The Philosophy of Proverbs
IN antique furniture we sometimes discover a convenience which long disuse had made us unacquainted with, and are surprised by the aptness which we did not suspect was concealed in its solid forms. We have found the labour of the workman to have been as admirable as the material itself, which is still resisting the mouldering touch of Time among those modern inventions, elegant and unsubstantial, which, often put together with unseasoned wood, are apt to warp and fly into pieces when brought into use. We have found how strength consists in the selection of materials, and that, whenever the substitute is not better than the original, we are losing something in that test of experience, which all things derive from duration.
Be this as it may! I shall not unreasonably await for the artists of our novelties to retrograde into massive greatness, although I cannot avoid reminding them how often they revive the forgotten things of past times! It is well known that many of our novelties were in use by our ancestors! In the history of the human mind there is, indeed, a sort of antique furniture which I collect, not merely from their antiquity, but for the sound condition in which I still find them, and the compactness which they still show. Centuries have not worm-eaten their solidity, and the utility and delightfulness which they still afford make them look as fresh and as ingenious as any of our patent inventions.
By the title of the present article the reader has anticipated the nature of the old furniture to which I allude. I propose to give what, in the style of our times, may be called the philosophy of PROVERBS—a topic which seems virgin. The art of reading proverbs has not, indeed, always been acquired even by some of their admirers; always my observations, like their subject, must be versatile and unconnected; and I must bespeak indulgence for an attempt to illustrate a very curious branch of literature, rather not understood than quite forgotten.
PROVERBS have long been in disuse. “A man of fashion,” observes Lord Chesterfield, “never has recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms;” and since the time his lordship so solemnly interdicted their use, they appear to have withered away under the ban of his anathema. His lordship was little conversant with the history of proverbs, and would unquestionably have smiled on those “men of fashion” of another stamp, who in the days of Elizabeth, James, and Charles, were great collectors of them; would appeal to them in their conversations, and enforce them in their learned or their statesmanlike correspondence. Few, perhaps, even now suspect, that these neglected fragments of wisdom, which exist among all nations, still offer many interesting objects for the studies of the philosopher and the historian; and for men of the world still open an extensive school of human life and manners.
The home-spun adages, and the rusty “sayed-saws” which remain in the mouths of the people, are adapted to their capacities and their humours; easily remembered, and readily applied: these are the philosophy of the vulgar, and often more sound than that of their masters! Whoever would learn what the people think, and how they feel, must not reject even these as insignificant. The proverbs of the street and of the market, true to nature, and lasting only because they are true, are records how the populace at Athens and at Rome were the same people as at Paris and at London, and as they had before been in the city of Jerusalem!
PROVERBS existed before books. The Spaniards date the origin of their refranes quo dicer las viejas tras el huego, “sayings of old wives by their firesides,” before the existence of any writings in their language, from the circumstance that these are in the old romance or rudest vulgar idiom. The most ancient poem in the Edda, “the sublime speech of Odin,” abounds with ancient proverbs, strikingly descriptive of the ancient Scandinavians. Undoubtedly proverbs in the earliest ages long served as the unwritten language of morality, and even of the useful arts. Like the oral traditions of the Jews, they floated down from age to age on the lips of successive generations. The name of the first sage who sanctioned the saying would in time be forgotten, while the opinion, the metaphor, or the expression, remained, consecrated into A PROVERB! Such was the origin of those memorable sentences by which men learnt to think and to speak appositely; they were precepts which no man could contradict, at a time when authority was valued more than opinion, and experience preferred to novelty. The proverbs of a father became the inheritance of a son; the mistress of a family perpetuated hers through her household; the workman condensed some traditional secret of his craft into a proverbial expression. When countries are not yet populous, and property has not yet produced great inequalities in its ranks, every day will show them I how “the drunkard and the glutton come to poverty, and drowsiness clothes a man with rags.” At such a period he who gave counsel gave wealth.
It might therefore have been decided, à priori, that the most homely proverbs would abound in the most ancient writers—and such we find in Hesiod; a poet whose learning was not drawn from books. It could only have been in the agricultural state that this venerable bard could have indicated a state of repose by this rustic proverb,
πηδαλιον μεν ύπερ καπνου καταδεῖο.
“Hang your plough-beam o’er the hearth!”
The envy of rival workmen is as justly described by a reference to the humble manufacturers of earthenware as by the elevated jealousies of the literati and the artists of a more polished age. The famous proverbial verse in Hesiod’s Works and Days,
Καί κεραμεύς κεραμε͂ι κοτέει,
is literally, “The potter is hostile to the potter!”
The admonition of the poet to his brother, to prefer a friendly accommodation to a litigious lawsuit, has fixed a paradoxical proverb often applied,
πλέον η̈μισυ παντός.
“The half is better than the whole!”
In the progress of time, the stock of popular proverbs received accessions from the highest sources of human intelligence; as the philosophers of antiquity formed their collections, they increased in “weight and number.” Erasmus has pointed out some of these sources, in the responses of oracles; the allegorical symbols of Pythagoras; the verses of the poets; allusions to historical incidents; mythology and apologue; and other recondite origins: such dissimilar matters coming from all quarters, were melted down into this vast body of aphoristic knowledge. Those “WORDS OF THE WISE, and their DARK SAYINGS,” as they are distinguished in that large collection which bears the name of the great Hebrew monarch, at length seem to have required commentaries; for what else can we infer of the enigmatic wisdom of the sages, when the royal paræmiographer classes among their studies, that of “understanding a proverb and the interpretation?” This elevated notion of “the dark sayings of the wise” accords with the bold conjecture of their origin, which the Stagirite has thrown out, who considered them as the wrecks of an ancient philosophy which had been lost to mankind by the fatal revolutions of all human things, and that those had been saved from the general ruin by their pithy elegance, and their diminutive form; like those marine shells found on the tops of mountains, the relics of the Deluge! Even at a later period, the sage of Cheronea prized them among the most solemn mysteries; and Plutarch has described them in a manner which proverbs may even still merit; “Under the veil of these curious sentences are hid those germs of morals, which the masters of philosophy have afterwards developed into so many volumes.”
At the highest period of Grecian genius, the tragic and the comic poets introduced into their dramas the proverbial style. St. Paul quotes a line which still remains among the first exercises of our school-pens:
“Evil communications corrupt good manners.”
It is a verse found in a fragment of Menander, the comic poet:
φϑείρουσιν ήϑη χρήσϑ’ όμιλίαι κακαι.
As this verse is a proverb, and the apostle, and indeed the highest authority, that of Jesus himself, consecrates the use of proverbs by their occasional application, it is uncertain whether St. Paul quotes the Grecian poet, or only repeats some popular adage. Proverbs were bright shafts in the Greek and Latin quivers; and when Bentley was accused of pedantry for his use of some ancient proverbs by a league of superficial wits, the sturdy critic vindicated his taste, by showing that Cicero constantly introduced Greek proverbs into his writings—that Scaliger and Erasmus loved them, and had formed collections, drawn from the stores of antiquity.
Some difficulty has occurred in the definition. Proverbs must be distinguished from proverbial phrases, and from sententious maxims; but as proverbs have many faces, from their miscellaneous nature, the class itself scarcely admits of any definition. When Johnson defined a proverb to be “a short sentence frequently repeated by the people,” this definition would not include the most curious ones, which have not always circulated among the populace, nor even belong to them; nor does it designate the vital qualities of a proverb. The pithy quaintness of old Howel has admirably described the ingredients of an exquisite proverb to be sense, shortness, and salt. A proverb is distinguished from a maxim or an apophthegm, by that brevity which condenses a thought or a metaphor, where one thing is said and another is to be applied which often produces wit; and that quick pungency which excites surprise, but strikes with conviction; which gives it an epigrammatic turn. George Herbert entitled the small collection which he formed “Jacula Prudentum,” Darts or Javelins! something hurled and striking deeply; a characteristic of a proverb which possibly Herbert may have borrowed from a remarkable passage in Plato’s dialogue of “Protagoras, or the Sophists.”
The influence of PROVERBS over the minds and conversations of a whole people is strikingly illustrated by this philosopher’s explanation of the term to laconise; that mode of speech peculiar to the Lacedæmonians. This people affected to appear unlearned, and seemed only emulous to excel the rest of the Greeks in fortitude and in military skill. According to Plato’s notion, this was really a political artifice, with a view to conceal their pre-eminent wisdom. With the jealousy of a petty state they attempted to confine their renowned sagacity within themselves, and under their military to hide their contemplative character! The philosopher assures those who in other cities imagined they laconised, merely by imitating the severe exercises, and the other warlike manners of the Lacedæmonians, that they were grossly deceived; and thus curiously describes the sort of wisdom this singular people practised.
“If any one wishes to converse with the meanest of the Lacedæmonians, he will at first find him, for the most part, apparently despicable in conversation; but afterwards, when a proper opportunity presents itself, this same mean person, like a skilful jaculator, will hurl a sentence worthy of attention, short and contorted; so that he who converses with him will appear to be in no respect superior to a boy! That to laconise, therefore, consists much more in philosophising than in the love of exercise, is understood by some of the present age, and was known to the ancients, they being persuaded that the ability of uttering such sentences as these is the province of a man perfectly learned. The seven sages were emulators, lovers, and disciples of the Lacedæmonian erudition. Their wisdom was a thing of this kind; viz. short sentences uttered by each, and worthy to be remembered. These men, assembling together, consecrated to Apollo the first fruits of their wisdom; writing in the temple of Apollo, at Delphi, those sentences, which are celebrated by all men, viz. Know thyself! and Nothing too much! But on what account do I mention these things?—to show that the mode of philosophy among the ancients was a certain laconic diction.”1
The “laconisms” of the Lacedæmonians evidently partook of the proverbial style; they were, no doubt, often proverbs themselves. The very instances which Plato supplies of this “laconising” are the two venerable proverbs, Nosce te ipsum! and Ne quid nimis!
All this elevates the science of PROVERBS, and indicates that these abridgments of knowledge convey great results, with a parsimony of words prodigal of sense. They have, therefore, preserved many “a short sentence, NOT repeated by the people.”
It is evident, however, that the earliest writings of every people are marked by their most homely or domestic proverbs; for these were more directly addressed to their wants. Franklin, who may be considered as the founder of a people, who were suddenly placed in that stage of civil society which as yet could afford no literature, discovered the philosophical cast of his genius, when he filled his almanacks with proverbs, by the ingenious contrivance of framing them into a connected discourse, delivered by an old man attending an auction. “These proverbs,” he tells us, “which contained the wisdom of many ages and nations, when their scattered counsels were brought together, made a great impression. They were reprinted in Britain, in a large sheet of paper, and stuck up in houses; and were twice translated in France, and distributed among their poor parishioners.” The same occurrence had happened with us ere we became a reading people. Much later even than the reign of Elizabeth our ancestors had proverbs always before them, on everything which had room for a piece of advice on it; they had them painted in their tapestries, stamped on the most ordinary utensils, on the blades of their knives, the borders of their plates, and “conned them out of goldsmiths’ rings,” The usurer, in Robert Greene’s “Groat’s-worth of Wit,” compressed all his philosophy into the circle of his ring, having learnt sufficient Latin to understand the proverbial motto of “Tu tibi cura!” The husband was reminded of his lordly authority when he only looked into his trencher, one of its learned aphorisms having descended to us,—
“The calmest husbands make the stormiest wives.”
The English proverbs of the populace, most of which are still in circulation, were collected by old JOHN HEYWOOD.2 They are arranged by TUSSER for “the parlour—the guest’s chamber—the hall—table-lessons,” &c. Not a small portion of our ancient proverbs were adapted to rural life, when our ancestors lived more than ourselves amidst the works of God, and less among those of men. At this time, one of our old statesmen, in commending the art of compressing a tedious discourse into a few significant phrases, suggests the use of proverbs in diplomatic intercourse, convinced of the great benefit which would result to the negotiators themselves, as well as to others! I give a literary curiosity of this kind. A member of the house of commons, in the reign of Elizabeth, made a speech entirely composed of the most homely proverbs. The subject was a bill against double-payments of book-debts. Knavish tradesmen were then in the habit of swelling out their book-debts with those who took credit, particularly to their younger customers. One of the members who began to speak “for very fear shook,” and stood silent. This nervous orator was followed by a blunt and true representative of the famous governor of Barataria, delivering himself thus—“It is now my chance to speak something, and that without humming or hawing. I think this law is a good law. Even reckoning makes long friends. As far goes the penny as the penny’s master. Vigilantibus non dormientibus jura subveniunt. Pay the reckoning over-night, and you shall not he troubled in the morning. If ready money be mensura publica, let every one cut his coat according to his cloth. When his old suit is in the wane, let him stay till that his money bring a new suit in the increase.”3
Another instance of the use of proverbs among our statesmen occurs in a manuscript letter of Sir Dudley Carlton, written in 1632 on the impeachment of Lord Middlesex, who, he says, is “this day to plead his own cause in the exchequer-chamber, about an account of fourscore thousand pounds laid to his charge. How his lordship sped I know not, but do remember well the French proverb, Qui mange de l’oye du Roy chiera une plume quarante ans après. “Who eats of the king’s goose, will void a feather forty years after!”
This was the era of proverbs with us; for then they were spoken by all ranks of society. The free use of trivial proverbs got them into disrepute; and as the abuse of a thing raises a just opposition to its practice, a slender wit affecting “a cross humour,” published a little volume of “Crossing of Proverbs, Cross-answers, and Cross-humours.” He pretends to contradict the most popular ones; but he wanted the genius to strike at amusing paradoxes.4
Proverbs were long the favourites of our neighbours: in the splendid and refined court of Louis XIV. they gave rise to an odd invention. They plotted comedies and even fantastical ballets, from their subjects. In these Curiosities of Literature I cannot pass by such eccentric inventions unnoticed.
A COMEDY of proverbs is described by the Duke de la Vallière, which was performed in 1634, with prodigious success. He considers that this comedy ought to be ranked among farces; but it is gay, well-written, and curious for containing the best proverbs, which are happily introduced in the dialogue.
A more extraordinary attempt was A BALLET of proverbs. Before the opera was established in France, the ancient ballets formed the chief amusement of the court, and Louis XIV. himself joined with the performers. The singular attempt of forming a pantomimical dance cut of proverbs is quite French; we have a “ballet des proverbes, dansé par le Roi, in 1654.” At every proverb the scene changed, and adapted itself to the subject. I shall give two or three of the entrées, that we may form some notion of these capriccios. The proverb was
Tel menace qui a grand peur.
“He threatens who is afraid!”
The scene was composed of swaggering scaramouches and some honest cits, who at length beat them off.
At another entrée the proverb was
L’occasion fait le larron.
Opportunity makes the thief.
Opportunity was acted by le Sieur Beaubrun, but it is difficult to conceive how the real could personify the abstract personage. The thieves were the Duke D’Amville and Monsieur de la Chesnaye.
Another entrée was the proverb of
Ce qui vient de la flute s’en va au tambeur.
“What comes by the pipe goes by the tabor.”
A loose dissipated officer was performed by le Sieur l’Anglois; the pipe by St. Aignan, and the tabor by le Sieur le Comte! In this manner every proverb was spoken in action, the whole connected by dialogue: more must have depended on the actors than the poet.
The French long retained this fondness for proverbs; for they still have dramatic compositions entitled proverbes, on a more refined plan. Their invention is so recent, that the term is not in their great dictionary of Trevoux. These proverbes are dramas of a single act, invented by Carmontel, who possessed a peculiar vein of humour, but who designed them only for private theatricals. Each proverb furnished a subject for a few scenes, and created a situation powerfully comic: it is a dramatic amusement which does not appear to have reached us, but one which the celebrated Catharine of Russia delighted to compose for her own society.
Among the middle classes of society to this day, we may observe that certain family proverbs are traditionally preserved: the favourite saying of a father is repeated by the sons; and frequently the conduct of a whole generation has been influenced by such domestic proverbs. This may be perceived in many of the mottoes of our old nobility, which seem to have originated in some habitual proverb of the founder of the family. In ages when proverbs were most prevalent, such pithy sentences would admirably serve in the ordinary business of life, and lead on to decision, even in its greater exigencies. Orators, by some lucky proverb, without wearying their auditors, would bring conviction home to their bosoms; and great characters would appeal to a proverb, or deliver that, which, in time, by its aptitude, became one. When Nero was reproached for the ardour with which he gave himself up to the study of music, he replied to his censurers by the Greek proverb, “An artist lives everywhere.” The emperor answered in the spirit of Rousseau’s system, that every child should be taught some trade. When Cæsar, after anxious deliberation, decided on the passage of the Rubicon (which very event has given rise to a proverb), rousing himself with a start of courage, he committed himself to Fortune, with that proverbial expression on his lips, used by gamesters in desperate play: having passed the Rubicon, he exclaimed “The die is cast!” The answer of Paulus Æmilius to the relations of his wife, who had remonstrated with him on his determination to separate himself from her, against whom no fault could he alleged, has become one of our most familiar proverbs. This hero acknowledged the excellencies of his lady; but, requesting them to look on his shoe, which appeared to be well made, he observed, “None of you know where the shoe pinches!” He either used a proverbial phrase, or by its aptness it has become one of the most popular.
There are, indeed, proverbs connected with the characters of eminent men; they were either their favourite ones, or have originated with themselves such a collection would form an historical curiosity. To the celebrated Bayard are the French indebted for a military proverb, which some of them still repeat. Ce que le gantelet gagne le gorgerin le mange. “What the gauntlet gets, the gorget consumes.” That reflecting soldier well calculated the profits of a military life, which consumes, in the pomp and waste which are necessary for its maintenance, the slender pay it receives, and even what its rapacity sometimes acquires. The favourite proverb of Erasmus was Festina lente. “Hasten slowly!” He wished it to be inscribed wherever it could meet our eyes; on public buildings, and on our rings and seals. One of our own statesmen used a favourite sentence, which has enlarged our stock of national proverbs. Sir Amias Pawlet, when he perceived too much hurry in any business, was accustomed to say, “Stay a while, to make an end the sooner.” Oliver Cromwell’s coarse, but descriptive proverb, conveys the contempt he felt for some of his mean and troublesome coadjutors: “Nits will be lice!” The Italians have a proverb, which has been occasionally applied to certain political personages:—
Egli e quello che Dio vuole;
E sara quello the Dio vorrà!
“He is what God pleases;
He shall be what God wills!”
Ere this was a proverb, it had served as an embroidered motto on the mystical mantle of Castruccio Castracani. That military genius, who sought to revolutionize Italy, and aspired to its sovereignty, lived long enough to repent the wild romantic ambition which provoked all Italy to confederate against him: the mysterious motto he assumed entered into the proverbs of his country! The border proverb of the Douglases, “It were better to hear the lark sing than the mouse cheep,” was adopted by every border chief, to express, as Sir Walter Scott observes, what the great Bruce had pointed out, that the woods and hills of their country were their safest bulwarks, instead of the fortified places, which the English surpassed their neighbours in the arts of assaulting or defending. These illustrations indicate one of the sources of proverbs; they have often resulted from the spontaneous emotions or the profound reflections of some extraordinary individual, whose energetic expression was caught by a faithful ear, never to perish!
The poets have been very busy with proverbs in all the languages of Europe: some appear to have been the favourite lines of some ancient poem: even in more refined times, many of the pointed verses of Boileau and Pope have become proverbial. Many trivial and laconic proverbs bear the jingle of alliteration or rhyme, which assisted their circulation, and were probably struck off extempore; a manner which Swift practised, who was a ready coiner of such rhyming and ludicrous proverbs; delighting to startle a collector by his facetious or sarcastic humour, in the shape of an “old saying and true.” Some of these rhyming proverbs are, however, terse and elegant: we have
Fell great oaks.”
Chi duo lepri caccia
Uno perde, e l’altro lascia.
“Who hunts two hares, loses one and leaves the other.”
The haughty Spaniard—
El dar es honor,
Tel pedir dolor.
“To give is honour, to ask is grief.”
And the French—
Ami de table
“The friend of the table
Is very variable.”
The composers of these short proverbs were a numerous race of poets, who, probably, among the dreams of their immortality never suspected that they were to descend to posterity, themselves and their works unknown, while their extempore thoughts would be repeated by their own nation.
Proverbs were at length consigned to the people, when books were addressed to scholars; but the people did not find themselves so destitute of practical wisdom, by preserving their national proverbs, as some of those closet students who had ceased to repeat them. The various humours of mankind, in the mutability of human affairs, had given birth to every species; and men were wise, or merry, or satirical, and mourned or rejoiced in proverbs. Nations held an universal intercourse of proverbs, from the eastern to the western world; for we discover among those which appear strictly national many which are common to them all. Of our own familiar ones several may be tracked among the snows of the Latins and the Greeks, and have sometimes been drawn from “The Mines of the East:” like decayed families which remain in obscurity, they may boast of a high lineal descent whenever they recover their lost title-deeds. The vulgar proverb, “To carry coals to Newcastle,” local and idiomatic as it appears, however, has been borrowed and applied by ourselves; it may be found among the Persians: in the “Bustan” of Sadi we have Infers piper in Hindostan; ”To carry pepper to Hindostan:” among the Hebrews, “To carry oil to a city of olives;” a similar proverb occurs in Greek; and in Galland’s “Maxims of the East” we may discover how many of the most common proverbs among us, as well as some of Joe Miller’s jests, are of oriental origin.
The resemblance of certain proverbs in different nations must, however, be often ascribed to the identity of human nature; similar situations and similar objects have unquestionably made men think and act and express themselves alike. All nations are parallels of each other! Hence all paræmiographers, or collectors of proverbs, complain of the difficulty of separating their own national proverbs from those which had crept into the language from others, particularly when nations have held much intercourse together. We have a copious collection of Scottish proverbs by Kelly, but this learned man was mortified at discovering that many which he had long believed to have been genuine Scottish were not only English, but French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek ones; many of his Scottish proverbs are almost literally expressed among the fragments of remote antiquity. It would have surprised him further had he been aware that his Greek originals were themselves but copies, and might have been found in D’Herbelot, Erpenius, and Golius, and in many Asiatic works, which have been more recently introduced to the enlarged knowledge of the European student, who formerly found his most extended researches limited by Hellenistic lore.
Perhaps it was owing to an accidental circumstance that the proverbs of the European nations have been preserved in the permanent form of volumes. ERASMUS is usually considered as the first modern collector, but he appears to have been preceded by Polydore Vergil, who bitterly reproaches Erasmus with envy and plagiarism, for passing by his collection without even a poor compliment for the inventor! Polydore was a vain, superficial writer, who prided himself in leading the way on more topics than the present. Erasmus, with his usual pleasantry, provokingly excuses himself, by acknowledging that he had forgotten his friend’s book! Few sympathise with the quarrels of authors; and since Erasmus has written a far better book than Polydore Vergil’s, the original “Adagia” is left only to be commemorated in literary history as one of its curiosities.5
The “Adagia” of Erasmus contains a collection of about five thousand proverbs, gradually gathered from a constant study of the ancients. Erasmus, blest with the genius which could enliven a folio, delighted himself and all Europe by the continued accessions he made to a volume which even now may be the companion of literary men for a winter day’s fireside. The successful example of Erasmus commanded the imitation of the learned in Europe, and drew their attention to their own national proverbs. Some of the most learned men, and some not sufficiently so, were now occupied in this new study.6
The interest we may derive from the study of proverbs is not confined to their universal truths, nor to their poignant pleasantry; a philosophical mind will discover in proverbs a great variety of the most curious knowledge. The manners of a people are painted after life in their domestic proverbs; and it would not be advancing too much to assert, that the genius of the age might be often detected in its prevalent ones. The learned Selden tells us, that the proverbs of several nations were much studied by Bishop Andrews; the reason assigned was, because “by them he knew the minds of several nations, which,” said he, “is a brave thing, as we count him wise who knows the minds and the insides of men, which is done by knowing what is habitual to them.” Lord Bacon condensed a wide circuit of philosophical thought, when he observed that “the genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovered by their proverbs.”
Proverbs peculiarly national, while they convey to us the modes of thinking, will consequently indicate the modes of acting among a people. The Romans had a proverbial expression for their last stake in play, rem ad triarios venisse, “the reserve are engaged!” a proverbial expression, from which the military habits of the people might be inferred, the triarii being their reserve. A proverb has preserved a curious custom of ancient coxcombry, which originally came from the Greeks. To men of effeminate manners in their dress, they applied the proverb of Unico digitulo scalpit caput. Scratching the head with a single finger was, it seems, done by the critically nice youths in Rome, that they might not discompose the economy of their hair. The Arab, whose unsettled existence makes him miserable and interested, says, “Vinegar given is better than honey bought.” Everything of high esteem with him who is so often parched in the desert is described as milk—“How large his flow of milk!” is a proverbial expression with the Arab, to distinguish the most copious eloquence. To express a state of perfect repose, the Arabian proverb is, “I throw the rein over my back:” an allusion to the loosening of the cords of the camels, which are thrown over their backs when they are sent to pasture. We discover the rustic manners of our ancient Britons in the Cambrian proverbs; many relate to the hedge. “The cleanly Briton is seen in the hedge: the horse looks not on the hedge but the corn: the bad husband’s hedge is full of gaps.” The state of an agricultural people appears in such proverbs as, “You must not count your yearlings till May-day;” and their proverbial sentence for old age is, “An old man’s end is to keep sheep!” Turn from the vagrant Arab and the agricultural Briton to a nation existing in a high state of artificial civilisation; the Chinese proverbs frequently allude to magnificent buildings. Affecting a more solemn exterior than all other nations, a favourite proverb with them is, “A grave and majestic outside is, as it were, the palace of the soul.” Their notion of government is quite architectural. They say, “A sovereign may be compared to a hall; his officers to the steps that lead to it; the people to the ground on which they stand.” What should we think of a people who had a proverb, that “He who gives blows is a master, he who gives none is a dog?” We should instantly decide on the mean and servile spirit of those who could repeat it; and such we find to have been that of the Bengalese, to whom the degrading proverb belongs, derived from the treatment they were used to receive from their Mogul rulers, who answered the claims of their creditors by a vigorous application of the whip! In some of the Hebrew proverbs we are struck by the frequent allusions of that fugitive people to their own history. The cruel oppression exercised by the ruling power, and the confidence in their hope of change in the day of retribution, was delivered in this Hebrew proverb—“When the tale of bricks is doubled, Moses comes!” The fond idolatry of their devotion to their ceremonial law, and to everything connected with their sublime Theocracy, in their magnificent Temple, is finely expressed by this proverb—“None ever took a stone out of the Temple, but the dust did fly into his eyes.” Peyssonel, who long resided among the Turks, observes, that their proverbs are full of sense, ingenuity, and elegance, the surest test of the intellectual abilities of any nation. He said this to correct the volatile opinion of De Tott, who, to convey an idea of their stupid pride, quotes one of their favourite adages, of which the truth and candour are admirable: “Riches in the Indies, wit in Europe, and pomp among the Ottomans.”
The Spaniards may appeal to their proverbs to show that they were a highminded and independent race. A Whiggish jealousy of the monarchical power stamped itself on this ancient one, Va el rey hasta do puede, y no hasta do quiere: “The king goes as far as he is able, not as far as he desires.” It must have been at a later period, when the national genius became more subdued, and every Spaniard dreaded to find under his own roof a spy or an informer, that another proverb arose, Con el rey y la inquisicion, chiton! “With the king and the inquisition, hush!” The gravity and taciturnity of the nation have been ascribed to the effects of this proverb. Their popular but suppressed feelings on taxation, and on a variety of dues exacted by their clergy, were murmured in proverbs—Lo que no lleva Christo, lleva el fisco! “What Christ takes not, the exchequer carries away!” They have a number of sarcastic proverbs on the tenacious gripe of the “abad avariento,” the avaricious priest, who, “having eaten the olio offered, claims the dish!” A striking mixture of chivalric habits, domestic decency, and epicurean comfort, appears in the Spanish proverb, La Muger y la salsa a la mano de la lança: “The wife and the sauce by the hand of the lance;” to honour the dame, and to have the sauce near.
The Italian proverbs have taken a tinge from their deep and politic genius, and their wisdom seems wholly concentrated in their personal interests. I think every tenth proverb, in an Italian collection, is some cynical or some selfish maxim: a book of the world for worldlings! Their political proverbs, no doubt, arose from the extraordinary state of a people, sometimes distracted among republics, and sometimes servile in petty courts. The Italian says, I popoli s’ammazzano ed i principi s’abbracciano: “The people murder one another, and princes embrace one another.” Chi prattica co’ grandi, l’ultimo à tavola, e’l primo a’ strapazzi: “Who dangles after the great is the last at table, and the first at blows.” Chi non sa adulare, non sa regnare: “Who knows not to flatter, knows not to reign.” Chi serve in corte muore sul’ pagliato: “Who serves at court dies on straw.” Wary cunning in domestic life is perpetually impressed. An Italian proverb, which is immortalised in our language, for it enters into the history of Milton, was that by which the elegant Wotton counselled the young poetic traveller to have—Il viso sciolto, ed i pensieri stretti, “An open countenance, but close thoughts.” In the same spirit, Chi parla semina, chi tace raccoglie: “The talker sows, the silent reaps;” as well as, Fatti di miele, e ti mangieran le mosche: “Make yourself all honey, and the flies will devour you.” There are some which display a deep knowledge of human nature: A Lucca ti vidi, a Pisa ti conobbi! “I saw you at Lucca, I knew you at Pisa!” Guardati d’aceto, di vin dolce: “Beware of vinegar made of sweet wine,” provoke not the rage of a patient man!
Among a people who had often witnessed their fine country devastated by petty warfare, their notion of the military character was not usually heroic. Il soldato per far male e ben pagato: “The soldier is well paid for doing mischief.” Soldato, acqua, e fuoco, presto si fan luoco: “A soldier, fire, and water, soon make room for themselves.” But in a poetical people, endowed with great sensibility, their proverbs would sometimes be tender and fanciful. They paint the activity of friendship, Chi ha l’amor nel petto, ha lo sprone à i fianchi: “Who feels love in the breast, feels a spur in his limbs;” or its generous passion, Gli amici legono la borsa can un filo di ragnatelo: “Friends tie their purse with a cobweb’s thread.” They characterised the universal lover by an elegant proverb—Appicare it Maio ad ogn’uscio: “To hang every door with May;” alluding to the bough which in the nights of May the country-people are accustomed to plant before the door of their mistress. If we turn to the French, we discover that the military genius of France dictated the proverb, Maille à maille se fait le haubergeon: “Link by link is made the coat of mail;” and, Tel coup de langue est pire qu’un coup de lance: “The tongue strikes deeper than the lance;” and Ce qui vient du tambour s’en retourne à la flute: “What comes by the tabor goes back with the pipe.” Point d’argent point de Suisse has become proverbial, observes an Edinburgh Reviewer; a striking expression, which, while French or Austrian gold predominated, was justly used to characterise the illiberal and selfish policy of the cantonal and federal governments of Switzerland, when it began to degenerate from its moral patriotism. The ancient, perhaps, the extinct spirit of Englishmen, was once expressed by our proverb, “Better be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion;” i.e. the first of the yeomanry rather than the last of the gentry. A foreign philosopher might have discovered our own ancient skill in archery among our proverbs; for none but true toxophilites could have had such a proverb as, “I will either make a shaft or a bolt of it!” signifying, says the author of Ivanhoe, a determination to make one use or other of the thing spoken of: the bolt was the arrow peculiarly fitted to the cross-bow, as that of the long-bow was called a shaft. These instances sufficiently demonstrate that the characteristic circumstances and feelings of a people are discovered in their popular notions, are stamped on their familiar proverbs.
It is also evident that the peculiar, and often idiomatic, humour of a people is best preserved in their proverbs. There is a shrewdness, although deficient in delicacy, in the Scottish proverbs; they are idiomatic, facetious, and strike home. Kelly, who has collected three thousand, informs us, that, in 1725, the Scotch were a great proverbial nation; for that few among the better sort will converse any considerable time, but will confirm every assertion and observation with a Scottish proverb. The speculative Scotch of our own times have probably degenerated in prudential lore, and deem themselves much wiser than their proverbs. They may reply by a Scotch proverb on proverbs, made by a great man in Scotland, who, having given a splendid entertainment, was harshly told, that “Fools make feasts, and wise men eat them;” but he readily answered, “Wise men make proverbs, and fools repeat them!”
National humour, frequently local and idiomatical, depends on the artificial habits of mankind, so opposite to each other; but there is a natural vein, which the populace, always true to nature, preserve, even among the gravest people. The Arabian proverb, “The barber learns his art on the orphan’s face;” the Chinese, “In a field of melons do not pull up your shoe; under a plum-tree do not adjust your cap;”—to impress caution in our conduct under circumstances of suspicion;—and the Hebrew one, “He that hath had one of his family hanged may not say to his neighbour, hang up this fish!” are all instances of this sort of humour. The Spaniards are a grave people, but no nation has equalled them in their peculiar humour. The genius of Cervantes partook largely of that of his country; that mantle of' gravity, which almost conceals its latent facetiousness, and with which he has imbued his style and manner with such untranslatable idiomatic raciness, may be traced to the proverbial erudition of his nation. “To steal a sheep, and give away the trotters for God’s sake!” is Cervantic nature! To one who is seeking an opportunity to quarrel with another, their proverb runs, Si quieres dar palos a su muger pidele al sol a bever, “Hast thou a mind to quarrel with thy wife, bid her bring water to thee in the sunshine!”—a very fair quarrel may be picked up about the motes in the clearest water! On the judges in Gallicia, who, like our former justices of peace, “for half a dozen chickens would dispense with a dozen of penal statutes,” A juezes Gallicianos, con los pies en las manos: “To the judges of Gallicia go with feet in hand;” a droll allusion to a present of poultry, usually held by the legs. To describe persons who live high without visible means, Los que cabritos venden, y cabras no tienen, de donde los vienen? “They that sell kids and have no goats, how came they by them?” El vino no trae bragas, “Wine wears no breeches;” for men in wine expose their most secret thoughts. Vino di un oreja, “Wine of one ear!” is good wine; for at bad, shaking our heads, both our ears are visible; but at good, the Spaniard by a natural gesticulation lowering one side, shows a single ear.
Proverbs abounding in sarcastic humour, and found among every people, are those which are pointed at rival countries. They expose some prevalent folly, or allude to some disgrace which the natives have incurred. In France, the Burgundians have a proverb Mieux vaut bon repas que bel habit; “Better a good dinner than a fine coat.” These good people are great gormandisers, but shabby dressers; they are commonly said to have “bowels of silk and velvet;” that is, all their silk and velvet goes for their bowels! Thus Picardy is famous for “hot heads;” and the Norman for son dit et son dedit, “his saying and his unsaying!” In Italy the numerous rival cities pelt one another with proverbs: Chi ha a fare con Tosco non convien esser losco, “He who deals with a Tuscan must not have his eyes shut.” A Venetia chi vi nasce, mal vi si pasce, “Whom Venice breeds, she poorly feeds.”—Among ourselves, hardly has a county escaped from some popular quip; even neighbouring towns have their sarcasms, usually pickled in some unlucky rhyme. The egotism of man eagerly seizes on whatever serves to depreciate or to ridicule his neighbour: nations proverb each other; counties flout counties; obscure towns sharpen their wits on towns as obscure as themselves—the same evil principle lurking in poor human nature, if it cannot always assume predominance, will meanly gratify itself by insult or contempt.
There is another source of national characteristics, frequently producing strange or whimsical combinations; a people, from a very natural circumstance, have drawn their proverbs from local objects, or from allusions to peculiar customs. The influence of manners and customs over the ideas and language of a people would form a subject of extensive and curious research. There is a Japanese proverb, that “A fog cannot he dispelled with a fan!” Had we not known the origin of this proverb, it would be evident that it could only have occurred to a people who had constantly before them fogs and fans; and the fact appears that fogs are frequent on the coast of Japan; and that from the age of five years both sexes of the Japanese carry fans. The Spaniards have an odd proverb to describe those who tease and vex a person before they do him the very benefit which they are about to confer—acting kindly, but speaking roughly; Mostrar primero la horca que el lugar “To show the gallows before they show the town;” a circumstance alluding to their small towns, which have a gallows placed on an eminence, so that the gallows breaks on the eye of the traveller before he gets a view of the town itself.
The Cheshire proverb on marriage, “Better wed over the mixon than over the moor,” that is, at home or in its vicinity; mixon alludes to the dung, &c., in the farm-yard, while the road from Chester to London is over the moorland in Staffordshire: this local proverb is a curious instance of provincial pride, perhaps of wisdom, to induce the gentry of that county to form intermarriages; to prolong their own ancient families, and perpetuate ancient friendships between them.
In the Isle of Man a proverbial expression forcibly indicates the object constantly occupying the minds of the inhabitants. The two Deemsters or judges, when appointed to the chair of judgment, declare they will render justice between man and man “as equally as the herring bone lies between the two sides:” an image which could not have occurred to any people unaccustomed to the herring-fishery. There is a Cornish proverb, “Those who will not be ruled by the rudder mist he ruled by the rock”—the strands of Cornwall, so often covered with wrecks, could not fail to impress on the imaginations of its inhabitants the two objects from whence they drew this salutary proverb, against obstinate wrong-heads.
When Scotland, in the last century, felt its allegiance to England doubtful, and when the French sent an expedition to the Land of Cakes, a local proverb was revived, to show the identity of interests which affected both nations:
“If Skiddaw hath a cap
Scruffel wots full well of that.”
These are two high hills, one in Scotland and one in England; so near, that what happens to the one will not be long ere it reach the other. If a fog lodges on the one, it is sure to rain on the other; the mutual sympathies of the two countries were hence deduced in a copious dissertation, by Oswald Dyke, on what was called “The Union-proverb,” which local proverbs of our country, Fuller has interspersed in his “Worthies,” and Ray and Grose have collected separately.
I was amused lately by a curious financial revelation which I found in an opposition paper, where it appears that “Ministers pretend to make their load of taxes more portable, by shifting the burden, or altering the pressure, without, however, diminishing the weight; according to the Italian proverb, ‘Accommodare le bisaccie nella strada, To fit the load on the journey:’”—it is taken from a custom of the mule-drivers, who, placing their packages at first but awkwardly on the backs of their poor beasts, and seeing them ready to sink, cry out, “Never mind! we must fit them better on the road!” I was gratified to discover, by the present and some other modern instances, that the taste for proverbs was reviving, and that we were returning to those sober times, when the aptitude of a simple proverb would be preferred to the verbosity of politicians, Tories, Whigs, or Radicals!
There are domestic proverbs which originate in incidents known only to the natives of their province. Italian literature is particularly rich in these stores. The lively proverbial taste of that vivacious people was transferred to their own authors; and when these allusions were obscured by time, learned Italians, in their zeal for their national literature, and in their national love of storytelling, have written grave commentaries even on ludicrous, but popular tales, in which the proverbs are said to have originated. They resemble the old facetious contes, whose simplicity and humour still live in the pages of Boccaccio, and are not forgotten in those of the Queen of Navarre.
The Italians apply a proverb to a person who, while he is beaten, takes the blows quietly:—
Per beato ch’elle non furon pesche!
“Luckily they were not peaches!”
And to threaten to give a man—
Una pesca in un occhio,
“A peach in the eye,”
means to give him a thrashing. This proverb, it is said, originated in the close of a certain droll adventure. The community of the Castle Poggibonsi, probably from some jocular tenure observed on St. Bernard’s day, pay a tribute of peaches to the court of Tuscany, which are usually shared among the ladies in waiting, and the pages of the court. It happened one season, in a great scarcity of peaches, that the good people at Poggibonsi, finding them rather dear, sent, instead of the customary tribute, a quantity of fine juicy figs, which was so much disapproved of by the pages, that as soon as they got hold of them, they began in rage to empty the baskets on the heads of the ambassadors of the Poggibonsi, who, in attempting to fly as well as they could from the pulpy shower, half-blinded, and recollecting that peaches would have had stones in them, cried out—
Per beato ch’elle non furon pesche!
“Luckily they were not peaches!”
Fare le scalée elie Sant’ Ambrogio; “To mount the stairs of Saint Ambrose,” a proverb allusive to the business of the school of scandal. Varchi explains it by a circumstance so common in provincial cities. On summer evenings, for fresh air and gossip, the loungers met on the steps and landing-places of the church of St. Ambrose: whoever left the party, “they read in his book,” as our commentator expresses it; and not a leaf was passed over! All liked to join a party so well informed of one another’s concerns, and every one tried to be the very last to quit it,—not “to leave his character behind!” It became a proverbial phrase with those who left a company, and were too tender of their backs, to request they would not “mount the stairs of St. Ambrose” Jonson has well described such a company:
“You are so truly fear’d, but not beloved
One of another, as no one dares break
Company from the rest, lest they should fall
Upon him absent.”
There are legends and histories which belong to proverbs; and some of the most ancient refer to incidents which have not always been commemorated. Two Greek proverbs have accidentally been explained by Pausanias: “He is a man of Tenedos!” to describe a person of unquestionable veracity; and “To cut with the Tenedian axe;” to express an absolute and irrevocable refusal. The first originated in a king of Tenedos, who decreed that there should always stand behind the judge a man holding an axe, ready to execute justice on any one convicted of falsehood. The other arose from the same king, whose father having reached his island, to supplicate the son’s forgiveness for the injury inflicted on him by the arts of a stepmother, was preparing to land; already the ship was fastened by its cable to a rock; when the son came down, and sternly cutting the cable with an axe, sent the ship adrift to the mercy of the waves: hence, “to cut with the Tenedian axe,” became proverbial to express an absolute refusal. “Business to-morrow!” is another Greek proverb, applied to a person ruined by his own neglect. The fate of an eminent person perpetuated the expression which he casually employed on the occasion. One of the Theban polemarchs, in the midst of a convivial party, received despatches relating to a conspiracy: flushed with wine, although pressed by the courier to open them immediately, he smiled, and in gaiety laying the letter under the pillow of his couch, observed, “Business to-morrow!” Plutarch records that he fell a victim to the twenty-four hours he had lost, and became the author of a proverb which was still circulated among the Greeks.
The philosophical antiquary may often discover how many a proverb commemorates an event which has escaped from the more solemn monuments of history, and is often the solitary authority of its existence. A national event in Spanish history is preserved by a proverb. Y vengar quiniento sueldos: “And revenge five hundred pounds!” An odd expression to denote a person being a gentleman! But the proverb is historical. The Spaniards of Old Castile were compelled to pay an annual tribute of live hundred maidens to their masters, the Moors; after several battles, the Spaniards succeeded in compromising the shameful tribute, by as many pieces of coin: at length the day arrived when they entirely emancipated themselves from this odious imposition. The heroic action was performed by men of distinction, and the event perpetuated in the recollections of the Spaniards, by this singular expression, which alludes to the dishonourable tribute, was applied to characterise all men of high honour, and devoted lovers of their country.
Pasquier, in his Récherches sur la France, reviewing the periodical changes of ancient families in feudal times, observes, that a proverb among the common people conveys the result of all his inquiries; for those noble houses, which in a single age declined from nobility and wealth to poverty and meanness, gave rise to the proverb, Cent ans bannières et cent ans civières! “One hundred years a banner, and one hundred years a barrow!” The Italian proverb, Con l’Evangilio si diventa heretico, “With the gospel we become heretics,”—reflects the policy of the court of Rome; and must be dated at the time of the Reformation, when a translation of the Scriptures into the vulgar tongue encountered such an invincible opposition. The Scotch proverb, “He that invented the maiden first hanselled it;” that is, got the first of it! The maiden is that well-known beheading engine, revived by the French surgeon Guillotine. This proverb may be applied to one who falls a victim to his own ingenuity; the artificer of his own destruction! The inventor was James, Earl of Morton, who for some years governed Scotland, and afterwards, it is said, very unjustly suffered by his own invention. It is a striking coincidence, that the same fate was shared by the French reviver; both alike sad examples of disturbed times! Among our own proverbs a remarkable incident has been commemorated; Hand over head, as men took the Covenant! This preserves the manner in which the Scottish covenant, so famous in our history, was violently taken by above sixty thousand persons about Edinburgh, in 1638; a circumstance at that time novel in our own revolutionary history, and afterwards paralleled by the French in voting by “acclamation.” An ancient English proverb preserves a curious fact concerning our coinage. Testers are gone to Oxford, to study at Brazen-nose. When Henry the Eighth debased the silver coin, called testers, from their having a head stamped on each side; the brass, breaking out in red pimples on their silver faces, provoked the ill-humour of the people to vent itself in this punning proverb, which has preserved for the historical antiquary the popular feeling which lasted about fifty years, till Elizabeth reformed the state of the coinage. A northern proverb among us has preserved the remarkable idea which seems to have once been prevalent; that the metropolis of England was to be the city of York: Lincoln was, London is, York shall be! Whether at the time of the union of the crowns, under James the First, when England and Scotland became Great Britain, this city, from its centrical situation, was considered as the best adapted for the seat of government, or from some other cause which I have not discovered, this notion must have been prevalent to have entered into a proverb. The chief magistrate of York is the only provincial one who is allowed the title of Lord Mayor; a circumstance which seems connected with this proverb.
The Italian history of its own small principalities, whose well-being so much depended on their prudence and sagacity, affords many instances of the timely use of a proverb. Many an intricate negotiation has been contracted through a good-humoured proverb,—many a sarcastic one has silenced an adversary; and sometimes they have been applied on more solemn, and even tragical occasions. When Rinaldo degli Albizzi was banished by the vigorous conduct of Cosmo de’ Medici, Machiavel tells us, the expelled man sent Cosmo a menace, in a proverb, La gallina covava! “The hen is brooding!” said of one meditating vengeance. The undaunted Cosmo replied by another, that “There was no brooding out of the nest!”
I give an example of peculiar interest; for it is perpetuated by Dante, and is connected with the character of Milton.
When the families of the Amadei and the Uberti felt their honour wounded in the affront the younger Buondelmonte had put upon them, in breaking off his match with a young lady of their family, by marrying another, a council was held, and the death of the young cavalier was proposed as the sole atonement for their injured honour. But the consequences which they anticipated, and which afterwards proved so fatal to the Florentines, long suspended their decision. At length Moscha Lamberti suddenly rising, exclaimed, in two proverbs, that “Those who considered everything would never conclude on anything!” closing with an ancient proverbial saying—cosa fatta capo ha! “a deed done has an end!” This proverb sealed the fatal determination, and was long held in mournful remembrance by the Tuscans; for, according to Villani, it was the cause and beginning of the accursed factions of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Dante has thus immortalised the energetic expression in a scene of the “Inferno.”
Ed un ch ’avea l’una e l’altra man mozza
Levando i moncherin per l’aura fosca;
Si che ’l sangue facea la faccia sozza
Grido—“Ricorderati ancor del Mosca
Che disse, lasso capo ha, cosa fatta;
Che fu ’l mal seme della gente Tosca.”
Maim’d of each hand, uplifted in the gloom
The bleeding stumps, that they with gory spots
Sullied his face, and cried—‘Remember thee
Of Mosca too—I who, alas! exclaim’d,
‘The deed once done, there is an end’—that proved
A seed of sorrow to the Tuscan race.”
This Italian proverb was adopted by Milton; for when deeply engaged in writing the “Defence of the People,” and warned that it might terminate in his blindness, he resolvedly concluded his work, exclaiming with great magnanimity, although the fatal prognostication had been accomplished, Cosa fatta capo ha! Did this proverb also influence his awful decision on that great national event, when the most honest-minded fluctuated between doubts and fears?
Of a person treacherously used, the Italian proverb says that he has eaten of
Le frutte di fratre Alberigo.
“The fruit of brother Alberigo.”
Landino, on the following passage of Dante, preserves the tragic story:
——Io son fratre Alberigo,
Io son quel dalle frutta del mal orto
Che qui reprendo, &c.
“The friar Alberigo,” answered he,
“Am I, who from the evil garden pluck’d
Its fruitage, and am here repaid the date
More luscious for my fig.”
This was Manfred, the lord of Fuenza, who, after many cruelties, turned friar. Reconciling himself to those whom he had so often opposed, to celebrate the renewal of their friendship, he invited them to a magnificent entertainment. At the end of the dinner the horn blew to announce the dessert—but it was the signal of this dissimulating conspirator!—and the fruits which that day were served to his guests were armed men, who rushing in, immolated their victims.
Among these historical proverbs none are more interesting than those which perpetuate national events, connected with those of another people. When a Frenchman would let us understand that he has settled with his creditors, the proverb is, J’ai payé tous mes Anglois: “I have paid all my English.” This proverb originated when John, the French king, was taken prisoner by our Black Prince. Levies of money were made for the king’s ransom, and for many French lords; and the French people have thus perpetuated the military glory of our nation, and their own idea of it, by making the English and their creditors synonymous terms. Another relates to the same event—Ore le Pape est devenu François, et Jésu Christ Anglais: “Now the Pope is become French and Jesus Christ English;” a proverb which arose when the Pope, exiled from Rome, held his court at Avignon in France; and the English prospered so well, that they possessed more than half the kingdom. The Spanish proverb concerning England is well known—
Con todo el mondo guerra,
Y paz con Inglaterra!
“War with the world,
And peace with England.”
Whether this proverb was one of the results of their memorable armada, and was only coined after their conviction of the splendid folly which they had committed, I cannot ascertain. England must always have been a desirable ally to Spain against her potent rival and neighbour. The Italians have a proverb, which formerly, at least, was strongly indicative of the travelled Englishman in their country, Inglese Italianato e un diavolo incarnato: “The Italianised Englishman is a devil incarnate.” Formerly there existed a closer intercourse between our country and Italy than with France. Before and during the reigns of Elizabeth and James the First, that land of the elegant arts modelled our taste and manners; and more Italians travelled into England, and were more constant residents, from commercial concerns, than afterwards when France assumed a higher rank in Europe by her political superiority. This cause will sufficiently account for the number of Italian proverbs relating to England, which show an intimacy with our manners which could not else have occurred. It was probably some sarcastic Italian, and, perhaps, horologer, who, to describe the disagreement of persons, proverbed our nation—“They agree like the clocks of London!” We were once better famed for merry Christmases and their pies; and it must have been Italians who had been domiciliated with us who gave currency to the proverb—Ha piu da fare che i forni di natale in Inghilterra: “He has more business than English ovens at Christmas.” Our pie-loving gentry were notorious; and Shakespeare’s folio was usually laid open in the great halls of our nobility to entertain their attendants, who devoured at once Shakespeare and their pasty. Some of those volumes have come down to us, not only with the stains, but enclosing even the identical pie-crusts of the Elizabethan age.
I have thus attempted to develop THE ART OF READING PROVERBS; but have done little more than indicate the theory, and must leave the skilful student to the delicacy of the practice. I am anxious to rescue from prevailing prejudices these neglected stores of curious amusement, and of deep insight into the ways of man, and to point out the bold and concealed truths which are scattered in these collections. There seems to be no occurrence in human affairs to which some proverb may not be applied. All knowledge was long aphoristical and traditional, pithily contracting the discoveries which were to be instantly comprehended, and easily retained. Whatever be the revolutionary state of man, similar principles and like occurrences are returning on us; and antiquity, whenever it is justly applicable to our own times, loses its denomination, and becomes the truth of our own age. A proverb will often cut the knot which others in vain are attempting to untie. Johnson, palled with the redundant elegancies of modern composition, once said, “I fancy mankind may come in time to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connexion, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made.” Many a volume indeed has often been written to demonstrate what a lover of proverbs could show had long been ascertained by one in his favourite collections.
An insurmountable difficulty which every paræmiographer has encountered, is that of forming an apt, a ready, and a systematic classification: the moral Linnæus of such a “systema naturæ” has not yet appeared. Each discovered his predecessor’s mode imperfect, but each was doomed to meet the same fate. The arrangement of proverbs has bathed the ingenuity of every one of their collectors. Our RAY, after long premeditation, has chosen a system with the appearance of an alphabetical order; but, as it turns out, his system is no system, and his alphabet is no alphabet. After ten years’ labour, the good man could only arrange his proverbs by commonplaces—by complete sentences—by phrases or forms of speech—by proverbial similes—and so on. All these are pursued in alphabetical order, “by the first letter of the most material word,” or, “if there be more words equally material, by that which usually stands foremost.” The most patient examiner will usually find that he wants the sagacity of the collector to discover that word which is “the most material,” or “the words equally material.” We have to search through all that multiplicity of divisions, or conjuring-boxes, in which this juggler of proverbs pretends to hide the ball.
A still more formidable objection against a collection of proverbs, for the impatient reader, is their unreadableness. Taking in succession a multitude of insulated proverbs, their slippery nature resists all hope of retaining one in a hundred; the study of proverbs must be a frequent recurrence to a gradual collection of favourite ones, which we ourselves must form. The experience of life will throw a perpetual freshness over these short and simple texts; every day may furnish a new commentary; and we may grow old, and find novelty in proverbs by their perpetual application.
There are, perhaps, about twenty thousand proverbs among the nations of Europe: many of these have spread in their common intercourse; many are borrowed from the ancients, chiefly the Greeks, who themselves largely took them from the Eastern nations. Our own proverbs are too often deficient in that elegance and ingenuity which are often found in the Spanish and the Italian. Proverbs frequently enliven conversation, or enter into the business of life in those countries, without any feeling of vulgarity being associated with them; they are too numerous, too witty, and too wise, to cease to please by their poignancy and their aptitude. I have heard them fall from the lips of men of letters and of statesmen. When recently the disorderly state of the manufacturers of Manchester menaced an insurrection, a profound Italian politician observed to me, that it was not of a nature to alarm a great nation; for that the remedy was at hand, in the proverb of the Lazzaroni of Naples, Metà consiglio, metà esempio, metà denaro! “Half advice, half example, half money!” The result confirmed the truth of the proverb, which, had it been known at the time, might have quieted the honest fears of a great part of the nation.
PROVERBS have ceased to be studied, or employed in conversation, since the time we have derived our knowledge from books; but in a philosophical age they appear to offer infinite subjects for speculative curiosity: originating in various eras, these memorials of manners, of events, and of modes of thinking, for historical as well as for moral purposes, still retain a strong hold on our attention. The collected knowledge of successive ages, and of different people, must always enter into some part of our own! Truth and nature can never be obsolete.
PROVERBS embrace the wide sphere of human existence, they take all the colours of life, they are often exquisite strokes of genius, they delight by their airy sarcasm or their caustic satire, the luxuriance of their humour, the playfulness of their turn, and even by the elegance of their imagery, and the tenderness of their sentiment. They give a deep insight into domestic life, and open for us the heart of man, in all the various states which he may occupy—a frequent review of PROVERBS should enter into our readings; and although they are no longer the ornaments of conversation, they have not ceased to be the treasures of Thought!
1 Taylor’s Translation of Plato’s Works, vol. v. p. 36.
2 Heywood’s “Dialogue, conteyninge the Number in Effecte of all the Proverbes in the English Tunge, 1561.” There are more editions of this little volume than Warton has noticed. There is some humour in his narrative, but his metre and his ribaldry are heavy taxes on our curiosity.
3 Townshend’s Historical Collections, p, 283.
4 It was published in 1616: the writer only catches at some verbal expressions—as, for instance,
The vulgar proverb runs, “The more the merrier.”
The cross,—“Not so! one hand is enough in a purse!”
The proverb, “It is a great way to the bottom of the sea.”
The cross,—“Not so! it is but a stone’s cast.”
The proverb, “The pride of the rich makes the labours of the poor.”
The cross,—“Not so! the labours of the poor make the pride of the rich.”
The proverb, “He runs far who never turns,”
The cross,—“Not so! he may break his neck in a short course.”
5 At the ROYAL INSTITUTION there is a fine copy of Polydore Vergil’s “Adagia,” with his other work, curious in its day, De Inventoribus Rerum, printed by Frobenius, in 1521. The woodcuts of this edition seem to me executed with inimitable delicacy, resembling a penciling which Raphael might have envied.
6 In Spain, Fernandez Nunes, a Greek professor, and the Marquis of Santellana, a grandee, published collections of their Refrans, or Proverbs, a term derived A REFERENDO, because it is often repeated. The “Refranes o Proverbios castellanos,” par Cæsar Oudin, 1624, translated into French, is a valuable compilation. In Cervantes and Quevedo, the best practical illustrators, they are sown with no sparing hand. There is an ample collection of Italian proverbs, by Florio, who was an Englishman, of Italian origin, and who published “Il Giardino di Ricreatione” at London, so early as in 1591, exceeding six thousand proverbs; but they are unexplained, and are often obscure. Another Italian in England, Torriano, in 1649, published an interesting collection in the diminutive form of a twenty-fours. It was subsequent to these publications in England, that in Italy Angelus Monosini, in 1604, published his collection; and Julius Varini, in 1642, produced his Scuola del Vulgo. In France, Oudin, after others had preceded him, published a collection of French proverbs, under the title of Curiosités Françoises. Fleury de Bellingen’s Explication de Proverbes François, on comparing it with Les Illustres Proverbes Historiques, a subsequent publication, I discovered to be the same work. It is the first attempt to render the study of proverbs somewhat amusing. The plan consists of a dialogue between a philosopher and a Sancho Pança, who blurts out his proverbs with more delight than understanding. The philosopher takes that opportunity of explaining them by the events in which they originated, which, however, are not always to be depended on. A work of high merit on French proverbs is the unfinished one of the Abbé Tuet, sensible and learned. A collection of Danish proverbs, accompanied by a French translation, was printed at Copenhagen, in a quarto volume, 1761. England may boast of no inferior paræmiographers. The grave and judicious CAMDEN, the religious HERBERT, the entertaining HOWEL, the facetious FULLER, and the laborious RAY, with others, have preserved our national sayings. The Scottish have been largely collected and explained by the learned Kelly. An excellent anonymous collection, not uncommon, in various languages, 1707; the collector and translator was Dr. J. Mapletoft. It must be acknowledged that although no nation exceeds our own in sterling sense, we rarely rival the delicacy, the wit, and the felicity of expression of the Spanish and the Italian, and the poignancy of some of the French proverbs.
§ In later editions of the Curiosities, the last of the footnotes above is incorporated into the body of the text. There are also eight more footnotes in these later editions. First, further to the phrase ‘on the blades of their knives:’
Shakspeare satirically alludes to the quality of such rhymes in his Merchant of Venice, Act v. Sc. 1. Speaking of one“———whose poesy was
For all the world like a cutler’s poetry
Upon a knife, Love me, and leave me not.
Second, upon the very next phrase (‘the borders of their plates’):
One of the fruit trenchers, for such these roundels are called in the Gent Mag. for 1793, p. 398, is engraved there, and the inscriptions of an entire set given.—See also the Supplement to that volume, p. 1187. The author of the “Art of English Poesie,” 1589, tells us they never contained above one verse, or two at the most, but the shorter the better. Two specimens may suffice the reader. One, under the symbol of a skull, thus morally discourses:—“Content thyself with thine estate,On another, decorated with pictures of fruit, are these satirical lines:—
And send no poor wight from thy gate;
For why, this counsel I will give,
To learne to die, and die to live.”“Feed and be fat: hear’s pears and plums,
Will never hurt you teeth or spoil your gums.
And I wish those girls that painted are,
No other food than such fine painted fare.”
Third, with regard to the next phrase again (‘conned them out of goldsmiths’ rings’):
This constant custom of engraving “posies,” as they were termed, on rings, is noted by many authors of the Elizabethan era. Lilly, in his “Euphues,” addresses the ladies for a favourable judgment on his work, hoping it will be recorded “as you do the posies in your rings, which are always next to the finger not to be seene of him that holdeth you by the hand, and yet knowne by you that weare them on your hands.” They were always engraved withinside of the ring. A MS. of the time of Charles I. furnishes us with a single posy, of one line, to this effect—“This hath alloy; my love is pure.” From the same source we have the two following rhyming, or “double posies”—“Constancy and heaven are round,
And in this the emblem’s found.”“Weare me out, love shall not waste;
Love beyond tyme still is placed.”
Fourth, further to the phrase ‘more than ourselves amidst the works of God, and less among those of men:’
The whole of Tusser’s “Five hundred Pointes of Goode Husbandrie,” 1580, was composed in quaint couplets, long remembered by the peasantry for their homely wordly wisdom. One, constructed for the bakehouse, runs thus—“New bread is a drivell (waste);Another for the dairymaid assures her—
Much crust is as evil.”“Good dairie doth pleasure;Another might rival any lesson of thrift:—
Ill dairie spends treasure.”“Where nothing will last,
Spare such as thou hast.”
Fifth, further to ‘More must have depended on the actors than the poet:‘
It has been suggested that this whimsical amusement has been lately revived, to a certain degree, in the acting of charades among juvenile parties.
Sixth, regarding the phrase ‘Hasten slowly!’
Now the punning motto of a noble familty.
Seventh, upon ‘Each discovered his predecessor’s mode was imperfect, but each was doomed to meet the same fate:’
Since the appearance of the present article, several collections of PROVERBS have been attempted. A little unpretending volume, entitled “Select Proverbs of all Nations, with Notes and Comments, by Thomas Fielding, 1824,” is not ill arranged; an excellent book for popular reading. The editor of a recent miscellaneous compilation, “The Treasury of Knowledge,” has whimsically bordered the four sides of the pages of a Dictionary with as many proverbs. The plan was ingenious, but the proverbs are not. Triteness and triviality are fatal to a proverb.
And, eighth, upon the phrase ‘this juggler of proverbs pretends to hide the ball:’
A new edition of Ray’s book, with large additions, was published by Bohn, in 1855, under the title of “A Handbook of Proverbs.” It is a vast collection of “wise saws” of all ages and countries.