Horace to Horace: Serendipity.

Letter published by Yale University Press.

On January 28, 1754, Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford and a voracious letter writer, wrote a letter to Horace Mann, in which he coined the word serendipity. Horace Mann (1706 – 1786) was a British diplomat who lived in Florence and kept an open house for the English gentry that traveled to Florence. Walpole met Mann in 1739 during one on his trips to Florence, and the two started a correspondence which lasted over 40 years. It was in one of these letters that Walpole coined the word.

The letter itself not only explains why he used the word, but why he thought it was a most appropriate word to be used. Walpole had made a discovery of a connection between two old European families by finding a link between their coats of arms. Walpole continues in his letter:

“This discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr. Chute calls the Sortes Walpoliance, by which I find everything I want, a pointe nommee, whenever I dip for it. This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called “The Three Princes of Serendip” ;  as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered the a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do you understand Serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity, (for you must observe than no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description,) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who, happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde by the respect with which her mother treater her at table…”

Horace Walple letter to Horace Mann, January 28, 1754
Horace Walpole’s Gothic Style Strawberry Hill House

Along with coining serendipity, Horace Walpole was an author, a politician, and is known for reviving the Gothic style of both writing (The Castle of Otranto, 1764) and architecture (in his home Strawberry Hill near London). Yale University Press published all his letters in 48 volumes.

Serendipity – From Persian Poets to the Earl

From 420 – 438 CE, there ruled a Sasanian king by the name of Bahram Gor (406 – 438 CE) in Persia. He was a benevolent ruler whose reign was mostly peaceful. He is however mostly remembered for being the favorite protagonist of Persian poets.

Emperor Bahram Gor – a favorite of poets

The first poet to write about Bahram was Ferdowsi (940 – 1020), who made him the central figure in Ferdowsi’s epic masterpiece Shahnameh (Book of Kings) written between 977 and 101 CE.

Then in 1197, Bahram was the main protagonist in Nizami Ganjavi’s (1141 – 1209) romantic poem Haft Paykar (Seven Beauties), which was based on the Shahnameh. This was followed in 1302 by the poem Hasht-Bihisht (Eight Paradises) which was written by Amir Khosrow (1253 – 1325), and was based on Haft Paykar. Hasht-Bihisht is also framed around folktales and legends of Bahram Gor. However, in this poem Khosrow added the story of the Three Princes of Serendip.

The Italian Translation

An Armenian, known as M. Christoforo Armeno, who was born in Tabriz, Iran in the 16th Century, and was fluent in both Persian and Italian translated the story of the Three Princes of Serendip from Khusrow’s Hasht-Bihisht into Italian. He told the story verbally to a Venetian printer named Tramezzino  who published the story in a small volume of Oriental Tales under the name of Peregrinnagio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo in 1557.

With this translation, the legends and folklore associated with Bahram Gor finally entered Europe, gained a great deal of popularity, and were translated into German and French. Chevalier de Mailly’s French translation was further translated into English in 1722, and published under the title, The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Serendip.

Henry Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford

It was this translation that Henry Walpole (1717–97), son of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the 4th Earl of Orford read as a child and remembered long after as an adult when he coined the word “serendipity’ in a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann on January 28, 1754.