Origins of Sayings - Beauty is But Skin Deep

About the history and origins behind the famous saying all that beauty's but skin deep.

Stories behind Famous Sayings


Who Said It: John Davies of Hereford

When: 1616

The Story behind It: An English poet, John Davies of Hereford, wrote this line in A Select Second Husband for Sir Thomas Overburie's Wife, Now a Widow. The moralistic poem was only one of many that followed a murder scandal involving the English writer Sir Thomas Overbury; Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset; and Lady Frances Howard, the Countess of Essex. Overbury and Carr were close friends, and when Carr became romantically interested in the countess, Overbury heartily approved. However, when the countess divorced her husband in order to marry Carr, Overbury voiced a strong opposition. Some accounts of the scandal claim that Overbury even blackmailed Carr. In 1613 Carr, who was influential in the court of James I, had his friend Overbury thrown in prison. The charge: disrespect to the king. While in prison, Overbury was slowly poisoned by jailers hired by the countess. Carr and his countess were tried for the murder of Overbury and found guilty, but later they were pardoned. Overbury, dead at the age of 32, had never married. He was once in love with the Countess of Rutland and wrote a poem for her. The subject was marriage, and he called it A Wife, Now the Widow of Sir Thomas Overburie. After the scandal broke wide open, many imitations of Overbury's Wife appeared. Among them was the one by John Davies of Hereford. The following is taken from Davies's poem:

Beauty's but skin deep; nay, it is not so:

It floats but on the skin beneath the skin,

That, like pure air, scarce hides her fullest flow:

It is so subtle, fading, fragile, and thin:

Were she skin-deep, she could not be so shallow

To win but fools her purity to hallow.

There is also an old jingle, author unknown, which parodies the famous beauty line. It reads: "Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone;/ Beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own."

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