I saw this quote from George Herbert but have no idea where to start to understand this sentence.

  • It's nearly always Woe unto him or Woe to him - no be. – FumbleFingers Nov 29 '20 at 11:59
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    It means the same thing as Pope's "A little learning is a dangerous thing." – Robusto Nov 29 '20 at 13:42
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    @MichaelHarvey - He spoke eloquently for one so young. :-) – Jim Nov 29 '20 at 16:43
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    @jamesqf I’m looking for the explanation of the whole sentence. There are so many great answers here! Thanks everyone! – Patrick Nov 29 '20 at 17:38
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    I suspect the "one book" would be the Bible or another religion's holy book, depending on context. Can't say it for certain without context, but the sentence is definitely a warning against narrow-mindedness. – MSalters Nov 30 '20 at 7:22

The meaning of but here is:

but = only; just: "She's but a young girl!"

Cambridge dictionary

woe (noun) = 1: a condition of deep suffering from misfortune, affliction, or grief 2: ruinous trouble : Calamity, Affliction

Merriam Webster

Hence we have

"woe to" =

Misfortune or unpleasant consequences await or will happen to one (if something happens):

"All I can do is offer my advice as to the best and safest course of action — woe to you if you decide to ignore it."

One deserves great punishment or misfortune:

"Woe to you, Mr. Smith, for destroying the lives of so many employees and dragging the reputation of a once-mighty company through the mud."

Free dictionary

"be to him" refers to a "non actual" possibility expressed by the subjunctive "be":


And thus we may understand "Woe (be) to him that reads but one book" to mean that a man who reads only one book deserves the consequences that follow from his ignorance, his narrow perspective, his limited experience of the world.


Woe be to him that reads but one book

The construction is obsolete: it has however become frozen in use.

Woe was originally an an interjection


Woe: A. interjection (a cry). 1. Used to express grief, pity, regret, disappointment, or concern.

It was not often used after the 18th century, except in literary or poetic use.

1619 A. D. B. Court of James, I 52 Oh woe! oh shame; alas,..what tongue is able to express, how..grievous it is?

Woe could also be used to explain why you were sad, grieving, concerned, etc:

2. With following clause or phrase expressing the object of the lament. Now archaic and literary.

a1720 W. Sewel Hist. Quakers (1722) vi. 336 Wo that ever I was Father to such wicked Children.

But in your example, it was originally an adverb but became a noun:

B. adv. With a dative (or, later, with to, noun, or objective pronoun as complement), with or without a verb of being or happening, in sentences expressing the occurrence of distress, misfortune, or grief. Now archaic. Arising as an adverbial use of the interjection (see sense A.) with the dative, although in later use probably often interpreted as a noun Now only in fossilized use (in e.g. woe is me ) and archaic use.

1. In prophetic or denunciatory utterances of the type of Old English wā biþ þǣm mannum [edit = literally “Woe be to those men”] ‘affliction or grief shall be the lot of the men’; woe be to us ‘may distress or misfortune afflict us’; woe is him ‘cursed is he’.

1636 Earl of Manchester Al Mondo: Contemplatio Mortis (rev. ed.) 162 Woe is him whose bed is made in hell.

1781 J. Tucker Treat. Civil Govt. ii. ii.150 Woe be to the Country, which happens to be cursed with a successive Race of Heroes.


Woe – a curse/deep misfortune/sorrow

be – shall be

to him – (dative = put upon him)

that reads - who reads

but - only

one book

Or, in Modern English: “If anyone only reads one book [and no more], he will regret it deeply [or, he will be greatly disadvantaged.]”

  • Most interesting and thorough. Ngram confirms your point about the decline of "woe to" and "woe be to". Both have shown a steady decline in usage over the last century. – Anton Nov 29 '20 at 10:45
  • Good answer, @ Greybeard! – user405662 Nov 29 '20 at 11:22
  • It is impossible to consider the tale of woe without referencing The Story of ‘Woe’ from Barðdala and Bjarnadóttir et al.. Vae victis: may reading it delight you. – tchrist Nov 30 '20 at 2:33

"Woe", in this sense, means "misfortune". So the beginning of the sentence means "Misfortune will come to him".

"But", in this sense, means "only" -- "who reads only one book".

The quote implies that reading only one book will give the reader a very narrow view of the world, and will lead to ignorance, prejudices, and misunderstandings.

It's vaguely possible that Herbert was trying to say that people should read more than just the Bible.

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