The More Sand Has Escaped from the Hourglass of Our Life, the Clearer We Should See Through It

Niccolò Machiavelli? Jean-Paul Sartre? Jean Paul? Johann Paul Friedrich Richter?

richter02Dear Quote Investigator: A student would like to use the following quotation about perspicacity gained through experience in a yearbook, but she has been unable to determine an appropriate ascription:

The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.

These words are often attributed to Niccolò Machiavelli or Jean-Paul Sartre which I think is an eccentric juxtaposition. I was unable to find precise citations for either of these individuals. Would you help resolve this question?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a German novel titled “Hesperus oder 45 Hundsposttage, Eine Biographie” published in 1795 by Johann Paul Friedrich Richter who used the pen name Jean Paul. “The Oxford Companion to German Literature” described the work as follows: 1

The eccentric sub-title refers to the chapters, which are designated Hundsposttage, and are supposed to have been brought to the author’s friend by a Pomeranian dog. Written in Jean Paul’s characteristic whimsical style, the book has a complex and absurd plot.

The quotation about a figurative hourglass referred to a single individual named Emanuel in the novel. The statement was later generalized to encompass all people. Here is the relevant passage in German followed by one possible English translation: 2

Emanuel sah ruhig wie eine ewige Sonne, auf den Herbst seines Körpers herab; ja je mehr Sand aus seiner Lebens-Sanduhr herausgefallen war, desto heller sah er durch das leere Glas hindurch.

Emanuel looked peacefully as an eternal sundown upon the autumn of his body; indeed the more sand had fallen out of his life-hourglass, the clearer he saw through the empty glass.

In 1837 a weekly journal called “The New-York Mirror” printed an article titled “Original Translations: Scraps from Jean Paul” which included a version of the quotation together with other adages from Richter. Here are three examples: 3

Our sorrows are like thunder clouds, which seem black in the distance, but grow lighter as they approach.

The more sand has escaped from the hour-glass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.

The moon is a light-house on the shore of the other world.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The More Sand Has Escaped from the Hourglass of Our Life, the Clearer We Should See Through It


  1. Website:, Reference Source: The Oxford Companion to German Literature from Oxford University Press, Category: Literature & Language: German Literature Companion, Topic: Hesperus oder 45 Hundsposttage, eine Biographie: Novel by Jean Paul, Text licensed by Answers Corporation. (Accessed on December 14, 2013) link
  2. 1795, Hesperus; oder, 45 hundsposttage: Eine Biographie by Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter), Quote Page 345, Karl Matzdorffs Buchhandlung, Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1837 May 13, The New-York Mirror: A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, Volume XIV, Number 46, Original Translations: Scraps from Jean Paul, Quote Page 362, Column 2, New York. (Google Books full view)(Please note that the metadata supplied for this match by Google Books is inaccurate; the data in this citation is based on the page images) link

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:


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.

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


  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)