Quote: History never repeats itself but it rhymes (attrib Mark Twain 1970) plus question regarding John Robert Colombo

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jun 21 21:08:41 UTC 2010

I spent some time at the end of May attempting to trace "History never
repeats itself but it rhymes", a phrase often attributed to Mark
Twain. Barry Popik posted his results concerning this saying and close
variants such as "History doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes" on June
5th. He always does fantastic work, so he preempted most of my results


The first known appearance of the quote is 1970 and the New York Times
contains an instance dated 1970 January 25 that Barry Popik found.
Interestingly, the Times quotation is part of a query "seeking to
locate the source" for the alleged Twain quote.

I did find two additional cites that may be of interest. The first is
a work by Canadian poet and editor John Robert Colombo that is part of
a collection called Neo Poems published in 1970. The experimental poem
consists of a series of quotations. Here are the first four lines of
the poem [JRC]:

                                      for Ronald and Beatrice Gross

"I have seen the future and it doesn't work," said Robert Fulford.
"If there weren't any Poland, there wouldn't be any Poles," said Alfred Jarry.
"We aren't making the film they contracted for," said Robert Flaherty.
"History never repeats itself but it rhymes," said Mark Twain.

[JRC] 1970, Neo Poems by John Robert Colombo, A Said Poem, Page 46,
Sono Nis Press. (Google books no preview; Verified on paper)

Books sometimes have long lead times, so the poem may have been seen
by many others before the official 1970 publication date.

The second cite dated 1971 is a review of the Neo Poems collection.
The reviewer,  Michael Hornyansky, singles out the supposed Mark Twain
quote used by Colombo and calls it a "random gem" while indicating
that he had not heard it before [UTQ]:

And yet, when all that's said, these jackdaw packs are good
entertainment, provoke twinges and grins and surmises in us as they do
in him. Maybe a real poet will 'find' Colombo one day, and weld the
scattered riches into gold. Meanwhile, I'm grateful for random gems
that I might otherwise have missed, like Mark Twain's 'History never
repeats itself but it rhymes.'

[UTQ] 1971 Summer, University of Toronto Quarterly, Review Section:
Poetry by Michael Hornyansky, Page 375, Number 4, University of
Toronto Press. (Google Books snippet view; Google Books date of 1969
is inaccurate; Verified on paper)

Do any list members know John Robert Colombo? He might have notes that
reveal where he obtained the quote attributed to Twain.

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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