Keep Your Face Always Towards the Sunshine, and the Shadows Will Fall Behind You

Helen Keller? Walt Whitman? Charles Swain? Celia Burleigh? Lydia G. Worth? Edmund Cooke? M. B. Whitman? Maori Proverb?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular metaphorical framework equates sunlight to positive situations and shadow to unfavorable conditions. Here are two instances of an adage about maintaining an optimistic perspective:

  • Turn your face to the sunshine and the shadows fall behind.
  • Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.

This notion has been credited to prominent poet Walt Whitman and to blind social activist Helen Keller. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the ascription to Walt Whitman occurred because of a naming confusion error. First, a remark in this family was ascribed to M. B. Whitman by 1903. Second, by 1910 the remark was attributed to the single name Whitman without the initials. Third, Walt Whitman received credit by 1919.

A report in 1927 asserted that Helen Keller wrote an instance in an autograph album, but the saying was already in circulation. See detailed citations given further below.

QI conjectures that the saying evolved over time, and a significant nascency occurred in a verse by English poet Charles Swain published in “The Literary Gazette” of London in 1850. The poem “Youth and Age” employed the framework of sunlight and shadows mentioned above. The second verse which referred to youthful exuberance transitioning toward harsher maturity contained the core ideas of the saying under analysis in the two highlighted lines. Emphasis added to excerpts:1

Thus, in the morn of life, our feet
Would distant pathways find;
The sun still face to face we meet—
The shadow falls behind!
But when the morn of life is o’er,
And nature grows less kind;
The length’ning shadow creeps before—
The sunlight falls behind!

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Swain’s poem was reprinted in many periodicals during the ensuing months, years, and decades such as “The Preston Chronicle” of Preston, England in 1850;2 “Youth’s Penny Gazette” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1851;3 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of Brooklyn, New York in 1854;4 and “The Southern Cultivator” of Augusta, Georgia in 1860.5

Reprints often made minor alterations to the punctuation or changed “length’ning” to “lengthening”. In addition, some reprints omitted the ascription to Swain.

In 1862 the “Daily Intelligencer” of West Virginia printed a miscellaneous collection of sayings which included the following anonymous adage:6

Face the sunshine, and your shadow will fall behind you.

In 1873 minister Celia Burleigh writing in “The Christian Union” crafted a matching remark:7

Evil deeds cast long shadows, but if we keep our faces to the light, these shadows will fall behind, not before us.

In 1874 “College Rhymes” of England printed a piece titled “The Pilgrim-Knight” by A. Merion that contained a partial match:8

The sun shines on my rearward path, my shadow looms before;
But as the splendour of the day sinks toward the western wind
All sunshine is my path in front, the shadows fall behind.

In 1885 “The Sunday Chronicle” of San Francisco, California printed the following without attribution:9

Christians sometimes complain of clouds, and having to walk through darkness, when really it is but their own shadow. Face the light and go forward, and the shadows will fall behind you.

In 1887 The Christian Science Journal printed a short piece by Lydia G. Worth containing the following:10

Brothers and sisters, let us ever keep our faces toward the Light, so that we may not only see clearly what lies before us, but leave behind the shadows of sin, sickness, and death.

In 1894 a newspaper in Monongahela, Pennsylvania printed a poem titled “Laugh a Little Bit” by Edmund Cooke which included this entertaining verse:11

Keep your face with sunshine lit,
Laugh a little bit.
All the shadows soon will flit,
If you have the grit and wit
Just to laugh a little bit.

In 1903 a newspaper in Wichita, Kansas published a miscellaneous collection of sayings under the title “Gems of Thought” which included the following:12

Keep your face always towards the sunshine, and the shadows will fall behind you.—M. B. Whitman.

The statement above appeared in many newspapers with an ascription to M. B. Whitman during the following months and years. It also occurred in the 1908 collection “The Melody of the Heart” published in New York.13

In 1910 “The Messenger” of Beckley, West Virginia credited the saying above to an ambiguous single name:14

Keep your face always toward the sunshine and the shadows will fall behind you.—Whitman

In 1919 “The Newhall Signal” of California reprinted the saying above, but this time the words were incorrectly ascribed to Walt Whitman:15

Keep your face toward the sunshine and the shadows will fall behind you.—Walt Whitman.

In 1927 a columnist in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania newspaper credited Helen Keller with a version of the saying:16

It was Helen Keller who wrote
In an autograph album,
“Keep your face to the sunshine
And you cannot see the shadow.”

In 1928 the saying ascribed to Walt Whitman continued to circulate in a Seymour, Indiana newspaper:17

Walt Whitman said “Keep your face always toward the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.”

In 1929 the book “One Thousand Sayings of History” by Walter Fogg presented more information about the remark ascribed to Keller:18

Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.
— HELEN KELLER (1880- ).

. . . She who wrote these inspiring words, in brave, square letters, in the curious autograph album of Lafayette E. Cornwell, of Yonkers, N. Y., had walked in the profoundest darkness since her second year—in a shadow that never lifted.

In 1943 the compendium “Thesaurus of Epigrams” edited by Edmund Fuller attributed the adage to Keller:19

Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.
—Helen Keller

In 1989 researchers at the U.S. Library of Congress published “Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service”. The entry about the remark attributed to Keller pointed to the 1929 citation listed above, but it also skeptically stated:20

While this sentence has been attributed to Keller several times, Keller experts at the American Federation for the Blind in New York City have never been able to find it.

By 2000 Keller had received credit for an extended saying that mentioned sunflowers:21

Helen Keller said, “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow. It’s what sunflowers do.”

In 2013 a post on the Reddit discussion system suggested an origin in New Zealand:22

Turn your face toward the sun and the shadows will fall behind you. (Maori Proverb)
A friend said this and I spent the rest of the day thinking about it.

In conclusion, in 1850 poet Charles Swain employed language about illumination figuratively. During youth an individual faces the sun and shadows fall behind him or her. Yet, later in life shadows appear in front and sunlight occurs behind.

In 1862 a newspaper in West Virginia published the following anonymous compact adage: “Face the sunshine, and your shadow will fall behind you.” The ensuing years produced many variants. A popular instance was attributed to M. B. Whitman by 1903, and the same statement was implausible reassigned to Walt Whitman by 1919. There is some evidence starting in 1927 that Helen Keller wrote a version of the saying in an autograph book, but she did not craft it.

Image Notes: Picture of light streaming into a forest from stux at Pixabay. Image have been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Kelly Paulson and Sari whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Jane Bella who pointed to an unneeded extraneous sentence.)

  1. 1850 March 16, The Literary Gazette, Original Poetry: Youth and Age by Charles Swain, Quote Page 205, Column 1, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  2. 1850 March 23, The Preston Chronicle and Lancashire Advertiser, Poetry: Youth and Age by Charles Swain, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Preston, Lancashire, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  3. 1851 December 3, Youth’s Penny Gazette, Volume 9, Number 25, (Untitled poem), Quote Page 100, American Sunday-School Union, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  4. 1854 October 23, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Life’s Poetry, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1860 January, The Southern Cultivator, Volume 18, Number 1, Life’s Poetry, Quote Page 37, Column 2, Published by William S. Jones, Augusta, Georgia. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  6. 1862 June 5, Daily Intelligencer (The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer), Daily Intelligencer, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Wheeling, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  7. 1873 July 9, The Christian Union, Things That Endure by Celia Burleigh, Start Page 33, Quote Page 33, Column 3, J.B. Ford & Company, New York.(Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  8. 1874, College Rhymes, Conducted by Members of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Volume 14, The Pilgrim-Knight by A. Merion, Start Page 15, Quote Page 18, T. Shrimpton & Son, Oxford; Macmillan & Company, Cambridge; Whittaker & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  9. 1885 September 6, The Sunday Chronicle (San Francisco Chronicle), Denominational Drops, Quote Page 6, Column 4, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  10. 1887 October, The Christian Science Journal, Volume 5, Number 7, Section: Letters, A Lesson from the Street by Lydia G. Worth, Quote Page 346, The Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, Massachusetts.(Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  11. 1894 November 9, The Daily Republican, Laugh a Little Bit by Edmund Cooke, (Verse 2 of 3) Quote Page 2, Column 3, Monongahela, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  12. 1903 July 10, The Chronicle, Gems of Thought, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Wichita, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  13. 1908, The Melody of the Heart, Selected by J.E. & H.S., Quote Page 103, Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩︎
  14. 1910 October 18, The Messenger, (Filler item), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Beckley, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  15. 1919 September 19, The Newhall Signal, News Items of Interest, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Newhall, Los Angeles County, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  16. 1927 November 23, Harrisburg Telegraph, On Feeling Thankful, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  17. 1928 February 18, The Seymour Daily Tribune, Section: Churches, Church: St. Paul Congregational, Minister: J. Willard Yoder, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Seymour, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  18. 1929, One Thousand Sayings of History: Presented as Pictures in Prose by Walter Fogg, Quote Page 17, The Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  19. 1943 Copyright, Thesaurus of Epigrams, Edited by Edmund Fuller, Topic: Optimism, Quote Page 224, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans; HathiTrust) ↩︎
  20. 1989, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service, Edited by Suzy Platt, Topic: Positive thinking, Quote Page 268, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  21. 2000 July 20, The Daily Times, Bloomin’ right by Carolyn Proeber, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Salisbury, Maryland. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  22. Website: Reddit, Subreddit: r/quotes, Post title: Turn your face toward the sun and the shadows will fall behind you. (Maori Proverb), Poster: u/chaudyman, Post date on website: April 30, 2013, Website description: Social news aggregator and discussion website. (Accessed on February 4, 2014) link ↩︎