Tag Archives: Alfred Lord Tennyson

A Bird Doesn’t Sing Because It Has an Answer, It Sings Because It Has a Song

Maya Angelou? Joan Walsh Anglund? William Hazlitt? Alfred Lord Tennyson? Jimmie Allison? Lou Holtz?

bird07Dear Quote Investigator: In 2015 the U.S. Postal Service released a controversial commemorative stamp featuring the prominent author Maya Angelou which displayed the following words:

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

Angelou’s best-known work was titled “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, and the expression above seems to be thematically connected; however, the words were not originally crafted by Angelou. Would you please explore the provenance of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in “A Cup of Sun: A Book of Poems” by Joan Walsh Anglund, a popular children’s book author. The collection was published in 1967, and the following verse was printed by itself on a single page; note that the phrasing differed slightly from the words on the stamp because it used the identifier “he” instead of “it”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A bird does not sing because he has an answer.
He sings because he has a song.

The quotation was reassigned to the category Chinese proverb by 1984. In 1995 it was re-ascribed to someone named Howard Clemmons, and by 2001 it was reassigned to Maya Angelou. Detailed citations are given further below.

Speculations and pronouncements about the motivations of singing birds have a long and variegated history. The examples shown in this article will emphasize the internal wellsprings of avian desire instead of external goals.

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located valuable citations for this topic and shared them with QI for this article.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1967, A Cup of Sun: A Book of Poems by Joan Walsh Anglund, Quote Page 15 (also printed on inside front flap), Published by Harcourt, Brace & World, New York (Verified with scans)

If I Had a Single Flower for Every Time I Think of You, I Could Walk Forever in My Garden

Alfred Lord Tennyson? Claudia Adrienne Grandi? Claudia Ghandi? Anonymous?

tennyson05Dear Quote Investigator: The website of a major international news organization has an article titled “Tennyson: 10 Essential Quotes” with the following item listed third: 1

If I had a flower for every time I thought of you… I could walk through my garden forever.

Strangely, I have not been able to locate this expression in the oeuvre of Alfred Lord Tennyson. According to the commentary in the article this quote has become quite popular:

This romantic sentiment may sound like the message on a greeting card, but it now makes its way into wedding speeches and toasts.

Would you please trace the provenance of this popular sentiment?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive support for crediting the famous poet Alfred Lord Tennyson with this expression.

The earliest evidence of a close match found by QI was printed in an advertising section of a Santa Ana, California newspaper on Valentine’s Day in 1985. The section contained messages expressing love, and one item was addressed to Theresa from Steve: 2


The phrasing of this instance differed somewhat from the most common modern version. For example, this poem referred to “a single flower” instead of “a flower”; also, the position of the word “forever” was shifted. No attribution was listed.

In subsequent years, instances of the poem appeared as a Valentine’s Day message in other newspapers. For example, in 1989 the European edition of “The Stars and Stripes” for the U.S. Armed Forces included an item with slightly different phrasing compared to 1985. The word “about” was replaced by “of” and “would” was changed to “could”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

It is my greatest wish to give you all the love you could ever need. If I had a single flower for every time I think of you, I could walk forever in my garden. Happy Valentine’s Day!

In 1990 a Valentine’s note was printed in “The Post Standard” of Syracuse, New York. Once again no attribution was provided: 4

If I had a single flower for every time I think about you, I could walk forever in my garden. My teepee is empty when you are gone

In May 1992 an illuminating instance was printed in a Rockmart, Georgia newspaper. The paper described the contents of an annual publication called “The Sting” which was created by the local Middle School. A section of memories included the verse and identified the author as Claudia Adrienne Grandi. This was the earliest ascription known to QI: 5

A special remembrance was given to Joey Watts with a poem which read: “If I had a single flower for every time I think of you, I could walk forever in my garden” written by Claudia Adrienne Grandi.

The evocative poems of Grandi have appeared in several collections published by “Blue Mountain Arts” which is a popular greeting card company. QI believes Grandi is the most likely originator of this verse, and Tennyson should not be credited.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. Website: BBC News Magazine, Article title: “Tennyson: 10 essential quotes”, Date on website: March 7, 2011, Website description: British Broadcasting Corporation, public service broadcaster of news and entertainment in the United Kingdom. (Accessed bbc.co.uk on April 7, 2014) link
  2. 1985 February 14, The Register (Santa Ana Orange County Register), Section: Heart to Heart, (Valentine message advertisement from Steve to Theresa), Quote Page F6, Column 6, Santa Ana, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1989 February 14, European Stars and Stripes, Section: Stripes Valentines, (Valentine message advertisement to Sweetie from Sherry), Quote Page 11, Darmstadt, Hesse. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1990 February 14, The Post Standard (Syracuse Post Standard), Section: Valentine’s Day Greetings, (Valentine message advertisement), Quote Page E4, Column 6, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1992 May 27, The Rockmart Journal, Annual received at Elm Street, Quote Page 10A, Column 4, Rockmart, Georgia. (Google News Archive)