Quote Origin: History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes

Mark Twain? Theodor Reik? John Robert Colombo? James Eayrs? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: There is a popular humorous maxim about history that is usually attributed to Mark Twain. But there is so much uncertainty about this ascription that a top business columnist for the “New York Times” wrote the following:1

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” as Mark Twain is often reputed to have said. (I’ve found no compelling evidence that he ever uttered that nifty aphorism. No matter — the line is too good to resist.)

Would you please research the provenance of this adage?

Reply from Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Twain who died in 1910 made this remark. Twain first received credit many years later in 1970, and details for this linkage are shown further below.

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in 1965 within an essay by psychoanalyst Theodor Reik titled “The Unreachables”. The phrasing was a bit longer, but the meaning was the same. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:2

There are recurring cycles, ups and downs, but the course of events is essentially the same, with small variations. It has been said that history repeats itself. This is perhaps not quite correct; it merely rhymes.

Based on the citation above, QI tentatively credits Theodor Reik with formulating this saying.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1845 an interesting thematic precursor using the descriptive phrase “mystic rhyme” was printed in “The Christian Remembrancer”:3

The vision recurs; the eastern sun has a second rise; history repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off into a mystic rhyme; ages are prototypes of other ages, and the winding course of time brings us round to the same spot again.

Mark Twain did use the phrase “History never repeats itself” as a preface to a longer remark within a novel he co-wrote with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner. The 1874 edition of “The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day” employed wonderfully vivid figurative language based on a kaleidoscope:4

History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.

In 1896 the humorist Max Beerbohm employed a witticism about historians in this domain. A QI entry on this quotation and variations can be found here:

“History,” it has been said, “does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.”

Mark Twain also spoke about the repetition of history in a commentary to his famous story about “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. An elaborate dual-language extended edition of the 1865 short story was published in 1903. Twain had discovered a version of the frog tale set in classical Greece, and he temporarily thought the comical anecdote was ancient. Later Twain realized that the Greek version had been created by a Professor in England based on his text:5

NOTE. November, 1903. When I became convinced that the “Jumping Frog” was a Greek story two or three thousand years old, I was sincerely happy, for apparently here was a most striking and satisfactory justification of a favorite theory of mine—to wit, that no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often.

In 1941 the Chicago Tribune in Illinois printed an article with the following thematically related headline:6

History May Not Repeat, But It Looks Alike

In 1962 the literary journal “Contact” based in California published a work which depicted history as a rhyming poem. The fifth verse of “Suite of Mirrors” included the following:7

You might think history teaches; it repeats;
page after page, a poem in perfect rhyme
tolls echoing bells from both sides of the sheets
for births and funerals, tells the time
of ageless Alice, Hamlet’s fallacies—
the latest light from vanished galaxies.

In 1965 psychoanalyst Theodor Reik published the essay “The Unreachables” which contained the following match as mentioned previously:

It has been said that history repeats itself. This is perhaps not quite correct; it merely rhymes.

In 1970 Canadian artist John Robert Colombo published a collection called “Neo Poems”. Colombo attributed the saying under examination to Mark Twain within an experimental work titled “A Said Poem”. The innovative format consisted of a series of quotations. The first four lines were:8

for Ronald and Beatrice Gross

“I have seen the future and it doesn’t work,” said Robert Fulford.
“If there weren’t any Poland, there wouldn’t be any Poles,” said Alfred Jarry.
“We aren’t making the film they contracted for,” said Robert Flaherty.
“History never repeats itself but it rhymes,” said Mark Twain.

In April 2011 QI contacted John Robert Colombo via email to inquire about the source of the expression.9 Colombo believed that he had encountered the saying in print sometime in the 1960s, perhaps in “The Times Literary Supplement”. Colombo considered the saying to be part of “proverbial lore”, and he had never seen a precise source.

The maxim also appeared in the pages of the “New York Times” in January 1970. An individual with the initials W.D.M sent a query letter to the newspaper asking about the origin of the saying. The question was printed in a “Q: A:” section of the paper although, unfortunately, no satisfactory answer was subsequently brought forth from readers:10

W.D.M. is seeking to locate the source of the following line, attributed to Mark Twain: “History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”

These two citations were listed in the important recent reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press.11

In 1971 the volume “Diplomacy and Its Discontents” by James Eayrs printed an instance of the saying attributed to Twain. This version differed slightly by using “does not” instead of “never”:12

The trouble with history is that while historians repeat each other, history never repeats itself. Not, at any rate, exactly. (When Mark Twain declared ‘History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes,’ he went about as far as he could go.)

The Summer 1971 issue of the “University of Toronto Quarterly” contained a piece that evaluated the collection “Neo Poems” by Colombo. The reviewer considered the line ascribed to Twain worthwhile, and he reprinted it:13

Meanwhile, I’m grateful for random gems that I might otherwise have missed, like Mark Twain’s ‘History never repeats itself but it rhymes.’

In May 1972 Professor James Eayrs wrote an opinion essay in “The Windsor Star” of Windsor, Ontario. He employed another variant of the adage, but he presented no ascription:14

History may not repeat itself. But it rhymes.

In December 1972 a columnist in “The Sun” of Vancouver, British Columbia credited the maxim to James Eayrs. Perhaps the columnist saw the unattributed citation given immediately above:15

James Eayrs. “History may not repeat itself. But it rhymes.”

In 1974 the journal “The History Teacher” printed another version of the maxim ascribed to Twain. This instance used the word “past” instead of “history”:16

The relationship between the continuities and the discontinuities of history have rarely been better expressed than in Mark Twain’s epigram, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

In conclusion, the earliest match for this popular quotation appeared in an essay by Theodor Reik in 1965. Currently, he is the leading candidate for coiner of the saying. The earliest attribution to Mark Twain appeared in 1970, but that date is many decades after his death. Hence, there is no substantive support for the Twain ascription. Precursors mentioning history and rhyme were published before 1965, but the statements were not compact and witty.

Image notes: Repeat-Synchronize image from OpenClips at Pixabay. Mark Twain from WikiImages at Pixabay. History-Mystery from Cool Text Free graphics generator.

Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Yoni Appelbaum who told QI about the important 1965 citation for Theodor Reik. Great thanks to Barry Popik for his research on this saying. Thanks to Daniel Gackle and Ben Yagoda who inquired about the Twain attribution. Special thanks to Dan Goncharoff who located the 1845 citation. Thanks to Charlie Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred Shapiro for their work on “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”. Thanks also to Victor Steinbok, Ken Hirsch, and Bill Mullins whose comments were helpful. Lastly: In Memoriam: For my brother who also asked about this saying in 2011.

Update History: On March 16, 2022 the 1965 citation was added and the article was partially rewritten. On June 9, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated.

  1. 2011 June 19, New York Times, Section: Money and Business/Financial Desk, Funny, but I’ve Heard This Market Song Before by Jeff Sommer, Quote Page BU.5, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  2. 1965, Curiosities of the Self: Illusions We Have about Ourselves by Theodor Reik, Essay 3: The Unreachables: The Repetition Compulsion in Jewish History, Quote Page 133, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  3. 1845 October, The Christian Remembrancer, Volume 10, (Book Review of “A History of the Church in Russia” by A. N. Mouravieff), Start Page 245, Quote Page 264, James Burns, Portman Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  4. 1874, The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) and Charles Dudley Warner, Chapter 47: Laura in the Tombs and Her Visitors, Quote Page 430, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  5. 1903, “The Jumping Frog: In English, Then in French, Then Clawed Back Into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil” by Mark Twain, Quote Page 64, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York and London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  6. 1941 May 11, Chicago Tribune, History May Not Repeat, But It Looks Alike, Quote Page 16, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  7. 1962 August, Contact: The San Francisco Collection of New Writing, Art, and Ideas, Volume 3, Number 3, (Contact 11), Poem: “Suite of Mirrors” by Harold Witt, (Excerpt from Verse 5), Start Page 21, Quote Page 21, Angel Island Publications, Sausalito, California. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  8. 1970, Neo Poems by John Robert Colombo, A Said Poem, Quote Page 46, The Sono Nis Press, Department of Creative Writing, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  9. Personal Communication via email between Garson O’Toole and John Robert Colombo, Query from O’Toole sent April 18, 2011, Reply from Colombo received April 18, 2011. ↩︎
  10. 1970 January 25, New York Times, Section: New York Times Book Review, “Q: A:”, Quote Page 47, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  11. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 121, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  12. 1971, Diplomacy and Its Discontents by James Eayrs, Quote Page 121, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  13. 1971 Summer, University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 40, Number 4, Review Section: Poetry by Michael Hornyansky, (Includes review of “Neo Poems” by John Robert Colombo), Start Page 369, Quote Page 375, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada. (Verified on paper; please note that the Google Books date of 1969 is inaccurate) ↩︎
  14. 1972 May 3, The Windsor Star, Policy Toward Greek Colonels Found Wanting by James Eayrs, Quote Page 11, Column 4, Windsor, Ontario, Canada. (Google News Archive) ↩︎
  15. 1972 December 19, The Sun, Section 3, Trevor Lautens, Quote Page 33, Column 1, Vancouver, British Columbia. (Google News Archive) ↩︎
  16. 1974 May, The History Teacher, Volume 7, Number 3, “The Functions of Teaching History” by David Pratt, Start Page 410, Quote Page 419, Published by Society for History Education. (JSTOR) link ↩︎