11 OCTOBER 1873, Page 9


GLANCING over a queer and carelessly made up little book of Proverbs, just issued by Messrs. Routledge, it occurred to us that there is one string on which almost all autochthonous proverbs—proverbs, that is, not invented by genius, but springing no one knows whence, natural proverbs, proverbs repeated among nations, the authorship of which is unknown, yet which do duty for wisdom,—may be strung. They are almost all short ex- pressions of the accumulated experience of ages, of that censorship which man exercises through opinion over his neighbour, and therefore slightly cynical and contemptuous of the average in- tellect. They are, in fact, intended as helps to it, and except in the case of certain utterances which have been driven into the language, as it were, by exceptional genius, there is no other meaning in a proverb. " Fools build houses for wise men to live in," is an expression of the concentrated experience of ages of men, who have perceived the tendency of men to over- house themselves, and have ridiculed it in that rough line. The tendency is particularly marked in Scotch and American proverbs, where the national habit of criticism has fair-play ; but it runs through the proverbs of all nations, as in the Italian's rebuke of hurry, " Chi va piano va sano," and the exquisite though melan- choly proverb of the Talmudists about unlucky men :—" If the stone fall on the pitcher, or the pitcher fall on the stone, no good happens to the pitcher." The curious recoil of the American mind against drinking, to which, nevertheless, America is much inclined, is summed up tersely and strongly in the proverb we recommend to the Alliance :—" Rum is good in its place, and hell is the place for it," a true censorial proverb, such as we should expect from a big Kentucky man after a debauch. The note becomes one of warning in " Sal laughs at all you say because she has fine teeth," also American ; but the stern cynicism comes back in full strength in " Secrets make a dungeon of the heart and a jailer of their owner ;" and becomes savage in the following, " The proof of gold is fire ; the proof of a woman gold ; the proof of man a woman," which is American, yet although stated in another form in one of Defoe's well-forgotten novels, sounds as if it had come from some far antiquity. "There is no little enemy," is the warning of the wise to the cautious Yankee, who, however, generally delights in proverbs which, like Scotch proverbs, contain a hidden gird at humanity. There are pecks of Scotch proverbs in this little list in which we can scarcely find one that is not jocularly bitter on the faults and frailties of humanity, the essence of experience boiled down to teach what, after all, is scarcely worth the learning. Occasionally, very rarely, the national leaning to superstition creeps out, and there are many proverbs breathing deep piety, like this magnificent one, "God never strikes with both bands ;" but in the main it is canni- ness, worldly wisdom derived from shrewdness and experience, which comes out. This from America is a miracle of honest canni- ness,—" If it takes two to make a bargain, it should take two to break it," but it has not the ring of " A bonnie bride's sune buskit," "A crackit bell will never mend," a bit of the philosophy of love worth much that has been written on the subject. " A cuddy's gallop's soon ower," " A dirty ban' makes a clean hearthstane," " A fu' cup is ill to carry," "A fule may speir mair than a wise man can answer," "A' lasses are gude : whaur come the ill wives frae ?" " A short grace is gude for hungry folk," " A tocherless dame sits lang at home," "Be ready wi' your bonnet, but slow wi' your purse," " Between the Deil and the deep sea," " Double ohairges rive cannons," " Gear is easier gotten than guided," " He who tells his wife a' is but newly married," " Law licks up a'," `,fiblearest the kirk the farthest frae grace," " Hame's homely,' es the Deil said in the Session House," and scores more, for we have, except in the last instance, quoted those least known, are all valuable only because as a man reads them he feels that an antique and unpleasant truth is behind them. Weed, it is difficult to understand how a proverb is to live unless it has truth in it, and something of that latent ill-nature which makes it pleasant to the uneducated to remember .caentence long, unless indeed it appeals in some way to the imagination latent in almost all men, and which occasionally shines out in Irish proverbs, as well as the mere wit lacking in English sayings. We have nothing that we can remember which quite describes dyspepsia with this gentle and smiling acquiescence in your lot, " Everything troubles you, and the cat breaks your heart ;"

but the true spirit of Irish proverb is in the rhyme, " I see the moon an' the moon sees me ; God bless the moon an' God bless me," a sentence which in its devotional inutility—it is, we imagine, the smuggler's proverb—is worse, though more serious, than the cooler American sneer " It don't do to pray cream and live skim- milk." There is something wonderfully characteristic of Ireland in " Live in my heart, an' pay no tint," .and " Love all men, barrio' an attorney ;" and there is the Irish genius for insight into char- acter in " One's own will is good food," and much of Irish content in laziness in " Back to the wind and front to the sun's heat," and genuine savage Irish wit in You're as ugly as if you wor be- spoke ;"' but the true thought of Ireland, half-superstitious, half- imaginative, and with menace always under its dream, comes out in " Kill a wren, but beware of fire,"—that is, crush the peasant, the wren under the lord's thatch, but beware of his vengeance.

The English proverbs would be less characteristic, and as far as they are collected here less good, but for the wonderful collection which Shakespeare has added to our common speech. There are seventeen pages of them here, and we select a few which have no connection in drift, but will, we believe, be familiar to every reader, yet forgotten by nine out of ten to belong to Shakespeare : —" Sweet are the uses of adversity." " A quart of ale is a dish for a king." "All that glistens is not gold." "Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud." " Borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry." " Brevity is the soul of wit." " Comparisons are odorous." " Conscience doth make cowards of us all." " The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." " The better part of valour is discretion." " A fool's bolt is soon shot." " Ill blows the wind that profits nobody." "Ignorance is the curse of God." " He jests at scars that never felt a wound." " Give the devil his due." "The course of true love never did run smooth." " Men were deceivers ever." " The king's name is a tower of strength." "The worm will turn, being trodden on." "Tell truth, and shame the devil." " The weakest goes to the wall." These are but a few out of hundreds, and a short examination would trace back some of the best known in the language to great authors ; but these are sayings rather than proverbs, though so universally quoted. The true proverb is almost always charac- teristically cynical, and we could collect even from this handbook thirty proverbs in which Irishmen appear abusing each other and their land.