September 1, 2010

Of all sad words of tongue or pen – which are really the saddest?


“Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” 
       American poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
       The well-known quote from his poem “Maud Muller” (1856) 
       Whittier’s poem tells the story of a poor farm maid and a wealthy judge who saw each other in passing when they were young. Maud thinks it would be nice to be married to a rich, high society man like the judge. The judge thinks it would be nice to be married to a beautiful farm girl like Maud and lead the pastoral life of a farmer. But they don’t act on their mutual attraction. Later in life, they are both stuck in unfulfilling marriages and think sadly about the life they might have had together. The final lines of the poem note that many people have such regrets, saying:
“God pity them both! and pity us all, 
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall;   
For of all sad words of tongue or pen, 
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’ 
Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies 
Deeply buried from human eyes;   
And, in the hereafter, angels may 
Roll the stone from its grave away!” 


“Of all cold words of tongue or pen
The worst are these: ‘I knew him when – ’”
       Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943)
       American writer best known for his humorous poems
       From a poem in his book Prophets in Their Own Country (1927)


“Of all sad words of lip or pen
The worst are these, ‘I’ve flunked again.’” 
       Parody poem published in the University of Michigan’s Chronicle magazine in 1883


“The Moral is that gardeners pine
Whene’er no pods adorn the vine.
Of all sad words experience gleans
The saddest are: ‘It might have beans.’
(I did not make this up myself:
'Twas in a book upon my shelf.
It's witty, but I don’t deny
It's rather Whittier than I!)”
       Guy Wetmore Carryl (1873-1904)
       American humorist and poet.
       From his book Grimm Tales Made Gay (1902)


“Of all sad words that I've ever seen.
The saddest are ‘Three putts to the green.’” 
       Poem published in The American Golfer magazine, 1910


“Of all sad words asked married men
The saddest are these: Where have you been?”
       Reader letter to the editor by Anne Alman of St. Augustine, Florida
       Published in Time Magazine, April 25, 1960

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