Churchill Quoting Others: “Command the Moment to Remain”

Churchill Quoting Others: “Command the Moment to Remain”

New life to old aphorisms

“Com­mand the Moment to Remain” is one of sev­er­al Churchill remarks in my com­pi­la­tion of “Red Her­rings” that he said but did not orig­i­nate. Since, by quot­ing them, he gave these lines new life, I will break them out in a sep­a­rate appen­dix in the new expand­ed edi­tion of Churchill by Him­self. Many read­ers today, who might not be aware of  the orig­i­nal, learned these famous lines from Sir Winston.

Some­times Churchill gave cred­it to the orig­i­nal author, some­times not. Often he sim­ply expect­ed his audi­ence to rec­og­nize the source. An exam­ple is his broad­cast of 27 April 1941, end­ing, “But west­ward, look, the land is bright.” WSC didn’t both­er to cred­it Arthur Hugh Clough and his poem, “Say Not the Strug­gle Nought Availeth.” He just assumed, in that bet­ter-read time, that every Eng­lish school­child knew the words. Back then, they prob­a­bly did.

“Command the Moment”: from Goethe’s Faust

The dis­tin­guished his­to­ri­an Andrew Roberts writes:

On Lake Como in 1945 Churchill, speak­ing to a Guards offi­cer, “bids the fleet­ing moment to stay,” or some­thing along those lines. Well, I came across this line from Som­er­set Maugham’s Up at the Vil­la (1941) where it says of the anti-Nazi Aus­tri­an hero: ‘He quot­ed that cel­e­brat­ed line of Goethe’s in which Faust, sat­is­fied at length, begs the fleet­ing moment to stay.’ So I think WSC was quot­ing Goethe.”

Dr. Roberts has it right. “Com­mand the moment to remain” was a life­time Churchill expres­sion. In his first pub­lic iter­a­tion, he cred­it­ed the author: Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe. Speak­ing on “Art and Pol­i­tics” at the Roy­al Acad­e­my Annu­al Ban­quet in Lon­don, 1 May 1927, Churchill declared:
We have been told that Faust sold his soul for the right to com­mand the moment to remain. Our hosts enjoy in com­plete security—and with­out the slight­est prej­u­dice to their future des­ti­na­tion [laughter]—the pow­er to com­mand the moment to remain, not only for their own advan­tage and rep­u­ta­tion, but for the plea­sure of every­one else.

“Shall we join the ladies?”

At British din­ners of old, it was rou­tine after a last course had fin­ished for the ladies to retire to more com­fort­able seats in the draw­ing room whilst the gen­tle­men remained at table amidst port and cig­ars. (The port had always to be passed clock­wise, even if the refill request­ed was on your right.) Then after a suit­able inter­val the host would say, “Shall we join the ladies?”
On my first trip to Eng­land, old forms still pre­vailed here and there, so one night in Cum­ber­land, as the ladies rose, I polite­ly rose with them. “No, no!” said mine host. I was restrained with dif­fi­cul­ty. This social cus­tom has long died away. I sup­pose it is now con­sid­ered misog­y­nist. In 1974, we mere­ly thought of it as a courtesy.

Ear witnesses

Win­ston Churchill was wont to “com­mand the moment to remain” at exact­ly this junc­ture. His long­time pri­vate sec­re­tary, Sir John Colville, wrote in his book, The Churchillians: “Loth to join the ladies and allow the long-suf­fer­ing ser­vants to clear away, he would replen­ish his glass, relight his cig­ar (which was always going out) and quote the words of Dr. Faus­tus, ‘Let us com­mand the moment to remain.'”
Sir Winston’s daugh­ter Mary, Lady Soames—who nev­er thought of her­self as a vic­tim of misogyny—reiterated Colville. Speak­ing of “Churchill as Father and Fam­i­ly Man” in Dal­las in 1986, she recalled that
…meal­times some­times pro­longed them­selves into three-hour ses­sions, often to my mother’s despair. And so even­tu­al­ly she would make to move. And I so well remem­ber my father look­ing at her down the table, lov­ing­ly and rue­ful­ly, and say­ing, “Oh, Clem­mie, don’t go. It is so nice. Let us com­mand the moment to remain.” Of course, one nev­er can. But today I’ve tried to com­mand some pre­cious moments that I remem­ber to remain.

3 thoughts on “Churchill Quoting Others: “Command the Moment to Remain”

  1. What’s remark­able about this quote is that Churchill con­sid­ered it to be the sin­gu­lar most impor­tant piece of wis­dom he could pass on to anoth­er indi­vid­ual. Andrew Roberts writes that Churchill told two junior offi­cers: “Out of a life of long and var­ied expe­ri­ence, the most valu­able piece of advice I could hand on to you is to know how to com­mand the moment to remain.”

  2. What a delight­ful rec­ol­lec­tion and reminder to us at this time of intense business.

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