A quote! My kingdom for a good quote!
When the remains of Richard III were identified recently in England, just about every commentator mentioned the famous quotation associated with his name: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
Unfortunately for the last Plantagenet king of England, it is always difficult to find a spare horse in the midst of a battlefield rout. They are as scarce as a taxi on a wet night in New York City — or in Pittsburgh’s case, as scarce as a taxi at any time in any weather.
What is more unfortunate is that the quotation was not among the king’s last words, which were more likely “ouch” and “darn.” He died of his wounds and was buried under a future parking lot, history’s way of adding insult to injury.
No, the credit for King Richard’s supposed eloquence goes to William Shakespeare, as usual, because the playwright pretty much invented the English language.
You may think this column is a sorry sight, but it is now a foregone conclusion that many of the things we carelessly say are Shakespearean in origin.
For example, “a sorry sight” comes from “Macbeth” and “foregone conclusion” from “Othello.”
The immortal bard invented dozens of such phrases, and the average person doesn’t have to be wearing tights to say them.
That’s not to suggest that Shakespeare invented every memorable saying in the English language. He didn’t say, even though it is a great truth: “Different strokes for different folks, and so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby.” That was Mr. Sly of the Family Stone.
Now, at this stage of the column, you may be baffled enough to wander lonely as a cloud that floats on high (William Wordsworth) or maybe you have trod the pavement in a dead patrol or measured out your life with coffee spoons (T.S. Eliot). Or perhaps you are simply saying: “What the heck is this?” (Anonymous)
What this is about is my huge love for quotations, those pearls of wisdom collected by fine minds to brighten the days of those who delight in language?
In particular, this is my tribute to English majors. It is my hope that they will read this column and be cheered up as they sit in the unemployment office.
Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a writer? Certainly, one must have a hide like a rhinoceros to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (Shakespeare again) and a cast-iron liver to process the shots and barrels of outrageous alcohol (me). But the would-be writer must also imbibe good writing and become inebriated by words.
No less an authority than British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a great man who did not limit himself in matters of inebriation and was good for a quote himself, observed as much.
“It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations,” he said. “ ‘Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations’ is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more.”
Very true. If I were marooned on a desert island, I would be content if all I had was “Familiar Quotations” to keep me company — that and a well-stocked fridge and good plumbing. And maybe a DVD player.
It is true that my favorite quotations tend to be from a dead poet’s society of the traditional greats — Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and the boys. But if anybody should criticize my narrow literary taste, then I would say to them: “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries” (French soldier, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”).
One regret: Having kept company, one quotation at a time, with the greatest speakers, actors, singers, statesmen and writers of any generation, I am left feeling defeated that no quotation of mine shall ever be saved for posterity — not in Bartlett’s, not at the bottom of those little calendars people used to turn one day at a time.
Apparently everything worthwhile has been said.
If BrainyQuote.com were to include one of my sayings — such as my definition of a liberal: a person who believes that consenting adults may have any sort of sex but shouldn’t be allowed a cigarette afterward — then it would be better than a Pulitzer to me.
So much for good thoughts. I sound no better than a pygmy seeking to enter the hall of giants.
Only one thing to do: Flee the battlefield. A horse! A horse! A taxi! A taxi! Darn, where did they go?
Reg Henry is columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.