When I Wrote It, Only God and I Knew the Meaning; Now God Alone Knows

Robert Browning? Johann Paul Friedrich Richter? Jakob Böhme? Johann Gottlieb Fichte? Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel? Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular play “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” dramatized the compelling love story between the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. The work was first performed in the 1930s and was later made into two films and a television series. I recall one wonderfully humorous scene during which Barrett told Browning that she was confused by a section of one of his poems, and she asked for an explanation:

ELIZABETH BARRETT: Well?

ROBERT BROWNING: Well, Miss Barrett, when that passage was written only God and Robert Browning understood it. Now, only God understands it.

Recently, I discovered that this quip has also been ascribed to the celebrated philosopher Hegel. No doubt “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” was fictionalized, but I wonder if Browning did make a remark of this type. Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This comical anecdote has an extensive history with similar comments attributed to Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, Jakob Böhme, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and others. Well-known writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and G. K. Chesterton were amused enough to record the remark.

The earliest instance known to QI appeared in a London newspaper in 1826 and featured the German writer Johann Paul Friedrich Richter who died shortly before in 1825. The anecdote used the alternate appellation John Paul Richter. The capitalization is in the original text. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

The works of JOHN PAUL RICHTER are almost uninteresting to any but Germans, and even to some of them. A worthy German, just before RICHTER’S death, edited a complete edition of his works, in which one particular passage puzzled him. Determined to have it explained at the source, he went to JOHN PAUL himself, and asked him what was the meaning of the mysterious passage. JOHN PAUL’S reply was very German and characteristic. “My good friend,” said he, “when I wrote that passage, God and I knew what it meant. It is possible that God knows it still; but as for me, I have totally forgotten.”

This story can be expressed in many ways and instances before 1826 may exist. Early examples of the anecdote typically feature German intellectuals, and the tale may have appeared previously in a German language book or periodical.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The story moved to the United States, and when the passage above was reprinted in a New York City newspaper it contained several interesting changes. For example, the last name Richter was misspelled Ritcher. The word “uninteresting” was replaced by “unintelligible”, and the phrase “it is possible” was transformed to “it is probable”: 2 3

The Works of John Paul Ritcher are almost unintelligible to any but Germans, and even to some of them. A worthy German, just before Ritcher’s death, edited a complete edition of his works, in which one particular passage fairly puzzled him.—Determined to have it explained at the source, he went to John Paul himself, and asked him what was the meaning of the mysterious passage. John Paul’s reply was very German and characteristic. “My good friend,” said he, “when I wrote that passage, God and I knew what it meant. It is probable that God knows it still; but as for me, I have totally forgotten.”

In 1834 John Minter Morgan, a promoter of schemes for social improvement, included the Richter version of the tale in a book; however, the wording of the humorous statement was altered again: 4

John Paul’s reply was characteristic:—“My good friend, when I wrote that passage, perhaps God and I knew what it meant; it is possible that God knows it still; but as for me, if I knew it ever, I have totally forgotten it.”

In 1842 the editor of a New York magazine called “The Knickerbocker” complained about the incomprehensibility of a paragraph and invoked a version of the statement credited to Richter: 5

We would wager a ducat that if he were asked to explain what he intended to convey in the paragraph beginning ‘And thus my life indwells with Nature,’ he would be compelled to answer with RICHTER, ‘When I wrote that passage, God knows that I knew the meaning of it. Possibly God knows now; but I have forgotten!’

In 1848 a concise instance was printed in a newspaper in Preston, England that used “Heaven” instead of “God”. Also, the name Ritcher was used instead of Richter: 6

Jean Paul Ritcher, the great German writer, being asked by a friend to explain the meaning of a mystical passage in one of his earlier works, said, “When I wrote this, Heaven and I knew what it meant; now, Heaven only knows.”

Finally, in 1857 the jocular comment was reassigned from Richter to Jacob Behman, an alternate spelling for the name of the German mystic Jakob Böhme. The following excerpt is from a New York quarterly called “The Scalpel”: 7

TRANSCENDENTAL PHILOSOPHY: WHO KNOWS ITS MEANING?

When Jacob Behman was on his death-bed, his disciples gathered round in order to ask him the meaning of certain passages of his writings which were obscure, before he died. After he had considered awhile, he replied: “Well, my children, I believe God and I both knew the meaning once. For any thing I know, God may remember yet, but I have forgotten!”

In 1869 the popular and influential American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe published a newspaper article titled “Can I Write?” aimed at helping nascent authors. She advocated a plain and pellucid writing style and criticized opacity. To illustrate her point she presented a story about Johann Gottlieb Fichte: 8

It is said that Fichte, the celebrated German philosopher, who practiced this cloudy and indefinite style, was once applied to by an admirer to explain one of his sibylline passages. He read it over thoughtfully, and answered:

“When I wrote that passage, God and I knew what I meant. At present, God may know, but I am sure that I don’t.”

In 1875 “Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy” by John Fiske was released, and it included a discussion of the famed philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. Fiske lauded Hegel as “unquestionably one of the clearest, strongest, and most consecutive reasoners that the world has ever seen.” But he also noted complaints that the deep thinker was sometimes unintelligible, and in a footnote he presented an instance of the anecdote tailored to Hegel while disclaiming it as a myth: 9

The story is current that on being asked to explain some difficult passage written years before, the great metaphysician gave it up in despair, saying: “When I wrote that passage, there were two who understood it.—God and myself. Now, alas, God alone understands it!” A myth, no doubt, but crudely characteristic, like most myths.

The major Victorian poet Robert Browning died in 1889, and by September 1890 a tale concerning his abstruse poem Sordello was in circulation. The oft criticized work was notoriously difficult to comprehend. The following excerpt from “The Church Quarterly Review” substituted the renowned artist into the main role of the anecdote, and this was the earliest Browning version located by QI: 10 11

Mr. Browning himself, ‘in the philosophic afternoon of life,’ frankly confessed its difficulties, and referred to it with a grim smile as ‘the entirely unintelligible Sordello.’ And to an anxious admirer who asked him to explain its meaning he replied, ‘When I wrote it, only God and I knew; now God alone knows!’

In May 1890 a book reviewer examining the “Life of Robert Browning” also retold the story: 12

Another of these stories is of Carlyle who wrote, “My wife has read through ‘Sordello’ without being able to make out whether ‘Sordello’ was a man, or a city, or a book.” There is another delicious story, which Mr. Sharp does not give, to the effect that a friend, puzzled over one of his poems, asked Browning the meaning of it; the poet answered by saying that “when I wrote it only God and I knew—now, God alone knows!”

In 1891 a treatise titled “The Man of Genius” was published, and the author examined the relationship between extreme intelligence and extreme madness. The versatile joke was blithely reassigned to Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock: 13

Klopstock was questioned regarding the meaning of a passage in his poem. He replied, “God and I both knew what it meant once; now God alone knows.”

In 1896 the leading humorist Mark Twain heard the Browning story and enjoyed it enough to record it in one of his notebooks. In this distinctive version Browning punctuated his comments by looking skyward. Twain was traveling on his world-spanning speaking tour and heard the account from his manager Carlyle Smythe: 14

Smythe says of Browning: A man asked him the meaning of a passage in Sordello. Browning puzzled over it awhile then said—“Once there were two who knew”—glancing skyward, then touching his own breast—”Now there is only One.”—glancing again skyward.

In 1903 the prominent English writer G. K. Chesterton published a biography of Robert Browning that mentioned a version of the incident and labeled it likely apocryphal: 15

There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.”

In 1911 a newspaper in Duluth, Minnesota printed a joke in which a nervous individual spent many hours preparing to give a speech: 16

On the final evening he gave himself the last rehearsal, and as he finished, be said: ‘Well, God and I both know this.’

As his time to give the address came he was ushered onto the platform. For a couple of minutes he stood there looking at the vast crowd, his face wearing a puzzled expression. Finally he said: ‘God and I knew this a few minutes ago, but I guess God only knows it now.’

In 1930 the English dramatist Rudolf Besier wrote “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”, and in 1931 the work traversed the Atlantic. Actress Katharine Cornell and director Guthrie McClintic staged the play in Cleveland, Ohio and then on Broadway. In Act 1, Scene 2 the character Elizabeth Barrett asked Browning to explicate the poem Sordello: 17

ELIZABETH BARRETT: Well?

ROBERT BROWNING: Well, Miss Barrett, when that passage was written only God and Robert Browning understood it. Now, only God understands it. (She laughs, he joins heartily, crossing L. to sofa.)

In 1952 the journal “Modern Language Notes” printed an article titled “Browning Anecdote” by the perceptive sleuth W. P. Bowman who recognized the joke in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” and diligently searched for an earlier instance. The result was an example all the way back in 1827. QI found a slightly earlier 1826 citation. 18

In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that each of these comical tales was fictional. Each instance began to circulate only after the death of the featured individual. The joke was implausibly reassigned to a succession of individuals in the 1800s. On the other hand, in more recent times many people have heard this quip; hence, it probably has been mirthfully redeployed on multiple occasions.

(Great thanks to Stephen Goranson who located an instance of the earliest citation in August 1826 containing the word “uninteresting” and ascribing the remark to John Paul Richter. Special thanks to Daniel Gackle who asked QI to investigate this topic after presenting the yarn and connecting it to the philosopher Hegel and the mathematician Weierstrass.)

Update: On September 25, 2013 the citation dated August 9, 1826 was added.

Notes:

  1. 1826 August 9, The Morning Chronicle, Issue 17755, The Mirror of Fashion, Quote Page 3, Column 1, London, England. (19th Century British Newspapers: Gale)
  2. 1826 September 18, New-York American, (The section with the quotation has an introduction stating that the news items were reprinted from: periodicals in London up to the 8th, U.S. periodicals for August, and Number 87 of the Edinburgh Review), (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 2, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1827 September 29, The Correspondent, Volume 2, Number 10, (Issue Start Page 145), Section: Miscellaneous, The Works of John Paul Ritcher, (Short freestanding anecdote), Quote Page 159, Printed by George H. Evans & Co. for Proprietor, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1834, Hampden in the Nineteenth Century: Or, Colloquies on the Errors and Improvement of Society by (John Minter Morgan), Volume 2 of 2, (Footnote), Quote Page 23, Edward Moxon, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1842 February, The Knickerbocker: Or, New-York Monthly Magazine, Volume 29, Editor’s Table, Start Page 184, Quote Page 192, Published by John Bisco, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1848 December 23, The Preston Chronicle and Lancashire Advertiser, Gleanings, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Preston, England. (19th Century British Newspapers, Gale)
  7. 1857 April, The Scalpel: An Entirely Original Quarterly Expositor of the Laws of Health, and Abuses of Medicine and Domestic Life, Edited by Edward H. Dixon, Volume 9, “This, That, and the Other”, Quote Page 63, H. G. Lawrence, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  8. 1869 January 14, Wooster Republican, “Can I Write?” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Wooster, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1875, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy by John Fiske, Volume 1 of 2, (Footnote 1), Quote Page 120, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  10. 1890 July, The Church Quarterly Review, Volume 30, (Issue Start Page 273), Article III; Robert Browning, Start Page 313, Quote Page 319, Spottiswoode & Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  11. 1890 September 27, Littell’s Living Age, Volume 186, Robert Browning, (Acknowledgement to Church Quarterly Review), Start Page 771, Quote Page 774, Column 2, Littell and Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  12. 1890 May 3, The Speaker, (Issue Start Page 467), Robert Browning, (Book Review of “Life of Robert Browning”, Author: William Sharp, Publisher: Walter Scott, London), Start Page 492, Quote Page 492, Column 1, Published at Fleet Street, London. (Google Books full view) link
  13. 1891, The Man of Genius by Cesare Lombroso, Volume 16, Contemporary Science Series, Series Edited by Havelock Ellis, Quote Page 24 and 25, Walter Scott, London. (Google Books full view) link
  14. 1935, “Mark Twain’s Notebook” by Mark Twain, Edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, (The date before the quotation is May 28, 1896 and the date after the quotation is June 4, 1896), Page 297, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  15. 1908, Browning and Tennyson, (Combined reprint edition of two biographies; Browning biography was first published in 1903), Robert Browning by G. K. Chesterton, Series: English Men of Letters, Quote Page 2, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  16. 1911 November 14, Duluth News-Tribune, Caught on the Run, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Duluth, Minnesota. (GenealogyBank)
  17. 1957 (Reprint of play text with 1930 copyright), The Barretts of Wimpole Street: Comedy in Three Acts by Rudolf Besier, Act I: Scene 2, Quote Page 36, Dramatists Play Service Inc., New York. (Note on cover: “Acting edition of the play as used in the Guthrie McClintic production with Katharine Cornell.” Note inside: “The Barretts of Wimpole Street was first produced, in the United States, by Katharine Cornell in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 29, 1931, and presented by her at the Empire Theater, New York, on February 9, 1931, under the direction of Guthrie McClintic.) (Verified on paper)
  18. 1952 November, Modern Language Notes, Volume 67, Number 7, Browning Anecdote by W. P. Bowman, Start Page 473, Quote Page 474, Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland. (JSTOR) link