment:

  1. Oh my, you're right, the story was attributed to Samuel Foote as well:

    A Physician at Bath told Mr Foote he had a mind to publish his poems; "but," said he, "I have so many irons in the fire, I don't know what to do." "Then take my advice," said Foote, "and put your poems into the fire with the rest of your irons." (Scrapeana: Fugitive miscellany - John Croft)

    This is closer to the other more general versions, since it concerns publishing poems, not the play that Mrs Brooke brought to Johnson. Oddly enough, a play by Samuel Foote contains this line:

    leave her to my Management, and consider we have more Irons in the Fire than one (The Englishman in Paris)

    I wonder whether some people deliberately switched the story to the more-famous Samuel Johnson. Foote gets around 46,000 Google results, while Johnson gets 2.5 million (though I don't know how many Google hits Foote got in the 1700s).

    A: [tells irons in fire story]
    B: Erm, who is Samuel Foote?
    A: Oh, you know...er...oh actually it was Samuel Johnson, not Foote.
    B: Oh but of course, that old rascal!

    As for the phrase "irons in the fire" itself, the earliest hit that Google Books has is from 1624:

    they that have many Irons in the fire some must burne (The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, by John Smith)

    John Smith: A Literary Pioneer