Reference > Quotations > W.C. Hazlitt, comp. > English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
CONTENTS · ABBREVIATIONS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
W.C. Hazlitt, comp.  English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases.  1907.
 
Introduction
 
I AM fully sensible that the earliest impression of many persons, on reading the title of this book, will be an impression that it is one publication too many in the present overcrowded state of our literature. That such an impression would be superficial and inexact I should scarcely dare to assert, if I did not believe it to be the strict truth that hitherto full justice has not been done to what must be admitted to be a subject of high and national interest, and I err greatly if hitherto even approximate excellence has been attained.  1
  That popular phraseology which has subsisted among us time out of mind, and which may be said to constitute a kind of common speech, presents to our notice a theme peculiarly abounding in curiosity, interest and social illustration.  2
  The Rev. John Ward, Vicar of Stratford-on-Avon in the time of Charles II., observes in his diary:—“Six things required to a proverb; 1. Short; 2. plain; 3. common; 4. figurative; 5. ancient; 6. true.” If we allow this to be a fair criterion or standard, it follows that in the existing collections are a very great number of articles which have no real title to a place there; and such is, indeed, the actual fact. In Dr. Fuller’s Gnomologia, 1732, there are 6,496 sayings; but of these a considerable proportion would have to be eliminated to satisfy Mr. Ward’s postulates; for there are, assuredly, many which do not fall under any of those heads.  3
  Personally, I confess that I do not, at least unreservedly, concur with Ward in some of his dogmas, so to call them; and (if I understand him correctly) from his opinion, that the six before-mentioned postulates have to be satisfied before any proverb can pass into currency as such, I altogether dissent. For it seems to me clear enough, that there is no peremptory reason why a saying, to be invested with the character of a popular saw, should be all, or even any, of these six things just specified. A sentence may assuredly be proverbial, and yet not be either directly or indirectly true. It is not true, for instance, that “Nine tailors make a man;” or that “He that hath patience may buy fat thrushes for a farthing;” yet here are two adages universally received and applauded. They are humorous hyperboles, figurative extravagances, jocose sallies, with a sly hit at two unpopular classes of society—the miser and the breeches-maker. What, again, shall be said of our large stock of weather-lore, wrought into proverbial form? This class of sayings is, for the most part, undeniably ancient, common, and plain, but not, as a rule, either figurative, or short, or very true. Brevity, once more, is not sufficient of itself to constitute a phrase proverbial and I must here avow myself not too friendly to such sentences as “Extremes meet;” where the cross-breed between the proverb proper and the maxim or epigram seems rather palpable. Nor do I see, on the contrary, why length is necessarily a disqualification, for there is the sentence, “Fie upon hens, quoth the fox, when he could not reach them;” a mouthful, to be sure, and yet a proverb; and hundreds of similar examples might be brought forward with ease, to shew not only that brevity, but that plainness, commonness, even antiquity, is not indispensable. Plainness, it should seem, may at any rate be spared, for look at “This is he that killed the blue spider in Blanchepowder-land”—in which there is a kind of proverbial ring, though at this time sufficiently enigmatical—tantalizingly so. Ward’s demand that a proverb should be common, may perhaps be construed in a local sense, or at least a restricted one; and it is not to be questioned that in the English language (not to go farther), there is a large body of adages which, apart from the special circumstances out of which they arose, are apt to lack force and significance.  4
  My excellent correspondent, the late Archbishop Trench, was of opinion that figurativeness is not an inseparable or vital property in proverbs, and a very cursory glance at the contents of the following pages will shew that he is correct. But the assertion may hold truer of proverbial phrases, perhaps, than of proverbs in the stricter sense of the word. My volume divides itself into these two classes; or, rather, these two classes divide my volume between them; to have given one without the other would have led to a result both incomplete and unsatisfactory; it is into these proverbial phrases that the element of figurativeness may be said to enter least. Heywood seems to have limited himself almost exclusively to proverbs proper; the writers before him chiefly gave us maxims, often mis-terming them proverbs. It was Ray, I think, who in the first edition of his work (1670), combined the two features, and printed on the same page with sentences perfectly agreeable to Ward’s and Fuller’s definitions, sentences which answered very imperfectly to them, and yet were undoubtedly proverbial and in place.  5
  Among dogmatical precepts, which have been admitted by common assent into the family of proverbs, ranks the familiar sentence, “Comparisons are odious.” This saying is certainly as old as the reign of Elizabeth; and in Sir Giles Goosecappe Knight, a drama printed in 1606, we meet with a jocular skit on it, rather too early for the renowned Mrs. Malaprop. Here is a dictum which answers several of Ward’s somewhat exacting requirements; for it is decidedly short, unmistakably plain, tolerably ancient, passably true, and presumably common. Yet, at the first, it was a mere assertion, couched in an epigrammatic form; gradually it recommended itself to popular use and acceptance, and has become now what we see it—an adage universally acknowledged and understood.  6
  Keeping in full view my own opinion that Ward’s definition is somewhat too stringent and exclusive, I have had to prune freely, and in a work of the present nature, if not in most others, it is nearly as important to take care that no improper matter is admitted, as it is to see that nothing really to the purpose escapes.  7
  Worcester, in his Dictionary, explains a proverb to be a “common and pithy expression, which embodies some moral precept or admitted truth.” I do not aspire to turn lexicographer; but I cannot forbear to record my belief that Worcester’s description is scarcely exhaustive. If I had to define the thing myself, I confess that I would rather set a proverb down as an expression or combination of words conveying a truth to the mind by a figure, periphrasis, antithesis, or hyperbole. To put the matter differently, it seems to me essential that a proverb should have a figurative sense, an inner sense, or an approximate sense. For example, it is no proverb to say, “A passion which is very ardent quickly subsides;” but it is a proverb to say, “Hot love soon cold.” Here it is the pithy antithetical juxtaposition which makes the point. “A man may be strong, and yet not mow well!” is proverbial; but it would at once destroy the character of the sentence if we were to say instead: “He is a very strong man, but does not happen to understand the use of the scythe.” The one is a statement of fact clothed in the figure of an apparent contradiction; the other is a statement of a fact pure and simple, without any attempt at logical or jocular illusion. Proverbs stand, so to speak, on great punctilio; the utmost nicety is demanded in preserving the exact form of the saying ipsissimis verbis; the sentence must be letter-perfect; we must not, for the sake of euphony or elegance of diction, ring the changes on it for any consideration. As in a puzzle, every part fits with precision into its proper place, and does not fit at all into any other. Let me take an example—as common and simple an one as I can find. There is a proverb, “The master’s eye makes the horse fat.” As it stands, this saying is forcible, figurative, plain, true, and familiar; it seems to fulfil all the postulates. Alter a single word, and the charm vanishes. “The master’s eyes make the horse fat;” “The master’s eye makes the fat horse;” “The master’s eye fattens the horse;”—all these various readings are equivalent in sense and import, all thoroughly intelligible, and as good morality as the first, and yet they are all equally distant from what we want, and alike destitute of the proverbial character. The form which custom has sanctioned, and to which the popular ear has been educated slowly and surely, is the true form, the only form.  8
  The hundreds of mere aphorisms or precepts without any pretensions to proverbial attributes, which occur in the pages of Ray and others, indicate only how loose and vague many of our collectors or editors of such matters were in their ideas as to the nature of the inquiry which they undertook.  9
  “The bigger will eat the bean” may serve as an instance in which the quaint and terse delivery of a common thought, assisted by alliteration, freshens the effect. And this feature largely enters into the branch of the proverbial family, describable as Personal or Local Proverbs, where a name, oftener than not fictitious, happily responds to a sentiment. “Stillest waters deepest go;” or, as we now have it, “Still waters run deep,” does not ask for this artificial help, for it is in itself already sufficiently figurative. Like the former saying, it is both literally and metaphorically true. There are other phrases, such as “Familiarity breeds contempt,” and “Forbearance is no acquittance,” which, at the outset, enjoyed a purely social or a quasi-legal currency, but which in process of time have gained admittance by the commonness and largeness of their application into the popular and proverbial vocabulary.  10
  Some proverbs are mere whimsical absurdities or palpable truisms, as, “The fish is cast away that is cast into dry pools;” or, “It’s a long lane that has no turning.”  11
  But it would be wrong to look upon proverbs as mere figurative dicta or sententious vehicles for the conveyance of home-truths. Some may have no higher pretensions possibly; but they are quite the exception to the rule, and in a marked minority. Four grounds on which proverbial lore may fairly command attention suggest themselves obviously enough, namely, their interest and use: 1. Historically, as illustrations and records of incidents not noticed in our annals, or imperfectly so; 2. Topographically, as mediums which preserve to us minute traits of local scenery and geography; 3. Socially, as keys to usages, superstitions, and provincialisms, of which there is no farther vestige; 4. Morally, as an inexhaustible store of epigrammatic metaphors for all the vices and virtues by which mankind is disfigured or adorned.  12
  The formation of proverbs into rhyming couplets, triplets, &c., seems to have been an idea of early date. It was calculated to impress such sayings more powerfully on the memory, and to familiarise the popular mind with their moral. The earliest English MSS. in which proverbs occur incidentally present them to us clothed in a metrical shape, as, for instance, that very ancient distich which is found in the Life of Alexander, written in 1312, and falsely ascribed to Adam Davy:
        “Swithe mury hit is in halle,
When burdes wawen alle.”
Here is a proverb which was clearly two centuries and a half old when it found its way into the Merry Tales of Skelton (1567), and how long before 1312 it was in existence can be matter of conjecture only. But it may be taken, I apprehend, as a safe rule, that metrical proverbs are versions of proverbs which have for a more or less considerable length of time floated on the surface in a less ambitious and less attractive garb.
  13
  The Book of Merry Riddles, which was in existence as early as 1575, but of which the oldest editions have perished, was, in all probability, the first collection in which rhyming adages made any prominent feature; but a few isolated examples offer themselves in the pages of Chaucer, in several MSS. at Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere, of the fifteenth century, in the Prizes Drawn in the Lottery of 1567, and in dramas printed before Elizabeth had been long on the throne.  14
  Since a learned writer 1 has adduced in favour of the use of proverbs the examples of several of the most learned and estimable men in classic times, and since in this and other countries, subsequently to the revival of letters, many of our most distinguished and profound scholars have thought proper to recommend the study as one by no means unfavourable to morality, and as a branch of learning, likewise, emphatically entertaining and instructive, I was not, upon the whole, disposed to desist from my undertaking, on the assurance of Lord Chesterfield that it was a decidedly vulgar topic.  15
  But a later authority has lent this branch of inquiry his sanction and assistance. Archbishop Trench felt and avowed a deep interest in proverbial lore 2 and he was good enough to communicate to the present writer some memoranda made by him from time to time in connection with the question, and a general approval of the plan which is adopted in the following pages. He observes in a letter to me about 1868: “I feel very sure that the plan which you propose for your Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases—that is, annotations where needed, or where one feels that one has something to say which has not been said already—is the best; and I feel confirmed in the conviction from observing that Zounder, who must have made his Deutsche sprache wörterbuch—not yet finished—well nigh the business of a life, has exactly adopted this scheme.”  16
  Archbishop Trench added to his suggestive, and, in its way, useful little volume, an appendix of mediæval proverbial lines and distichs, to which I have been under obligations. It is, however, proper to mention that Mr. Wright drew attention in his Essays, 1846, to this part of the subject, and to the exact correspondence of many of our standard saws with the old leonine verses of the middle ages, and the remains of ancient French and Norman literature in the same class of popular sententious philosophy.  17
  Our collectors of proverbs appear to have fallen into the same class of mistake as our collectors of ballads, to have paid too much attention to the oral versions which were communicated to them by scantily-read and ill-informed persons, and to have neglected almost altogether the far more correct and far purer texts, which were to be found already in print or MS.  18
  The stealthy corruption of proverbs by the ignorance, carelessness, or caprice of successive editors might form material for a curious paper. I have omitted, as I proceeded, to make a note of instances of this kind, which are numerous enough, and I do not know that it might not have turned out to be delicate ground. Some of my own sins in the same direction might, perhaps, have been quoted against me.  19
  For the deep and impenetrable obscurity in which many of these proverbial expressions is involved, one sufficiently valid reason may be offered; and that is, the purely local character of the circumstances under which such expressions first sprang into existence. A droll or eccentric individual in some petty hamlet or provincial town became the author or the subject of a quaint figure of speech, which accident perpetuated and—if the saying was more than usually catholic in its bearing, or more than commonly meritorious—nationalised.  20
  The transmission of popular beliefs, ideas, and expressions, unchanged from age to age, is itself a remarkable phenomenon and study. In the Proverbs of Hendyng, son of Marcolphus, composed in the 13th century, and preserved in Harl. MS. 2253, 3 we find the same notions as exist at the present day, clad in the same forms; and this collection was in its turn a vernacular paraphrase of the Anglo-Latin folklore of the preceding generation, as shown by a MS. in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. These proverbs are rather a set of verses in stanzas, with a proverbial tag. They were printed in Reliquiæ Antiquæ from the Harleian MS.  21
  The proverbs contained in the celebrated Vernon MS. and the Proverbs of King Alfred (printed also in the Reliquiæ) are not proverbs at all in the English sense of the term, and have no better claims to consideration at the hands of the editor of such a book as this than that noble literary monument of the most flourishing period of Jewish government—the Proverbs of Solomon. The same must be said of the Proverbys of Houshold Kepyng, printed in one of the Early English Text Society’s volumes. 4 Probably the most ancient writer in this country deserving a place in our series, was Godfrey of Winchester, who died in 1007, and in whose unpublished Proverbia et Epigrammata Satirica appear to be one or two copies of verses which reveal a familiarity with proverbs (in our English acceptation of the term) still current. 5  22
  Under the same category as the Proverbs of King Alfred and the Vernon Proverbs, may be said to come a few other collections, such as those poetical inscriptions written by one of the chaplains to the fifth earl of Northumberland on the walls of the castles of Lekinfield and Wressil. Warton gives some specimens, which establish sufficiently that they are not, strictly speaking, proverbs at all. These inscriptions may be found printed at length from Royal MS. 18, D. 11, in the fourth volume of the second edition of the Antiquarian Repertory, 1807. They are a sort of prototype of the pious mottoes frequently attached to walls in sleeping apartments, even in hotels.  23
  Considering that it was the earliest production of the kind in our language, John Heywood’s Dialogue and Epigrams upon proverbs form a volume of undoubted curiosity, interest, and value, and were well deserving of re-publication. Heywood’s work passed through several editions between 1545 6 and 1598, and we cannot be positive whether all which came from the press have been recovered. The earliest which I have seen of the Proverbs was printed about 1545, and contains 24 chapters or sections.  24
  At a much later period, Adrien de Montluc composed his whimsical Comedie des Proverbes, said to have been written about 1616, but not printed till 1633. This performance strings together dialogue-wise, on a plan not wholly dissimilar from Heywood’s, all the most familiar adages then current in France. The habit of introducing these familiar expressions in conversation is illustrated by the character of Nicholas Proverbs in an old English play.  25
  Heywood’s book is palpably vitiated, however, by the author’s plan of shaping the proverbs which it contains into a sort of rhythmical narrative, which disappoints the rather natural expectation of arriving, in an English work of so early a date, at certain proverbial sentences in their pure form. Heywood professes, indeed, to have invented these verses and Epigrams upon Proverbs, as he calls them, and it must be owned that the presence of the poetic element has not proved of advantage in this case. The old sayings, unadorned by fancy or rhythm, would have been more valuable, if not even more attractive, to posterity.  26
  I have the suspicion that to Heywood is due also the honour of creating certain humorous and fantastic phrases, and dressing them up, or putting them forward as proverbs, whereas such phrases are entirely of the writer’s own mintage, and never enjoyed any considerable width of currency either before or since. The fact that this is an unsupported surmise must explain why I have not acted upon it so far as to refuse a place to those expressions or sentences inserted in the Dialogue and Epigrams which appeared to come within the denomination of invented pleasantries, popular enough in their character, but not so otherwise. According to Diogenes Laertius, the famous Socratic, Aristippus of Cyrene, left behind him Three Books of Proverbs. They are the earliest productions of the sort of which one hears in classic literature. But, as they do not appear to be extant, we cannot be sure whether they were proverbs in the more strict sense, or mere jeux d’esprit like those of Heywood for the most part, or mere maxims, like the majority in Erasmus. Chrysippus the stoic is also said to have written a book of proverbs: but it is not known.  27
  The Book of Merry Riddles appears to have been familiar to Shakespeare, and an edition printed in 1600 is now understood to be in existence. It was often republished between that date and 1685. But only the impressions of 1600, 1617, and 1629, contain the Choice and Witty Proverbs, which in them form the concluding section of the small work. The remaining issues of 1631, 1660, &c., are mere abridgments of the original book, and contain just half the quantity of matter.  28
  The omission is so far of very little consequence: for these proverbs are of no importance, occurring elsewhere; or, where they do not occur elsewhere, being in general good for nothing. The compiler evidently possessed a rather imperfect knowledge of the true nature of a proverb, and many of the articles to which he has given admission are not proverbs, but sentences wholly destitute of the proverbial ingredient. There is, in fact, no intrinsic value in the Book of Merry Riddles, and its sole claim to notice arises from the circumstance that it is imagined with some reason to have been the volume which Master Slender lent to Alice Shortcake on All-hallowmass Eve.  29
  Though I confess, therefore, that I was not particularly prepossessed by some of the articles in The Book of Merry Riddles, as they did not strike me personally as partaking very much of the proverbial force and pith, yet I hesitated to exercise much editorial discretion in the case of a work which has preserved to us many sayings, doubtless, in the precise forms which were recognised and understood by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  30
  Camden devoted a section of his Remaines to a collection of proverbs. The work mentioned appeared first in 1605, was reprinted in 1614, and went through two or three other editions down to 1636, when it was brought out with additions by Philipot. But Camden’s principal merit, so far as the Proverbs are concerned, is, that he has reproduced with fidelity several of those found in John Heywood’s Dialogue, and has added a certain number (marked by me C), for which he is the first and sometimes sole, authority, together with a few, which I should have almost hesitated to admit, had I not had his respectable sanction. He observes, in introducing this division of his subject: “Whereas Proverbs are concise, witty, and wise Speeches grounded upon long experience, containing for the most part good conceits, and therefore both profitable and delightfull; I thought it not vnfit to set down heere alphabetically some of the selectest and most vsual among vs, as beeing worthy to haue place amongst the wises[t] Speeches.” 7 I have collated all the articles here inserted, and it has afforded the opportunity of furnishing improved texts of several good old sayings.  31
  But I must add that Camden has not, upon the whole, shown much judgment in his choice, as the versions he gives are by no means the best invariably which were in his day current or at least accessible; and he has in the course of the half-dozen pages which are occupied by this portion of the work, repeated the same adage twice or even three times over. 8  32
  In 1579, John Lyly published his Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit, and followed it up in 1580 with Euphues and his England, a kind of sequel and completion to the former narrative. It is unnecessary to speak more particularly of a work so well known; but I desire to point attention to the circumstance that, while numberless sentences in Euphues and its successor are made to wear a proverbial shape, they have no farther claim to rank as popular sayings; and the editor who should include them in any future monograph on proverbial expressions, would, in my opinion, err.  33
  I cannot too earnestly guard those interested in this branch of literary inquiry against the danger of mistaking these mere sentences attired in a proverbial costume (so to speak) for the genuine thing. In the Mountebanks Masque, attributed (perhaps wrongly) to the pen of John Marston, there is a series of paradoxical, jocular, or nugatory dicta, which read like proverbs at the first glance, but which it would be highly improper and undesirable to incorporate with any collection. They are evidently the composition of the author, and flowed from his own whimsical fancy: they were never popular or widely current.  34
  There may be no harm in repeating that mere axioms or aphorisms, such as those found in the Proverbs of King Alfred; the Vernon MS., written about 1400; the old School-Cato, and other similar works do not enter into the present undertaking; nor did I regard it as part of my plan to incorporate such sage utterances as occur in the Proverbs of Solomon, 9 in Bacon’s Wisdom of the Ancients, or in Dr. Bayly’s Apothegms of the Earl of Worcester. These all appeared to me to be beside the inquiry; for my volume was intended, so far as possible, to illustrate a not unimportant or uninteresting department of English folk-lore, and I was not long in discovering that without touching collateral or cognate matters, the question before me was quite large enough to occupy a considerable share of time and attention, as well as a tolerable extent of paper and print.  35
  About 1611, John Davies of Hereford, a prolific scribbler of the reign of James I., inserted in a puerile volume entitled The Scourge of Folly, a section “Vpon English Proverbs;” the undertaking consists of a series of the sayings most commonly current in his day, amplified and illustrated by some epigram of temporary application, in the shape either of a couple, a quatrain, or a sextain, as for example:
        “Little or nothing said, soone mended is:
But they that nothing do, do most amisse.”
  
“It’s better sit still then rise and fall:
So tradesmen should not occupy at all.”
  
“Baccare quoth Mortimer vnto his sowe,
But wheres a Mortimer to say so now.”

This is poor stuff, it must be owned; and Davies, I fear, was incapable of doing much better. I shall have occasion, however, here and there to quote his Epigrams upon Proverbs (a weak copy of Heywood) in my notes. It is to be specially predicated of the proverbs registered by Davies, that they are, with few exceptions, debased or corrupted forms, having been contracted or lengthened out to suit rhythmical exigencies.
  36
  Davies has, it appears to me personally, been guilty, in his Epigrams on Proverbs, of two sorts of impropriety; neither of which, however, can be said to be an uncommon form of sinning. The author of the Scourge of Folly has (like Poor Richard) introduced sentences, in the first place, which are not proverbial at all; and, secondly, he has in several cases, so far as I can judge, not scrupled to pass off as current sayings coarse and stupid dicta of his own invention. Both these excrescences I have taken the liberty of rejecting.  37
  The volume of Outlandish Proverbs, ascribed to George Herbert, and printed in 1640, is a meagre and insipid business enough, and the pious compiler, if it be his, seems to have omitted purposely (which was so far natural and proper) most of the gross sayings, however characteristic, which were current in or before his time, and even to have softened down such as were exceptionable in his eyes, and as he did not resolve to exclude.  38
  The Outlandish Proverbs exhibit one weakness which I have found to be common to all the collections: the confusion of proverbs with mere precepts or maxims destitute of proverbial significance and character. Another fault is, that they do not follow any alphabetical arrangement, and the incorporation of those which were worth retaining has been a work of much labour.  39
  It must be candidly allowed that the Proverbs collected by Fuller, the historian and divine, and printed in his Worthies of England, 1662, are remarkable neither for the sayings themselves, nor for the accompanying criticisms. It is strange that a man of Fuller’s reputation and learning should have made so little of so good a subject.  40
  To Howell’s Collection of Proverbs, dated 1659, but attached to his edition of Cotgrave’s Dictionary, 1660, I have paid scarcely any attention. Howell does not appear to have formed a very precise idea in his mind of what a proverb was, or of what it was not—quite as important a point; and he had the silliness and bad taste to admit into his pages what he called New-Sayings which may serve for Proverbs to Posterity. As for Cotgrave’s own Proverbs, they are almost exclusively translations of French adages, and hardly therefore within my scope; and Howell has borrowed from this source freely.  41
  In 1659, appeared likewise a small volume of Proverbs in various languages, compiled by N. R. The entire collection is in English; but the major part of the contents is evidently of foreign character and origin, like many of its predecessors, especially Cotgrave and Howell. A little volume by Henry Danvers, printed in 1676, formed, in fact, no addition in strictness to English Parœmiology, nor did it purport to be more than what it was—a presentation of the Proverbs of Solomon in an English dress and in a separate shape.  42
  I now come to the celebrated work of John Ray, F.R.S., of which the first edition appeared in 1670, and was reprinted in 1678. In the latter certain coarse matter, excepted to, the author states, by some, was withdrawn. He refers to a score or so of entries of immaterial consequence, couched in unconventional language, and sometimes substantially repetitions in a varied form of others already registered.  43
  I do not honestly consider that Ray’s book is as good even as it might have been made by the exercise, on the editor’s part, of more research and more judgment. He has copied all the childish errors of his predecessors, and has not so much as copied anything approaching to all their good matter. 10 I have been rather more sparing in my retention of Ray’s notes (often remarkable for nothing so much as verbose pedantry and twaddle) on the present occasion than I was in my first and second editions, although I am very well aware that his is still a great name in proverb-literature, but I could not bear the idea of retaining any longer such a mass of slipshod rubbish. As for the proverbs which he has furnished, there are not a few among those which bear a local stamp, or are associated with particular individuals, which strike me as being rather ludicrous sayings confined to a small circle of people, or to a very limited area of country, than as parcels of true proverbial speech. Still, it was so difficult to get at the veritable history and origin of this transmitted folk-lore, that there was nothing to be done but to admit much that was indifferent and much that was open to suspicion. Surprising as is may seem at first sight, it is the truth that Ray, when he prepared his collection two hundred and thirty-five years ago, had almost as ample opportunities of making a good book as one enjoys at present. The entire field of old English literature was as open to him then as it is to any man now; and he had the advantage of the previous labours (if they can be called such) of Heywood, Herbert, Howell, Cotgrave, Torriano, and Fuller (the divine). But editors (including Fellows of the Royal Society) had different ways of setting about things then, and much later too; and till quite recently, we were without any work on English Proverbs at all worthy of the subject, and at all aspiring to completeness. What Ray’s merits as a naturalist are, I know only by report; but, as an etymologist and proverb-editor, his performances approach zero.  44
  “Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs, with Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, Collected by Thomas Fuller, M.D.,” 1732, was more complete than Ray in some respects, and, considering the date of its publication, and the general treatment of such subjects a century and a half ago, it must be allowed to reflect considerable credit on the compiler. But Fuller’s book was deficient in notes and illustrations; he neither supplies us with the sources from which he obtained his material, nor with any indication whether a proverb was of English growth, or merely a translation from some other language. Notes, indeed, he does not seem to have considered expedient; and he also observes in his preface: “I conceive it is not needful for me accurately to determine which are to be call’d Adagies and Proverbs; nor nicely to distinguish the one from the other. All that I take upon me here to do, is only to throw together a vast confus’d heap of unsorted Things, old and new, which you may pick over and make use of, according to your Judgment and Pleasure.”  45
  The earliest instance of an Anglo-Latin Dictionary of Proverbs, digested into commonplaces, was, I believe, the little volume by John Clarke, entitled Parœmiologia Anglo-Latina, and published at London in 1639. 11 It furnishes parallels between the English adages and those in Erasmus; and, as a rule, remarkably imperfect parallels they are. Yet the volume is curious as containing better texts of many proverbs than I have been able to find elsewhere. In 1672, Dr. Walker, author of the treatise on Particles and other compilations, published a book of proverbs under the same title, seemingly unaware of the earlier one by Clarke; but his is merely a tract of 31 octavo leaves, and does not contain beyond a fraction of the matter comprised in the original Parœmiologia. It is to be surmised that it was from Clarke’s book that Ray derived many of his good proverbs and all his bad parallels, which have been copied with implicit fidelity and confidence by all succeeding compilers of such works. Neither Walker nor Ray himself, before he set out, had arrived, I imagine, at a very lucid idea of what a proverb or proverbial phrase exactly was; and the result is, that I have found it to be part of my business to pass my pen through some scores of articles which assuredly never had the remotest claim to admittance. Walker has an identical proverb sometimes in five or six different forms and as many places, although his collection does not extend to more than fifty pages, exclusively of preliminaries, &c.  46
  Clarke’s production is rather an important book in its way, taking its date into account. It purports, as it has been just said, to give parallels from the Adagia, of Erasmus; but these supposed likenesses are, as it has been intimated already, of the most absurd description in many cases, and infinitely wide of the mark. They are made, perhaps, however, to appear even more extravagant and foolish than would otherwise be the case, by the plan which Clarke seems to have adopted of translating his Latin apothegm into English, where he could not meet with an English equivalent of any kind or degree; so that he has not merely made his Latin sayings fit his English where he could meet with the latter, but where he could not, he has created English out of his Latin—a remedy as violent as it is mischievous; inasmuch as no amount of editorial ingenuity could harmonise English popular philosophy with the popular philosophy of a Dutchman who wrote (and perhaps thought) in Latin; and indeed the latter for the immediate purpose does not materially serve us, since his Adagia are literary maxims rather than popular saws.  47
  It is not more than an act of simple justice to the memory of the author of the Clavis Calendaria to mention that Mr. Brady’s (posthumous) Varieties of Literature, 1826, has in a few instances proved of very essential utility, since in those pages are registered and explained a certain number of proverbs of considerable antiquity and interest which do not present themselves in any of the collections. But Mr. Brady’s volume is singularly unequal in its execution, for some of the notes appended to the section on Proverbs are simply valueless.  48
  To Mr. Thomas Wright’s Essays on Subjects connected with the Literature, Popular Superstitions, and History of England in the Middle Ages, 1846, 2 vols. 8vo., I cheerfully confess my obligations. The fourth paper in that admirable book is devoted to Proverbs and Popular Sayings. I have also derived much valuable material and aid from Mr. Wright’s and Mr. Halliwell’s joint publication, Reliquiæ Antiquæ, Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts, &c., 1841–3, 2 vols. 8vo.  49
  In 1846 Mr. M. A. Denham edited for the Percy Society a small Collection of Proverbs and Popular Sayings “relating to the Seasons, the Weather, and Agricultural Pursuits,” and professing to be “gathered chiefly from oral tradition.” 12 The collector observes that, “although he has never seen a single copy either of Howell’s, Ray’s, Kelly’s, Fuller’s, or Henderson’s Proverbs, he has slight hesitation in asserting that, after the most careful collation, many, very many, will be found in this collection which are not to be found in any other, either printed or in manuscript.” This remarkable announcement I cannot, for my own part, endorse; but I have inserted a few proverbs from Mr. Denham’s book with the initial D. attached to distinguish them—partly, it must be confessed, because I was not quite prepared to become responsible for them myself in all cases.  50
  I believe that no work quite so comprehensive as this is to be found at present in any of the principal European languages. The Spanish and Italian certainly do not possess one. The Germans have several monographs on the subject, more or less elaborate, comprehending the various dialects of the Fatherland. As for the Livre des Proverbes Français, by M. Le Roux de Lincy, of which a second and enlarged edition appeared in 1859, it proceeds on a different plan, and does not aim at equal completeness, I judge. It carries the principle of classification, in my opinion, a little too far to make it practically serviceable. 13  51
  Some researches, undertaken for this and other germane purposes, into the rich field of early English literature, have produced very gratifying results, and I have added largely to our existing stores of proverbial lore. Nor have I been unsuccessful in gathering unwritten, but nonetheless authentic, sayings current here or there in this country, Scotland, and Ireland, which had escaped my predecessors in the present line of inquiry.  52
  In proverbs, as in books, unique examples preserved by accident may serve to shew what was once a common saw, and yet which survives only perhaps in a volume, where it is quoted on account of that very popularity which it has since lost.  53
  It is interesting to contemplate and study these large stores of figurative wisdom and speech. It would be curious if we were able to trace even the greater part of them to the circumstances or persons in which or whom they originated. But this species of information is attained in very few instances. An approximate knowledge of the antiquity of some sayings of unquestionably English growth is derived from their presence in some early publication; but there are hundreds of others which, at a remote period, were transfused into our language from the Latin or the Italian, or some other tongue; and of which the rise might possibly be referred back, if we had data, to the earliest era of human society.  54
  Altogether, the present gathering of ancient English adages and saws—in spite of the triviality of some, of the ineptitude, perhaps (in our estimation), of others, and of the exceptionable character of a few, which special motives led me to retain—may be regarded as a work of some utility and interest, and exhibits a body of proverbial philosophy not unamusing or uninstructive, and not much inferior to, possibly, though professedly less original than, that of a modern author.  55
  In regard to allusions of a temporary character, it should be recollected, that internal evidence or conjecture is all that one has to depend on, for the most part, in adjudging such questions, and it is better that a dozen doubtful sayings should be retained, than that a single genuine one should be thrown rashly away. Moreover, it is to be borne in mind, I think, that the undertaking in hand embraces not proverbs only, but proverbial phrases. Ward of Stratford (already quoted), and after him Fuller, the historian and divine, lay down very precise and severe rules for our guidance in the recognition of a proverb, and the more or less ready discernment of a saying which is one in fact, from a saying which is merely one in semblance; but I take it that these early men had not taken very exact measurement of the extraordinarily wide field over which their subject ranged.  56
  The oldest, which in nine cases out of ten is also the purest, most genuine, and least exceptionable version of a proverb, has invariably been given; but where there are different versions with noticeable variations, the fact has been occasionally noted. It would have occupied far too large a space to have explained my motive in each instance where I have not given the preference to the form of a saying most commonly current, but have substituted for that one to be found in an old chronicle, play, or poem, evidently the parent of the modern descendant.  57
  In cases where a proverb is common to many collections, that is to say, where it has been transferred from one book to another intact, I have not always thought it necessary to occupy room by setting down every repetition of it, but have merely indicated the earliest authority for the saying, or the first trace of it in our literature.  58
  The few Anglo-Latin proverbs which have been admitted ought to be distinguished from those which are found in the pages of Clarke and others. They are merely such sentences as have been naturalised by great length of use, and as have no exact English equivalents.  59
  It must not be supposed that all the proverbs included in the following pages are, or have ever been, of equal popularity or celebrity. Some have been more lasting and wider in their circulation; others more transient and restricted. We have no means, for the most part, of ascertaining with any high degree of exactitude the extent of currency or the date of origin; and the sources to which we owe them are often conjectural. A certain number—a very small part of the vast whole—occur in the Anglo-Latin monkish poetry of the 11th and 12th centuries. A second and larger division is easily referrible to the pursuits and amusements of the country, and the almost incalculable host of ideas and creeds therewith connected. A third class comprises proverbs descriptive of the incidents and occupations of domestic life, and takes within its ample range the entrances and exits of humanity, its follies and disasters, its joys and sorrows, the checkered course of our existence, the characteristics of infancy and youth, the tyranny of love, the fortunes and vicissitudes of the married state, and the grim philosophy of the grave. There may be a residuum not falling with perfect propriety under any of the foregoing heads, but it would not, perhaps, be a very considerable one. With the exception of such sentences not emphatically or rigidly proverbial as may be found interspersed with the rest in their alphabetical order, these wise saws constitute a branch of folk-lore which seems specially appropriated to the humbler population of our towns and villages, and to have comparatively slight sympathy with those moving in more ambitious spheres.  60
  After the most careful and anxious consideration devoted to the question of admitting or rejecting certain sayings which run through all or most of the collections, it is sometimes difficult to decide to one’s own satisfaction one way or the other. Then, I contend, the sentence ought to have the benefit of the doubt, and to stand. It may appear to have no import of the kind requisite to entitle it to a place; but there is a faint possibility that it may have had, in some locality where it originated, or at a period when different habits of thought, different doctrines on subjects prevailed. It may, again, read unintelligibly to me or even to others; but there are, perhaps, those who possess the key to the enigma. There would be nothing particularly strange (so far as I can see) in the solution by a farmer’s lad or a provincial shopkeeper of a problem which, simply from hinging on a local usage or speciality, had puzzled the whole learned world.  61
  The collation of all the chief collections, from Heywood’s downward, has rewarded me, inasmuch as it has placed it in my power to improve the book in three leading respects: 1. The rejection of redundancies heedlessly perpetuated by all proverb-collectors or editors; 2. the insertion of extensive additions, hitherto overlooked; 3. the selection of purer forms of a large number of sayings.  62
  As for the notes, they do not pretend to explain every allusion, as that process would have been too laborious, and have added very greatly to the bulk of the volume; they also leave without a gloss many proverbs which defy my attempts to unriddle their occult meaning.  63
  As a general rule I have, by attaching the writer’s initial, or in a note, indicated the earliest occurrence of proverbs; but it must not be assumed that those which are not accompanied by such a mark are peculiar to the modern collections; they are, with extremely few exceptions, one and all in the old ones.  64
  The greater part of the sayings in this collection are also current in Scotland, having been, in the natural course of things, transplanted and localised, not always only in form, but occasionally even in substance. The Scots appear to have as few proverbs of their own as they have ballads; but the so-called proverbs of Scotland are in a very large proportion of cases nothing more than Southern proverbs Scoticised; while the ballads of Scotland are chiefly ours sprinkled with northern provincialisms. 14 At the same time it cannot for an instant be disputed that the Scots possess a certain number of adages of native growth, and northern upon the face; but how far these might go toward filling a volume as ample as Mr. Hislop’s 15 I hardly like to guess.  65
  When we consider that M. de Linçy’s French collection occupies two volumes octavo altogether, and might be enlarged perhaps, and that Torriano’s Italian Proverbs, 1666, fill the greatest part of a thick folio volume, we shall appreciate the difficulty of bringing within practical compass the whole body of foreign proverbs in their parallel relation; for to these have to be added the proverbs of Spain and Portugal, of Germany and Holland, of the North of Europe, of the East, and of Rome and Greece.  66
  The present work offers many points of sympathy with my Faiths and Folklore, 1905. These two publications illustrate each other to a large extent.  67
  To Mr. F. J. Furnivall, the Rev. Walter W. Skeat, the late Bishop of Oxford, Mr. W. Aldis Wright, Mr. C. W. Reynell, Mr. A. G. Greenhill, of Emmanuel, Cambridge, and other gentlemen, who have kindly assisted me in various ways, I beg to offer my best acknowledgments. Mr. Furnivall, especially, transmitted to me in the most obliging manner, from time to time, any proverbs which fell in his way in the course of his reading, as well as extracts from books illustrative of popular sayings.  68
  I have also to express my cordial thanks to Mr. John Higson, of Lees, Manchester, for the unsolicited and free use of his MSS. Collections for Droylsden and other localities, formed during a period of many years. I should have been glad if Mr. Higson, in some few cases, had added elucidations, as the proverbial sayings which he has brought together are occasionally obscure to any one less conversant than himself with the local history of Lancashire and Cheshire. Mr. John Shelly, of Plymouth, and Mr. T. Q. Couch, of Bodmin, similarly placed at my disposal their gleanings in South Devonshire and East Cornwall, respectively; and to Mr. R. S. Turner I owe the loan of a copy of Heywood’s Epigrams upon Proverbs, 1576, with thirty-nine pages of MSS. additions in a coeval or nearly coeval handwriting.  69
  Since the second edition of the present book was published three and twenty years ago, I have had constantly at my elbow (as it were) an interleaved copy, in which I have inserted every addition or correction which has come in my own way, or which has been imparted to me by literary acquaintances and correspondents. From that copy the new impression is taken; and I think that the changes introduced, both as regards old matter revised, and new matter incorporated, will be found to have improved the work, and have rendered it on its third appearance more useful and more acceptable.  70
  The original form of the work has been preserved. Two other methods naturally suggested themselves: that of Ray, by which the sayings fall under counties or subjects; the other, that of grouping the proverbs under general heads, so as to avoid repetition, and to concentrate illustrative notices on one point. But I saw difficulty in both, and I preferred my own scheme.  71
  As I have said, this volume and subject have now occupied my attention at intervals during more than forty years, and I have spared no pains to make it satisfactory and complete. That I have committed mistakes and been guilty of oversights I have no doubt whatever. But it is unnecessary for me to dwell on those two points, as I shall hear of them in due course from my friends. Some ingenious gentleman is perhaps lying in ambush for me with a proverb or two in his budget not to be found here, and will jump at me like a cock at a gooseberry.  72
  The story of Queen Elizabeth and Bate me an ace, quoth Bolton in connexion with Heywood’s little book is well known. I say nothing here about it beyond this: Se non e vero, e ben trocato. Somewhat in the same way, the late Mr. Thoms discovered to his apparent satisfaction that I had left out from my first issue As mad as a hatter, which, however, he did not undertake to explain. He might have found that, in my second, I overlooked As the crow flies and According to Cocker. He did not take much account, I think, of what I had put in. That would not have brought any capital. It is strangely easy for one man, however unversed, to trip up another who has devoted half a lifetime to a subject; and this Crichton Redivivus earned at a very economical rate the credit of knowing all that I did, and one thing more.  73
 
Note 1. Clarke (Parœmiologia, 1639, Pref.) [back]
Note 2. Proverbs and their Lessons. By Richard Chenevix Trench, 1869. [back]
Note 3. There is another copy of the same date in MS. Publ. Lib. Camb., Gg. I. 1, and a later one in MS. Digby, 86. [back]
Note 4. Political, Religious and Love Poems, edited by F. J. Furnivall, M.A., 1866. In 1498, was printed the first edition of Polydore Vergil’s Proverbioram Libellus; it was reprinted in 1499 and 1503. The book is an assemblage of sayings derived from the writings of the ancient classics, but there are several which have come down to us and are accepted proverbs in our own literature, such as Pares cum paribus: Æqualem tibi mulierem inquire: Pupillâ oculi nobis charius: Ovem lupo commisisti: the major part of the collection is without great significance for us. The Proverbii in Facetie of Cornazano, first printed in 1523, but written long before, are merely entertaining stories, founded (or supposed to be so) on some popular saying. It may be serviceable to mention that Barbier’s Janua Linguarum, 4to, 1617, contains a large assortment of moral sentences, but no proverbs proper. [back]
Note 5. Wright’s Biog. Brit. Lit., Anglo-Norm. Per., 1846, pp. 35–6. [back]
Note 6. It may be remarked here, that there is no work on proverbial Bibliography in our own language; and unfortunately M. Duplessis’ Bibliographie Parémiologique, 1847, 8vo, is, as far as English books are concerned, both meagre and inaccurate. There are also the Dictionnaire des Proverbes, 1852, and the Etudes sur les Proverbes, 1866, both by M. Quitard. [back]
Note 7. Audi alteram partem, however, and in a contemporary of Camden: “In the same file are Prouerb-mongers, whose throates are worne like roade-wayes, with, Little said is soone amended: It is no halting before a criple, and such like: when I heare one of these, I looke for his drye nursse.”—Essayes by Sir William Corne-wallys the Yonger, 1601, sign. E e 7. [back]
Note 8. At the same time, in a work of this description, occasional repetitions are not only unavoidable, but absolutely necessary, as it seemed desirable to edit, so to speak, all the texts current of popular sayings, and to let them fall each into its own place in the alphabet. [back]
Note 9. These, however, apparently had many readers among our early authors, from Chaucer downward; and were accepted, I apprehend, much on the same footing as genuine English popular sayings. [back]
Note 10. Ray, F.R.S., occupies much space fruitlessly and tiresomely with elaborate explanations of obvious things, or common-place remarks, wholly unworthy of paper and print, and in many cases absolutely erroneous. At the same time, even Ray’s pages have their valuable aspect and element in the preservation of sundry local and traditionary anecdotes which were current in his time, and might otherwise have been forgotten. In simple fairness to myself, it should be understood that the initial R at the end of many of the notes does not imply that Ray contributed the whole matter; he is responsible for such as is within commas only, and that has often undergone silent, but necessary revision. [back]
Note 11. The author informs us that his book was ready in 1631. [back]
Note 12. Mr. Denham also dispersed privately a few other tracts connected with proverb-literature. The impression in each case seems to have been limited to fifty copies; but the Folk-lore Society has since reprinted the whole series in a volume. [back]
Note 13. Side by side with this book we may place Rabelais, in whose pages occurs a large store of proverbial expressions current in his day. [back]
Note 14. Franck, in his Northern Memoirs, written in 1658, but not published till 1694, p. 77, has an amusing passage, in which he speculates whether the change from gossip to Comer, in a particular sentence, arose out of “a vulgar Error, and an Abomination among the Scots to lick up an English Proverb.” [back]
Note 15. The Proverbs of Scotland. Glasgow, 1862, 8vo. Second edition, enlarged, Glasgow, 1868, 8vo. [back]
 
 
CONTENTS · ABBREVIATIONS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 
Loading
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors