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1906: President Roosevelt and Mr. Hearst stand as far as the poles asunder.

1899: Two writers of Marrano origin, wide as the poles asunder in gifts of mind and character ...

1795: ... they were brothers by blood, but their hearts were as far asunder as the poles.

1784: [T]he mutual attraction of hearts does not follow the ratio of their distance, and ours would be in contact were they distant as the poles asunder.

This stock phrase seems like it ought to have a known origin — maybe from a poem? — but I have not been able to track it down in a few minutes of looking.

The oldest similar phrase I found in a Google Books search was from Josiah Eveleigh:

1719: ... a Subordination of distinct Beings, which is as wide as the Poles from a relative Subordination of the Son to the Father in the same Being ...

In latter days the phrase is often quoted as "poles apart" rather than "asunder."


UPDATE synthesized from RaceYouAnytime and JEL's answers below:

Young, 1753: Long as I live, I stand a world between you / And keep you distant as the poles asunder.

Dryden, 1690: For two such Tongues will break the Poles asunder; / And, hourly scolding, make perpetual Thunder.

So we've got a poetic usage of "break the poles asunder" from 1690, and a usage of "wide as the poles" from 1719; and then the two memes combine into "distant as the poles asunder" in another play as early as 1753.

I've also located a similar phrase in C. J. Hempel's translation of Schiller's Semele:

1861: The mighty sea shall in defiance leap / O'er barriers and the unfathomable abyss / Shall send forth peals of thunder; / Lightnings hiss / Through gloomy night, and rend the poles asunder!

My German is not good enough to know if Schiller's original wording directly suggests the phrase, or if Hempel was just looking for a rhyme and happened to remember his Dryden.

1782: Empöret steigt das Meer, Gestad' und Damm zu Hohne, / Der Blitz prahlt mit der Nacht, und Pol und Himmel krachen, / Der Donner brüllt aus tausendfachem Rachen ...

The proximity of "Pol und Himmel" does suggest that at least some writers are envisioning celestial poles rather than the poles of the Earth in this connection.

  • I would be interested to know what on earth is going on in 1650 regarding the Ngram of 'poles asunder'. – Nigel J Apr 4 '18 at 2:26
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A likely source of the phrase, and a probable cause of its later popularity (such as that may be) is a couplet from the end of the second act of Dryden's 1690 (London premier and "Epistle Dedicatory") Amphitryon:

For two such Tongues will break the Poles asunder;
And, hourly scolding, make perpetual Thunder.

The Dramatick Works of John Dryden, Esq.; In Six Volumes, vol. 6. Link is to a 1717 publication of the work.

Sheer laziness militated against my perusing Molière's earlier play (1668) of the same name for an equivalent phrase; likewise, Plautus's even earlier version (c. 190-185 BC).

  • Excellent, that's the earliest "poles asunder" yet — and in mnemonic poetic form! But confusingly, the later versions seem to have the sense that "the poles" are already intrinsically "very asunder", whereas Dryden's Mercury is saying that Juno and Sosia's scolding will take the intrinsically intact "poles" of the Earth and wrench them "asunder"! FWIW, Plautus has 5 acts just like Dryden, but I don't think the plots match up at all between them. – Quuxplusone Apr 4 '18 at 4:22
  • @Quuxplusone, I don't understand why you've defaced your 'question' (it's no longer a question, and so of doubtful value), but anyhow: Farquhar (1677?-1707) alludes, or at least harkens, to Dryden's use, in The Beaux Strategem, with reference to a petty quarrel between a married couple. More tellingly, in terms of the development of the semantic drift you observed, William Ellis, in his publications on arboreal science in the 1740s, uses 'pole' in "poles asunder" with reference to the unit of measure (16 1/2 feet)...thus generally how near or far apart trees were. – JEL Apr 5 '18 at 9:46
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A citation in the OED under the headword "world" is earlier than any citations I could find in corpora.

Long as I live, I stand a World between you, And keep you distant as the Poles asunder.

  • 1753 - Young, Edward. The brothers. A tragedy Acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, by His Majesty's servants.

I can't say for sure that it is the earliest use. However, I think a reasonable argument could be made that it is likely. The most obvious factor is that there were no earlier hits for "poles asunder" in Google Books or newspaper corpora that I checked. The other argument I would propose is that there is a literal contextual logic that underpins the poetic language, a "world" being the true distance between the two poles. This seems to give it stronger footing as an original, non-allusive turn of phrase

See JEL's answer for an even earlier finding of "Poles asunder."

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On a more general level the poles being sundered are likely a cosmological reference. De Santillana and von Dechen's 1969 book Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth goes into detail about this by identifying cross-cultural analogues between, e.g., the oral traditions of West Africa (Dogon) and Greek astronomy beginning with Hipparchus. From the Wikipedia article about Hamlet's Mill (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet%27s_Mill):

The main argument of the book may be summarized as the claim of an early (Neolithic) discovery of the precession of the equinoxes (usually attributed to Hipparchus, 2nd century BCE), and an associated very long-lived Megalithic civilization of "unsuspected sophistication" that was particularly preoccupied with astronomical observation...In particular, the book reconstructs a myth of a heavenly mill which rotates around the celestial pole and grinds out the world's salt and soil, and is associated with the maelstrom. The millstone falling off its frame represents the passing of one age's pole star (symbolized by a ruler or king of some sort), and its restoration and the overthrow of the old king of authority and the empowering of the new one the establishment of a new order of the age (a new star moving into the position of pole star).

The north and south celestial poles are the two imaginary points in the sky where the Earth's axis of rotation, indefinitely extended, intersects the celestial sphere. The north and south celestial poles appear permanently directly overhead to an observer at the Earth's North Pole and South Pole, respectively. As the Earth spins on its axis, the two celestial poles remain fixed in the sky, and all other points appear to rotate around them, completing one circuit per day (strictly, per sidereal day, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celestial_pole).

In astronomy, axial precession is a gravity-induced, slow, and continuous change in the orientation of an astronomical body's rotational axis. In particular, it can refer to the gradual shift in the orientation of Earth's axis of rotation in a cycle of approximately 26,000 years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axial_precession).

De Santillana and von Dechend refer to this 26,000 year axial precession as Plato's Year.

In this wider sense, poles asunder is a reference to extreme opposite difference.

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    Interesting and upvoted, but I'm not sure exactly what you're trying to say about the stock phrase itself. Are you conjecturing that the literal "poles" here should not be read as the North and South poles of the Earth itself (separated by the diameter of the Earth), but as the North and South pole stars (separated by a vastly greater distance)? Or conjecturing that Earth's axial precession "sunders" the poles on a regular basis and this is somehow related to the stock phrase? "Are likely a cosmological reference" is too vague for me to tell. – Quuxplusone Apr 4 '18 at 19:38
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    @Quuxplusone Thanks for the upvote. To me there is little question but that the poles referenced in all the quotes are celestial, a point not previously noted in this thread. Apologies for not making clearer that this response was an effort at locating a deeper reference and meaning to the stock phrase as opposed to locating a specific early usage or text reference for it. Adding the explanatory note about axial precession may not have been as helpful as was intended and could be safely edited out without any loss of meaning. – DJohnson Apr 4 '18 at 20:16

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