The mills of the gods

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Back in 2002, I posted an entry in my main blog about the Longfellow line “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small” and its antecedents, specifically a German poem written by Friedrich von Logau in 1654.

A new comment on that entry spurred me to finally write up some info I collected in 2007, when I discovered that in that 2002 entry, I didn't go nearly far enough back.

A slightly earlier rendition appeared in George Herbert's Jacula Prudentum: “God's mill grinds slow, but sure.” (Though there's apparently some doubt as to his authorship.) I'm not sure whether that line was in the first (1640) edition; the second edition appeared in 1651. But Herbert died in 1633, so if he wrote the book, then he wrote that line earlier. And it was a book of aphorisms, not necessarily things he came up with.

But that's still not nearly far enough back. Sextus Empiricus, in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., wrote something in Latin (“Est mola tarda dei, verum molit illa minutim”) that's been translated as “The mill of god is slow [or late], but it grinds fine [or small].” (From Against the Professors, I.xiii.287; maybe specifically from Against the Grammarians.)

And then there's a line from a Latin translation of the Sibylline Oracles (“a collection of oracular utterances [...] ascribed to the Sibyls,” which Wikipedia says were composed from the second to the fifth century A.D.), book VIII, line 14: “Sed mola postremo pinset divina farinam,” which I've seen translated as “Late will the mills of God grind the fine flour.”

And before that (probably sometime in the late first or early second century A.D.), Plutarch wrote something (in Moralia) that's been translated as “The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind to powder.” (From “De Sera Numinis Vindicta,” “On the Delays of Divine Vengeance,” end of chapter 3.)

Going another step further back, I'm told that Tibulius's Elegies I.IX.4 has a relevant line (sometime before 19 B.C.), but I don't know what the line was.

And Horace wrote, in Carmina III.II.31:

raro antecedentem scelestum

deseruit pede Poena claudo

Semi-literal translation: “Rarely does Punishment desert the retreating criminal, although her foot is lame.” Conington translation: “Though Vengeance halt, she seldom leaves / The wretch whose flying steps she hounds.”

And finally, the farthest-back reference I know of comes from Euripedes around 405 B.C., translated as “Slow but sure moves the might of the gods.” (The Bacchae, line 882.)

So, in summary:

  • The idea of the line dates back at least to the ancient Greeks.
  • Variants referring to either “the gods” or “God” also date back to Classical times.
  • The specific reference to the mills of the gods (or God) grinding “fine” or “small” dates back to at least the second century A.D.
  • I have yet to see a citation that uses the word "exceeding" before Longfellow's 1845 translation of von Logau, as “Retribution,” in The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems. I'm guessing that Longfellow contributed the word “exceeding” (translating von Logau's “trefflich”), and that subsequent renditions in English that use “exceeding” or “exceedingly” derive from Longfellow.

I'm still not entirely clear on the question that brought me to this topic in the first place: why do so many modern versions of the line use the phrase “exceeding fine” instead of Longfellow's “exceeding small”? “Fine” is a reasonable translation of some of the Classical sources, but if “exceeding” comes from Longfellow, then why are the Classical sources getting mixed in?

It makes me wonder whether the 1875 speech that I quoted in the original entry (by Rep. Richard H. Cain, an African-American Representative addressing the House) is what popularized the phrase, since Cain did say “exceeding fine.”

Anyway, I think that's enough on this topic for now. Apparently the mills of Jed's research grind very slowly; it took me five years to find out more about this topic, and then another three to get around to writing it up and posting it.

Many thanks to Kendra Eshleman for translations, confirmations, dates, and huge amounts of general information, and to Kevin W. Woodruff for a posting to a librarian mailing list with several of these cites. Thanks also to the New York Times's “Queries and Answers” column, August 29, 1920.

(Added later: On looking at the title of this entry, I've now got a song stuck in my head. “The mills of the gods go round and round. . . .”)

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This page contains a single entry by Jed published on June 13, 2010 12:25 PM.

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