22 October 2012

Mark Twain didn't say that

Drake's Drum at Buckland Abbey

"Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o' Heaven,
An' drum them up the Channel as we drumm'd them long ago."

Sir Francis Drake didn't say those words given to him in Henry Newbolt's poem, and no one thinks he did. They are part of a child's view of history, and one of the early surprises by time that lured me into scholarship.  And the whole drum mystique has a wonderful accumulation of stories.

I was thinking about Sir Francis Drake -- pirate, slaver, brute --recently because at a church servic a couple of months back, the reverend talked about a prayer he said was written by Sir Francis.  The Sir-Francis identification -- language and thought -- didn't sound right to me, and I had theological problems with the egocentric content. I asked where he had found it.  Just Google for "Sir Francis Drake's prayer," he said.  I did.  I will not put the prayer here because I find the attribution a great untruth, and it is so far from anything that could be imagined of the 16th century that it makes my head hurt.

More searching seemed to produce evidence that it was so cited, and rewritten into its present form, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  In an e-mail, the reverend said he knew someone who could find out about this for me, and perhaps this will happen.  The reverend also said about Sir Francis: 
I may judge his actions, but not his faith.  A good thought on that is to point to John Newton who was a slave ship captain that penned the hymn "Amazing Grace" after his conversion of thought about that matter which had been (wrongly) upheld as okay by the church.
A kind and uncritical view of this pirate, brute, and slaver.  So I read three serious biographies of Sir Francis, all of which assured me that he was not bowling when the Spanish Armada was approaching the shores of England: a bit of publicity long after the event.  I am disappointed, but I can live with that.

However, none of the biographers mentioned this prayer, all three had cold views of his religion, all three found him a great moral failure, and I would personally say that Sir Francis hasn't a snowball's chance in hell of having written that web-cherished prayer.  Or of escaping hell, if you believe in that sort of thing.

There is a fine prayer attributed to Drake here, which was, in fact, composed by Eric Milner-White, the Dean of York during WW2 and after, derived from a letter of Drake's which said: There must be a begynnyng of any great matter, but the contenewing unto the emd untyll it be thoroughly ffynyshed yelds the trew glory.
If Drake actually used this in the context of a prayer, it was before a massacre or slave-taking.  That was what he did.

 Think about it.

I am getting to Mark Twain now.  The year I was 14, I lived two blocks from his house in Hartford, Connecticut.  I passed it twice a day on my way to and from school.  I visited it so often that the ladies at the door quit charging me admission, and I could go into Mark Twain's library, sit in his chair, and read his books.  At the annual Mark Twain festival, a charming white-haired man with a white suit, and a cigar, was shaking hands on the porch, and it was another 5 years or so in a college literature class before I realized that I had not actually met Mark Twain personally.  My tenderness for this man, for his books, and my reverence for the Mississippi River he gave me is unequalled by my affection for anything else except for my daughters. And Nauplion.

So in this context, imagine my horror when I was sent, and more than once, a cheerful maxim attributed to Mark Twain which recommended various forms of imposing your uninhibited self-expression on an unsuspecting public.  This was making the rounds of the interwebs, and I can only say that I never saw it posted by a person of the male gender. (Thanks, guys!)  With a daughter's help, I tracked it down to another author -- a New Age type,  which was evident from the text -- unfortunately of the male gender. Again, I will not post the quotation here because I have standards.

No one who has actually read Mark Twain, or knows anything about him, or has any respect for him, could attribute something so trite, so mindless to this man who lived enmeshed in depression and and anger, and his experiences of slavery, war, failure, loss, and death. 

If people think Mark Twain's name authoritative, why treat it with such carelessness? Or Socrates' name, or Thucydides', or George Washington's, or the names of any of those people who are used as authorities for private sentiments? 

Winston Churchill did not say, "You make a living by what you get: you make a life by what you give," another quote currently circulating that shows no awareness of his distinctive style of rhetoric.

Albert Einsten did not say, " The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results," a quote that is always turning up on Facebook.

Edmund Burke did not say, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."  Nor did Plato or Martin Luther King.

Ingrid Bergman did not say, "Play it again, Sam." 

Sherlock Holmes did not say, "Elementary, my dear Watson." *

If you have the slightest temptation to pass on an attribution -- it happens to all of us -- and you do not know a specific citation, Do Not Attribute It.  You can quote it, no matter how banal, from now till the cows come home,** but don't burden it with a label.  Man-up, woman-up, and claim it as your own.

It is that simple.  And for the people who do believe in hell, let me remind you that giving such twaddle to Sir Francis Drake or Mark Twain, or misquoting anyone (including, especially in the next couple of weeks, President Obama), is a violation of the 8th Commandment (or 9th, depending on your confession): Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Mark Twain was my neighbor. 

* Would you believe P. G. Wodehouse, in Psmith Journalist, 1915?
** I have heard this phrase used all my life by people who have no personal acquaintance with cows.


  1. As always, a fascinating detour for me to read your blog. I had no idea about Sir Francis Drake and for some reason, he's one of the few 'figures of history' from my childhood (primary school) education, that I recall - I think just the grandeur of his lovely lace collar and the bowling image - thank you for this enlightening post and your passion for correct attribution (in particular Mark Twain).

  2. We may have had the same book and same picture. But you have to give him -- the man was a survivor. He had an extraordinary life! I would like to be fonder of him personally.


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