I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore

This started when I remembered last year’s Advent Carol service at Westminster where I’d ended up sitting next to Isaac Newton’s tomb and the whole time kept trying to reconstruct the wording of a famous quote I’d frequently seen attributed to him:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me

I then forgot until today to look up the source. It turns out to have several but none are Newton’s own writings. The usual citation is to an 1855 work – Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton by David Brewster (pg. 407) – that provides no originating source. But there is a much earlier work – Anecdotes, Observations and Characters, of Books and Men by the Rev. Joseph Spence (pg. 41) – from the mid 18th century that presents it as something Newton said “a little before he died” and sources the report to Andrew Michael Ramsay while also in a footnote connecting the imagery to this passage from Milton’s Paradise Regained (4.322-330)


who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior
(And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek)
Uncertain and unsettl’d still remains,
Deep verst in books and shallow in himself,
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys,
And trifles for choice matters, worth a spunge;
As Children gathering pibles on the shore.

But – so as not to bundle it too neatly – I notice that Ramsay’s Wikipedia biography (for what it is worth) puts him in France at the time of Newton’s death (1727).

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