“Days are Lost Lamenting Over Lost Days”


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Yesterday’s post included a quote attributed to Goethe:

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

I remember the first time I ever saw those words. It was freshman year of college and they popped up on half a dozen freshman dorm room doors. I’d never seen the quote before, and frankly, it didn’t do anything for me. I didn’t really equate starting a new task with “boldness” and having never heard of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, I didn’t understand why it was so special (what can I say? I went to public school in a small town in Indiana; I’m lucky to have made it to college at all, let alone read the “Shakespeare of Germany”).

It was only years later that I came across the full passage that contains that couplet. Now this…this was something extraordinary! Have you ever read the whole speech from Faust? Here it is (but not really, more on that below):

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.

Wow! Now these words spoke to me. I could not count how many things I’d missed out on because I simply couldn’t make the decision to do/be/participate in them. Then, invariably, I would spend time regretting my indecision. Truly, days were lost lamenting over lost days. And not just for things I couldn’t decide. I could lose days lamenting the “lost days” of a job I didn’t get, a boyfriend I broke up with, money spent or not earned or frittered away. Honestly, regret may have been my touchstone.

And that is the bright, shining key to unhappiness. Spend your life regretting what you didn’t get and you will have nothing to celebrate, ever. For even in the getting, you still begrudge what it’s not.

If you do nothing else today, decide that you have no room in your life for regrets. It may be hard to let them go, but when you start to feel them well up, replace the thought with one of joy or gratitude, or a funny joke, or call your best friend to say how much you appreciate him or her. Block the thought and eventually it will feel so unwelcome it won’t return.

Now here’s where this all gets interesting (from a writer-geek perspective). While searching for the exact quote yesterday, I stumbled across the Goethe Institute, which among other things, not surprisingly, is dedicated to ensuring the accuracy of Goethe’s work. And it turns out, J.W. von Goethe never wrote those words.

He wrote something close, but the above passage came from a very, very liberal translation in 1835 by John Anster. A much closer translation from the original German, done in 1994 by Stuart Atkins, shows what Goethe actually wrote, which is awesome and inspiring in its own right:

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, be forced to carry on and be productive.

Okay, I love that, too. “What’s left undone today, is still not done tomorrow;
to every day there is a use and purpose.” That is such a great thing to remember – always!!

Buuuuut, would those exact words have adorned the dorm rooms of countless freshman through the ages? Would it have been included in books of quotations too numerous to count? Does it have anywhere near the cache of the words it inspired, but which were, in reality, written by John Anster? That boldness has genius, power and magic in it?

Probably not.

So I’m going to continue to quote the “days lost lamenting lost days” passage as if Mr. Goethe wrote it, partly because I love it so much and partly because I already know it by heart and am too old to memorize the actual translation, which is quite a bit longer after all. And I’m going to tell myself that the scarcely-remembered Mr. Anster loved his work, and was a great student and admirer of Goethe, and would be thrilled to know that his loose interpretation created an imprint of the man that would last beyond a dozen lifetimes.

Mr. Anster made a decision, uncredited, to turn a lightning bug into lightning, and I am sure he did so with no regrets.


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2 thoughts on ““Days are Lost Lamenting Over Lost Days”

    • speakhappiness

      Ron, I’m not sure if I ever told you this, but so much of my success as a screenwriter was because of you. I could not have asked for a better instructor, and I chose you because all of the reviews about your class (both positive and negative) said that you were unrelentingly honest, and that’s what I wanted more than anything. You forced me to break bad habits and let go of bad ideas (some of which I was clinging to for dear life), and my work would not have reached the level it did had I not been in your classroom. Thank you.