Imagination Is a Good Servant, But a Bad Master – Quote Investigator (2022)

Agatha Christie? Hercule Poirot? John Jortin? Maria Edgeworth? ‎Richard Lovell? Letitia Elizabeth Landon? Anonymous?

Imagination Is a Good Servant, But a Bad Master – Quote Investigator (1)Dear Quote Investigator: Creativity and inventiveness are wonderful attributes, but an overly imaginative person is prone to self-deception. Here is a cogent adage:

Imagination is a good servant, but a bad master.

This saying as been attributed to the famous English mystery author Agatha Christie. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Agatha Christie published “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” in 1920. The main character, detective Hercule Poirot, used the expression while conversing with a friend who had made an incorrect deduction. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles: A Detective Story by Agatha Christie, Chapter 5: “It Isn’t Strychnine, Is It?” Quote Page 116, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London. (Google Books Full… Continue reading

“I must confess that the conclusions I drew from those few scribbled words were quite erroneous.”

He smiled.

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“You gave too much rein to your imagination. Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master. The simplest explanation is always the most likely.”

Interestingly, Agatha Christie did not craft this adage. It has been circulating for a few hundred years.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

This metaphorical framework has a long history. For example, in 1562 water was described as a good servant but a cruel master. Sixteenth century spelling was not standardized as shown by this excerpt:[2]Year: Imprint date 1579 (Date on document 1562), Title: Bulleins bulwarke of defence against all sicknesse, soarenesse, and woundes that doe dayly assaulte mankinde: which bulwarke is kept with… Continue reading

water is a very good seruaunt, but it is a cruell mayster.

More examples of this general framework are available in the Quote Investigator article available here.

A partial match for the adage under examination occurred in a 1674 sermon by a preacher identified as Mr. S. C. The word “fancy” was used as a synonym for “imagination” with a connotation of desire:[3]1674, A Supplement to the Morning-Exercise at Cripple-gate Or Several More Cases of Conscience Practically Resolved by Sundry Ministers, Sermon 19: The Sinfulness and Cure of Thoughts by Mr. S. C.,… Continue reading

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… fancy in most men is stronger than reason; man being the highest of imaginative beings, and the lowest of intelligent, fancy is in its exaltation more than in creatures beneath him, and reason in its detriment more than in creatures above him; and therefore the imagination needs a more skilful guide than reason. Fancy is like fire, a good Servant but a bad Master.

In 1771 a sermon ascribed to Reverend John Jortin included the adage:[4]1771 August, The Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature, Volume 32, Article III: Sermons on Different Subjects by the late Reverend John Jortin D.D. Archdeacon of London, Start Page 95, Quote Page… Continue reading

Imagination, when it gets the better of reason, is a dangerous guide: it is a good servant, but a bad master.

In 1798 “Practical Education” by Maria Edgeworth and ‎Richard Lovell described the saying as a “homely proverb”:[5] 1798, Practical Education by Maria Edgeworth and ‎Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Volume 2, Chapter 22: Taste and Imagination, Quote Page 645, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link

A magician under the control of a philosopher would perform not only great but useful wonders. The homely proverb, which has been applied to fire, may with equal truth be applied to imagination: “It is a good servant, but a bad master.”

In 1825 some of John Jortin’s sermons were reprinted, and one of these discourses included the adage:[6]1825, Sermons of the Rev. John Jortin D.D. Archdeacon of London, Abridged by the Rev. George Whittaker, Volume 1 of 3, Sermon 21, Start Page 175, Quote Page 178, Printed for George B. Whittaker,… Continue reading

It is best to see things as they are. Then we may judge of them according to their nature and effect. Imagination is a good servant, but a bad master.

(Video) Agatha Christie. You gave too much rein to your imagination.

In 1832 the popular English writer Letitia Elizabeth Landon included the adage in her book “Romance and Reality”:[7] 1832, Romance and Reality by L. E. L. (Letitia Elizabeth Landon), Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 13, Quote Page 55, J. & J. Harper, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

The poet dies not of the broken heart he sings; it is the passionate enthusiast, the lonely visionary, who makes his own hopes, feelings and thoughts, the pyre on which himself will be consumed. The old proverb, applied to fire and water, may with equal truth to be applied to the imagination—it is a good servant, but a bad master.

In 1883 “The Nineteenth Century” journal published an essay by critic Theodore Watts about poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti which included the saying:[8]1883 March, The Nineteenth Century, Volume 13, Number 73, The Truth About Rossetti by Theodore Watts, Quote Page 404, Quote Page 419, Kegan Paul, Trench & Company, London. (Google Books Full… Continue reading

It is asserted that a drop of cold water will scald, if the person upon whose flesh it falls really imagines it to be boiling. And I believe it: I feel certain that Rossetti could have been so scalded. Like fire, then, imagination is a good servant but a bad master.

In 1920 Agatha Christie included the saying in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” as mentioned previously:

“You gave too much rein to your imagination. Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master.”

In 1977 Christie published her autobiography, and she included a variant expression spoken by a fellow traveler in Syria:[9] 1977, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie, Part 3: Growing Up, Quote Page 123, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)

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“Remember this, your stomach’s a good servant, but a bad master.”

In conclusion, QI believes that this expression can best be described as an anonymous proverb. It probably evolved from earlier remarks about fire and water instead of imagination. A close match appeared in a sermon by Reverend John Jortin in 1771. Agatha Christie gave the line to her detective Hercule Poirot in a 1920 mystery.

Image Notes: Floorplan illustration appearing at the beginning of chapter three of “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie.

(Great thanks to quotation researcher Mardy Grothe who included the remark written by Agatha Christie in his newsletter of August 21, 2022. This led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

References

References
↑1 1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles: A Detective Story by Agatha Christie, Chapter 5: “It Isn’t Strychnine, Is It?” Quote Page 116, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link
↑2 Year: Imprint date 1579 (Date on document 1562), Title: Bulleins bulwarke of defence against all sicknesse, soarenesse, and woundes that doe dayly assaulte mankinde: which bulwarke is kept with Hilarius the gardener, [and] Health the phisicion by William Bullein, Doctor of Phisicke. 1562. Author: William Bullein (Died 1576), Publisher: Imprinted at London: By Thomas Marshe, dwellinge in Fleetestreate neare vnto Saincte Dunstanes Church. (Early English Books Online EEBO-TCP Phase 1) link
↑3 1674, A Supplement to the Morning-Exercise at Cripple-gate Or Several More Cases of Conscience Practically Resolved by Sundry Ministers, Sermon 19: The Sinfulness and Cure of Thoughts by Mr. S. C., Quote Page 422, Printed for Thomas Cockerill, London. (Google Books Full View) link
↑4 1771 August, The Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature, Volume 32, Article III: Sermons on Different Subjects by the late Reverend John Jortin D.D. Archdeacon of London, Start Page 95, Quote Page 101, Printed for A. Hamilton, London. (Google Books Full View) link
↑5 1798, Practical Education by Maria Edgeworth and ‎Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Volume 2, Chapter 22: Taste and Imagination, Quote Page 645, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link
↑6 1825, Sermons of the Rev. John Jortin D.D. Archdeacon of London, Abridged by the Rev. George Whittaker, Volume 1 of 3, Sermon 21, Start Page 175, Quote Page 178, Printed for George B. Whittaker, London. (Google Books Full View) link
↑7 1832, Romance and Reality by L. E. L. (Letitia Elizabeth Landon), Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 13, Quote Page 55, J. & J. Harper, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
↑8 1883 March, The Nineteenth Century, Volume 13, Number 73, The Truth About Rossetti by Theodore Watts, Quote Page 404, Quote Page 419, Kegan Paul, Trench & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
↑9 1977, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie, Part 3: Growing Up, Quote Page 123, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
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