I was assigned to make a report on a short story, The Scandal of Father Brown by Gilbert K. Chesterton. The story is about Hypatia Hart, a beautiful daughter of some American magnate. Hypatia Hart has an official husband who is a broker. Tired of her husband she started dating a famous Spanish-American poet Rudel Romanes. I have some problems with understanding the highlighted fragment given below:

The Sob Sisterhood permitted themselves a note of romantic regret; some having even the hardened audacity to quote from the poem of Maud Mueller, to the effect that of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are, “It might have been.”

And Mr Agar P. Rock, who hated the Sob Sisterhood with a holy and righteous hatred, said that in this case he thoroughly agreed with Bret Harte’s emendation of the poem: “More sad are those we daily see; it is, but it hadn’t ought to be.”

I can't understand what is meant by “It might have been” and ”it is, but it hadn’t ought to be". Does it mean that

  1. the Sob Sisterhood thinks that the possible marriage between Romanes and Hypatia might have been great, and

  2. that Agar P.Rock thinks that such marriage just hadn't ought to be successful?

  • I’ve fixed the formatting of your question. Please note that indented text is for computer code, not literary quotes – that’s what blockquotes are for. You may also want to include some more context, such as what marriage you’re talking about and how it relates to the quoted excerpt. May 20, 2019 at 6:19
  • 1
    See an old question of mine for the meaning of "(what) might have been"
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 20, 2019 at 6:25
  • Given the context you quoted, this is a more general statement than about the poet and Hypatia. “it might have been” is similar to “regret for not doing it” - And Rock likes the idea that some things that actually are, would have been better if they weren’t.
    – Jim
    May 20, 2019 at 6:34
  • In Portuguese, "might have been" could be translated as en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudade
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 20, 2019 at 6:36

1 Answer 1


To fully understand the Chesterton you need to read both Maud Muller and its parody Mrs Judge Jenkins.

The original is a sentimental poem which became very popular in the 19th century. It tells the story of a judge and a poor farm girl who encounter each other briefly but never forget each other even though they marry other people. Its main message is that regret for things not done and paths not taken is a great cause for sadness, partly because of its futility. This is the meaning of "...it might have been."

The parody reverses the course of events and has the judge and the farm girl marry only for the judge to become increasingly irritated by her, and her family's, unsuitability and for the girl to become increasingly irritated by his scholarly attitudes and conversation. The parody's message is that taking the "romantcally right" path can lead to more regret than taking the more sensible path. This is the meaning of "It is but it didn't ought to be".

  • I am ashamed to admit that I thought that Maud Muller was invented by Chesterton himself for the sake of the story May 20, 2019 at 7:38
  • @Jean-PierreLautier If I'd read the Chesterton pre-internet I'd probably have thought the same. I had to Google it!
    – BoldBen
    May 20, 2019 at 8:53

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