This is a set of notes from an American point of view for   Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers.  It’s intended to supplement the on-line notes by Bill Peschel, so things that are missing here may be there.  Mr. Peschel has told me that he has a number of notes that he’s planning to add to his page, but until he does so, this may be useful to some readers.  I thank him for linking to this page.

    Translations from the Bible are from the modern King James version (unless they’re stated to be from the Book of Common Prayer), as Wimsey was familiar with that version.  Other translations are mine with the help of dictionaries, unless otherwise noted.

    I found many of the quotations in Google Books and have linked to them.  Unfortunately, if you’re outside the U.S. you may not be able to see all those pages.

    I haven’t tried to explain all the Oxford words. They can probably be found in Web pages by Oxford students and alumni and in encyclopedia articles.

    Corrections and other comments of all kinds are welcome.  You can send them to

  Last updated September 25, 2018: Authorship of “O no, there is no end,” deleted the milk in the coco-nut since Bill Peschel’s new note is better than mine, some wording and format changes, more mysterious spaces.

July 28, 2018: Deleted “spiders spin webs over his eyes,” deleted mysterious extra spaces before italics, made some slight wording changes.

December 6, 2017: Augustan, It all returned from him to you, afraid with any amazement.

Title Page

The University is a Paradise.  Rivers of Knowledge are there...

    Here’s a link to Donne’s Sermon XIV, Preached in Lent.

Author’s Note

In aeternum floreant

    Latin: “May they flourish eternally.”


    There’s a city (technically a town, as Ray “Musika” pointed out in the Usenet newsgroup alt.usage.english) by that name; the first syllable can be pronounced to rhyme with either “news” or “sews.”  The pronunciation authority Daniel Jones wrote that the pronunciation with the long O was “used by those connected with Shrewsbury School and by many residents in the neighbourhood, esp. members of county families.”  I suspect that “old boys” of that ancient school for the upper class, and the upper-class county families, would have had more influence on Oxford than “outsiders” and residents of the town did, so I’d guess the typical college pronunciation would have been “Shrosebury.”

Corporation dump

    City dump


    The utopia that some of the birds want to create in Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds.

They do but jest, poison in jest, no offence in the world.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2.

Chapter I

Mecklenburg Square

    Officially Mecklenburgh Square, a very pleasant place to live, in (or very close to) the Bloomsbury neighborhood of central London and so not all that far from Wimsey’s flat in Piccadilly.

Lesser Redpoll

    A sparrow-like finch with a red spot on its forehead, widespread in Britain.  In this passage it only means a small redhead.

Went down

    Left the University.  When one is at Oxford (or Cambridge) University, “up” is toward or at the university, and “down” is away from it.

Burleigh Building

    Probably after William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley or Burleigh, Queen Elizabeth I’s most important adviser (and an uncle by marriage of Francis Bacon).

Tottenham Court Road

    A street in central London, well-known for furniture shops.  The style is probably conventional.

Mus. Doc. gown

    There’s a whole system in which the materials, colors, and shapes of the caps, hoods, and gowns indicate where the wearer’s degree or degrees were from and in what field.  Most gowns are black, but doctors’ gowns have distinctive bright colors, which is how the young Harriet recognized a Doctor of Music gown.


    The highest University official involved in governing it.  The Chancellor only gives speeches, raises funds, and the like.


    I can’t agree with the idea that the word here has the specific Oxford meaning of the formal clothes worn under a gown at an examination and similar events, since that’s not what Harriet is wearing; she’s wearing a black georgette frock.  It must have the general meaning of “dark-colored, somber-colored,” which is “decent” because it doesn’t contrast too strikingly with the black gown.  Thanks to Peter Duncanson and Katy Jennison.

Dry and nutty

    A phrase more often applied to wine, especially sherry (which was very popular at Oxford then, I believe).

Brave New World

    The dystopian society of that book used a good deal of controlled breeding of people, hence the connection with heredity.

She should eat carrots and clear her system.

    As a side note, I don’t need to talk about the healthful qualities of vegetables, but eating carrots is not necessarily the best advice for improving one’s skin color, since eating too many will give the skin an orange cast.

Chapter II


    Grand Passion


    A spelling aiming at an American accent, since the majority of us pronounce “tune” as “toon” rather than “tyoon,” for example—but I think it missed, as the rules are different for syllables that aren’t the first, and I’ve never heard anything but “muchual.”

Pax Academica

    “Academic peace,” after Pax Romana, the “peace of Rome,” as its empire prevented wars between conquered cities and countries that had previously fought each other.

Magnificent,... but it is not war

    Translating “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre,” the remark of the French general Pierre Bosquet on seeing the charge of the Light Brigade.

    Since Wimsey criticizes the architecture of Balliol College, parts of which some have felt to be more suitable to a train station than a college, I'll mention a quip about it attributed to Oscar Wilde among others: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la gare.”  (“It's magnificent, but it's not the station.”)  See this page, and thanks to Athel Cornish-Bowden.

Her foundations were set upon the holy hills

    “Her foundations are upon the holy hills: the LORD loveth the gates of Sion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.”  The version of Psalm 87:1 in the Book of Common Prayer.

Earnest black men

    I was told in alt.usage.english (as I remember—I can’t find it in the archives) that this probably meant students from the Indian subcontinent more than those from Africa or the Caribbean.

Chapter III


    Robert Bridges, poet laureate from 1913 to 1930 and an innovative but by no means avant-garde theorist and experimenter of poetic rhythm.

The word and nought else...

    Humbert Wolfe, “Iliad”.  Louis Untermeyer wrote, “He will outlive many louder poets by virtue of his frail-spun and faintly acid lyrics.”

Haunts of ancient peace

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Palace of Art.”  Speaking of rooms in the palace he has created for his soul, he says,

    And one, an English home—gray twilight pour’d
    On dewy pastures, dewy trees,
    Softer than sleep—all things in order stor’d,
    A haunt of ancient Peace.

    (As far as I can tell, Tennyson used the spelling “gray.”)  In the late 19th century, several sources say that “everyone” knew this quatrain.

A face like the back of a cab

    The phrase was apparently new at the time, as I couldn’t find anything at Google Books from before 1934.  “Like the back of a bus” was more common.

Bond Street

    A street in London that is the center of fashion in England.  Being “just off Bond Street” was probably not so impressive.

Chapter IV


    A town in southern France with huge, restored medieval fortifications.  At least since an 1867 poem by Gustave Nadaud, which was well known in several English translations, seeing it has typified an experience that a person wants to have before dying but may never have.  Is there a connection with Harriet’s never having married or had a relationship with a man who loves and respects her?

Without the pale

    Outside the barrier dividing the privileged from the rest.

Long-priced and impossible outsiders

    Long shots, horses that would pay very good odds if they won, but they can’t win.

Till the coming of the Coqcigrues

    In addition to Andrew Lang, this phrase (with “till”) is from Charles Kingsley’s children’s book   The Water Babies, once extremely popular.  Lang and Kingsley got it from Gargantua et Pantagruel by François Rabelais, Book I, Chapter XLIX:

Ainsi s’en alla le pauvre colérique ; puis passant l’eau au Port-Huault, et racontant ses mauavises fortunes, fut avisé par une vieille lourpidon que son royaume lui serait rendu á la venue des coquecigrues.

 “Thus the poor angry fellow left; then passing the water at Port-Huault, and recounting his bad fortunes, was told by an old witch that his kingdom would be returned to him at the coming of the coquecigrues.”

Taste the sweets of freedom

    A fairly common phrase.  The earliest use I can find is “Hence it is, that the People having once tasted the Sweets of Freedom, are so extreamly affected with it, that if they discover, or do but suspect the least Design to incroach upon it, they count it a Crime never to be forgiven for any consideration whatsoever.”  Marchamont Nedham,   The Excellencie of a Free-State (1656).  The line is at page 76 of this edition.  It also occurs in Ellis Farneworth’s translation of Machiavelli’s   History of Florence (1775).  Wimsey may have thought he was quoting Nedham, or Machiavelli as translated by Farneworth, or somebody else.

    (Those who are not easily confused may like to look at this note.)

It does those things...

    From the Anglican General Confession:

    “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
    And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
    And there is no health in us.”

Who déniges of it?

    Mrs. Gamp again,   Martin Chuzzlewit, Chapter Forty-Nine.  I imagine the accent shows that Wimsey accented the first syllable, which I imagine is how he thought Mrs. Gamp pronounced it, but I can’t imagine why he thought that.

Not you but Fate has vanquished me.

    Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto V, stanza XXVI.

Sweet girl-graduates

    In the Prologue to Tennyson’s book-length poem The Princess: A Medley, a young woman says she would like to build “Far off from men a college like a man’s,” and a young man replies,

    Pretty were the sight
    If our old halls could change their sex, and flaunt
    With prudes for proctors, dowagers for deans,
    And sweet girl-graduates in their golden hair.”

    Those last two lines were often quoted.  The main part of the poem is a story made up by the young people in which a medieval princess founds a women's college, but in the end she and most of the women there fall in love with the prince and other men who gain entry. It’s not surprising that another allusion to that famous story of a women’s college shows up; see Bill Peschel’s note to “Dark and true and tender is the North.”

A “nice clean murder”

    The phrase appears in a few books at Google Books before Gaudy Night.  The earliest I can find is Patsy, also called The Moss Troopers, by S. R. Crockett.

Chapter V

Prodigal daughter... husks... fatted calf

Luke, Chapter 15

Blotted its copybook

    “To commit a fault, misdemeanour or gaffe which spoils one’s record” (OED)

Thank you all the same for those few kind words.

    A cliché.  The earliest versions I can find at Google Books are “Thank you for those few kind words,” from   Sylvia’s Aunts: A Farce in Two Scenes (1908), by Dorothy Waldo, and with irony, “Thanks for those few kind words, ‘a goodly number’,” from The Congressional Record (1907).

High-days and holidays

    Another one. The earliest I can find is from 1740: Thomas Lediard, The German Spy.

Like Charity, he never fails

    See 1 Corinthians 13:8.  Some translations of this famous passage have “love” instead of “charity.”

Knocked up a chap

    Woke him by knocking.

Chapter VII

A man where nae man should be

    “Ben went our goodman
    And ben went he,
    And there he spy’d a sturdy man
    Where nae man shoud be.”

Child Ballad 274. “Our Goodman”

    (“Ben” means “in,” “into the parlor or bedroom,” according to the OED.)

Late leave

    Permission to be out of the college after hours (apparently 9 PM).


    Confined to the college (possibly after a certain hour) as a punishment.

Chapter VIII

Draped cross-over front

The dress on the right in this advertisement shows this feature, and it even has a slight hip-yoke.  Thanks to Katy Jennison.

Deep hip-yoke

Apparently what’s around the hips of the skirt in this picture from 1930.

Duke Humphrey

    The second-oldest building in the Bodleian Library is Duke Humfrey’s Library, named after Henry V’s brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.  (It’s probably irrelevant that “dine with Duke Humphrey” meant “not have dinner.”  The phrase was used by poor people in Elizabethan times who walked an aisle in St. Paul’s near Humphrey’s supposed tomb when they would rather have been eating.)


    Katy Jennison provides a link to a picture of Oxford bags, the pants that students generally wore.  They're not exactly what I imagined.

No, Socrates, it is not.

    Rogers answers his own question in the style of a character answering Socrates in Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates would ask questions in order to prove points about such topics as goodness and virtue.

He’s my uncle, and a dashed sight more accommodating than the Jewish kind.

    “Uncle” meant “pawnbroker” (who you go to for money), and moneylenders were stereotypically Jewish.

Strawberry leaves

    A decoration on a marquess’s, earl’s, or duke’s coronet.

The balm, the sceptre, and the ball.

    Symbols of royalty.  (The balm is the oil that biblical kings were anointed with, and the ball is a symbolic globe that kings held.)  Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1

Four rows of moth-eaten ermine

    A duke’s parliamentary robes and coronation robes are decorated with four bands of ermine, according to this page.

The stud-book

    Either Burke’s Peerage or Debrett’s Peerage, genealogical books about the British nobility, which Lord Saint-George compares to records of horse-breeding.  By the way, both used the abbreviation “d. s. p.”

Chapter IX

Come hether freind, I am ashamed to hear that what I hear of you...

    From Pierre Erondell(e)’s book The French Garden: for English Ladyes and Gentlewomen to Walke In.  The book included parallel English and French versions of dialogues to help Englishwomen learn French.  See this book for more information and   The Minor Pleasures of Life for a bit more of the dialogue.  Muriel St. Clare Byrne, who later collaborated with Sayers on the play Busman’s Honeymoon, had published this dialogue in 1925 in The Elizabethan Home Discovered in 2 Dialogues.

A bowl of hemlock

    The poison with which Socrates was forced to kill himself.  The questions the Dean is asking are the kind that Socrates asked in Plato’s dialogues.

The phrase about genius being eternal patience

    I can’t find this earlier than 1871, when it’s credited to Michelangelo—by, among others, Louisa May Alcott in   Good Wives, the sequel to   Little Women—and to Goethe as well.

Les beaux yeux de la cassette de l’oncle Pierre

    In Molière’s play L’Avare (The Miser), Harpagon accuses Valère of stealing his cash-box.  Valère thinks the crime Harpagon is accusing him of is that Valère wants to seduce Harpagon’s daughter, and Valère is trying to reveal that his intentions are pure and they have gotten engaged.  The humor depends on the fact that in French, the word for possessive “her” is the same as that for “its.”

VALÈRE: Tous mes désirs se sont bornés à jouir de sa vue; et rien de criminel n’a profané la passion que ses beaux yeux m’ont inspirée.

HARPAGON: Les beaux yeux de ma cassette! Il parle d’elle comme un amant d’une maîtresse.

VALÈRE: All my desires were limited to enjoying the sight of her/it, and nothing criminal has profaned the passion that her/its beautiful eyes inspired in me.

HARPAGON: The beautiful eyes of my cash-box!  He speaks of it as a lover of a mistress.

To the danger of the public

    This phrase seems to have been used more in America, though there are British hits on such versions as “to the danger of the public peace.”  Here is one from Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons (1871).

Speak gently to your little boy.

    From   Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

    “Speak roughly to your little boy,
    And beat him when he sneezes.
    He only does it to annoy,
    Because he knows it teases.”

    As Saint-George may have known, this is a parody of “Speak Gently”, by the American poet David Bates.  It contains the line “Speak gently to the little child!”

If you must back horses, back them at a reasonable price and both ways.

    In American English, “If you must bet on horses, bet on them at reasonable odds and each way.” “Each way” means both to win and to finish at a lower position “in the money.”  It seems to be the normal phrase for this kind of bet in both America and Britain, though the postcard at Bill Peschel’s site shows that “both ways” was also used.  Betting each way would reduce both the risk and the expected gain, and it may be a bad policy in the long run.  At least, this article doesn’t think much of it in current British racing.  Thanks to the folks at alt.usage.english, notably John Dean.

Soothe the sufferer’s aching brow.

    That looks like a quotation, but the closest thing I can find is “And soothe with thy hand the sufferer’s brow” from Songs of Early Spring. With Lays of Later Life by Henry Rowland Brown (1872).

Grateful penitence.

    If not a cliché, at least a common phrase.

Enough to make a cat laugh

    That one is a cliché if not a proverb.

His precious balms were calculated to break the recipient’s head

    From the version of Psalm 141:5–6 in the Book of Common Prayer: “Let the righteous rather smite me friendly: And reprove me. But let not their precious balms break my head.”

Chapter X

Silver threads among the gold.

    The title of a very popular sentimental song written in 1873 by the Americans Eben E. Rexford and Hart Pease Danks.  John McCormack’s recording.

A concentrated expression of no enthusiasm

    “When he heard it was about William the Conqueror an expression of no-enthusiasm entered his eyes.”  Hilaire Belloc, Conversations with an Angel (1928).

An academic and meaty egg to my tea

    “To” means “with” here, and I think “tea” is the evening meal.  The expression “an egg to my tea,” which dates at least as far back as 1848, seems to suggest a filling meal.

My dear Count!

    I suspect many readers would have thought of Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, who was Italy’s Minister of the Press and Propaganda at the time and became foreign minister the following year.  A more remote possibility is the Count de Chambrun, French ambassador to Italy from 1933 to 1935, and there are probably others, and Sayers may not have had anyone in mind.

I expect he’s left his country for his country’s good.

    “True patriots we; for be it understood,
    We left our country for our country’s good.”

    Henry Carter, prologue written but not performed in a theater in Australia in 1796.  The majority of British people then in Australia would have been sent there as a punishment for crimes.

    The second line was inspired by a line from Charles Fitzgeffrey’s poem     Sir Francis Drake (1596):

    “And bold and hard adventures t’undertake,
    Leaving his country for his country’s sake.”

   All from the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

Fulsome blurb

    Some readers may want to know that the primary meaning of “fulsome” at the time was “excessive, cloyingly flattering.”  (Others may want to know that the original meaning, “full, ample,” seems to be coming back.)

Minished and brought low

    From the version of Psalm 107:39 in the Book of Common Prayer.


    Harriet appears to be thinking that her rhythm is too repetitive because she didn’t get the strongest accents to fall in different places in each line.  For example, the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh lines all have an accent on the third syllable, which should be unusual. Likewise “Here the sun stands” and “Here no tide runs” have almost identical rhythms.


    Bathroom, which in Britain means a room with a bathtub.  The “r” is silent but tells you that the “a” is pronounced as in “bar” (the vowel used for “bath” in southern England), and lower-class London accents then and now replace voiceless “th” with “f”.  Apparently the joke is that the lower classes didn’t bathe.  See this version.

    A poster in alt.usage.english named Janet wrote about the result when the local council installed a complete bathroom in her grandparents’ house in 1961: “Grandad flatly refused to use it because  sitting let alone washing in a bath of warm water was a health hazard and indoor lavs disgustingly unhygienic. He kept his bike in the bathroom and coal supply in the bath.”


    I haven’t glossed the other technical poetic terms, but it may not be obvious that this is one such.  According to tradition, a sonnet should make a “turn” to a different subject, feeling, kind of imagery, etc., after the eighth line (between the octave and the sestet).

Grey stones of Oxford

    The phrase wasn’t new.  For instance, “he assured Mr. Betel for the twentieth time that, whether he continued to enliven the old grey stones of Oxford, or to transfer his illuminating powers to the bar and to the Senate, he should always take care to see a great deal of him.” Longman’s Magazine, 1884.

    The stone buildings were gray or even blackish in Wimsey’s time, but since they’ve been cleaned, they’re now yellowish-brown again.  (Thanks to Athel Cornish-Bowden.)


    “A party of people engaged in reading a book or books;  spec. a group of students who meet for the purpose of studying together, often in the vacation and at a location away from their institution” (OED).

A scientist and a man of scrupulously exact mind

    Just a coincidence that he fits both descriptions.

Will you take bow or stroke?

    In a rowboat, bow is the front position and stroke is the rear.  As rowers face backwards, the other rowers can see “stroke,” so he or she sets the rhythm of their strokes.

Chapter XII

Every coign of vantage

    Every convenient corner of a building.  In its first use, the convenience was from the point of view of nesting swallows, but by Sayers’s time the phrase was widely applied.  Macbeth, Act I, Scene 6.

Play at tig

    Play tag, as the reader may have guessed.  “Tig” is mostly Scottish and northern English, says the OED.


    German shepherd (since the word “German” had gone out of style during World War I).

Mulier vel meretrix, cujus consortio Christianis prorsus interdictum est

    “A woman or a prostitute, with whom association by a Christian is, in a word, forbidden.”


    The history of this word resembles that of “fulsome,” but the primary meaning in Sayers’s time was “Unbiased by personal interest; free from self-seeking” (OED).  It’s an odd word to use about someone who wants to marry someone, but Sayers may be extending the sense of “impartial” to mean “sincere.”

Chapter XIII

Je me suis couché...

    “I’ve gone to bed at home a thousand times imagining that people would betray me and smother me that night.”  The title of the essay by Montaigne means “On Vanity.”

If the prince of darkness was a gentleman of Peter’s kidney.

    “The prince of darkness is a gentleman.” King Lear, Act III, Scene 4.

Hard-boiled or soft-boiled?

    The fronts of dress shirts were sometimes hardened with starch.  A gentleman would of course “dress” (wear a dinner jacket, also called a tuxedo) for dinner in Hall.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

    His poetry, with its highly original rhythms, was fashionable at the time in literary circles and is still considered among the best of the 19th century.  (It was published posthumously by his friend Robert Bridges, mentioned earlier.)

Chapter XIV

A Roman Establishment

    The Roman Catholic Church as the official or “established” church of a country, instead of the Anglican Church, which is established in England.

Sold the breach

    Compare “I can see some—Liverpools or Eldons—dying in the last ditch, some like Peel selling the breach, and others like Disraeli cutting the dikes to bury friend and foe alike under a flood of innovation.”  Sir Keith Grahame Feiling, Toryism: A Political Dialogue (1913).  Perhaps the phrase was a quotation when Feiling used it.  At any rate, it refers to acting as a traitor, taking a bribe to give the enemy access to a break in a defensive wall.

Words, words, words.

    Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2.

Back to the army again, sergeant.

    Kipling, “‘Back to the Army Again.’”  Thanks to Katy Jennison.


    Fashionable or popular seaside resort.  Thanks to Katy Jennison.

A damned disinheriting countenance

    “Your uncle Oliver! [...]  That, now, to me, is a stern a looking rogue as ever I saw; an unforgiving eye, and a damned disinheriting countenance!”  Sheridan,  The School for Scandal, Act IV, Scene 1.  The phrase is in quotation books.


    Houses built in a line along a main road, especially as the road leaves a village.  The quotations in the OED aren’t complimentary, and one uses the word “slum.”

Binding heavy burdens and laying them on other men’s shoulders

    “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”  Matthew 23:4.

The shadow of a great rock in a weary land.

    “And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest, as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”  Isaiah 32:2.

Regulation suit

    A man’s bathing suit of the time, combining a tank top and trunks.  A few examples from the ’40s are shown here.  (Two of the models, including the one in a regulation suit at top right, seem to be pretending to punt.)


    “A fine white clay which forms a ductile paste with water, used esp. for making tobacco pipes, and also for whitening leather, polishing, etc.” (OED).  Katy Jennison notes that her generation and earlier ones learned that the Romans whitened their linen or wool togas with pipe-clay.  It was done by fullers, and Katy and her classmates even got to try fulling in elementary school.  She said that there would be no literal pipe-clay on Harriet's clothing.  However, Janet said that Harriet would have whitened her shoes with pipe-clay.

Tail of vanity

    “Doctor Smoothly thinks this manner highly inhuman, and therefore takes all heed not to ruffle the plumes of worldly pride—to pluck the smallest feather from the tail of vanity.”  Douglas Jerrold, “The Pew-Opener,” in Heads of the People; or, Portraits of the English (1811).  The phrase makes use of the peacock as a symbol of vanity.  Wimsey is thanking Harriet for letting him show off not only his skill at punting, but also his “obsolete politeness” and ”chivalry.”

Cricket blue

    A “varsity” cricket player, who played for the university team, not just his college.  In sports, Oxford’s color is dark blue.

Sprint between the wickets

    To score a run in cricket, the players at the two wickets run from one to the other (if I may simplify).

Noble and nude and antique

    Swinburne's poem “Dolores” (cited by Bill Peschel) is about “our lady of pain,” that is, sadomasochism.  By quoting it nonchalantly, Harriet is showing her freedom from hang-ups about sex, though maybe not so much normality that it stands out in knobs.

Chapter XV

Energies bombinating in a vacuum breed chimaeras.

    The title of one of the books that Pantagruel found in the library of St. Victor, Quaestio subtilissima, utrum Chimaera in vacuo bombinans possit comedere secundas intentiones; et fuit debatuta per decem hebdomadas in consilio Constantiensi.  “A most subtle question, whether the Chimera buzzing in vacuum can devour second intentions; and it was debated for ten weeks at the Council of Constance.”  Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book 2, Chapter VII.  Others have quoted it too.  I’ll leave the meaning of the original to the commentators on Rabelais, but the Chimera was a monster in the myth of Pegasus, so a chimera is any impossible monster, and “bombinating” means “buzzing.”  Wimsey means that Harriet’s sexual energies, with nothing to attach to, cause her to imagine frightening outcomes that aren’t really possible.  Could he also be referring to himself?

    (Sayers may have enjoyed the fact that both of her references to Rabelais involved combinations of three animals, as the chimera was part lion, part goat, and part snake, and “coqcigrue” seems to be coq, cygne, and grue: cock, swan, and crane.)

How fleeting are all mortal passions

    “How fleeting are” was often used, but Wimsey may be thinking especially of a hymn by Sir John Bowring (published in 1825) with the lines “O how cheating, O how fleeting/Are all mortal treasures!”

Two-pair tub

    I could find only one other use of this phrase.  It may be a two-person rowboat wider than the “shells” used for racing.  The “pair” would be the pair of oars each rower uses.


    Wearing a tank top.

Pair-oar skiff

    An ordinary rowboat for one rower.

Soul-destroying sloth

    This looks like a quotation, since otherwise “soul-destroying” seems pointless, but the only one I can find is “The stolid elephant may be taken as an emblem of soul-destroying sloth, which numbs all high aspirations and paralyzes noble effort till the body becomes unwieldy and the mind is buried in matter.” Mary Fermoy, “The Devils of Notre Dame.”

Paddle in beauty side by side

    Maybe “They grew in beauty, side by side.” Felicia Hemans, “The Graves of a Household.”

There is no middle way.

    A common phrase.  An early example is “There is no middle way to be taken, any more than there is a middle way betwixt pride and humility, or temperance and intemperance.” William Law, A Serious Call to a Good and Holy Life (1732).  Wimsey says “there is no middle way” about passion in Chapter XXIII.

Bring the pole up in three

    Does this refer to using only three hand-over-hand motions to get the pole up in position for another stroke?

Synthetic lemonade

    Something more like Sprite or 7Up than what Americans think of as lemonade.  Thanks to the folks at alt.usage.english, especially Athel Cornish-Bowden.

John Donne

    His poetry, like Hopkins’s, was fashionable at the time and is still greatly admired.  He and Hopkins happen to be mentioned together in a poem of the next year.

    “With what astonishment we witnessed Donne,
    A poet we had always counted on,
    Whisked from his niche among the second shelves
    And placed with Chaucer, Shakespeare,—and ourselves!
    And Hopkins, fashion’s choice to follow Donne,
    Rattling his rusty iambs, climbs the sun.”

    Robert Hillyer, “A Letter to Robert Frost” (1936)

A bow drawn at a venture... Between the joints of the harness.

    “And a certain man drew a bow at a venture, and smote the king of Israel between the joints of the harness.”  1 Kings 22:34

A passion for balance and order—no beauty without measure.... The perfect Augustan?

    That looks to me like a reference, not to Augustus Caesar, but to the great writers of his time such as Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Livy, and to the British writers of the early 18th century such as Pope, Swift, Gay, Addison, and Steele, known as the Augustans because of their imitations of classical writing, notably that of Augustus Caesar’s reign.  The three qualities Harriet mentions have been ascribed to that period of British literature.

    “The so-called Augustan Age is traditionally regarded as an era of Neoclassicism in Britain and thus seen as sharing in neoclassical ideals of balance, order, and well-measured poetics.”  Christoph Henke, Common Sense in Early 18th-Century English Literature and Culture.

A balance of opposing forces

    The phrase was used in science, e.g., by one Thomas Sutton in “The Alkaline Wet Process”,  The Illustrated Photographer, 1870.

One way of love

The phrase occurs in
an anonymous poem of 1825 and has been used for titles a number of times, most famously by Robert Browning in 1855.  Browning’s poem and its companion piece, “Another Way of Love,” may be more relevant to Wimsey’s feelings than his protest suggests.

Chapter XVI

That in the slender’s but a humorous word which in the stout is flat impertinence.

    “That in the captain’s but a choleric word,/ Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy.”   Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene 2.  Harriet manages to keep the original meter.

Our two hearts beat as one.

    “Two hearts that beat as one” is a familiar phrase, originally from Maria Lovell’s translation of Der Sohn des Wildnis by Friedrich Halm.

The place where, with the help of God, one leaps over the wall.

    “For in thee I shall discomfit an host of men: and with the help of God I shall leap over the wall.” The version of Psalm 18:29 in the Book of Common Prayer.

Men have died and the worms have eaten them, but not for early rising.

    “Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”  As You Like It, Act IV, Scene 1.  People quoting it often omit “from time to time,” as Wimsey does.

It is said that it’s the early worm that gets the bird.

    As Wimsey implies, this reversal had been kicking around for at least a decade or two.

Hire them... fire them

    A rare Americanism from Wimsey.  Katy Jennison notes that “hire and fire” was not unknown in Britain at the time, though it was much more common in America.

Chapter XVII

It all returned from him to you, though it was mine before.

    “I gave her one, they gave him two,
    You gave us three or more;
    They all returned from him to you,
    Though they were mine before.”

  From the nonsense poem read at the trial in Alice in Wonderland, Chapter XII.

Dr. Baring moved out a philosophical speculation, like a pawn, and planted it temptingly en prise.

   “En prise” means it can be captured and the capturing piece can’t be recaptured or is worth much less than the piece that’s en prise.  The expression is used both when the move is made knowingly, as here, and when it’s a mistake (as I know very well).  The deliberate sacrifice of a pawn is fairly common. When it’s done in the first few moves, as part of a known opening, it’s called a gambit.  Gambits were very common in chess in much of the 18th and 19th centuries, so much that the word came to mean a conventional conversational opening, so Sayers’s comparison isn’t very original.

The real tragedy is not the conflict of good with evil but of good with good.

   “Tragedy is not the conflict of good with evil, but the conflict of good with good.”
W. H. D. Rouse’s Introduction to The Poetical Works of John Milton (1909).

    A line like “In a true tragedy, both sides are right” is credited to Hegel.

But epic actions are all fought by the rearguard—at Roncevaux and Thermopylae.

   I’ll add to Bill Peschel’s note that the battle at Roncevaux is the subject of the medieval French epic Le Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), which Sayers translated for Penguin Classics. In that poem, the rearguard was killed to the last man (like the Spartans at Thermopylae), and as the Warden says, nothing was accomplished by the battle but an epic.

Not for Solomon and all his wives and concubines?

    “No, Caroline, you and I will not be mixed up with Anastasius Hope, and Solomon and all his wives and concubines, and the whole courts of Louis XIV. and Charles II., and [...].  Robert Southey, Letter to Caroline Bowles (1831).  Southey was talking about Anastasius Hope's theory that in the afterlife all human souls would be mixed to form a perfect person.

A critic on the hearth.

   The Cricket on the Hearth, Charles Dickens (1845).

The greater the sin, the greater the sacrifice.

    “The idea was inculcated that there was a certain relation between the sin and the sacrifice,—the greater the sin, the greater the sacrifice.”  Robert G. Ingersoll, The Foundations of Faith (1895).  The subject is atonement in the law of Moses, not what Harriet and the others are talking about, so she may not have Ingersoll in mind.

Lost in the long ago.

    “Memory tells of a youthful face
    Haunting my dreams wherever I go;
    With a gentle form of boundless grace,
    Loved and lost in the long ago.”

    “E. M. H.,” “What Might Have Been” (1884)

Chapter XVIII


    White or off-white cricket pants.  Thanks to Katy Jennison for correcting my earlier note.

I never was one to interfere.

    The sentence is more common with “was never,” though still not common.  “But I was never one to interfere; though it ain’t in nature to see good clothes ruined...”  Max Beresford, The Years That the Locust Hath Eaten.  We should probably hear Harriet imitating a “common” accent as suggested by Beresford’s “ain’t.”

I keep myself to myself.

    An early use is from Memoirs of Himself, by Mr. John Fox (published in 1821), recalling an expression he had heard in 1713.

I want to see a man there—about a dog, and all that.

    At the time, “see a man about a dog” was “an all-purpose excuse for leaving.”  The suggestion of going to the toilet didn’t appear till the 1960s, according to Rosemarie Ostler in Let’s Talk Turkey: The Stories Behind America’s Favorite Expressions.

Hi-tiddley-hi-ti, pom pom

    British English has no phrase like “Shave and a haircut, two bits” for this rhythm.  Thanks to Guy Barry and others at alt.usage.english.

A very conceited, metaphysical conclusion!

    Samuel Johnson classified Donne and other poets as “metaphysical,” and the term is still used.  “Conceit” meant “concept,” and one of those poets’ characteristics was a fondness for “metaphysical conceits,” elaborate and clever fancies or even whimsies.  Wimsey probably also has the modern meaning of “conceited” in mind.

He no longer believed that the Ethiopian could change his skin to rhinoceros hide.

    “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.”  Jeremiah 13:23.  Katy Jennison suggests a reminiscence of Kipling’s Just So Stories.

Faults o’ both sides, that’s what I say

    Even Padgett gets a second quotation.  “Faults on both sides” was a standard phrase dating back at least to the title of an anonymous pamphlet of 1710.

Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

    “...the statue stood
    Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
    The marble index of a mind for ever
    Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”

    Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book III

Chapter XIX

Strangle you scientifically in several positions.

    I thought that had to be a quotation, but I can’t find it, and everyone tells me it’s just Wimsey's style.

If you let my vaulting ambition overleap itself

    “I have no spur
    To prick the sides of my intent, but only
    Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
    And falls on the other.”

Macbeth, Act I, Scene 7

Neither make nor mar

    A common phrase.

That best-known of all Elizabethan love songs.

    Why haven’t we heard of it anywhere else?

Fain would I change that note

   Video of a performance by Noa Zechoval

Who are you calling a bloody Welshman?

    Jesus College was favored by Welsh students (and its proportion of Welsh students is still about three times that of the UK, according to Wikipedia), and Jones is a typical Welsh surname.

Every cock will crow upon his own dunghill.

    A proverb that The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations traces back to the 13th Century in English and the 1st Century A.D. in Latin.

Chapter XX

It is said that love and a cough cannot be hid.

    Another proverb, which the ODQ traces to the 16th Century.

Let me also be there with a gift.

    “And the daughter of Tyre shall be there with a gift.”  Psalm 45:12.

The playing-fields of Eton.

    “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” a line attributed to the Duke of Wellington (with no evidence, according to They Never Said It).

But, O God, turn back the universe, and give me yesterday!

    “Oh God! put back Thy universe, and give me yesterday!”  Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman, The Silver King (1882).  This melodrama was successful in its time, and the quoted line survived for decades after.


    A kind of carnation, apparently with small, clove-scented, deep purple flowers, which were floated in wine for engaged couples in Elizabethan times, according to C. F. Leyel, Herbal Delights.

A very irregular and leisurely stroke

    Harriet has “stroke,” and the Dean complains that Harriet’s rowing rhythm is unsteady and too slow for them to get exercise.

Needs must when duty calls.

    A quotation, which was given in quotation marks as early as 1910, but I can’t find the original.

How you behave in Bloomsbury

    This neighborhood in London was inhabited by many literary and artistic people and many people who had “advanced” ideas, including the idea that sex didn’t have to be restricted to marriage.  Harriet lived there in Strong Poison and still lives there (or very close) in Gaudy Night.

With all the world and all the time there is at our disposal

    “Had we but world enough and time,
    This coyness, lady, were no crime.” 

    From Andrew Marvell’s famous poem “To His Coy Mistress.”

Chapter XXI

How doth my love.  What, sweeting, all amort?

    “How fares my Kate? What, sweeting, all amort?”  The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene 3.

If all the pens that ever poets held had had the feeling of their masters’ thoughts, they could not write as much solid fact as you can hold in a pair of callipers.

    “If all the pens that ever poets held
    Had fed the feeling of their masters’ thoughts,
    And every sweetness that inspired their hearts,
    Their minds, and muses, on admired themes;
    If all the heavenly quintessence they ’still
    From their immortal flowers of poesy,
    Wherein as in a mirror we perceive
    The highest reaches of a human wit;
    If these had made one poem’s period,
    And all combined in beauty’s worthiness,
    Yet should there hover in their restless heads
    One thought, one grace, one wonder at the least
    Which into words no virtue can digest.”

    Marlowe, The First Part of Tamburlaine the Great, Act V, Scene 2.  The reference is to Zenocrate, also praised in an earlier speech from the play that Wimsey has quoted.  (The word “’still” means “distill.”)

The dust of kings and queens.

    The phrase was used back to 1840 at least.

Neat, not gaudy.

    According to Eric Partridge, who gives the history, the phrase goes back to 1630.  However, it was often attributed to Charles Lamb and compared to Shakespeare’s “rich but not gaudy”, as in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

Is thy servant a dog that she should do this thing?

    “And Hazael said, Why weepeth my lord.  And he answered, Because I know the evil that thou wilt do unto the children of Israel: their strong holds wilt thou set on fire, and their young men wilt thou slay with the sword, and wilt dash their children, and rip up their women with child.  And Hazael said, But what, is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing.  And Elisha answered, The LORD hath shewed me that thou shalt be king over Syria.”  2 Kings 8:12–13.  Modern translations render this as “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” (New International Version) and the like.

I shouldn’t think anyone in the Government would have a whole place in his body this morning.

    “Whole” means healthy, unharmed.  A possible source is “...they came about him so with Bodkins and Swords, that his Body was as a Butt, or Pin-cushion, there was not a whole place in him, he was wounded in Back and Belly, in Armes and Legs, in every part there was a wound.”  Sydrach Simpson, A Short and Excellent Treatise of Covetousness, Chapter 3 (1658).  Simpson is describing the stabbing of Julius Caesar  as a comparison to the punishment suffered by the covetous.

Hence the pyramids.

    Perhaps “This life was simply and solely a preparation for the life to come.  Hence the embalmment of the dead; hence the pyramids, which were at once the tombs of their kings and the most perfect expression and symbol the race could discover of the profoundest idea to which they attained, viz., the idea of immortality.”  William M. Bryant, “Introduction by the Translator” to Hegel’s Philosophy of Art.

Chapter XXII

O no, there is no end: the end is death and madness!...

The passage is from the additions to Thomas Kyd's successful play The Spanish Tragedy.  For a long time people believed that the additions were by Ben Jonson, since the impresario Philip Henslowe had recorded a payment to Jonson for additions.  However, the leading view now, on the basis of subjective evaluation and computer statistics, is that the surviving additions are by none other than Shakespeare.  This blog post has a summary.  Thanks to Athel Cornish-Bowden for pointing this out.

Chapter XXIII

Go round about her, and tell the towers thereof.

    “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof.”  Psalm 48:12.

Do not, as is said in another connection, be afraid with any amazement.

    “Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.”  1 Peter 3:6.  Wimsey may say it’s “in another connection” to make it clear that he won’t expect obedience from his wife—but see  Busman’s Honeymoon.

All the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.

    “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.”  Matthew 4:8.

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