Ships that Pass in the Night

Elizabeth Knowles

It is a common experience for a researcher, pursuing a particular line, to come across a tempting side path; one of the pleasures of retirement is that it is purely a personal choice as to whether or not you break off to pursue it. This happened to me recently, when I was looking for earlier general references to dictionaries of quotations. One of those I found was an item in the “Queries” column of New York Times of January 28, 1905 which immediately piqued my interest. The question turned on the origin of a book title. As the correspondent (a George Ashby of Yonkers) put it: “When Miss Harraden’s ‘Ships that Pass in the Night’ was published, it was said of a certain dictionary of quotations at the time that it was the only one that gave this phrase and its author’s name.” He wanted the answer to two questions. “Who was the author, and whose dictionary was it?”

            The first part of the question was easily satisfied: the New York Times supplied the source (a line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Theologian’s Tale: Elizabeth” in his Tales of a Wayside Inn), and gave the full line from which the phrase was taken: “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing.” They could not however supply the answer to the second part, and possibly thought but poorly of Mr Ashby of wanting to know it: “We do not know which dictionary of quotations is referred to, but it is not a very important matter” – a view in which I differ from them, since I thought it said something rather interesting about the prevalence, or lack of prevalence, of what is now a reasonably familiar quotation. I decided to explore further the background to Miss Harraden and her book (I knew nothing of either of them) and to see whether I could identify the dictionary of quotations referenced.

            Very fortunately, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has an entry for Beatrice Harraden (1864–1936), describing her as a “novelist and suffragist.” Ships that Pass in the Night, published in 1893, was her first novel, and made a hit with the public. The Sewanee Review of November 1894 described it as “more spoken of than any book that has appeared since ‘Robert Elsmere’” –that is, Mrs Humphrey Ward’s 1888 “drama of religious faith and doubt” as ODNB describes it, which had also been a notable bestseller. OED, in its entry for ships that pass in the night, gives the Harraden title as its first example of usage in relation to people whose acquaintance was necessarily transitory.

Consulting the Bodleian catalogue, I discovered that the year after her book appeared, Beatrice published a pamphlet entitled Concerning Ships that Pass in the Night, in which she went into some detail about the title. It had in fact originally been a working title only, explained to the publishers when she submitted it as a temporary stop-gap, “just for the sake of calling the book something.” However, the publishers evidently liked it, and it survived; as it turned out, somewhat to her regret. She had been given the words years ago as a quotation from Longfellow, but she had never traced them to a particular work, although she had “searched through many editions of Longfellow.” Unfortunately, as she discovered, as her book became more widely known, the first question put to her by a reader was likely to begin “Where –”, on which she knew instinctively what was going to follow. “I … began to wish that my ships would sink and be heard of no more.” Beatrice (who was evidently at the time of writing in the US) thought that “in the land of Longfellow no one needs to ask such a question”, but said that she understood letters of inquiry were still being sent to her in England. (Of course, given George Ashby’s query in 1905, there can hardly have been universal recognition of the words, even in America.)

Turning to usage evidence, a trawl online reveals a number of instances in the first decades of the twentieth century, mainly in US sources. Beatrice’s work does seem likely to have had the effect of cementing this particular phrase in the public consciousness – but what was the only dictionary of quotations, at the time her book appeared, to include the relevant quotation? It was not in the 1882 eighth edition of the premier American collection, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and in fact did not appear either in the 1905 ninth edition. The one contemporary compilation I have found that did include it is the 1882 Cyclopædia of Practical Quotations, edited by Jehiel Keeler Hoyt and Anna Livia Ward. By 1914 and the tenth edition, however, Bartlett’s had caught up; the Longfellow entry included the key lines, complete with footnotes to a number of references employing similar images.

I suspect that today Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn may not be frequently read, but it would be virtually unthinkable for a dictionary of quotations which included a Longfellow entry not to have this particular line. I find it interesting to reflect on this bit of quotation history, in which a now-forgotten writer may, by an almost accidental choice of title for an unexpectedly successful book, have had a significant effect on both language use, and the content of a dictionary of quotations published today.

Elizabeth Knowles

Oxford, November 2020