We Cannot Direct the Wind, But We Can Adjust the Sails

Cora L. V. Hatch? Thomas Sheridan? George Whyte-Melville? A. B. Kendig? Ella Wheeler Wilcox? Bertha Calloway? Jimmy Dean? Dolly Parton? Thomas S. Monson?

Dear Quote Investigator: We are buffeted by events that are beyond our control, but we can still react constructively. A popular adage highlights this flexibility:

We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.

This saying has been credited to Dolly Parton, Thomas S, Monson, Bertha Calloway, Jimmy Dean, and several others. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: In 1859 the well-known spiritualist Cora L. V. Hatch delivered a lecture at the Cooper Institute while in a trance as reported in “The Cleveland Plain Dealer”. Hatch employed a version of the expression: 1

You could not prevent a thunderstorm, but you could use the electricity; you could not direct the wind, but you could trim your sail so as to propel your vessel as you pleased, no matter which way the wind blew.

This was the earliest close match known to QI. Other oft-mentioned candidates for crafters of this adage were born after it was in circulation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1832 “The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities” published an anecdote about Reverend Thomas Sheridan set in 1738. The Reverend was the grandfather of the prominent Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The tale recorded the dying statement of Thomas which was thematically close to the adage under examination: 2

On the 10th of September 1738, Dr Sheridan was sitting, after dinner, in the house of a friend. The conversation happening to turn on the force and direction of the wind, Sheridan said: ‘Let the wind blow east, west, north, or south, the immortal soul will take its flight to the destined point;’ and leaning back in his chair, instantly expired.

In 1852 a passage in “The Sailors’ Prayer Book: A Manual of Devotion for Sailors at Sea” made a different point. Sometimes the winds and currents are too extreme, and trouble is unavoidable. In that situation, the book suggests looking to God for help: 3

Surely a God Almighty, and ever present, is alone fit to be a sailor’s refuge. We may by care and skill be able to trim our ship, to steer our course, or to keep our reckoning; but we cannot control the winds, or subdue deceitful currents, or prevent disasters.

In 1859 the popular medium Cora L. V. Hatch entered a trance and pronounced the adage as mentioned previously.

The 1862 novel “The Queen’s Maries: A Romance of Holyrood” by George Whyte-Melville included a version of the saying: 4

John Knox paused and turned a scrutinizing look on his companion’s face. The latter plucked a morsel of grass from the rampart and flung it on the breeze.

‘Let us see how the wind blows,’ he replied with a scornful laugh; “fair or foul, ye can trim your sails to it, all of ye, and I can ride through a storm with the best!”

In 1876 “The Boston Globe” reported on a sermon by Reverend A. B. Kendig which included an instance: 5

You cannot control the winds; that every sailor knows. But when the favoring wind comes it is your own fault if you do not set your sails to meet it.

In 1882 a satirical periodical based in Toronto, Canada called “Grip” printed an instance while acknowledging a Philadelphia newspaper. 6 The same item appeared in “The Los Angeles Times”: 7

“Though we cannot control the wind, we can adjust our sails so as to profit by it,” says a philosopher. A good many so-called Independent papers are run on the same principle.—Phila. News.

In 1887 another version of the saying appeared in the “Magazine of American History”: 8

You cannot make much of a wind, but you can choose a wind, and you can trim your sails to it, and by its push and inspiration can attain the haven which you select.

In 1910 a column by poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox included a thematic verse titled “The Winds of Fate”: 9

One ship drives east and another drives west
With the self-same winds that blow.
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.
Like the winds of the sea are the winds of fate,
As we voyage along through life,
‘Tis the set of a soul
That decides its goal
And not the calm or the strife.

The same column included an elaboration by Wilcox on the crux of the poem:

When you have found that a certain gale sends you on a wrong course, adjust your sails and put out for the Port of Right, and blame nobody but yourself for your delay in the voyage.

In 1987 country music singer Jimmy Dean received credit: 10

FROM THE MAGAZINE RACK: “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”
— Jimmy Dean in Readers Digest.

In 1998 historian Bertha Calloway received credit in “A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America”: 11

We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.
BERTHA CALLOWAY

In 2006 an astrology column credited country star Dolly Parton: 12

Parton once said, “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” Use this advice to use perception to get to meaning you seek.

A message dated January 2012 from Thomas S. Monson, the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, on the website of the church included the saying: 13

We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails. For maximum happiness, peace, and contentment, may we choose a positive attitude.

In conclusion, the earliest known close match was spoken by Cora L. V. Hatch in 1859. But the phrasing is highly variable which makes tracing difficult. Future researchers may discover earlier instances.

Image Notes: Sailboat on colorful water from blickpixel at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Jay, Mark Henstock, and Rosalind Atkinson whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Barry Popik for his research on this topic; he located the 1859 citation and others.)

Notes:

  1. 1859 January 15, Daily Plain Dealer, Mrs. Cora L. V. Hatch on Spiritualism: The Law of God a Unit, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1832, The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, Edited by R. Chambers, Volume 2 of 2, Date: September 10, Unnumbered Page, W. & R. Chambers, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1852, The Sailors’ Prayer Book: A Manual of Devotion for Sailors at Sea, and Their Families at Home, Sermon: The God of Sailors, Start Page 3, Quote Page 7, John Snow, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1862, The Queen’s Maries: A Romance of Holyrood by G. J. Whyte-Melville (George John Whyte-Melville), Volume 1, Quote Page 166 and 167, Parker, Son, and Bourn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1876 October 30, The Boston Daily Globe, Sermons Yesterday, Drifting: The Second of the Series of Sermons to Young Men by the Rev. A. B. Kendig, D.D., at the Monument Square Church, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  6. 1882 March 4, Grip, Volume 18, Number 16, The Joker Club, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Grip Print. & Pub. Company, Toronto, Canada. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1882 March 17, The Los Angeles Daily Times, Funnygraphs, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1887 February, Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries, Volume 17, Number 2, Minor Topics: Disillusions: Food for Earnest Thought and Fruitful Study, Start Page 166, Quote Page 168, Historical Publications Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1910 November 18, The St. Louis Star, Placing The Blame by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Quote Page 5, Column 1 and 4, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1987 January 21, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Fast Tracks, Quote Page 1C, Column 1, Iowa City, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1998, A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America by Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson, (Epigraph of Chapter 10: The Great Depression), Quote Page 240, Broadway Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 2006 September 21, Asheville Citizen-Times, Astrology: Virgo’s presence puts focus on healing, renewal by Sara House, Message for Capricorn, Quote Page E2, Column 6, Asheville, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  13. Website: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Article title: First Presidency Message: Living the Abundant Life, Article author: President Thomas S. Monson, Date on website: January 2012, Website description: Information and pronouncements from the LDS Church, (Accessed lds.org on June 26, 2017) link
    Snapshot on Jan. 7, 2012 in Internet Archive Wayback Machine link