If you have attended any event that celebrates an important milestone, like a graduation or retirement, you have heard someone say: “And like Dr. Seuss said, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.'” And like many memorable quotations, this is found on all kinds of merchandise: posters, coffee mugs, t-shirts, and so forth. But like many quotes found on the internet, there is absolutely no evidence that Dr. Seuss (the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel) wrote it. No, he did not write that. Nor did the Cat in the Hat. He did not say it here or there. He did not say it anywhere. Some websites attribute the quote to Gabriel Garcia Marques or Anonymous. So which is correct? Let me welcome you into the classroom of Famous Misquotations 101, where we will seek enlightenment.
Garson O’Toole, better known as the Quote Investigator and author of the fascinating book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That (2017) joins forces with another quote investigator, Barry Popik, to discover that the actual source of this quotation is a variant of two lines from a poem by German poet Ludwig Jacobowski (1868-1900). Jacobowski lived and worked for most of his life in Berlin. He edited a local newspaper and wrote several volumes of poetry and two novels. The poem that is the focus of our attention is titled “Bright Days” (or “Radiant Days”), published in the August 1899 edition of Das Magazine fur Litteratur, a literary journal. Two key lines from that poem read “Night weinen, weil she voruber! / Lacheln, weil sie gewesen!” Translated into English the lines read: “Don’t cry because it’s over! Smile because they have been!” The entire poem appears below:
- Bright Days by Ludwig Jacobowski
- Ah, our brilliant days
- shine like eternal stars,
- They glow past as consolation
- for future sorrow.
- Don’t cry because it’s over!
- Smile because they have been!
- And if the days get cloudier,
- Our stars redeem!
Fast forward to 1996, when an anonymous contributor posted this line on a Usenet newsgroup under the heading rec.humor: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” The Wikiquotes page devoted to Dr. Seuss points out that this quotation has also been attributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote: “No llores porque ya se terminó, sonríe porque sucedió.” Translated into English it reads, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” However, there is no source to confirm that Marquez ever wrote this.
The erroneous attribution to Dr. Seuss begins with one individual who was too lazy to do his research: Christopher Roche, the valedictorian at Albertus Magnus High School. In June 1998, The Rockland Journal-News (Rockland County, New York) quoted Roche’s valedictorian speech. Roche claimed that he was paraphrasing some lines from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go: “Like Dr. Seuss tells us, today is our day. We’re off to great places, so let’s be on our way. Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Yikes. Even ChatGPT wouldn’t make a bonehead attribution like that. Realize how easy it would be to confirm: Oh, the Places You’ll Go is not some sprawling epic novel, like War and Peace — the book has only 56 pages with just a few sentences on each page with lots of large pictures. If Roche had even flipped through it, he would discovered that this sentence or anything with a similar sentiment simply isn’t there.
So the next time you hear someone quote from “Dr. Seuss,” please interrupt them politely and graciously enlighten them: “You mean the obscure German poet, Ludwig Jacobowski, don’t you? Please, don’t cry that you made a mistake; smile that I corrected you — so that you are spared the humiliation of looking like a fool.” Oh, the places you’ll go…
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For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life
Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting
For further reading:
Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, Garson O’Toole, Little A, 2017.
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