Mark Twain? John Robert Colombo? James Eayrs? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular humorous maxim about history that is usually attributed to Mark Twain. But there is so much uncertainty about this ascription that a top business columnist for the “New York Times” wrote the following: 1
“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” as Mark Twain is often reputed to have said. (I’ve found no compelling evidence that he ever uttered that nifty aphorism. No matter — the line is too good to resist.)
Would you please research the provenance of this adage?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Twain who died in 1910 made this remark. In 1970 the two earliest known close matches appeared in print. Interestingly, both instances were attributed to Mark Twain.
QI located the saying in a poem by the Canadian artist John Robert Colombo in a collection called “Neo Poems”. The experimental work containing the saying was titled “A Said Poem”, and the innovative format consisted of a series of quotations. These were the first four lines: 2
A SAID POEM
for Ronald and Beatrice Gross
“I have seen the future and it doesn’t work,” said Robert Fulford.
“If there weren’t any Poland, there wouldn’t be any Poles,” said Alfred Jarry.
“We aren’t making the film they contracted for,” said Robert Flaherty.
“History never repeats itself but it rhymes,” said Mark Twain.
In April 2011 QI contacted John Robert Colombo via email to inquire about the source of the expression. 3 Colombo believed that he had encountered the saying in print sometime in the 1960s, perhaps in the columns of “The Times Literary Supplement”. He considered the saying to be part of “proverbial lore”, and he had never seen a precise source.
The maxim also appeared in the pages of the “New York Times” in January 1970. An individual with the initials W.D.M sent a query letter to the newspaper asking about the origin of the saying. The question was printed in a “Q: A:” section of the paper although, unfortunately, no satisfactory answer was subsequently brought forth from readers: 4
W.D.M. is seeking to locate the source of the following line, attributed to Mark Twain: “History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”
These two citations were listed in the important recent reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press. 5
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 2011 June 19, New York Times, Section: Money and Business/Financial Desk, Funny, but I’ve Heard This Market Song Before by Jeff Sommer, Quote Page BU.5, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1970, Neo Poems by John Robert Colombo, A Said Poem, Quote Page 46, The Sono Nis Press, Department of Creative Writing, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia. (Verified on paper) ↩
- Personal Communication via email between Garson O’Toole and John Robert Colombo, Query from O’Toole sent April 18, 2011, Reply from Colombo received April 18, 2011. ↩
- 1970 January 25, New York Times, Section: New York Times Book Review, “Q: A:”, Quote Page 47, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 121, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩