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"Until one is committed ..."
 

March 5, 1998

 
 

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.

In Stuart Atkins' translation (Goethe. The Collected Works. Vol. 2: Faust I & II. Ed. and trans. Stuart Atkins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994. 7), those lines read:

This altercation's gone on long enough,
it's time I saw some action too!
While you are polishing fine phrases
something useful could be going on.
What's the point of harping on the proper mood?
It never comes to him who shilly-shallies.
Since you pretend to be a poet,
make poetry obey your will.
You know that what we need
is a strong drink to gulp down fast,
so set to work and brew it!
What's left undone today, is still not done tomorrow;
to every day there is a use and purpose;
let Resoluteness promptly seize
the forelock of the Possible,
and then, reluctant to let go again,
she's forced to carry on and be productive.

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!

Meredith Lee
University of California, Irvine

P.S.: An even earlier attribution can be found in the essay, "The Spirit of Work," included in The Queen's Carol: An Anthology of Poems, Stories, Essays, Drawings, and Music (1905). Thanks to David Hurwitz for the tip!