One Sees What One Carries In One’s Own Heart

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Anais Nin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During a Rorschach test a patient is shown a series of ambiguous inkblots and his or her reactions and interpretations are recorded. This assessment reminds me of an adage. Here are two versions:

  • You see in the world what you carry in your heart.
  • They will see what they carry in their own heart.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: There is a strong match in the work “Faust” by the major German literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The dramatic poem begins with a prelude scene featuring a director, a poet, and a comedian. The following excerpt is an English prose translation of German verses spoken by the comedian. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Then assembles youth’s fairest flower to see your play, and listens to the revelation. Then every gentle mind sucks melancholy nourishment for itself from out your work; then one while this, and one while that, is stirred up; each one sees what he carries in his heart.

“Faust Part One” was published in 1808. The translation above from A. Hayward appeared in 1851.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The German text identified the speaker of the phrase as Lustige Person (Funny Person). 2 Here is the corresponding excerpt from the 1808 original: 3

Dann sammelt sich der Jugend schönste Blüte
Vor eurem Spiel und lauscht der Offenbarung,
Dann sauget jedes zärtliche Gemüthe
Aus eurem Werk sich melanchol’sche Nahrung,
Dann wird bald dies, bald jenes aufgeregt
Ein jeder sieht, was er im Herzen trägt.

A loose poetical translation in 1835 by John Anster contained the following lines: 4

Still the true charm, by which they are affected
Is this,—each sees his secret heart reflected:

The 1879 book “Library Notes” by Addison P. Russell begins with a group of thematically related quotations: 5

It was well said by some one that “in every object there is an inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.” “Each one sees what he carries in his heart,” said Goethe. “You will find poetry nowhere,” said Joubert, “unless you bring some with you.”

The 1927 edition of “The New Dictionary of Thoughts” originally compiled by Tryon Edwards included the saying: 6

Each one sees what he carries in his heart.

In 1947 the book “Stars in My Crown” by Joe David Brown included a variant statement without attribution: 7

Grandpa once told me that nothing was as good a measurer of a man as his memories. “If he remembers all the unhappy, bitter things—then he has to be unhappy an’ bitter himself,” Grandpa said. “Every person sees in the world an’ in other people that which he carries in his own heart.”

In 1957 Professor Bayard Quincy Morgana published a translation of Goethe’s “Faust”: 8

Then the fairest flower of youth will gather to watch your play and listen to your revelation. Then every tender young soul will draw melancholy nourishment from your work, as now this, now that emotion is stirred up, and each will see on the stage what he bears in his own heart.

The 1961 work “Seduction of the Minotaur” by the prominent writer Anaïs Nin contained a related remark which she described as Talmudic: 9

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.

The Quote Investigator examines the provenance of Nin’s statement in an article available here.

In conclusion, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe deserves credit for the German statement he wrote in “Faust”. Multiple translations into English have been constructed over the years.

(Great thanks to dvs1 whose inquiry about a quotation from Robertson Davies initiated a cascade of explorations and articles including this one.)

Update History: On February 9, 2018 the 1947 citation was added


  1. 1851, Faust: A Dramatic Poem by Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), Translation by A. Hayward, Third Edition, Prologue for the Theatre, Speaker: Merryman, Quote Page 33, Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 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 on February 4, 2018) link
  3. Year: 1808, Title: Faust: eine Tragödie, Volume: 16 of Bremer Liebhaberdruck, Volume: 8 of Works, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Speaker: Lustige Person, Quote Page 16, Publisher: in der J. G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung, Tübingen. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 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 Friend), Quote Page 12, Printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1879, Library Notes by A. P. Russell (Addison P. Russell), New Edition Revised and Enlarged, Chapter 1: Insufficiency, Quote Page 1, Houghton, Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1927, The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations, Originally compiled by Tryon Edwards, Revised and Enlarged, Topic: Observation, Quote Page 430, Britkin Publishing Company, Charlotte, North Carolina. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1947, Stars in My Crown by Joe David Brown, Chapter 23, Quote Page 219, William Morrow, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1957, Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Part One with Act 5 of Part Two, Prose Translation by Bayard Quincy Morgan (Professor Emeritus of German, Stanford University), Prelude in the Theatre, Speaker: Comedian, Quote Page 7, The Liberal Arts Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1961 copyright, Seduction of the Minotaur by Anaïs Nin, Quote Page 124, The Swallow Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Afterword added in 1969; sixth printing in 1972) (Verified on paper in sixth printing 1972)