A friend once sent me a beautiful, hand-written card a few years ago – I now refer to this card anytime I seek added inspiration.
These famous words are from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:-
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.
Concerning all acts of initiative there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and endless plans.
That the moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred.
A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would come his way.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Begin it now.
What will you do today to begin moving towards your dream?
Actually this is not a quote from Goethe at all except for the couplet at the end of the quote.
It was actually said by W. H. Murry of the Scottish Himalyann Expedition and is often misquoted.
Thanks for the correction 🙂
I had to search all over the web to find the complete dialog on commitment that I too thought was Goethe’s. I now find out that most of what is attributed to Goethe was from another source. Regardless I am looking for the true source so I can get it right. It might possibly be my favorite, certainly one of my top 5 of all time. Could you forward this request to J. Frost for more information on W.H. Murry, and where and when he voiced or wrote his amazing insights? I would be grateful.
From the Goethe Society web site:
Of the many inquiries about Goethe and Goethe quotations that come to the Goethe Society of North America through the website, the most oft repeated and vexing one has been a passage about boldness, magic, and providence that certainly sounded like Goethe, but eluded our attempts to track it down. You may recall that in our Fall 1996 Newsletter an editor at Celestial Seasonings Teas even offered some tea in exchange for help in identifying it. Most inquiries focused on the closing lines: “What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it! / Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” But some cited a fuller passage:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
Well, it’s been found and it is partly by Goethe, in a way. We first heard from Ellen Todd Hanks, a senior information service librarian at the Briscoe Library of the University of Texas Health Science Center. She found a variant of the final two sentences in Stevenson’s Home Book of Quotations: “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Only engage, and then the mind grows heated. Begin it, and the work will be completed.”
The lines are attributed to John Anster in a “very free translation” of Faust from 1835. They are indeed “very free” writes Katja Moser, who solved a larger piece of the mystery this May, and provided a fuller excerpt from Anster’s translation, where the lines in question are spoken by the “Manager” in the “Prelude at the Theatre”:
Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting over lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Moser points to Faust, 214-30, as the passage paraphrased by Anster:
Der Worte sind genug gewechselt,
Laßt mich auch endlich Taten sehn!
Indes ihr Komplimente drechselt,
Kann etwas Nützliches geschehn.
Was hilft es, viel von Stimmung reden?
Dem Zaudernden erscheint sie nie.
Gebt ihr euch einmal für Poeten,
So kommandiert die Poesie.
Euch ist bekannt, was wir bedürfen,
Wir wollen stark Getränke schlürfen;
Nun braut mir unverzüglich dran!
Was heute nicht geschieht, ist morgen nicht getan,
Und keinen Tag soll man verpassen,
Das Mögliche soll der Entschluß
Beherzt sogleich beim Schopfe fassen,
Er will es dann nicht fahren lassen
Und wirket weiter, weil er muß.
Katja Moser also identifies the author of the lengthier passage being attributed to Goethe and, in doing so, reveals its connection with John Anster’s inventive paraphrase. She writes:
“The quote as you give it in a larger context seems to be from W. H. Murray in The Scottish Himalaya Expedition, 1951. There the text apparently goes:
‘But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money–booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’
So, did Goethe say it? Not really. Thank you, Katja Moser, for the discovery!
University of California, Irvine
Thanks very much John for your detailed analysis and for finally setting the record straight!
Great words nevertheless 🙂
W.H.Murray quotes the couplet from Goethe on page 7 of the first chapter (Birth Pangs) in his book “The Scottish Himalayan Expedition”. This book is truly a wonderfully wriiten account of an exploratory expedition in the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalaya ( India ) in 1950.
The quotation fitted the context perfectly : Britain was still recovering from the ravages of World War II. And here were 4 intrepid mountaineers planning a 4 month expedition to explore valleys and climb mountains in a remote, little explored (in 1950 ) part of the Himalaya. They would have to give up their jobs, find the money and resources and make great sacrifices to follow their dream.
Their pioneering success is testimony to Goethe’s couplet.
Murray’s book is one of the few in my life that I have read twice over : it truly brims over with Genius, Power and Magic!
Aloke, thanks very much for sharing your insights about Goethe, and W. H. Murray’s book.
I have added Murray’s book on my list of books to read in the future:-)