Top 10 Most Misunderstood Lines in Literary History

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There’s no better way to sound smart than by dropping a perfectly timed quote from some well-respected literature.  It shows that you’re both well-read and possess the stunning intellect to memorize whole chunks of books in the off chance that you might need it at some point (and barely anyone ever considers the implication that you just have way too much free time).

The problem is that a lot of the most famous quotes need context to be fully understood and, if you use them without knowing what they really mean, you might accidentally be saying something pretty dumb.  For example…

10.  Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

roadnottaken

Famous Quote: “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The United States’ most famous poet’s most famous poem is a timeless ode to the American ideals of “individuality” and “forging your own path.”  It’s one of those poems that’s so famous, even people who hate poetry can quote it.  These are the reasons it appears on The Academy of American Poets’ list of top poems for college graduation.

Except aside from that last part, everything we just said isn’t true.  Frost is actually using an old technique known as the “unreliable narrator,” and he isn’t even being all that subtle about it: in spite of the famous quote’s insistence that one road is “less traveled by,” the second stanza of the poem clarifies that both roads are “worn… really about the same.”  Oh, and also, Frost himself admitted that he was actually mocking the idea that single decisions would change your life, and specifically making fun of a friend of his who had a tendency to over-think things that really weren’t that big a deal.

So what you thought was life-affirming was really just another poet/hipster condescendingly saying “you think you’re an individual, when really you’re just a cog in the machine, man!

9.  William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

romeoandjuliet

Famous Quote: “Star-Crossed Lovers”

Aww, Romeo & Juliet: two teenagers in the throes of what could possibly be the most pure love in literary history.  This is why when a magazine wants to comment on, say, Justin Bieber’s love life or the relationship between a little boy and his horse, they’re likely to reference the sonnet that opens Shakespeare’s most famous play by calling them “Star-Crossed Lovers.”

And sure, this is totally appropriate, if you’re expecting these people to die.  “Star-Crossed” doesn’t mean “brought together by fate,” it means “fated to die,” because the stars (fate) have “crossed” you.  Shakespeare is intentionally reminding everyone at the beginning of his play that this is a frickin’ tragedy, you guys, and you’re in for a miserable ride.

8.  Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

aliceandduchess

Famous Quote: “Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go round.”

This is an amazingly misunderstood line from an amazingly misunderstood writer.  Pretty much everything about the life of Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) is shrouded in confusion and slander; rather than being about drugs, Alice in Wonderland is most likely a criticism of then-new forms of mathematics that were becoming popular at Dodgson’s own Oxford College.  In addition, though he was commonly accused of pedophilia, The Annotated Alice and The Carroll Myth makes the argument that Dodgson was actually asexual, and preferred the company of children because he was extremely uncomfortable with courting and any form of sexual innuendo.

Finally, and perhaps fittingly, his most famous quote is the one here about love making the world go ’round, and it is directly contrary to all of his pessimistic and strictly logical real-world values.  In context, this quote is said by The Duchess, a character who is introduced as a potential child murderer.  Hardly the kind of character a writer would want to speak the moral of his story.

Finally, need we remind you that Dodgson was a mathematician?  Almost every detail of his biography — as well as the actual context of this story — show that this idea of love as a geo-revolutionary repellant is supposed to be scoffed at, not adored.

So it’s true that you might believe this to be true, but if that’s the case then it’s also true that one of history’s greatest writers is making fun of you.

7.  William Shakespeare, Hamlet

hamlet

Famous Quote: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

No, this is not the last time Shakespeare is appearing on this list.  You can probably guess why this line has become popular: it’s a simple platitude, and it’s attractive because it deals with individuality (just like the Frost example).  However, if you look at who’s saying it and really analyze the content of the play, it becomes quickly obvious that Willy Shakes is making fun of this whole concept.

As anyone who’s read Shakespeare knows, the English language has evolved quite a bit since these plays were first performed, and what now seems like new-agey self-acceptance actually meant something quite different in Elizabethan times: Polonius is telling his son to work for himself, and only for himself, and to put everyone else he encounters second.  He’s not encouraging individuality, he’s encouraging selfishness.

Furthermore, Polonius spends the whole play being a complete nitwit, and even Wikipedia’s basic description of him includes pointing out that he is “wrong in all the judgments that he makes during the play.”  In most versions, Laertes (Polonius’s son,and the character he’s talking to) isn’t even listening — lots of stage directors will have the character roll his eyes and scamper off quickly to avoid the avalanche of clichés his father is dumping on him.

So what sounds like the kind of cutesy nonsense you’d roll your eyes at is really just bad advice given by a dumb character to someone who isn’t even listening.

6.  John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn

beautyistruth

Famous Quote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Of all the examples on this list, this is probably the most likely to be misunderstood.  After all, whether or not Keats was being serious when he said that, beauty = truth is basically the Kirk v Picard of classic English Literature.  Unlike that controversy, there has actually emerged a begrudging consensus, and that is “that Keats did not, in fact, believe that beauty is truth.”

The controversy boils down to whether Keats thought art was a) supposed to represent the real world, or b) was better than the real world, with most scholars eventually deciding that Keats believed the latter.  Not only does this cast a strange shadow over the rest of Keats’ work, which is described here as being “way over on the idealistic side of the sliding scale of idealism versus cynicism,” but it’s also just kinda fun and quirky that the most stereotypically pretentious comment in English Literary History was actually a sarcastic quip.

5.  William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

romeoandjuliet2

Famous Quote: “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

“Wherefore” means “why,” as in, “why is your name Romeo?”  The central conflict of the play is that R & J can’t be together because they are members of feuding families.

Juliet isn’t asking where Romeo is — that’d be stupid.  He’s standing right in front of her.

Also, we told you Shakespeare would show up on this list again.

4.  Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West

eastmeetswest

Famous Quote: “Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.”

It’s usually just the last couple lines here that are quoted, usually to describe two things that, you know, won’t ever meet.  Memorable instances are from Raising Arizona (“There’s what’s right and there’s what’s right and never the twain shall meet,”) and the first episode of Secret Diary of a Call Girl, if anyone cares at all about that.

The problem is that Kipling isn’t just being sarcastic here — it’s blatantly obvious that within the context of the poem this is just a straw man argument, and only stated at all so he can immediately point out why that statement doesn’t apply.

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

In addition to having some confusions about how capitalization works (silly nineteenth century, amirite?), Kipling is taking the blatant stance that colonialism pretty much rules and East and West are going to meet pretty hard despite all that physics stuff.

3.  Robert Frost, Mending Wall

mendingwall

Famous Quote: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Hey Robby Frost, good to see you on this list again.  Privacy is the theme this time, and while the phrase “good fences make good neighbors” is not quite so famous as some others (though you’ve certainly heard it), Mending Wall gets launched up to number 3 on this list for one simple reason: it’s misunderstood by federal law.

“Separation of powers, a distinctively American political doctrine, profits from the advice authored by a distinctively American poet: Good fences make good neighbors.”

That’s United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, literally creating hard law from thin air, and not understanding the thing he’s talking about.

Mending Wall does include the line “good fences make good neighbors,” but it also paints the character speaking that line as a bit of a twit.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall… (nature) sends the frozen groundswell under it.”  The poem tells a story of two neighbors with a wall between them, but every winter the wall falls apart, so the neighbors have to meet and mend the wall, spending more time together than they otherwise would have and growing increasingly frustrated with the each other.

Remember that the Supreme Court has nine justices, and at least one (Stephen Breyer) actually pointed out the error in his concurring opinion, but Scalia decided to leave the mistake in anyway.

2.  Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

zarathustrasuperman

Famous Quote: …at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast, prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory…”

We’re not going to put the whole quote up there because Nietzsche was a philosopher and therefore pretty longwinded, but we’ve highlighted the important parts.  Or rather, we’ve highlighted the parts that the Nazis thought were important, when they were all Nazi-ing around and committing the first ever industrialized genocide, trying to live up to the standards that Nietzsche, apparently, set for them.

The problem is that’s not what Nietzsche meant at all.  The original quote ends like this: “the Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings — they all shared this need.”  Everyone’s a blond beast because blond beasts are a metaphor for lions.

So if you’re going to use a philosopher as the backbone of your political movement, you might want to make sure you finish reading his sentence before you get the war machine up and running.  Also, the fact that you thought he was advocating genocide was probably a pretty good hint that you shouldn’t have been listening to him anyway.

You stupid Nazis.

1.  William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

summertime

Famous Quote: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

This is definitely the most quoted line in all of English literature, so much so that you’ve probably seen it as a parody more often that you’ve seen it written out straight — for example, “Shall I compare thee to a bale of hay.”  It’s one of the few poems that is just so cliché that, if a guy recited it to his girlfriend on a date, even the most love-sick of recipients would roll their eyes in disgust.

But when Shakespeare’s talking about “love,” he’s not talking about romantic love or feminine beauty– the first 126 sonnets in Shakespeare’s work are generally understood to be addressed towards a man, and many of the surrounding pieces are actually encouraging procreation.  Shakespeare isn’t wooing a beautiful woman; he’s telling a wealthy young ponz exactly what he wants to hear: that he’s just so damn sexy that it’d be pretty much the worst thing in the world if he didn’t have kids.

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So if you’re a lady reading this, if any guy offers to compare you to a summer’s day, say “no, ’cause I’m not a dude.”  If you’re a guy, don’t offer to compare your lady to a summer’s day.  If you’re a man whose wife is trying to convince you that it’s time to have kids then…uh, that’s actually fine.  Nicely done.


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67 Comments

  1. 5. I hate the nitpicking comments on sites like this but I have to say that when Juliet asks, “Wherefore art thou . . .” she is not aware that Romeo is anywhere near her. He is hiding and spying on her at that time. I agree with the translation, just wanted to clear that up.

    • I was going to say the same thing about Juliet/Romeo. He is hiding at the time, not right in front of her, and she doesn’t know he is there. If she had, she never would have said all those things–she’s embarrassed he’s heard it all when he does reveal himself. (She is worried that he will now take advantage of her or think her too “easily won”, because she’s already spoken what was in her heart.)

  2. Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is not sarcastic but ambiguous. The less traveled road has “made all the difference”. Was it a good or bad difference? Is it a statement of regret? That’s the poet’s intention.

  3. Actually it was Jane Russel who spoke these immortal words in “Paleface” years before Kipling. In truth he copied Russell and put his own twist on it.

    East is east and west is west
    And the wrong one I have chose
    Let’s go where I’ll keep on wearin’
    Those frills and flowers and buttons and bows
    Rings and things and buttons and bows

  4. I would have replaced “Wherefore” with another one from Shakespeare, from Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much”. “Protest” in Shakespeare’s time meant “confirm or avow”, not “reject or deny”. The standard interpretation is similar (“I don’t believe in this woman’s credibility”), but the reason why the credibility is called into question is the opposite of how people generally use it today.

    • why’s that? i’d really like to know because people have this tattooed on them so it would be interesting to know if they are doing this for the wrong reason.

  5. Also Churchill’s statement, “never have so few given so much for so many.”–He was actually talking about the brothel houses around Liverpool.

    • ACTUALLY actually, the phrase is “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”. Commons speech, 8/40. Reference was to the RAF who won (barely) the Battle of Britain, forestalling a German invasion.

  6. More than one politician (and auto manufacturer) has fallen afoul of Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A”.

    • That may be the best example on here of people misinterpreting. what is actually meant. Politicians look so silly at a rally with that song blasting in the background-It’s hilarious,really. (As a veteran I agree with the Boss on this one).

  7. It’s “Ode On A Grecian Urn” not “Ode To A Grecian Urn”.
    Keats was recreating the pictographs on the urn, not singing their praises.
    Most misquoted titles in history…

  8. When Oscar Wilde said “Art is quite useless” he wasn’t speaking about paintings,sculpture,etc. He was talking about Art Garfunkel.

  9. You are definitely missing a very important one:
    “Mens sana in corpore sano” (A healthy mind lives in a healthy body)
    by the Roman author Juvenal.
    It was used and abused as the ideal of man – to be great at sports and a genius at the same time. However, the text it was written in is a satire and the always left out “orandum est ut sit” (it is to be prayed for that…) rather indicates that the author made fun of the fact that you rarely find the two of them together in one body – only dumb jocks and weak nerds.
    However, that’s just one interpretation.

  10. I’m disappointed that this list ended on Sonnet 18 and MISSED what is most commonly misunderstood about it. Shakespeare isn’t complimenting somebody (man or woman) in the Sonnet, he’s BRAGGING.

    His starting inquiry, “shall I,” is almost like some guy going “want to see me make a basket from half court blind-folded?”

    He even ends the sonnet by bragging about the fact that he’s such an awesome poet that people will continue to appreciate his subject indefinitely by virtue of his incredible word skills:

    “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

    • Exactly! I just made a similar comment and saw that yours touched on the same thing. Good to know it’s not just me. 🙂

  11. Sonnet 18 isn’t actually a LOVE poem at all, but rather a self-flattering ode to the powers of poetry! After the first two lines, the rest of the sonnet describes how time and nature destroy all physical beauty.

    Luckily for this lovely person, Shakespeare has written a poem that will keep him (or her) eternally young: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives THIS, and this gives life to thee.”

    • Yes. Basically “everyone will remember you forever, because my poem is going to last forever.” Which…well, we’re not quite at forever, but 400 years is a pretty good innings. We can forgive him for his exaggeration, I think, because he has to make the words fit the meter.

  12. I think it’s silly to debate what fictional characters such as Romeo and Juliette may have meant or not . Let’s limit this to real people who actually existed in history such as The Lone Ranger who once said to Tonto, “A wet bird never flies at night,Tonto.” And Tonto looked at him in amazement and said,”what the hell does that mean, Kimo Sabe?”* Well,The Lone Ranger didn’t actually mean a wet bird COULDN”T fly at night-He just meant they don’t like flying at night and therefore they never do.
    * Navajo for “dupiosh” which is Polish for “dumbass.”

    Discussion Question:

    Was “F Troop” an actual documentary?

    • You’re a very strange man. I can’t decided if I find you entertaining, but I’m leaning towards the affirmative.

      • LADY M

        You’ve broke my heart for real this time. Yes,I’ve been called “a little strange” all my life–Even thru my Navy days. But I would never have expected you to say it of all people–I thought we really meant something to each other. I still think you are intelligent and beautiful so please give me a break on this and keep leaning toward the affirmative.

        Love,
        Dennis

        PS: I do have some talent. I play the guitar. I backed up Elvis on “Kentucky Rain”–Ok..Ok..I’m lying-I can’t play a guitar but the women say I always smell good so that should be worth something..Right?

  13. What about Shakespeare’s “First thing we’ll do is kill all the lawyers”? Everyone uses it like, “yay, let’s kill lawyers!” but in context it’s spoken by thugs who are planning a perfect kleptocracy–kill the lawyers, and you can break the law to your heart’s content…

  14. With regard to #2, I think your missing the point, Nietzsche was clearly anti semetic, I dont even need to post a quote just read anything he has to say about Jews. That is why the Nazi’s lauded him.

    • When was Nitschke ever anti-Semetic? I know he wasn’t anti-Semetic when he played linebacker with the Packers.

      • Ah yes, The Packers, didn’t they go to number one on the charts with “Baby I want your love thing” in 1967? I’m afraid I don’t what kind of instrument a linebacker is though, it is like a Glockenspeil? Or some kind wind instrument?

    • Christian O. on

      While Nietzsche abhored slave morality, that springs from Judaism and Christianity, he actually lauded the Jewish people – a recent article from Huffington Post cites Beyond Good and Evil, where Nietzsche states:

      “[T]he Jews are without a doubt the strongest, purest, most tenacious race living in Europe today….The fact that the Jews, if they wanted (or if they were forced, as the anti-Semtes seem to want), could already be dominant, or indeed could quite literally have control over present-day Europe–this is established. The fact that they are not working and making plans to this end is likewise established. Meanwhile, what they wish and want instead…is to be absorbed and assimilated into Europe….[T]his urge and impluse…should be carefully noted and accomodated–in which case it might be practical and appropriate to throw the anti-Semitic hooligans out of the country.”

      Firstly, he says that he believes that the Jewish “race” is superior to the European “races” and secondly, he says that the Jewish people did not control the world, as most anti-semites claim. They could if they wanted to, but they don’t.

      Furthermore, Nietzsche fucking haaaaated anti-semites. Not only did he want them thrown out of Germany, he had explicitedly called for the death of anti-semites by writing “all Anti-semites Ought to Be Shot.” In a letter addressed to his sister, after she married an anti-semite, he wrote:

      “Above all it arouses mistrust against my character, as if I publicly condemned something which I favored secretly – and that I am unable to do anything against it, that in every Anti-Semitic Correspondence sheet the name Zarathustra is used, has already made me almost sick several times.”

      Nietzsche loathed Judaism and all other types of religion, but he was not an anti-semite.

  15. @#5…I’m so relieved…I really thought you shot your R&J wad with the whole star-crossed lovers thing, when in reality the most misunderstood line is “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”

    And if I hear one more Disney sitcom kid reply with “I’m right here, babe!” during their high school production, I’m going to drink the apothecary’s poison!

  16. Everyone I know uses Star crossed lovers to refer to people destined NOT to be together, so I think you were alone there.

  17. When the Joker was referring to Batman and said, “where does he get those wonderful toys?” he wasn’t talking about the Batrope,Batmobile,etc.–He was talking about Batgirl and her sister BoomBoom.

    Discussion Question:

    How far is Gotham City from Metropolis in kilometers? Explain.

  18. Not sure what you mean about Scalia creating hard law out of thin air. Regardless of what Frost meant about good fences make good neighbors. Separation of powers is a distinct american political doctrine. If you ever read the American constitution you would know that the federal government is made up of 3 coequal branches of Government (legislative, executive, and judiciary). The federal government was setup with specific enumerated powers and the powers not given to the federal government were left to the states i.e. federalism another form of separation of powers. Maybe you should read the federalist papers, the constitution, or Charles de Montesquieu.

  19. That’s an interesting interpretation of Sonnet 18, although I’m a little curious as to how you arrived at your conclusion. The first two quatrains point out how the subject is more beautiful than a summer’s day and how short-lived and unreliable Summer really is. Like most English sonnets, the first two quatrains set up a problem, while the final quatrain and couplet provide a solution. In this case, the final six lines read:

    But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
    Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
    Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
    When in eternal lines of time thou grow’st.

    So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

    It’s about achieving immortality through art, specifically poetry. The ‘eternal lines of time’ is a reference to the sonnet itself, and the ‘this’ in the final couplet refers to the sonnet too. Your argument that it’s about procreation is interesting, but you need to provide contextual evidence.

  20. THANK you for including Nietzsche on this list!!! Because of the Nazis’ (mistaken & misread) adoption of that quote about the blonde beast, so many people think his philosophy had something to do with Antisemitism.. when Nietzsche was far from an Anti-Semite!!! He wrote at great length and with some awe about the enduring strength of the Jewish people. His sister was the Anti-Semite, who received the rights to his works after he died. People who read Nietzsche by-quotation-only always, ALWAYS get this wrong (also, the aphorism that “God is dead”). These are usually the same people who say Nietzsche was a nihilist…

    • Two ways:1- Close read the text. Go through it chunk by chunk and just write a note to ysruoelf in the margins what the lines are about. It will help you understand and remember what you’ve read.2- Remember, Bill’s plays are meant to be acted out, not read like a novel, so take a hint and act out the scenes! Close your bedroom door and act out the lines, I would always whisper them so no one could hear me, but I’m telling you it helps so much and makes Shakespeare so much better!

  21. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”… this is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. After all this time, I thought I knew what it meant. So “wherefore” means “why”… now it makes sense!

  22. While you interpretation of Frost is feasible, it doesn’t strike me as more accurate than the common read—and there’s much reason to criticize it. First of all, newsflash, the poem isn’t LITERALLY about a fork in the road—it’s a metaphor for bigger decisions in life (consider the significance of the speaker comforting himself with the fact he’ll come back and take the other path, but knowing he never will in lines 13-15, this sentiment makes no sense if the path is a literal path: why not come back and try the other one later? But in life, we so rarely get do-overs). Acknowledging that obvious metaphor, let us continue:

    The biggest problem with your interpretation is that you totally misrepresent Robert Frost’s commentary on the poem. Clearly, from what he says, he is not mocking “individualism” in the poem, as you say, but regret. He states that the “sigh” in his poem “was my rather private jest at the expense of those who might think I would yet live to be sorry for the way I had taken in life.” [emphasis mine].

    He goes on to state: “One stanza of ‘The Road Not Taken’ was written while I was sitting on a sofa in the middle of England: Was found three or four years later, and I couldn’t bear not to finish it. I wasn’t thinking about myself there, but about a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other.” He wrote the first stanza while remembering the friend who made a fuss over choosing pathways. Then he picked up the poem years later and finished it. Consider the relevance of the fact his friend went to war—that the once incidental trait that he carefully chose which paths he took would gain far more resonance in hindsight. And notice the lines: “I took the one less traveled by/and that has made all the difference” act as the conclusion of the poem. Modernists were playing with poetic tradition, but they often, particularly Frost who was more conventional than other modernists, invoked poetic conventions from the Romantics. The convention invoked here is that the poem ends in a TURN—or a shift revealing the conclusion of a central tension in the poem. The conclusion is: I don’t regret my decision—and one should not be indecisive and filled with regret. Frost is mocking his friend’s indecisiveness, as he states in the letter to the girl. And he ends certain in the path he has chosen.

    Also, you should know better than to take an artist’s statements about his work as the end all be all of a text’s meaning. Look at the actual text itself when interpreting it—an author only can see so much of his work, a lot of it is surprisingly subconscious: so much can be revealed by what other readers find in your work that you never even knew (I’m a writer and English major and have had this experience and know many writers who have had this experience). But it’s beside the point because in this case, the artist’s comments don’t even support your read!

  23. I believe youâ??re right to point out the Nazisâ?? misread of Nietzsche (although the read you provide is really shallow: the lion of Nietzscheâ??s work represents the second stage of transformation in becoming the ubermensch or â??overman,â?? Nietzscheâ??s ideal individualist who rises against the slave mentality of conformist thinkingâ??so itâ??s not a stretch at all to say the blond beast is a lion, he refers to the beast earlier in the essay and itâ??s central to his ideas). But I wouldnâ??t necessarily say the Nazis misread the text because they are, as you say, â??stupid.â??

    Nietzscheâ??s sister actually played a big role in framing her brotherâ??s work as being pro-national socialism. After Nietzscheâ??s mental breakdown, she edited his work and even falsified his letters, to promote, as an anti-Semite, her own bigotry. Thanks to her, Nietzscheâ??s reputation has long been the godfather of Nazism. Many philosophers like Bertrand Russel and Rawls have misunderstood Nietzsche as being elitist and pro-totalitarian not because they are â??stupidâ?? but because of how his work was framed. In fact, itâ??s likely some Nazis were well aware of what they were doing, selectively using Nietzscheâ??s philosophy to justify their horrifying practices.

  24. Arthur Lindley on

    The answer to what it is that doesn’t love a wall — ‘that sends the frozen groundswell under it’ — is, of course, ‘frost’.

  25. This was great! However, unlike most of the 126 sonnets about the boy, Sonnet 18 is about how procreation isn’t the only way to keep the boy’s beauty and that the boy’s beauty will live through the poem’s line.

  26. Chalkwhite76 on

    One that I always love is “Had we the world enough, and time,” from To His Coy Mistress by Marvell. The line by itself is almost always used wistfully, like “If only we had the time to have a rich and full love.” What people seem not to realize is that the poem it opens is basically “I know that you’re ‘waiting for marriage,’ but you should really have sex with me.” He’s saying, “If we had the time, I would court you forever, but we don’t, we’re going to be dead soon, you should let me put my penis inside of you.”

  27. I’m not sure about this whole post and don’t care enough to discuss but whoever Dennis is, you made my little piece of Australia giggle hysterically tonight, thank you 🙂

  28. Shocked that with all the misused and misunderstood Shakespeare lines on here, “The world is my oyster…” doesn’t make an appearance.

      • The common usage of the phrase completely ignores the line that follows it:

        Falstaff:
        I will not lend thee a penny.

        Pistol:
        Why then the world’s mine oyster,
        Which I with sword will open.

        This is not some ambiguous sentiment; it is an overt and threatening one. Shakespeare chooses the image of the oyster not simply because of pearl inside, but also because it was traditionally opened with a blade. It may be an image of readily-available wealth, but it is money to be specifically gained through violent means.

  29. When Ben franklin said,”time is money” he did not mean that “time” was literally money. That would be silly–Ben simply meant that if you buy a clock you will have to pay for it.

  30. one more to the list :-Friedrich Nietzsche – “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” The above quote has got nothing to do with carefree dancing as much as it has to do with people who are gripped with passion n fervour n love n forget the nearby society n its stupid rules !!!

    • “as it has to do with people who are gripped with passion n fervour n love n forget the nearby society n its stupid rules !!!”
      And just look at the sad irony of those that misappropriated so much of his work.

  31. I would have added “To sleep, perchance to dream” from Hamlet to this list.

    So many times I have seen people quote this when saying goodnight, but I doubt they understand the true meaning.

    The whole soliloquy is about Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide, and the sleep to which he refers is death. He is then concerned that if he does kill himself and “sleep” he will be troubled by ongoing visions haunting him.

    Not quite the sleep and dreams that those using the phrase intend.

  32. I don’t agree that “The Road Not Taken” is misunderstood due to your proof found in the second stanza.
    When examining the lines “Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same” , one could also make an argument that, because the one path was “grassy and wanted wear”, the “equal wear” could mean the lack of wear. Since it is an unreliable narrator, we do not know if the narrator is the one who did not make the paths worn paths, of if society did not make the paths worn paths. If the narrator did not travel either path, then both paths were worn about the same, and this is in the sense that neither were traveled enough by the narrator for him to know which to take. But since one had more grass on it, it seemed to have called to the narrator more than the other. That is the counterpoint to your argument, and since there is this counterpoint, does that mean this poem has been misunderstood to begin with? Just a thought. (In addition to the argument about “regret” posted above.)

  33. Also, with “Romeo and Juliet”, “Wherefore thou art” is very misunderstood. Not meaning, where are you, but, why are you. Perhaps this should replace the “Frost” quote. Again, just a thought.

  34. I agree that the Lewis Carol line is misunderstood, but not for the reason that you claimed it be misunderstood for. Yes, there is a sense of sarcasm in the Duchess’s voice, however, it should be obvious that she is sarcastic to the reader. I think what is misunderstood is that love is indeed that actual focus of this part of “The Mock Turtle’s Story”. But rather the focus concerns a sense of order in the world, which then, in turn, falls back to your valid point of mathematics. Love, therefore, is a red herring. And perhaps those who quote this quote, might actually be using it in a sarcastic sense, and yet others do actually misunderstood the meaning. But, as I said, love is not the main focus of this section of the story. Lewis Carol loved children, and also used his college and the surrounding town as part influence to his work.

  35. As for “to thine own self be true”, yes, Laertes should roll his eyes, but partly because his father is going on and on, but also because he is a typical young man. Shakespeare knew this, and knew that often fathers dish out more advice then needed. But what came first, the cliches or did Shakespeare coin the phrases? Was Shakespeare actually passionate about the relationship between a father and a son, or lack of, in this point? Couldn’t have been that Hamlet wished his father was around to give such advice, and even beyond that, advice of how to frame his Uncle? So, therefore, is this line actually misunderstood, or more misused?

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