Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? John Anster? William Hutchison Murray? Apocryphal?
Dear 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.
- 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 ↩