Exceeding fine

In 1654, one Friedrich von Logau wrote something in German that Longfellow (sometime in the 1800s) translated into English as:

Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.

The word "small" is necessary there to make the rhyme work, but I never see it quoted that way. There are a lot of variants in modern use, but almost all of them include the phrase "they grind exceeding fine." (Sometimes "exceedingly fine.") The modern use never includes the second line; presumably if it did, there'd have to be a different word at the end, to rhyme with "fine."

I'm really curious now as to where and when the change occurred. Remarkably, there's an early citation on the Web: a speech by Rep. Richard H. Cain, an African-American Representative addressing the House in 1875, includes the comment "The mills of the gods grind slowly, but surely and exceeding fine." This phrasing has become fairly common; I can't help but wonder whether it was a misquote of Longfellow (I don't know when Longfellow's translation was published) or simply a different translation of von Logau's original.

And I think it's fascinating that not only does the phrasing Cain used include "fine" and "but surely," but it uses "mills of the gods" instead of "mills of God." And in fact, many if not most modern uses of the phrase also use "of the gods."

I have no conclusion here; I just think this stuff is interesting, and I'm always startled to learn that a quotation I've known forever turns out to not originally have been stated the way I've always heard it.

8 Responses to “Exceeding fine”

  1. Jay Scott

    Gottes Mühlen mahlen langsam, mahlen aber trefflich klein
    Ob aus Langmut er sich säumet, bringt mit Schärf’ er alles ein.
    –Friedrich von Logau

    The Longfellow verse translation is nearly literal.

  2. Swistle

    This interests me, too. I’ve been looking around trying to find out the original of the quote, and also what the author had in mind when he or she wrote it.

  3. Dawnriver1

    Would only take switching the order of a couple of words in second line to ise “fine” and make it rhyme, i.e.,

    “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding fine;
    Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness all He grinds.”

  4. Jed

    Jay (belated response): Thanks! And neat about the near-literal translation. My impression (from a very small sample space) is that it’s easier to do near-literal translations of German poetry that rhyme and scan in English than poetry from other languages; wonder if that’s actually true.

    Swistle: It turns out that the bit about the mills of the gods dates way back to Classical times. I have a bunch more info about this, which I’ve been meaning to post for months but haven’t managed to put together into an entry yet.

    Dawnriver1: Yeah, you could do that, but fine/grinds is (to my ear) a pretty inexact rhyme. I suspect that most people who use the “fine” version don’t know there’s another line to rhyme with.

  5. Gerald

    I share 4 comments tagline note about being startled to find that a “quote” remembered from childhood doesn’t always seems to square with what is supposed to be the actual quote. (I remain firm in my view that it is “gods” (since it’s derivation is (presumably -based on my newfound knowledge) from ancient Greek where monotheism had not yet reached) and “finely”. (The latter, simply because I had it planted in my memory cells that way) Is it just me and my laziness in research but aren’t we still looking for a definitive statement of exactly where the quote comes from? Author and writing? (I always assumed it was from English literature and was astonished to read how far back the words go)

    • Jed

      Your comment prompted me to finally write up the extensive further information on this topic that I came across in 2007.

      We still have no definitive statement of original source, but we do know that the idea goes back at least to Euripides (around 400 B.C.), and the part about the mills grinding small/fine goes back at least to Plutarch (around 200 A.D.). But I believe the word “exceeding” comes from Longfellow’s 1845 translation of von Logau.

  6. Alex

    The quote is used in a story I read in 7th Grade, about a man who steals money from a boy who was on an errand to buy the thief’s son medicine.

    Does anyone know the name of the story and author?

    • Valerie

      It was called Exceeding Small, or Exceeding Fine. The man’s name was Hazen Cinch. But I don’t know the author’s name.


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