A Well Known Quote Attributed to Goethe May Not Be Actually Be His

Ilm River with hiking paths, Goethe's Garden House at back, Ilm Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Weimar, Thuringia, Germany, Europe
Ilm River with hiking paths, Goethe's Garden House at back, Ilm Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Weimar, Thuringia, Germany, Europe. Getty Images

"Der Worte sind genug gewechselt,

lasst mich auch endlich Taten sehn!"

Enough words have been exchanged;
now at last let me see some deeds! (Goethe, Faust I)

The Faust lines above are definitely by Goethe. But are these?

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Sometimes the phrase “Begin it!” is also added at the end, and there is a longer version that we'll discuss below.

But do these lines actually originate with Goethe, as often claimed?

As you probably know, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is Germany's “Shakespeare.” Goethe is quoted in German as much or more than Shakespeare is in English. So it comes as no surprise that I often get questions about quotations attributed to Goethe. But this Goethe quote about “boldness” and seizing the moment seems to get more attention than others.

If Goethe said or wrote those words, they would be originally in German. Can we find the German source? Any good source of quotations—in any language—will attribute a quote to not only its author, but also the work it appears in. This leads to the main problem with this particular “Goethe” quotation.

It pops up all over the Web. There's hardly a quotation site out there that doesn't include these lines and attribute them to Goethe--here's an example from Goodreads. But one of my big complaints about most quotation sites is a lack of any attributed work for a given quotation.

Any quotation source worth its salt provides more than just the name of the author—and some really lame ones don't even do that. If you look at a quotation book such as Bartlett's, you'll notice that the editors go to great lengths to provide the source work of the quotations listed. Not so on many web Zitatseiten (citation sites).

Far too many online quotation sites (German or English) have been slapped together and seem to “borrow” quotes from each other, without much concern as to accuracy. And they share yet another failing with even reputable quotation books when it comes to non-English quotations. They list only an English translation of the quote and fail to include the original-language version. One of the few quotation dictionaries that does this right is The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations by Tony Augarde (Oxford University Press). The Oxford book, for example, includes this quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): “Die Welt des Glücklichen ist eine andere als die des Unglücklichen.” Under it is the English translation: “The world of the happy is quite different from that of the unhappy.” Beneath these lines is not only the work from which they come, but even the page: Tractatus-Philosophicus (1922), p. 184. — Which is how it's supposed to be done. Quotation, author, work cited.

So let us now consider the aforementioned, alleged Goethe quotation. In its entirety, it usually goes something like this:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. 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, 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.”

Okay, if Goethe said it, what is the source work? Without locating the source, we can't claim these lines are by Goethe—or any other author.

The Goethe Society of North America investigated this very subject over a two-year period ending in March 1998. The Society got help from various sources to solve the mystery of the Goethe quotation. Here's what they and others have discovered:

The “Until one is committed...” quotation often attributed to Goethe is in fact by William Hutchinson Murray (1913-1996), from his 1951 book entitled The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.* The actual final lines from W.H. Murray's book end this way (emphasis added): “...which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:

   "Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.

   Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

So now we know that it was the Scottish mountaineer W.H. Murray, not J.W. von Goethe, who wrote most of the quotation, but what about the “Goethe couplet” at the end? Well, it's not really by Goethe either. It's not clear precisely where the two lines come from, but they are only a very loose paraphrase of some words that Goethe did write in his Faust drama. In the Vorspiel auf dem Theater part of Faust you'll find these words, “Now at last let me see some deeds!”—which we quoted at the top of this page.

It seems that Murray may have borrowed the supposed Goethe lines from a source that had similar words labeled as a “very free translation” from Faust by a John Anster. In fact, the lines quoted by Murray are just too far from anything Goethe wrote to be called a translation, although they do express a similar idea. Even if some online quotation references correctly cite W.H. Murray as the author of the full quotation, they usually fail to call into question the two verses at the end. But they are not by Goethe.

Bottom line? Can any of the “commitment” quote be attributed to Goethe? No.

*Note: Murray's book (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1951) details the first Scottish expedition in 1950 to the Kumaon range in the Himalayas, between Tibet and western Nepal. The expedition, led by Murray, attempted nine mountains and climbed five, in over 450 miles of mountainous travel. The book is out of print.