The Toronto Star Stylebook has more to teach me.
It seems that “gilding the lily” is a broken telephone excerpt from Shakespeare’s King John. The actual and perpetually misquoted passage is: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily“.
As the Stylebook puts it:
“gilding the lily is not only overworked, it’s wrong. The quote, from King John, is, ‘To gild refined gold, to paint the lily‘ cited by Shakespeare as examples of wretched excess.”
Here is the full thought on “double pomp” from King John:
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
I think The Bard might agree though, that to explore rainbows, and discover they contain colours beyond easy counting — and beyond us — now that may be a noble and humbling pursuit. See: Radiolab on Colors, and Why the Sky Isn’t Blue
Mantis shrimp, photo by ursanate/flickr-CC-BY-2.0. This little guy has 16 color receptors. I bet he could write a heck of a poem about rainbows.
“It can be hard to remember what one’s anticipatory image of something was once you’re on the other side. I’m no longer sure exactly what it was I was waiting for, but I do know that it was something wholly unfamiliar and thrilling. Like a new color. Not a mixture, no trace of blue or yellow or red. What would that look like? I have some basic understanding about light — how it can only be broken down and refracted into its seven constituent hues — and even though I know that the physical world makes the existence of such a thing basically impossible, I’d still really like to see that.”
~David Rakoff, in Don’t Get Too Comfortable
Me too David. Me too. Though I am happy with violets unperfumed and lillies unpainted. And when it comes to colour, I’m deferring to the shrimp.