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:
ELIZABETH BARRETT: Well?
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.
- 1826 August 9, The Morning Chronicle, Issue 17755, The Mirror of Fashion, Quote Page 3, Column 1, London, England. (19th Century British Newspapers: Gale) ↩