What You Can Do, or Dream You Can, Begin It; Boldness Has Genius, Power, and Magic in It

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? John Anster? William Hutchison Murray? Apocryphal?

goethe08Dear Quote Investigator: There is a wonderful quotation about the pivotal step of making a commitment to an enterprise:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

These two lines are often attributed to the great German playwright and thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. There are different versions of the quotation and some contain the following:

Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. . .

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1835 an Irish poet named John Anster published a translation of Part One of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic masterwork “Faust”. Anster’s interpretation was free and poetical; thus, some pieces did not directly align with the German text written by Goethe. The passage below was from a section titled “Prelude at the Theatre” (Vorspiel auf dem Theater) and was spoken by a character called “Manager” (Direktor). Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Strong drink is what we want to gull the people,
A hearty, brisk, and animating tipple;
Come, come, no more delay, no more excuses,
The stuff we ask you for, at once produce us.
Lose this day loitering—’twill be the same story
To-morrow–and the next more dilatory;
Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days.
Are you in earnest? seize this very minute–
What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated—
Begin it, and the work will be completed!

Anster wrote the phrase “What you can do” and not “Whatever you can do” which has become common in modern times. QI believes that the lines above should be credited to Anster with an inspiration from the words of Goethe.

The passage containing the word “hesitancy” that was also mentioned by the questioner was from neither Goethe nor Anster. An explanation is given together with the 1951 citation presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The period of gestation of Goethe’s “Faust” was long. The excerpt below was based on an 1808 German edition of Part One titled “Faust: eine Tragödie”. This text was the closest match QI was able to find for the passage by Anster. Further below are three supplemental English translations. The divergent interpretations indicated that Goethe’s words were difficult to embody in English: 2 3

Wir wollen stark Getränke schlürfen;
Nun braut mir unverzüglich dran!
Was heute nicht geschieht, ist morgen nicht gethan,
Und keinen Tag soll man verpassen,
Das Mögliche soll der Entschluß
Beherzt sogleich beim Schopfe fassen,
Er will es dann nicht fahren lassen,
Und wirket weiter, weil er muß.

As noted previously, Anster’s translation of Part One was released in 1835. The passage with “Boldness has genius” was eye-catching, and it was reprinted in several publications. For example, an April 1840 article in “The Foreign Quarterly Review” discussed a variety of translations of Goethe’s “Faust” including Anster’s. The lines below were reprinted together with other excerpts: 4

What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated, —
Begin it, and the work will be completed!”

In March 1841 “The Ladies’ Repository” printed a five line filler item that slightly modified Anster’s text. No attribution was given: 5

“Faint indecision brings its own delays,
Whole days are lost lamenting over days.
Are you in earnest? seize this very minute
What you can do, or think you can, begin it:
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

In 1880 a translation of “Faust” by James Adey Birds was published. The text below was the closest match located by QI for the passages above by Anster and Goethe: 6

Strongest liquors would we quaff;
Brew them straight! what’s not begun
To-day, to-morrow ‘ll not be done;
Not an hour should be lost,
Resolve, and in your own selves trust,
Grasp by the forelock what you’ve got,
And take heed ye loose it not;
But work away because ye must.

Ralph Waldo Trine was an influential figure in the philosophical New Thought Movement. In 1897 he published “In Tune with the Infinite, or, Fullness of Peace, Power, and Plenty”. Trine ascribed the lines below directly to Goethe and did not mention Anster: 7

It was Goethe who said:

“Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute:
What you can do, or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Only engage and then the mind grows heated;
Begin and then the work will be completed.”

In 1905 “The Queen’s Carol: An Anthology of Poems, Stories, Essays, Drawings, and Music” was published. An essay by Marie Corelli attributed the lines below to Goethe. This citation was the earliest known to QI which employed the variant phrase “Whatever you can do”: 8

Goethe’s inspiring lines should animate the mind and brace the energies of every worker:—

“Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute,
Whatever you can do, or dream you can—begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, magic in it;
Only engage,—and then the mind grows heated;
Begin!—and then the work will be completed.”

In 1909 the passage in Goethe’s “Faust” was included in a dictionary of German quotations with English translations. The translation below was performed by Bayard Taylor: 9

“Was heute nicht geschieht, ist Morgen nicht gethan,
Und keinen Tag soll man verpassen,
Das Mögliche soll der Entschluss
Beherzt sogleich beim Schopfe fassen,
Er will es dann nicht fahren lassen,
Und wirket weiter weil er muss.”

Goethe Faust I. Vorspiel auf dem Theater.—(Direktor.)

“What’s left undone to-day, to-morrow will not do.
Waste not a day in vain digression:
With resolute, courageous trust
Seize every possible impression.
And make it firmly your possession;
You’ll then work on, because you must.”
Bayard Taylor

In 1941 George Madison Priest published a translation of “Faust: Parts One and Two”. The passage below was the best match for the passages from Anster and Goethe listed previously: 10

We want to sip strong drink, so go
And start the brew without delay!
Never is done tomorrow what is not done today
And one should let no day slip by.
With resolution seize the possible straightway
By forelock and with quick, courageous trust;
Then holding fast you will not let it further fly
And you will labour on because you must.

In 1949 the sixth edition of “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” was released, and the careful editor Burton Stevenson outlined the solution of the central mystery of the origin of the quotation under examination. Stevenson pointed to the key passage in “Faust”, and he also identified the 1880 rendition by Anster. Stevenson remarked on the imprecision of Anster’s interpretation: 11

It will be noted that Anster’s translation is a very free one—really a paraphrase, or, as some one has said, the translation of a poet by a poet.

In 1951 the mountaineer William Hutchison Murray published “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition”. He wrote a compelling passage about commencing a task, and he included a couplet with an attribution to Goethe: 12

Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

In modern times parts of the text above have sometimes been directly attributed to Goethe. In fact, none of it was written by Goethe. The couplet was from Anster and the rest should be credited to Murray.

In 1982 “The New York Times” journalist William Safire and a co-author Leonard Safir released a book titled “Good Advice” containing the following entry: 13

What you can do, or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
—Goethe

An article dated March 5, 1998 on the website of The Goethe Society of North America presented an exploration of the provenance of the quotation. The researcher Meredith Lee pointed to the analysis given in Stevenson’s “The Home Book of Quotations” and to Anster’s translation. 14

In 1999 Jon Winokur published a compilation titled “Advice to Writers” that included an instance using the word “Whatever”: 15

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

In conclusion, QI believes that the 1835 text from John Anster was distinctive enough that he should be credited with its authorship; although, one should also note that he was inspired by a passage in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust”.

The German text in 1808 should be credited to Goethe. The English translations from 1880, 1909, and 1941 should be ascribed to both Goethe and the translator. Quotations using the 1951 words of W. H. Murray should not be credited to Goethe.

Image Notes: Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe circa 1787 by Angelica Kauffman. Picture of wingsuit in flight; author: Richard Schneider from Los Angeles; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Images from Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Bree Chittim whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Chittim’s query included information about the “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition”. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for gaining access to “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition” for verification on paper.)

Notes:

  1. 1835, Faustus, A Dramatic Mystery; The Bride of Corinth; The First Walpurgis Night, Translated from the German of Goethe, and Illustrated with Notes by John Anster, Section: Prelude at the Theatre, (Spoken by Manager), Quote Page 15, Printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Year: 1808, Title: Faust: eine Tragödie, Volume: 16 of Bremer Liebhaberdruck, Volume: 8 of Works, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Publisher: in der J. G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung, Tübingen. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. Website: Spiegel Online Kultur, Section: Projekt Gutenberg-DE, Work: Faust – Eine Tragödie, Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Section: Vorspiel auf dem Theater (Director is speaking), Website description: Collection of public domain texts in German. (Accessed gutenberg.spiegel.de on February 8, 2016) link
  4. 1840 April, The Foreign Quarterly Review, Volumes 25, Article 5: The Two Parts of Goethe’s Faust, Start Page 50, Quote Page 52, Column 2, Published by Jemina M. Mason, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1841 March, The Ladies’ Repository, and Gatherings of the West, Volume 1, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 91, Column 2, Published by J. F. Wright and L. Swormstedt for The Methodist Episcopal Church, at the Western Book Concern, Cincinnati, Ohio. (The original text misspelled “seize” as “sieze”) (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1880, Faust: A Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Translated, Chiefly in Blank Verse by James Adey Birds, Section: Prelude in the Theater, (Spoken by Manager), Quote Page 94, Published by Longmans, Green, and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1897, In Tune with the Infinite, or, Fullness of Peace, Power, and Plenty by Ralph Waldo Trine, Quote Page 215, Dodge Pub. Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1905, The Queen’s Carol: An Anthology of Poems, Stories, Essays, Drawings, and Music By British Authors, Artists and Composers, Article: The Spirit of Work by Marie Corelli, Start Page 26, Quote Page 31, Published by The Daily Mail, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1909, Dictionary of Quotations (German), Compiled and edited by Lilian Dalbiac, Quote Page 334, Published by Swan Sonnenschein & Company, London. (First edition 1906) (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1952, Faust: Parts One and Two, By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Translated by George Madison Priest, Series: Great books of the Western World, Volume 47, Section: Prelude on the Stage, (Spoken by Manager), Quote Page 6, Published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, Illinois. (Reprinted from 1941 Alfred A. Knopf edition) (Verified with scans)
  11. 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Section: Boldness, Quote Page 177, Column 1, (Also Appendix Page 2298g), Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org)
  12. 1951, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, by W. H. Murray (William Hutchison Murray), Quote Page 6 and 7, Published by J. M. Dent & Sons, London. (Verified with scans; thanks Bonnie Taylor-Blake and the University of North Carolina library system)
  13. 1982, Good Advice, Compiled by Leonard Safir and William Safire, Section: Boldness, Quote Page 24, Published by NYT Times Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. Website: The Goethe Society of North America, Article title: Popular Quotes: Commitment: “Until one is committed …”, Article author: Meredith Lee, Author affiliation: University of California, Irvine, Date on website: March 5, 1998, Website information: “The Goethe Society of North America (GSNA) was founded in December 1979 in San Francisco as a non-profit organization dedicated to the encouragement of research on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe”. (Accessed goethesociety.org on February 8, 2016) link
  15. 1999, Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom, Compiled and Edited by Jon Winokur, Section: Encouragement, Quote Page 51, Vintage Books, New York. (Verified on paper)