It is very likely that from some of us proverbs have never attracted
the notice which I am persuaded they deserve; and from this it may
follow that, when invited to bestow even a brief attention on them, we
are in some doubt whether they will repay our pains. We think of them
but as sayings on the lips of the multitude; not a few of them have
been familiar to us as far back as we can remember; often employed by
ourselves, or in our hearing, on slight and trivial occasions: and
thus, from these and other causes, it may very well be, that, however
sometimes one may have taken our fancy, we yet have remained blind in
the main to the wit, wisdom, and imagination, of which they are full;
and very little conscious of the amusement, instruction, insight, which
they are capable of yielding. Unless too we have devoted a certain
attention to the subject, we shall not be at all aware how little those
more familiar ones, which are frequent on the lips of men, exhaust
the treasure of our native proverbs; how many and what excellent ones
remain behind, having now for the most part fallen out of sight; or
what riches in like kind other nations possess. We may little guess how
many aspects of interest there are in which our own by themselves, and
our own compared with those of other people, may be regarded.

And yet there is much to induce us to reconsider our judgment, should
we be thus tempted to slight them, and to count them not merely trite,
but trivial and unworthy of a serious attention. The fact that they
please the people, and have pleased them for ages,—that they possess
so vigorous a principle of life, as to have maintained their ground,
ever new and ever young, through all the centuries of a nation’s
existence,—nay, that many of them have pleased not one nation only,
but many, so that they have made themselves an home in the most
different lands,—and further, that they have, not a few of them, come
down to us from remotest antiquity, borne safely upon the waters of
that great stream of time, which has swallowed so much beneath its
waves,—all this, I think, may well make us pause, should we be tempted
to turn away from them with anything of indifference or disdain.

And then further, there is this to be considered, that some of the
greatest poets, the profoundest philosophers, the most learned
scholars, the most genial writers in every kind, have delighted in
them, have made large and frequent use of them, have bestowed infinite
labour on the gathering and elucidating of them. In a fastidious age,
indeed, and one of false refinement, they may go nearly or quite
out of use among the so-called upper classes. No gentleman, says
Lord Chesterfield, or “no man of fashion,” as I think is his exact
phrase, “ever uses a proverb.”[1] And with how fine a touch of nature
Shakespeare makes Coriolanus, the man who, with all his greatness, is
entirely devoid of all sympathy for the people, to utter his scorn _of
them_ in scorn of their proverbs, and of their frequent employment of

“Hang ’em!
They said they were an hungry, sighed forth proverbs;—
That, _hunger broke stone walls_; that, _dogs must eat_;
That, _meat was made for mouths_; that, _the gods sent not
Corn for the rich men only_;—with these shreds
They vented their complainings.”

_Coriolanus_, Act I. Sc. 1.

[Sidenote: Aristotle collected proverbs.]

But that they have been always dear to the true intellectual
aristocracy of a nation, there is abundant evidence to prove. Take but
these three names in evidence, which though few, are in themselves an
host. Aristotle made a collection of proverbs; nor did he count that he
was herein doing aught unworthy of his great reputation, however some
of his adversaries may afterwards have made of the fact that he did so
an imputation against him. He is said to have been the first collector
of them, though many afterwards followed in the same path. Shakespeare
loves them so well, that besides often citing them, and scattering
innumerable covert allusions, rapid side glances at them, which we
are in danger of missing unless at home in the proverbs of England,
several of his plays, as _Measure for Measure_, _All’s well that ends
well_, have popular proverbs for their titles. And Cervantes, a name
only inferior to Shakespeare, has made very plain the affection with
which he regarded them. Every reader of _Don Quixote_ will remember
his squire, who sometimes cannot open his mouth but there drop from it
almost as many proverbs as phrases. I might name others who have held
the proverb in honour—men who though they may not attain to these
first three, are yet deservedly accounted great; as Plautus, the most
genial of Latin poets, Rabelais and Montaigne, the two most original
of French authors; and how often Fuller, whom Coleridge has styled the
wittiest of writers, justifies this praise in his witty employment of
some old proverb: and no reader can thoroughly understand and enjoy
_Hudibras_, none but will miss a multitude of its keenest allusions,
who is not thoroughly familiar with the proverbial literature of

[Sidenote: Proverbs in Scripture.]

Nor is this all; we may with reverence adduce quite another name
than any of these, the Lord himself, as condescending to employ such
proverbs as he found current among his people. Thus, on the occasion of
his first open appearance in the synagogue of Nazareth, he refers to
the proverb, _Physician, heal thyself_, (Luke iv. 23,) as one which
his hearers will perhaps bring forward against Himself; and again
presently to another, _A prophet is not without honour but in his own
country_, as attested in his own history; and at the well of Sychar He
declares, “Herein is that saying,” or that proverb, “true, _One soweth
and another reapeth_.” (John iv. 37.) But He is much more than a quoter
of other men’s proverbs; He is a maker of his own. As all forms of
human composition find their archetypes and their highest realization
in Scripture, as there is no tragedy like Job, no pastoral like Ruth,
no lyric melodies like the Psalms, so we should affirm no proverbs
like those of Solomon, were it not that “a greater than Solomon” has
drawn out of the rich treasure house of the Eternal Wisdom a series of
proverbs more costly still. For indeed how much of our Lord’s teaching,
especially as recorded in the three first Evangelists, is thrown into
this form; and how many of his words have in this shape passed over as
“faithful sayings” upon the lips of men; and so doing, have fulfilled a
necessary condition of the proverb, whereof we shall have presently to

But not urging this testimony any further,—a testimony too august
to be lightly used, or employed merely to swell the testimonies of
men—least of all, men of such “uncircumcised lips” as, with all their
genius, were more than one of those whom I have named,—and appealing
only to the latter, I shall be justified, I feel, in affirming that
whether we listen to those single voices which make a silence for
themselves, and are heard through the centuries and their ages, or to
that great universal voice of humanity, which is wiser even than these
(for it is these, with all else which is worthy to be heard added to
them), there is here a subject, which those whose judgments should go
very far with us have not accounted unworthy of their serious regard.

And I am sure if we bestow on them ourselves even a moderate share
of attention, we shall be ready to set our own seal to the judgment
of wiser men that have preceded us here. For, indeed, what a body of
popular good sense and good feeling, as we shall then perceive, is
contained in the better, which is also the more numerous, portion
of them; what a sense of natural equity, what a spirit of kindness
breathes out from many of them; what prudent rules for the management
of life, what shrewd wisdom, which though not _of_ this world, is most
truly _for_ it, what frugality, what patience, what perseverance, what
manly independence, are continually inculcated by them. What a fine
knowledge of the human heart do many of them display; what useful, and
not always obvious, hints do they offer on many most important points,
as on the choice of companions, the bringing up of children, the
bearing of prosperity and adversity, the restraint of all immoderate
expectations. And they take a yet higher range than this; they have
their ethics, their theology, their views of man in his highest
relations of all, as man with his fellow man, and man with his Maker.
Be these always correct or not, and I should be very far from affirming
that they always are so, the student of humanity, he who because he
is a man counts nothing human to be alien to him, can never without
wilfully foregoing an important document, and one which would have
helped him often in his studies, altogether neglect or pass them by.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Shortness, sense, salt.]

But what, it may be asked, before we proceed further, is a proverb?
Nothing is harder than a definition. While on the one hand there is
for the most part no easier task than to detect a fault or flaw in the
definitions of those who have gone before us, nothing on the other
is more difficult than to propose one of our own, which shall not
also present a vulnerable side. Some one has said that these three
things go to the constituting of a proverb, _shortness_, _sense_,
and _salt_. In brief pointed sayings of this kind, the second of the
qualities enumerated here, namely _sense_, is sometimes sacrificed to
alliteration. I would not affirm that it is so here: for the words are
not ill spoken, though they are very far from satisfying the rigorous
requirements of a definition, as will be seen when we consider what
the writer intended by his three _esses_, which it is not hard to
understand. The proverb, he would say, must have _shortness_; it must
be succinct, utterable in a breath. It must have _sense_, not being,
that is, the mere small talk of conversation, slight and trivial, else
it would perish as soon as born, no one taking the trouble to keep
it alive. It must have _salt_, that is, besides its good sense, it
must in its manner and outward form be pointed and pungent, having a
sting in it, a barb which shall not suffer it to drop lightly from the
memory.[2] Yet, regarded as a definition, this of the triple _s_ fails,
as I have said; it indeed errs both in defect and excess.

[Sidenote: Proverbs will be concise.]

Thus in demanding _shortness_, it errs in excess. It is indeed quite
certain that a good proverb will be short, as short, that is, as is
compatible with the full and forcible conveying of that which it
intends. Brevity, “the soul of wit,” will be eminently the soul of a
proverb’s wit; it will contain, according to Fuller’s definition, “much
matter decocted into few words.” Oftentimes it will consist of two,
three, or four, and these sometimes monosyllabic, words. Thus _Extremes
meet_;—_Right wrongs no man_;—_Forewarned, forearmed_;—with a
thousand more.[3] But still shortness is only a relative term, and
it would perhaps be more accurate to say that a proverb must be
_concise_, cut down, that is, to the fewest possible words; condensed,
quintessential wisdom.[4] But that, if only it fulfil this condition
of being as short as possible, it need not be absolutely very short,
there are sufficient examples to prove. Thus Freytag has admitted the
following, which indeed hovers on the confines of the fable, into his
great collection of Arabic proverbs: _They said to the camel-bird_,
[i. e., the ostrich,] _“Carry:” it answered, ‘I cannot, for I am a
bird.’ They said, “Fly;” it answered, ‘I cannot, for I am a camel.’_
This could not be shorter, yet, as compared with the greater number
of proverbs, is not short.[5] Even so the _sense_ and _salt_, which
are ascribed to the proverb as other of its necessary conditions, can
hardly be said to be such; seeing that flat, saltless proverbs, though
comparatively rare, there certainly are; while yet, be it remembered,
we are not considering now what are the ornaments of a _good_ proverb,
but the essential marks of all.

And then moreover it errs in defect; for it has plainly omitted one
quality of the proverb, and that the most essential of all—I mean
_popularity_, acceptance and adoption on the part of the people.
Without this popularity, without these suffrages and this consent of
the many, no saying, however brief, however wise, however seasoned with
salt, however worthy on all these accounts to have become a proverb,
however fulfilling all other its conditions, can yet be esteemed as
such. This popularity, omitted in that enumeration of the essential
notes of the proverb, is yet the only one whose presence is absolutely
necessary, whose absence is fatal to the claims of any saying to be
regarded as such.

[Sidenote: Aphorisms not proverbs.]

Those, however, who have occupied themselves with the making of
collections of proverbs have sometimes failed to realize this to
themselves with sufficient clearness, or at any rate have not kept it
always before them; and thus it has come to pass, that many collections
include whatever brief sayings their gatherers have anywhere met with,
which to them have appeared keenly, or wisely, or wittily spoken;[6]
while yet a multitude of these have never received their adoption into
the great family of proverbs, or their rights of citizenship therein:
inasmuch as they have never passed into general recognition and
currency, have no claim to this title, however just a claim they may
have on other grounds to our admiration and honour. For instance, this
word of Goethe’s, “A man need not be an architect to live in an house,”
seems to me to have every essential of a proverb, saving only that it
has not passed over upon the lips of men. It is a saying of manifold
application; an universal law is knit up in a particular example; I
mean that gracious law in the distribution of blessing, which does not
limit our use and enjoyment of things by our understanding of them,
but continually makes the enjoyment much wider than the knowledge; so
that it is not required that one be a botanist to have pleasure in a
rose, nor a critic to delight in _Paradise Lost_, nor a theologian to
taste all the blessings of Christian faith, nor, as he expresses it,
an architect to live in an house. And here is an inimitable saying of
Schiller’s: “Heaven and earth fight in vain against a dunce;” yet it is
not a proverb, because his alone; although abundantly worthy to have
become such;[7] moving as it does in the same line with, though far
superior to, the Chinese proverb, which itself also is good: _One has
never so much need of his wit, as when he has to do with a fool_.

Or to take another example still more to the point. James Howell, a
prolific English writer of the earlier half of the seventeenth century,
one certainly meriting better than that almost entire oblivion into
which his writings have fallen, occupied himself much with proverbs;
and besides collecting those of others, he has himself set down “five
hundred new sayings, which in tract of time may serve for proverbs
to posterity.” As was to be expected, they have not so done; for it
is not after this artificial method that such are born; yet many of
these proverbs in expectation are expressed with sense and felicity;
for example: “Pride is a flower that grows in the devil’s garden;” as
again, the selfishness which characterizes too many proverbs is not ill
reproduced in the following: “Burn not thy fingers to snuff another
man’s candle;” and there is at any rate good theology in the following:
“Faith is a great lady, and good works are her attendants;” and in
this: “The poor are God’s receivers, and the angels are his auditors.”
Yet for all this, it would be inaccurate to quote these as proverbs,
(and their author himself, as we have seen, did not do more than set
them out as proverbs upon trial,) inasmuch as they have remained the
private property of him who first devised them, never having passed
into general circulation; which until men’s sayings have done, maxims,
sentences, apothegms, aphorisms they may be, and these of excellent
temper and proof, but proverbs as yet they are not.

[Sidenote: Not all proverbs true.]

It is because of this, the popularity inherent in a genuine proverb,
that from such an one in a certain sense there is no appeal. You will
not suppose me to intend that there is no appeal from its wisdom,
truth, or justice; from any word of man’s there may be such; but no
appeal from it, as most truly representing a popular conviction.
Aristotle, who in his ethical and political writings often finds very
much more than this in it, always finds this. It may not be, it very
often will not be, an universal conviction which it expresses, but
ever one popular and widespread. So far indeed from an universal, very
often over against the one proverb there will be another, its direct
antagonist; and the one shall belong to the kingdom of light, the other
to the kingdom of darkness. _Common fame is seldom to blame_; here is
the baser proverb, for as many as drink in with greedy ears all reports
to the injury of their neighbours; being determined from the first that
they _shall_ be true. But it is not left without its compensation:
_“They say so,” is half a liar_; here is the better word with which
_they_ may arm themselves, who count it a primal duty to close their
ears against all such unauthenticated rumours to the discredit of
their brethren. _The noblest vengeance is to forgive_; here is the
godlike proverb on the manner in which wrongs should be recompensed:
_He who cannot revenge himself is weak, he who will not is vile_,[8]
here is the devilish. These lines occur in a sonnet which Howell has
prefixed to his collection of proverbs:

“The people’s voice the voice of God we call;
And what are proverbs but the people’s voice?
Coined first, and current made by common choice?
Then sure they must have weight and truth withal;”

It will follow from what has just been said, that, true in the
main, they yet cannot be taken without certain qualifications and

[Sidenote: Popularity essential.]

Herein in great part the force of a proverb lies, namely, that it has
already received the stamp of popular allowance. A man might produce,
(for what another has done, he might do again,) something as witty, as
forcible, as much to the point, of his own; which should be hammered at
the instant on his own anvil. Yet still it is not “the wisdom of many;”
it has not stood the test of experience; it wants that which the other
already has, but which it only after a long period can acquire—the
consenting voice of many and at different times to its wisdom and
truth. A man employing a “proverb of the ancients,” (1 Sam. xxiv.
13,) is not speaking of his own, but uttering a faith and conviction
very far wider than that of himself or of any single man; and it is
because he is so doing that they, in Lord Bacon’s words, “serve not
only for ornament and delight, but also for active and civil use; as
being the edge tools of speech which cut and penetrate the knots of
business and affairs.” The proverb has in fact the same advantage over
the word now produced for the first time, which for present currency
and value has the recognised coin of the realm over the rude unstamped
ore newly washed from the stream, or dug up from the mine. This last
_may_ possess an equal amount of fineness; but the other has been
stamped long ago, has already passed often from man to man, and found
free acceptance with all:[10] it inspires therefore a confidence which
the ruder metal cannot at present challenge. And the same satisfaction
which the educated man finds in referring the particular matter before
him to the universal law which rules it, a plainer man finds in the
appeal to a proverb. He is doing the same thing; taking refuge, that
is, as each man so gladly does, from his mere self and single fallible
judgment, in a larger experience and in a wider conviction.

And in all this which has been urged lies, as it seems to me, the
explanation of a sentence of an ancient grammarian, which at first
sight appears to contain a bald absurdity, namely, that a proverb is
“a saying without an author.” For, however without a _known_ author
it may, and in the majority of cases it must be, still, as we no more
believe in the spontaneous generation of proverbs than of anything
else, an author every one of them must have had. It might, however,
and it often will have been, that in its utterance the author did but
_precipitate_ the floating convictions of the society round him; he
did but clothe in happier form what others had already felt, or even
already uttered; for often a proverb has been in this aspect, “the wit
of one, and the wisdom of many.” And further, its constitutive element,
as we must all now perceive, is not the utterance on the part of the
one, but the acceptance on the part of the many. It is _their_ sanction
which first makes it to be such; so that every one who took or gave it
during the period when it was struggling into recognition may claim
to have had a share in its production; and in this sense without any
single author it may have been. From the very first the people will
have vindicated it for their own. And thus though they do not always
analyse the compliment paid to them in the use of their proverbs, they
always feel it; they feel that a writer or speaker using these is
putting himself on their ground, is entering on their region, and they
welcome him the more cordially for this.[11]

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Not all proverbs figurative.]

Let us now consider if some other have not sometimes been proposed as
essential notes of the proverb, which yet are in fact accidents, such
as may be present or absent without affecting it vitally. Into an error
of this kind they have fallen, who have claimed for the proverb, and
made it one of its necessary conditions, that it should be a figurative
expression. A moment’s consideration will be sufficient to disprove
this. How many proverbs, such as _Haste makes waste_;—_Honesty is the
best policy_, with ten thousand more, have nothing figurative about
them. Here again the error has arisen from taking that which belongs
certainly to very many proverbs, and those oftentimes the best and
choicest, and transferring it, as a necessary condition, to all. This
much of truth they who made the assertion certainly had; namely, that
the employment of the concrete instead of the abstract is one of the
most frequent means by which it obtains and keeps its popularity;
for so the proverb makes its appeal to the whole man—not to the
intellectual faculties alone, but to the feelings, to the fancy, or
even to the imagination, as well, stirring the whole man to pleasurable

By the help of an instance or two we can best realize to ourselves how
great an advantage it thus obtains for itself. Suppose, for example,
one were to content himself with saying, “He may wait till he is a
beggar, who waits to be rich by other men’s deaths,” would this trite
morality be likely to go half so far, or to be remembered half so
long, as the vigorous comparison of this proverb: _He who waits for
dead men’s shoes may go barefoot_?[12] Or again, what were “All men
are mortal,” as compared with the proverb: _Every door may be shut but
death’s door_? Or let one observe: “More perish by intemperance than
are drowned in the sea,” is this anything better than a painful, yet at
the same time a flat, truism? But let it be put in this shape: _More
are drowned in the beaker than in the ocean_;[13] or again in this:
_More are drowned in wine and in beer than in water_;[14] (and these
both are German proverbs,) and the assertion assumes quite a different
character. There is something that lays hold on us now. We are struck
with the smallness of the cup as set against the vastness of the
ocean, while yet so many more deaths are ascribed to that than to this;
and further with the fact that literally none are, and none could be,
drowned in the former, while multitudes perish in the latter. In the
justifying of the paradox, in the extricating of the real truth from
the apparent falsehood of the statement, in the answer to the appeal
made here to the imagination,—an appeal and challenge which, unless
it be responded to, the proverb must remain unintelligible to us,—in
all this there is a process of mental activity, oftentimes so rapidly
exercised as scarcely to be perceptible, yet not the less carried on
with a pleasurable excitement.[15]

[Sidenote: Rhyme in proverbs.]

Let me mention now a few other of the more frequent helps which the
proverb employs for obtaining currency among men, for being listened
to with pleasure by them, for not slipping again from their memories
who have once heard it;—yet helps which are evidently so separable
from it, that none can be in danger of affirming them essential parts
or conditions of it. Of these rhyme is the most prominent. It would
lead me altogether from my immediate argument, were I to enter into a
disquisition on the causes of the charm which rhyme has for us all; but
that it does possess a wondrous charm, that we _like_ what is _like_,
is attested by a thousand facts, and not least by the circumstance
that into this rhyming form a very great multitude of proverbs, and
those among the most widely current, have been thrown. Though such
will probably at once be present to the minds of all, yet let me
mention a few: _Good mind, good find_;—_Wide will wear, but tight
will tear_;—_Truth may be blamed, but cannot be shamed_;—_Little
strokes fell great oaks_;—_Women’s jars breed men’s wars_;—_A
king’s face should give grace_;—_East, west, home is best_;—_Store
is no sore_;—_Slow help is no help_;—_Who goes a-borrowing, goes
a-sorrowing_;—with many more, uniting, as you will observe several of
them do, this of rhyme with that which I have spoken of before, namely,
extreme brevity and conciseness.[16]

[Sidenote: Alliteration in proverbs.]

Alliteration, which is nearly allied to rhyme, is another of the
helps whereof the proverb largely avails itself. Alliteration was at
one time an important element in our early English versification; it
almost promised to contend with rhyme itself, which should be the most
important; and perhaps, if some great master in the art had arisen,
might have retained a far greater hold on English poetry than it now
possesses. At present it is merely secondary and subsidiary. Yet it
cannot be called altogether unimportant; no master of melody despises
it; on the contrary, the greatest, as in our days Tennyson, make the
most frequent, though not always the most obvious, use of it. In the
proverb you will find it of continual recurrence, and where it falls,
as, to be worth anything, it must, on the key-words of the sentence,
of very high value. Thus: _Frost and fraud both end in foul_;—_Like
lips, like lettuce_;—_Meal and matins minish no way_;—_Who swims in
sin, shall sink in sorrow_;—_No cross, no crown_;—_Out of debt, out
of danger_;—_Do in hill as you would do in hall_;[17] that is, Be in
solitude the same that you would be in a crowd. I will not detain you
with further examples of this in other languages; but such occur, and
in such numbers that it seems idle to quote them, in all; I will only
adduce, in concluding this branch of the subject, a single Italian
proverb, which in a remarkable manner unites all three qualities of
which we have been last treating, brevity, rhyme, and alliteration:
_Traduttori, traditori_; one which we might perhaps reconstitute in
English thus: _Translators, traitors_; so untrue, for the most part,
are they to the genius of their original, to its spirit, if not to its
letter, and frequently to both; so do they _surrender_, rather than
_render_, its meaning; not _turning_, but only _overturning_, it from
one language to another.[18]

A certain pleasant exaggeration, the use of the figure hyperbole, a
figure of natural rhetoric which Scripture itself does not disdain
to employ, is a not unfrequent engine with the proverb to procure
attention, and to make a way for itself into the minds of men. Thus
the Persians have a proverb: _A needle’s eye is wide enough for two
friends; the whole world is too narrow for two foes_. Again, of a man
whose good luck seems never to forsake him, so that from the very
things which would be another man’s ruin he extricates himself not
merely without harm, but with credit and with gain, the Arabs say:
_Fling him into the Nile, and he will come up with a fish in his
mouth_; while of such a Fortunatus as this the Germans have a proverb:
_If he flung a penny on the roof, a dollar would come down to him_;[19]
as, again, of the man in the opposite extreme of fortune, to whom the
most unlikely calamities, and such as beforehand might seem to exclude
one another, befall, they say: _He would fall on his back, and break
his nose_.

[Sidenote: Transplanting of proverbs.]

In all this which I have just traced out, in the fact that the proverbs
of a language are so frequently its highest bloom and flower, while
yet so much of their beauty consists often in curious felicities of
diction pertaining exclusively to some single language, either in a
rapid conciseness to which nothing tantamount exists elsewhere, or
in rhymes which it is hard to reproduce, or in alliterations which
do not easily find their equivalents, or in other verbal happinesses
such as these, lies the difficulty which is often felt, which I shall
myself often feel in the course of these lectures, of transferring them
without serious loss, nay, sometimes the impossibility of transferring
them at all from one language to another.[20] Oftentimes, to use an
image of Erasmus,[21] they are like those wines, (I believe the Spanish
Valdepeñas is one,) of which the true excellence can only be known
by those who drink them in the land which gave them birth. Transport
them under other skies, or, which is still more fatal, empty them from
vessel to vessel, and their strength and flavour will in great part
have disappeared in the process.

Still this is rather the case, where we seek deliberately, and only in
a literary interest, to translate some proverb which we admire from
its native language into our own or another. Where, on the contrary,
_it has transferred itself_, made for itself a second home, and taken
root a second time in the heart and affections of a people, in such a
case one is continually surprised at the instinctive skill with which
it has found compensations for that which it has been compelled to let
go; it is impossible not to admire the unconscious skill with which it
has replaced one vigorous idiom by another, one happy rhyme or play on
words by its equivalent; and all this even in those cases where the
extremely narrow limits in which it must confine itself allow it the
very smallest liberty of selection. And thus, presenting itself equally
finished and complete in two or even more languages, the internal
evidence will be quite insufficient to determine which of its forms we
shall regard as the original, and which as a copy. For example, the
proverb at once German and French, which I can present in no comelier
English dress than this,

Mother’s truth
Keeps constant youth;

but which in German runs thus,

Wird täglich neu_;

and in French,

_Tendresse maternelle
Toujours se renouvelle_;

appears to me as exquisitely graceful and tender in the one language as
in the other; while yet so much of its beauty depends on the form, that
beforehand one could hardly have expected that the charm of it would
have survived its transfer to the second language, whichever that may
be, wherein it found an home. Having thus opened the subject, I shall
reserve its further development for the lectures which follow.


[1] A similar contempt of them speaks out in the antithesis of the
French Jesuit, Bouhours: Les proverbes sont les sentences du peuple, et
les sentences sont les proverbes des honnêtes gens.

[2] Compare with this Martial’s so happy epigram upon epigrams, in
which everything runs exactly parallel to that which has been said

“Omne epigramma sit instar apis; sit aculeus illi,
Sint sua mella, sit et corporis exigui;”

which may be indifferently rendered thus:

“Three things must epigrams, like bees, have all—
Its sting, its honey, and its body small.”

[3] The very shortest proverb which I know in the world is this German:
Voll, toll; which sets out very well the connexion between fulness
and folly, pride and abundance of bread. In that seeking of extreme
brevity noted above, they sometimes become exceedingly elliptical,
(although this is the case more with the ancient than with the modern,)
so much so as to omit even the vital element of the sentence, the
verb. Thus: Χρήματ’ ἀνήρ;—Sus Minervam;—Fures clamorem;—Meretrix
pudicam;—Amantes amentes.

[4] This is what Aristotle means when he ascribes συντομία—which in
another place he opposes to the ὄγκος λέξεως—to it.

[5] Let serve for further proof this eminently witty old German
proverb, which, despite its apparent length, has not forfeited its
character as such. I shall prefer to leave it in the original: Man
spricht, an viererlei Leuten ist Mangel auf Erden: an Pfaffen, sonst
dürfte einer nit 6 bis 7 Pfruenden; an Adelichen, sonst wollte nit
jeder Bauer ein Junker sein; an Huren, sonst würden die Handwerk
Eheweiber und Nunnen nit treiben; an Juden, sonst würden Christen
nit wuchern.

[6] When Erasmus, after discussing and rejecting the definitions of
those who had gone before him, himself defines the proverb thus,
Celebre dictum, scitâ quâpiam novitate insigne, it appears to me that
he has not escaped the fault which he has blamed in others—that,
namely, of confounding the accidental adjuncts of a _good_ proverb with
the necessary conditions of _every_ proverb. In rigour the whole second
clause of the definition should be dismissed, and _Celebre dictum_
alone remain. Better Eifelein (_Sprichwörter des Deutschen Volkes_,
Friburg, 1840, p. x.): Das Sprichwort ist ein mit öffentlichem Gepräge
ausgemünzter Saz, der seinen Curs und anerkannten Werth unter dem Volke

[7] It suggests, however, the admirable Spanish proverb, spoken no
doubt out of the same conviction: Dios me dè contienda, con quien me

[8] Chi non può fare sua vendetta è debile, chi non vuole è vile.

[9] Quintilian’s words (_Inst._ 5. 11. 41), which are to the same
effect, must be taken with the same exception; Neque enim durâssent
hæc in æternum, nisi vera omnibus viderentur; and also Don Quixote’s:
Paréceme me, Sancho, que no ay refrán que no sea verdadéro, porque
todas son sentencias sacadas de la misma experiencia, madre de las
ciencias todas.

[10] Thus in a proverb about proverbs, the Italians say, with a true
insight into this its prerogative: Il proverbio _s’invecchia_, e chi
vuol far bene, vi si specchia.

[11] The name which the proverb bears in Spanish points to this fact,
that popularity is a necessary condition of it. This name is not
_proverbio_, for that in Spanish signifies an apothegm, an aphorism, a
maxim; but _refrán_, which is _a referendo_, from the frequency of its
repetition; yet see Diez, _Etymol. Wörterbuch_, p. 284. The etymology
of the Greek παροιμία is somewhat doubtful, but it too means probably
a _trite, wayside_ saying.

[12] The same, under a different image, in Spanish: Larga soga tira,
quien por muerte agena suspira.

[13] Im Becher ersaufen mehr als im Meere.

[14] In Wein und Bier ertrinken mehr denn im Wasser.

[15] Here is the explanation of the perplexity of Erasmus. Deinde fit,
_nescio quo pacto_, ut sententia proverbio quasi vibrata feriat acrius
auditoris animum, et aculeos quosdam cogitationum relinquat infixos.

[16] So, too, in other languages; Qui prend, se rend;—Qui se loue,
s’emboue;—Chi và piano, và sano, e và lontano;—Chi compra terra,
compra guerra;—Quien se muda, Dios le ayuda;—Wie gewonnen, so
zerronnen; and the Latin medieval;—Qualis vita, finis ita;—Via
crucis, via lucis;—Uniti muniti.—We sometimes regard rhyme as a
modern invention, and to the modern world no doubt the discovery of
all its capabilities, and the consequent large application of it
belongs. But proverbs alone would be sufficient to show that in itself
it is not modern, however restricted in old times the employment of
it may have been. For instance, there is a Greek proverb to express
that men learn by their sufferings more than by any other teaching:
Παθήματα, μαθήματα (Herod., i. 207;) one which in the Latin,
Nocumenta, documenta, or, Quæ nocent, docent, finds both in rhyme and
sense its equivalent; to both of which evidently the inducement lay in
the chiming and rhyming words. Another rhyming Greek proverb which I
have met, Πλησμονή, ἐπιλησμονὴ, implying that fulness of blessings is
too often accompanied with forgetfulness of their Author (_Deut._ 8.
11-14,) is, I fancy, not ancient—at least does not date further back
than Greek Christianity. The sentiment would imply this, and the fact
that the word ἐπιλησμονή does not occur in classical Greek would seem
to be decisive upon it.

[17] So in Latin: Nil sole et sale utilius; and in Greek: Σῶμα, σῆμα.

[18] This is St. Jerome’s pun, who complains that the Latin versions of
the Greek Testament current in the Church in his day were too many of
them not _versiones_, but _eversiones_.

[19] Würf er einen Groschen aufs Dach, fiel ihm Ein Thaler
herunter;—compare another: Wer Glück hat, dem kalbet ein Ochs.

[20] Thus in respect of this German proverb:

_Stultus_ und _Stolz_
Wachset aus Einem Holz;

its transfer into any other languages is manifestly impossible. The
same may be affirmed of another, commending stay-at-home habits to the
wife: Die _Hausfrau_ soll nit sein eine _Ausfrau_; or again of this
beautiful Spanish one: La _verdad_ es siempre _verde_.

[21] Habent enim hoc peculiare pleraque proverbia, ut in eâ linguâ
sonare postulant in quâ nata sunt; quod si in alienum sermonem
demigrârint, multum gratiæ decedat. Quemadmodum sunt et vina quædam quæ
recusant exportari, nec germanam saporis gratiam obtineant, nisi in his
locis in quibus proveniunt.

In my preceding lecture I occupied your attention with the form and
definition of a proverb; let us proceed in the present to realize to
ourselves, so far as this may be possible, the processes by which a
nation gets together the great body of its proverbs, the sources from
which it mainly derives them, and the circumstances under which such as
it makes for itself of new, had their birth and generation.

And first, I would call to your attention the fact that a vast number
of its proverbs a people does not make for itself, but finds ready
made to its hands: it enters upon them as a part of its intellectual
and moral inheritance. The world has now endured so long, and the
successive generations of men have thought, felt, enjoyed, suffered,
and altogether learned so much, that there is an immense stock of
wisdom which may be said to belong to humanity in common, being the
gathered fruits of all this its experience in the past. Even Aristotle,
more than two thousand years ago, could speak of proverbs as “the
fragments of an elder wisdom, which, on account of their brevity and
aptness, had amid a general wreck and ruin been preserved.” These, the
common property of the civilized world, are the original stock with
which each nation starts; these, either orally handed down to it, or
made its own by those of its earlier writers who brought it into living
communication with the past. Thus, and through these channels, a vast
number of Greek, Latin, and medieval proverbs live on with us, and with
all the modern nations of the world.

[Sidenote: Antiquity of proverbs.]

It is, indeed, oftentimes a veritable surprise to discover the
venerable age and antiquity of a proverb, which we have hitherto
assumed to be quite a later birth of modern society. Thus we may
perhaps suppose that well-known word which forbids the too accurate
scanning of a present, _One must not look a gift horse in the mouth_,
to be of English extraction, the genuine growth of our own soil. I
will not pretend to say how old it may be, but it is certainly as old
as Jerome, a Latin father of the fourth century; who, when some found
fault with certain writings of his, replied with a tartness which he
could occasionally exhibit, that they were voluntary on his part,
free-will offerings, and with this quoted the proverb, _that it did not
behove to look a gift horse in the mouth_; and before it comes to us,
we meet it once more in one of the rhymed Latin verses, which were such
great favourites in the middle ages:

Si quis dat mannos, ne quære in dentibus annos.

Again, _Liars should have good memories_ is a saying which probably
we assume to be modern; yet it is very far from so being. The same
Jerome, who, I may observe by the way, is a very great quoter of
proverbs, and who has preserved some that would not otherwise have
descended to us,[22] speaks of one as “unmindful of the _old_ proverb,
_Liars should have good memories_,”[23] and we find it ourselves in a
Latin writer a good deal older than him.[24] So too I was certainly
surprised to discover the other day that our own proverb: _Good company
on a journey is worth a coach_, has come down to us from the ancient

[Sidenote: Rhymed Latin proverbs.]

Having lighted just now on one of those Latin rhymed verses, let me by
the way guard against an error about them, into which it would be very
easy to fall. I have seen it suggested that these, if not the source
_from_ which, are yet the channels _by_ which, a great many proverbs
have reached us. I should greatly doubt it. This much we may conclude
from the existence of proverbs in this shape, namely, that since these
rhymed or leonine verses went altogether out of fashion at the revival
of a classical taste in the fifteenth century, such proverbs as are
found in this form may be affirmed with a tolerable certainty to date
at least as far back as that period; but not that in all or even in a
majority of cases, this shape was their earliest. Oftentime the proverb
in its more popular form is so greatly superior to the same in this
its Latin monkish dress, that the latter by its tameness and flatness
betrays itself at once as the inadequate translation, and we cannot
fail to regard the other as the genuine proverb. Many of them are “so
essentially Teutonic, that they frequently appear to great disadvantage
in the Latin garb which has been huddled upon them.”[26] Thus, when we
have on one side the English, _Hungry bellies have no ears_, and on the
other the Latin,

Jejunus venter non audit verba libenter,

who can doubt that the first is the proverb, and the second only its
versification? Or who would hesitate to affirm that the old Greek
proverb, _A rolling stone gathers no moss_, may very well have come to
us without the intervention of the medieval Latin,

Non fit hirsutus lapis hinc atque inde volutus?

And the true state of the case comes out still more clearly, where
there are _two_ of these rhymed Latin equivalents for the one popular
proverb, and these quite independent of each other. So it is in respect
of our English proverb: _A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush_;
which appears in this form:

Una avis in dextrâ melior quam quatuor extra;

and also in this:

Capta avis est pluris quam mille in gramine ruris.

Who can fail to see here two independent attempts to render the same
saying? Sometimes the Latin line confesses itself to be only the
rendering of a popular word; thus is it with the following:

_Ut dicunt multi, cito transit lancea stulti_;

in other words: _A fool’s bolt is soon shot_.

Then, besides this derivation from elder sources, from the literature
of nations which as such now no longer exist, besides this process in
which a people are merely receivers and borrowers, there is also at
somewhat later periods in its life a mutual interchange between it and
other nations growing up beside, and cotemporaneously with it, of
their own several inventions in this kind; a free giving and taking,
in which it is often hard, and oftener impossible, to say which is the
lender and which the borrower. Thus the quantity of proverbs not drawn
from antiquity, but common to all, or nearly all of the modern European
languages, is very great. The ‘solidarity’ (to use a word which it is
in vain to strive against) of all the nations of Christendom comes out
very noticeably here.

[Sidenote: Proverbs claimed by many.]

There is indeed nothing in the study of proverbs, in the attribution of
them to their right owners, in the arrangement and citation of them,
which creates a greater perplexity than the circumstances of finding
the same proverb in so many different quarters, current among so many
different nations. In quoting it as of one, it often seems as if we
were doing wrong to many, while yet it is almost, or oftener still
altogether, impossible to determine to what nation it first belonged,
so that others drew it at second hand from that one;—even granting
that any form in which we now possess it is really its oldest of all.
More than once this fact has occasioned a serious disappointment to
the zealous collector of the proverbs of his native country. Proud
of the rich treasures which in this kind it possessed, he has very
reluctantly discovered on a fuller investigation of the whole subject,
how many of these which he counted native, the peculiar heirloom and
glory of his own land, must at once and without hesitation be resigned
to others, who can be shown beyond all doubt to have been in earlier
possession of them: while in respect of many more, if his own nation
can put in a claim to them as well as others, yet he is compelled to
feel that it can put in no better than, oftentimes not so good as, many

[Sidenote: Unregistered proverbs.]

This single fact, which it is impossible to question, that nations are
thus continually borrowing proverbs from one another, is sufficient to
show that, however the great body of those which are the portion of a
nation may be, some almost as old as itself, and some far older, it
would for all this be a serious mistake to regard the sum of them as a
closed account, neither capable of, nor actually receiving, addition—a
mistake of the same character as that sometimes made in regard to
the _words_ of a language. So long as a language is living, it will
be appropriating foreign words, putting forth new words of its own.
Exactly in the same way, so long as a people have any vigorous energies
at work in them, are acquiring any new experiences of life, are forming
any new moral convictions, for the new experiences and convictions
new utterances will be found; and some of the happiest of these will
receive that stamp of general allowance which shall constitute them
proverbs. And this fact makes it little likely that the collections
which exist in print, and certainly not the earlier ones, will embrace
all the proverbs in actual circulation. They preserve, indeed, many
others; all those which have now become obsolete, and which would, but
for them, have been forgotten; but there are not a few, as I imagine,
which, living on the lips of men, have yet never found their way into
books, however worthy to have done so; and this, either because the
sphere in which they circulate has continued always a narrow one,
or that the occasions which call them out are very rare, or that
they, having only lately risen up, have not hitherto attracted the
attention of any who cared to record them. It would be well, if such
as take an interest in the subject, and are sufficiently well versed
in the proverbial literature of their own country to recognise such
unregistered proverbs when they meet them, would secure them from that
perishing, which, so long as they remain merely oral, might easily
overtake them; and would make them at the same time, what all _good_
proverbs ought certainly to be, the common heritage of all.[28]

And as new proverbs will be born from life and from life’s experience,
so too there will be another fruitful source of their further increase,
namely, the books which the people have made heartily their own.
Portions of these they will continually detach, most often word for
word; at other times wrought up into new shapes with that freedom which
they claim to exercise in regard of whatever they thus appropriate to
their own use. These, having detached, they will give and take as part
of their current intellectual money. Thus “_Evil communications corrupt
good manners_,”[29] (1 Cor. xv. 33,) is word for word a metrical line
from a Greek comedy. It is not probable that St. Paul had ever read
this comedy, but the words for their truth’s sake had been taken up
into the common speech of men; and not as a citation, but as a proverb,
he uses them. And if you will, from this point of view, glance over a
few pages of one of Shakespeare’s more popular dramas,—Hamlet, for
example,—you will be surprised, in case your attention has never
been called to this before, to note how much has in this manner been
separated from it, that it might pass into the every day use and
service of man; and you will be prepared to estimate higher than ever
what he has done for his fellow countrymen, the “possession for ever”
which his writings have become for them. And much no doubt is passing
even now from favourite authors into the flesh and blood of a nation’s
moral and intellectual life; and as “household words,” as parts of its
proverbial philosophy, for ever incorporating itself therewith. We have
a fair measure of an author’s true popularity, I mean of the real and
lasting hold which he has taken on his nation’s heart, in the extent to
which it has been thus done with his writings.

* * * * *

There is another way in which additions are from time to time made
to the proverbial wealth of a people. Some event has laid strong
hold of their imagination, has stirred up the depths of their moral
consciousness; and this they have gathered up for themselves, perhaps
in some striking phrase which was uttered at the moment, or in some
allusive words, understood by everybody, and which at once summon up
the whole incident before their eyes.

[Sidenote: Scriptural proverbs.]

Sacred history furnishes us with one example at the least of the
generation in this wise of a proverb. That word, “_Is Saul also among
the prophets?_” is one of which we know the exact manner in which
it grew to be a “proverb in Israel.” When the son of Kish revealed
of a sudden that nobler life which had hitherto been slumbering in
him, alike undreamt of by himself and by others, took his part and
place among the sons of the prophets, and, borne along in their
enthusiasm, praised and prophesied as they did, showing that he was
indeed turned into another man, then all that knew him beforehand said
one to another, some probably in sincere astonishment, some in irony
and unbelief, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” And the question they
asked found and finds its application so often as any reveals of a
sudden, at some crisis of his life, qualities for which those who knew
him the longest had hitherto given him no credit, a nobleness which
had been latent in him until now, a power of taking his place among
the worthiest and the best, which none until now had at all deemed him
to possess. It will, of course, find equally its application, when one
does not step truly, but only affects suddenly to step, into an higher
school, to take his place in a nobler circle of life, than that in
which hitherto he has moved.

[Sidenote: The cranes of Ibycus.]

Another proverb, and one well known to the Greek scholar, _The cranes
of Ibycus_,[30] had its rise in one of those remarkable incidents,
which, witnessing for God’s inscrutable judgments, are eagerly grasped
by men. The story of its birth is indeed one to which so deep a moral
interest is attached, that I shall not hesitate to repeat it, even at
the risk that Schiller’s immortal poem on the subject, or it may be
the classical studies of some here present, may have made it already
familiar to a portion of my hearers. Ibycus, a famous lyrical poet
of Greece, journeying to Corinth, was assailed by robbers: as he fell
beneath their murderous strokes he looked round, if any witnesses or
avengers were nigh. No living thing was in sight, save only a flight
of cranes soaring high over head. He called on them, and to them
committed the avenging of his blood. A vain commission, as it might
have appeared, and as no doubt it did to the murderers appear. Yet it
was not so. For these, sitting a little time after in the open theatre
at Corinth, beheld this flight of cranes hovering above them, and
one said scoffingly to another, “Lo, there, the avengers of Ibycus!”
The words were caught up by some near them; for already the poet’s
disappearance had awakened anxiety and alarm. Being questioned, they
betrayed themselves, and were led to their doom; and _The cranes of
Ibycus_ passed into a proverb, very much as our _Murder will out_, to
express the wondrous leadings of God whereby continually the secretest
thing of blood is brought to the open light of day.

_Gold of Toulouse_[31] is another of these proverbs in which men’s
sense of a God verily ruling and judging the earth has found its
embodiment. The Consul Q. S. Cæpio had taken the city of Toulouse
by an act of more than common perfidy and treachery; and possessed
himself of the immense hoards of wealth stored in the temples of the
Gaulish deities. From this day forth he was so hunted by calamity, all
extremest evils and disasters, all shame and dishonour, fell so thick
on himself and all who were his, and were so traced up by the moral
instinct of mankind to this accursed thing which he had made his own,
that any wicked gains, fatal to their possessor, acquired this name;
and of such a one it would be said “He has gold of Toulouse.”

Another proverb, which in English has run into the following posy,
_There’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip_, descends to us from
the Greeks, having a very striking story connected with it: A master
treated with extreme cruelty his slaves who were occupied in planting
and otherwise laying out a vineyard for him; until at length one of
them, the most misused, prophesied that for this his cruelty he should
never drink of its wine. When the first vintage was completed, he bade
this slave to fill a goblet for him, which taking in his hand he at
the same time taunted him with the non-fulfilment of his prophecy.
The other replied with words which have since become proverbial: as
he spake, tidings were hastily brought of a huge wild boar that was
wasting the vineyard. Setting down the untasted cup, the master went
out to meet the wild boar, and was slain in the encounter, and thus the
proverb, _Many things find place between the cup and lip_, arose.[32]

A Scotch proverb, _He that invented the Maiden, first hanselled it_,
is not altogether unworthy to rank with these. It alludes to the
well-known historic fact that the Regent Morton, the inventor of a new
instrument of death called “The Maiden,” was himself the first upon
whom the proof of it was made. Men felt, to use the language of the
Latin poet, that “no law was juster than that the artificers of death
should perish by their own art,” and embodied their sense of this in
the proverb.

[Sidenote: Gnomes become proverbs.]

Memorable words of illustrious men will frequently not die in the
utterance, but pass from mouth to mouth, being still repeated with
complacency, till at length they have received their adoption into the
great family of national proverbs. Such were the gnomes or sayings
of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, supposing them to have been indeed
theirs, and not ascribed to them only after they had obtained universal
currency and acceptance. So too a saying, attributed to Alexander
the Great, may very well have arisen on the occasion, and under the
circumstances, to which its birth is commonly ascribed. When some of
his officers reported to him with something of dismay the innumerable
multitudes of the Persian hosts which were advancing to assail him, the
youthful Macedonian hero silenced them and their apprehensions with the
reply: _One butcher does not fear many sheep_; not in this applying
an old proverb, but framing a new, and one admirably expressive of
the confidence which he felt in the immeasurable superiority of the
Hellenic over the barbarian man;—and this word, having been once set
on foot by him, has since lived on, and that, because the occasions
were so numerous on which a word like this would find its application.

And taking occasion from this royal proverb, let me just observe by the
way, that it would be a great mistake to assume, though the error is by
no means an uncommon one, that because proverbs are popular, they have
therefore originally sprung from the bosom of the populace. What was
urged in my first lecture of their popularity was not at all intended
in this sense; and the sound common sense, the wit, the wisdom, the
right feeling, which are their _predominant_ characteristics, alike
contradict any such supposition. They spring rather from the sound
healthy kernel of the nation, whether in high place or in low; and it
is surely worthy of note, how large a proportion of those with the
generation of which we are acquainted, owe their existence to the
foremost men of their time, to its philosophers, its princes, and its
kings; as it would not be difficult to show. And indeed the evil in
proverbs testifies to this quite as much as the good. Thus the many
proverbs in almost all modern tongues expressing scorn of the “villain”
are alone sufficient to show that for the most part they are very far
from having their birth quite in the lower regions of society, but
reflect much oftener the prejudices and passions of those higher in the
social scale.

[Sidenote: A Spanish proverb.]

Let me adduce another example of the proverbs which have thus grown
out of an incident, which contain an allusion to it, and are only
perfectly intelligible when the incident itself is known. It is this
Spanish: _Let that which is lost be for God_; one the story of whose
birth is thus given by the leading Spanish commentator on the proverbs
of his nation:—The father of a family, making his will and disposing
of his goods upon his death-bed, ordained concerning a certain cow
which had strayed, and had been now for a long time missing, that, if
it were found, it should be for his children, if otherwise for God:
and hence the proverb, _Let that which is lost be for God_, arose. The
saying was not one to let die; it laid bare with too fine a skill some
of the subtlest treacheries of the human heart; for, indeed, whenever
men would give to God only their lame and their blind, that which costs
them nothing, that from which they hope no good, no profit, no pleasure
for themselves, what are they saying in their hearts but that which
this man said openly, _Let that which is lost be for God_.

This subject of the generation of proverbs, upon which I have thus
touched so slightly, is yet one upon which whole volumes have been
written. Those who have occupied themselves herein have sought to trace
historically the circumstances out of which various proverbs have
sprung, and to which they owe their existence; that so by the analogy
of these we might realize to ourselves the rise of others whose origins
lie out of our vision, obscure and unknown. No one will deny the
interest of the subject: it cannot but be most interesting to preside
thus at the birth of a saying which has lived on and held its ground in
the world, and has not ceased, from the day it was first uttered, to
be more or less of a spiritual or intellectual force among men. Still
the cases where this is possible are exceedingly rare, as compared with
the far greater number where the first birth is veiled, as is almost
all birth, in mystery and obscurity. And indeed it could scarcely be
otherwise. The great majority of proverbs are foundlings, the happier
foundlings of a nation’s wit, which the collective nation has refused
to let perish, has taken up and adopted for its own. But still, as must
be expected to be the case with foundlings, they can for the most part
give no distinct account of themselves. They make their way, relying
on their own merits, not on those of their parents and authors; whom
they have forgotten; and who seem equally to have forgotten them, or,
at any rate, fail to claim them. Not seldom, too, when a story has been
given to account for a proverb’s rise, it must remain a question open
to much doubt, whether the story has not been subsequently imagined
for the proverb, rather than that the proverb has indeed sprung out of

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Employment of proverbs.]

The proverb having thus had its rise from life, however it may be often
impossible to trace that rise, will continually turn back to life
again; it will attest its own practical character by the frequency with
which it will present itself for use, and will have been actually used
upon earnest and important occasions; throwing its weight into one
scale or the other at some critical moment, and sometimes with decisive
effect. I have little doubt that with knowledge sufficient one might
bring together a large collection of instances wherein, at significant
moments, the proverb has played its part, and, it may be, very often
helped to bring about issues, of which all would acknowledge the

In this aspect, as having been used at a great critical moment, and
as part of the moral influence brought to bear on that occasion for
effecting a great result, no proverb of man’s can be compared with that
one which the Lord used when He met his future Apostle, but at this
time his persecutor, in the way, and warned him, of the fruitlessness
and folly of a longer resistance to a might which must overcome him,
and with still greater harm to himself, at the last: _It is hard for
thee to kick against the pricks_.[34] (Acts xxvi. 14.) It is not always
observed, but yet it adds much to the fitness of this proverb’s use on
this great occasion, that it was already, even in that heathen world to
which originally it belonged, predominantly used to note the madness of
a striving on man’s part against the superior power of the gods; for
so we find it in the chief passages of heathen antiquity in which it

I must take the second illustration of my assertion from a very
different quarter, passing at a single stride from the kingdom of
heaven to the kingdom of hell, and finding my example there. We are
told then, that when Catherine de Medicis desired to overcome the
hesitation of her son Charles the Ninth, and draw from him his consent
to the massacre, afterwards known as that of St. Bartholomew, she urged
on him with effect a proverb which she had brought with her from her
own land, and assuredly one of the most convenient maxims for tyrants
that was ever framed: _Sometimes clemency is cruelty, and cruelty

Later French history supplies another and more agreeable illustration.
At the siege of Douay, Louis the Fourteenth found himself with his
suite unexpectedly under a heavy cannonade from the besieged city.
I do not believe that Louis was deficient in personal courage, yet,
in compliance with the entreaties of most of those around him, who
urged that he should not expose so important a life, he was about, in
somewhat unsoldierly and unkingly fashion, immediately to retire; when
M. de Charost, drawing close to him, whispered the well-known French
proverb in his ear: _The wine is drawn; it must be drunk_.[36] The king
remained exposed to the fire of the enemy a suitable period, and it is
said ever after held in higher honour than before the counsellor who
had with this word saved him from an unseemly retreat. Let this on the
generation of proverbs, with the actual employment which has been made
of them, for the present suffice.


[22] Thus is it, I believe, with, Bos lassus fortius figit pedem;
a proverb with which he warns the younger Augustine not to provoke
a contest with him, the weary, but therefore the more formidable,

[23] Oblitus _veteris_ proverbii: mendaces memores esse oportere. Let
me quote here Fuller’s excellent unfolding of this proverb: “Memory
in a liar is no more than needs. For first lies are hard to be
remembered, because many, whereas truth is but one: secondly, because
a lie cursorily told takes little footing and settled fastness in the
teller’s memory, but prints itself deeper in the hearers, who take the
greater notice because of the improbability and deformity thereof; and
one will remember the sight of a monster longer than the sight of an
handsome body. Hence comes it to pass that when the liar hath forgotten
himself, his auditors put him in mind of the lie and take him therein.”

[24] Quintilian, _Inst._ l. 4.

[25] Comes facundus in viâ pro vehiculo est.

[26] Kemble, _Salomon and Saturn_, p. 56.

[27] Kelly, in the preface to his very useful collection of Scotch
proverbs, describes his own disappointment at making exactly such a
discovery as this.

[28] The pages of the excellent _Notes and Queries_ would no doubt be
open to receive such, and in them they might be safely garnered up.
That there are such proverbs to reward him who should carefully watch
for them, is abundantly proved by the immense addition, which, as I
shall have occasion hereafter to mention, a Spanish scholar was able
to make to the collected proverbs, so numerous before, of Spain. Nor
do there want other indications of the like kind. Thus, the editor of
very far the best modern collection of German proverbs, records this
one, found, as he affirms, in no preceding collection, and by himself
never heard but once, and then from the lips of an aged lay servitor
of a monastery in the Black Forest: _Offend one monk, and the lappets
of all cowls will flutter as far as Rome_; (Beleidigestu einen Münch,
so knappen alle Kuttenzipfel bis nach Rom;) and yet who can doubt
that we have a genuine proverb here, and one excellently expressive
of the common cause which the whole of the monastic orders, despite
their inner dissensions, made ever, when assailed from without, with
one another? It is very easy to be deceived in such a matter, and one
must be content often to be so; but the following, which is current
in Ireland, I have never seen in print: “_The man on the dyke always
hurls well_;” the looker-on at a game of hurling, seated indolently on
the wall, always imagines that he could improve on the strokes of the
actual players, and, if you will listen to him, would have played the
game much better than they; a proverb of sufficiently wide application.

[29] Φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρήσθ’ ὁμιλίαι κακαί.

[30] Αἱ Ἰβύκου γέρανοι.

[31] Aurum Tolosanum; see C. Merivale, _Fall of the Roman Republic_, p.

[32] Πολλὰ μεταξύ πέλει κύλικος καὶ χείλεος ἄκρου. The Latin form of
the proverb, Inter os et offam, will not adapt itself to this story.

[33] Livy’s account of “Cantherium in fossâ,” and of the manner in
which it became a rustic proverb in Italy, (23, 47,) is a case in
point, where it is very hard to give credit to the parentage which has
been assigned to the saying. See Döderlein’s _Lat. Synonyme_, v. 4. p.

[34] Σκληρόν σοι πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν.

[35] Æschylus, _Prom. Vinct._ 322; Euripides, _Bacch._ 795; Pindar,
_Pyth._ 2. 94-96. The image is of course that of the stubborn ox, which
when urged to go forward, recalcitrates against the sharp-pointed iron
goad, and, already wounded, thus only wounds itself the more.

[36] Le vin est versé; il faut le boire.

“The genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovered in its
proverbs,”—this is Lord Bacon’s well-worn remark; although, indeed,
only well-worn because of its truth. “In them,” it has been further
said, “is to be found an inexhaustible source of precious documents
in regard of the interior history, the manners, the opinions, the
beliefs,[37] the customs of the people among whom they have had their
course.”[38] Let us put these assertions to the proof, and see how
far in this people’s or in that people’s proverbs, their innermost
heart speaks out to us; how far the comparison of the proverbs of one
nation with those of others may be made instructive to us; what this
comparison will tell us severally about each. This only I will ask, ere
we enter upon the subject, that if I should fail here in drawing out
anything strongly characteristic, if the proverbs regarded from this
point of view should not seem to reveal to you any of the true secrets
of national life, you will not therefore misdoubt those assertions with
which my lecture opened; or assume that these documents would not yield
up their secret, if questioned aright; but only believe that the test
has been unskilfully applied; or, if you will, that my brief limits
have not allowed me to make that clear, which with larger space I might
not have wholly failed in doing.

I am very well aware that in following upon this track, one is ever
liable to deceive oneself, to impose upon others, picking out and
adducing such proverbs as conform to a preconceived theory, passing
over those which would militate against it. Quite allowing that
there is such a danger which needs to be guarded against, and also
that there are a multitude of these sayings which cannot be made to
illustrate difference, for they rest on the broad foundation of the
universal humanity, underlying and deeper than that which is peculiar
and national, I am yet persuaded that enough remain, and such as may
with perfect good faith be adduced, to confirm these assertions; I am
convinced that we _may_ learn from the proverbs current among a people,
what is nearest and dearest to their hearts, the aspects under which
they contemplate life, how honour and dishonour are distributed among
them, what is of good, what of evil report in their eyes, with very
much more which it can never be unprofitable to know.

* * * * *

To begin, then, with the proverbs of Greece. That which strikes one
most in the study of these, and which the more they are studied,
the more fills the thoughtful student with wonder, is the evidence
they yield of a leavening through and through of the entire nation
with the most intimate knowledge of its own mythology, history, and
poetry. The infinite multitude of slight and fine allusions to the
legends of their gods and heroes, to the earlier incidents of their
own history, to the Homeric narrative, the delicate side glances at
all these which the Greek proverbs constantly embody,[39] assume an
acquaintance, indeed a familiarity, with all this on their parts among
whom they passed current, which almost exceeds belief. In many and
most important respects, the Greek proverbs considered as a whole are
inferior to those of many nations of modern Christendom. This is
nothing wonderful; Christianity would have done little for the world,
would have proved very ineffectual for the elevating, purifying, and
deepening of man’s life, if it had been otherwise. But, with all this,
as bearing testimony to the high intellectual training of the people
who employed them, to a culture not restricted to certain classes,
but which must have been diffused through the whole nation, no other
collection can bear the remotest comparison with this.

[Sidenote: Roman proverbs.]

It is altogether different with the Roman proverbs. These, the genuine
Roman, the growth of their own soil, are very far fewer in number than
the Greek, as was indeed to be expected from the far less subtle and
less fertile genius of the people. Hardly any of them are legendary
or mythological; which again agrees with the fact that the Italian
pantheon was very scantily peopled as compared with the Greek. Very few
have much poetry about them, or any very rare delicacy or refinement
of feeling. In respect of love indeed, not the Roman only, but Greek
and Roman alike, are immeasurably inferior to those which many modern
nations could supply. Thus a proverb of such religious depth and
beauty as our own, _Marriages are made in heaven_, it would have been
quite impossible for all heathen antiquity to have produced, or even
remotely to have approached.[40] In the setting out not of love, but
of friendship, and of the claims which it makes, the blessings which it
brings, is exhibited whatever depth and tenderness they may have.[41]
This indeed, as has been truly observed,[42] was only to be expected,
seeing how much higher an ideal of that existed than of this, the full
realization of which was reserved for the modern Christian world. Yet
the Roman proverbs are not without other substantial merits of their
own. A vigorous moral sense speaks out in many;[43] and even when this
is not so prominent, they wear often a thoroughly old Roman aspect;
being business-like and practical, frugal and severe, wise saws such
as the elder Cato must have loved, such as must have been often upon
his lips;[44] while in the number that relate to farming, they bear
singular witness to that strong and lively interest in agricultural
pursuits, which was so remarkable a feature in the old Italian

[Sidenote: Number of Spanish proverbs.]

It will not be possible to pass under even this hastiest review more
than two or three of the modern families of proverbs. Let us turn
first to the proverbs of Spain. I put these in the foremost rank,
because the Spanish literature, poor in many provinces wherein other
literatures are rich, is probably richer in this province than any
other in the world, certainly than any other in the western world; and
this I should be inclined to believe, both as respects the quantity and
the quality.[46] In respect of quantity, the mere number of Spanish
proverbs is astonishing. A collection I have been using while preparing
these lectures, contains between seven and eight thousand, and yet
does not contain all; for I have searched it in vain for several with
which from other sources I had become acquainted. Nay, it must be very
far indeed from exhausting the entire stock, seeing that there exists
a manuscript collection brought together by a distinguished Spanish
scholar, in which the proverbs have attained to the almost incredible
amount of from five and twenty to thirty thousand.[47]

[Sidenote: Spanish characteristics.]

And in respect of their quality, it needs only to call to mind some
of those, so rich in humour, so double-shotted with homely sense,
wherewith the Squire in _Don Quixote_ adorns his discourse; being
oftentimes indeed not the fringe and border, but the main woof and
texture of it: and then, if we assume that the remainder are not
altogether unlike these, we shall, I think, feel that it would be
difficult to rate them more highly than they deserve. And some are in a
loftier vein; for taking, as we have a right to do, Cervantes himself
as the truest exponent of the Spanish character, we should be prepared
to trace in the proverbs of Spain a grave thoughtfulness, a stately
humour, to find them breathing the very spirit of chivalry and honour,
and indeed of freedom too;—for in Spain, as throughout so much of
Europe, it is despotism, and not freedom, which is new. Nor are we
disappointed in these our expectations. How eminently chivalresque,
for instance, the following: _White hands cannot hurt_.[48] What a
grave humour lurks in this: _The ass knows well in whose face he
brays_.[49] What a stately apathy, how proud a looking of calamity in
the face, speaks out in the admonition which this one contains: _When
thou seest thine house in flames, approach and warm thyself by it_;[50]
what a spirit of freedom, which refuses to be encroached on even by
the highest, is embodied in another: _The king goes as far as he may,
not as far as he would_;[51] what Castilian pride in the following:
_Every layman in Castile might make a king, every clerk a pope_. The
Spaniard’s contempt for his peninsular neighbours finds its emphatic
utterance in another: _Take from a Spaniard all his good qualities, and
there remains a Portuguese_.

We may too, I think, remark how a nation will occasionally in its
proverbs indulge in a fine irony upon itself, and show that it is
perfectly aware of its own weaknesses, follies, and faults. This the
Spaniards must be allowed to do in their proverb, _Succours of Spain,
either late, or never_.[52] However largely and confidently promised,
these _succours of Spain_ either do not arrive at all, or only arrive
after the opportunity in which they could have served have passed
away. Certainly any one who reads the despatches of England’s Great
Captain during the Peninsular War will find in almost every page of
them that which abundantly justifies this proverb, will own that those
who made it read themselves aright, and could not have designated
broken pledges, unfulfilled promises of aid, tardy and thus ineffectual
assistance, by an happier title than _Succours of Spain_. And then
again what a fearful glimpse of those blood feuds which, having once
begun, seem as if they could never end, blood touching blood, and
violence evermore provoking its like, have we in the following: _Kill,
and thou shalt be killed, and they shall kill him who kills thee_.[53]

The Italians also are eminently rich in proverbs; and yet if ever I
have been tempted to retract or seriously to modify what I shall have
occasion by-and-bye to affirm in regard of a nobler life and spirit as
predominating in proverbs, it has been after the study of some Italian
collection. “The Italian proverbs,” it has been said not without too
much reason, though perhaps also with overmuch severity, “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.”[54] Certainly many of them are shrewd
enough, and only too shrewd; “ungracious,” inculcating an universal
suspicion, teaching to look everywhere for a foe, to expect, as the
Greeks said, a scorpion under every stone, glorifying artifice and
cunning as the true guides and only safe leaders through the perplexed
labyrinth of life,[55] and altogether seeming dictated as by the very
spirit of Machiavel himself.

[Sidenote: Proverbs on revenge.]

And worse than this is the glorification of revenge which speaks out
in too many of them. I know nothing of its kind calculated to give one
a more shuddering sense of horror than the series which might be drawn
together of Italian proverbs on this matter; especially when we take
them with the commentary which Italian history supplies, and which
shows them no empty words, but the deepest utterances of the nation’s
heart. There is no misgiving in these about the right of entertaining
so deadly a guest in the bosom; on the contrary, one of them, exalting
the sweetness of revenge, declares, _Revenge is a morsel for God_.[56]
There is nothing in them, (it would be far better if there were,)
of blind and headlong passion, but rather a spirit of deliberate
calculation, which makes the blood run cold. Thus one gives this
advice: _Wait time and place to act thy revenge, for it is never well
done in a hurry_;[57] while another proclaims an immortality of hatred,
which no spaces of intervening time shall have availed to weaken:
_Revenge of an hundred years old hath still its sucking teeth_.[58]
We may well be thankful that we have in England, at least as far as I
am aware, no sentiments parallel to these, embodied as the permanent
convictions of the national mind.

How curious again is the confession which speaks out in another Italian
proverb, that the maintenance of the Romish system and the study of
Holy Scripture cannot go together. It is this: _With the Gospel one
becomes an heretic_.[59] No doubt with the study of the Word of God one
does become an heretic, in the Italian sense of the word; and therefore
it is only prudently done to put all obstacles in the way of that
study, to assign three years’ and four years’ imprisonment with hard
labour to as many as shall dare to peruse it; yet certainly it is not a
little remarkable that such a confession should have embodied itself in
the popular utterances of the nation.

[Sidenote: Italian proverbs.]

But while it must be freely owned that the charges brought just now
against the Italian proverbs are sufficiently borne out by too many,
they are not all to be included in the common shame. Very many there
are not merely of a delicate refinement of beauty, as this, expressive
of the freedom in regard of _thine_ and _mine_ which will exist between
true friends: _Friends tie their purses with a spider’s thread_;[60]
of a subtle wisdom which has not degenerated into cunning and deceit;
but also of a nobler stamp; honour and honesty, plain dealing and
uprightness, have here their praises too, and are not seldom pronounced
to be in the end more than a match for all cunning and deceit. How
excellent in this sense is the following: _For an honest man half his
wits is enough, the whole are too little for a knave_;[61] the ways,
that is, of truth and uprightness are so simple and plain, that a
little wit is abundantly sufficient for those that walk in them; the
ways of falsehood and fraud are so perplexed and tangled, that sooner
or later all the wit of the cleverest rogue will not preserve him from
being entangled therein. How often and how wonderfully has this found
its confirmation in the lives of evil men; so true it is, to employ
another proverb and a very deep one from the same quarter, that _The
devil is subtle, yet weaves a coarse web_.[62]

Again, what description of Egypt as it now is, or indeed generally
of the East, could set us at the heart of its moral condition, could
make us to understand all which long centuries of oppression and
misrule have made of it and of its people, what could do this so
effectually as the collection of Arabic proverbs now current in Egypt,
which the traveller Burckhardt gathered, and which, after his death,
were published with his name?[63] In other books, others describe the
modern Egyptians, but here they unconsciously describe themselves. The
selfishness, the utter extinction of all public spirit, the servility,
which no longer as with an inward shame creeps into men’s acts, but
utters itself boldly as the avowed law of their lives, the sense of
the oppression of the strong, of the insecurity of the weak, and,
generally, the whole character of life, alike outward and inward, as
poor, mean, sordid, and ignoble, with only a few faintest glimpses
of that romance which one usually attaches to the East; all this, as
we study these documents, rises up before us in truest, though in
painfullest, outline.

Thus only in a land where rulers, being evil themselves, feel all
goodness to be their instinctive foe, and themselves therefore
entertain an instinctive hostility to it, where they punish but never
reward, where not to be noticed by them is the highest ambition of
those under their yoke, in no other land could a proverb like the
following, _Do no good, and thou shalt find no evil_, have ever come
to the birth. How settled a conviction that wrong, and not right, was
the lord paramount of the world must have grown up in men’s spirits,
before such a word as this, (I know of no sadder one,) could have found
utterance from their lips.[64]

[Sidenote: Irish proverb.]

I have taken a wide circuit of nations; with the proverb of a people
nearer home I must bring this branch of the subject to an end. It is
one, and a very characteristic one, which the poet Spenser, who long
dwelt in Ireland, records as current in his time among the Irish; in
which were contained their offer of service to their native chiefs,
with a statement of what they expected in return: _Spend me, and defend
me_. Their leaders in all times have taken them only too well at their
word in respect of the first half of the proverb, and have not failed
prodigally to _spend_ them; although their undertakings to _defend_
have issued exactly as must ever issue all promises on the part of
others to defend men from those evils, from which none can really
protect them but themselves.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: German proverbs.]

Other families of proverbs would each of them tell its own tale, give
up its own secret; but I must not seek from this point of view to
question them further. I would rather bring now to your notice that
even where they do not spring, as they cannot all, from the centre of
a people’s heart, nor declare to us the secretest things which are
there, but dwell more on the surface of things, in this case also they
have often local or national features, which to study and trace out
may prove both curious and instructive. Of how many, for example, we
may note the manner in which they clothe themselves in an outward form
and shape, borrowed from, or suggested by, the peculiar scenery or
circumstances or history of their own land; so that they could scarcely
have come into existence, not certainly in the shape which they now
wear, anywhere besides. Thus our own, _Make hay while the sun shines_,
is truly English, and could have had its birth only under such variable
skies as ours,—not, at any rate, in those southern lands where, during
the summer time at least, the sun always shines. In the same way there
is a fine Cornish proverb in regard of obstinate wrongheads, who will
take no counsel except from calamities, who dash themselves to pieces
against obstacles, which with a little prudence and foresight they
might easily have avoided. It is this: _He who will not be ruled by
the rudder, must be ruled by the rock_. It sets us at once upon some
rocky and wreck-strewn coast; we feel that it could never have been
the proverb of an inland people. And this, _Do not talk Arabic in the
house of a Moor_,[65]—that is, because there thy imperfect knowledge
will be detected at once,—this we should confidently affirm to be
Spanish, wherever we met it. So also a traveller with any experience
in the composition of Spanish sermons and Spanish ollas could make no
mistake in respect of the following: _A sermon without Augustine is as
a stew without bacon_.[66] Thus _Big and empty, like the Heidelberg
tun_,[67] could have its home only in Germany; that enormous vessel,
known as the Heidelberg tun, constructed to contain nearly 300,000
flasks, having now stood empty for hundreds of years. As regards,
too, the following, _Not every parish-priest can wear Dr. Luther’s
shoes_,[68] we could be in no doubt to what people it appertains.
And this, _The world is a carcase, and they who gather round it are
dogs_, plainly proclaims itself as belonging to those Eastern lands,
where the unowned dogs prowling about the streets of a city are the
natural scavengers, that would assemble round a carcase thrown in the
way. So too the form which our own proverb, _Man’s extremity, God’s
opportunity_, or as we sometimes have it, _When need is highest, help
is nighest_ assumes among the Jews, namely this, _When the tale of
bricks is doubled, Moses comes_,[69] plainly roots itself in the early
history of that nation, being an allusion to Exod. v. 9-19, and without
a knowledge of that history would be unintelligible altogether. The
same may be said of this: _We must creep into Ebal, and leap into
Gerizim_; in other words, we must be slow to curse, and swift to bless.
(Deut. xxvii. 12, 13.)

But while it is thus with some, which are bound by the very conditions
of their existence to a narrow and peculiar sphere, or at all events
move more naturally and freely in it than elsewhere, there are others
on the contrary which we meet all the world over. True cosmopolites,
they seem to have travelled from land to land, and to have made
themselves an home equally in all. The Greeks obtained them probably
from the older East, and again imparted them to the Romans; and from
these they have found their way into all the languages of the western

Much, I think, might be learned from knowing what those truths are,
which are so felt to be true by all nations, that all have loved to
possess them in these compendious forms, wherein they may pass readily
from mouth to mouth: which, thus cast into some happy form, have
commended themselves to almost all people, and have become a portion
of the common stock of the world’s wisdom, in every land making for
themselves a recognition and an home. Such a proverb, for instance, is
_Man proposes, God disposes_;[70] one which I am inclined to believe
that every nation in Europe possesses, so deeply upon all men is
impressed the sense of Hamlet’s words, if not the words themselves:

“There’s a divinity that _shapes_ our ends,
_Rough-hew_ them how we will.”

[Sidenote: Proverbs compared.]

Sometimes the proverb does not actually in so many words repeat itself
in various tongues. We have indeed exactly the same _thought_; but
it takes an outward shape and embodiment, varying according to the
various countries and periods in which it has been current: we have
proverbs totally diverse from one another in their form and appearance,
but which yet, when we look a little deeper into them, prove to be at
heart one and the same, all these their differences being thus only,
so to speak, variations of the same air. These are almost always an
amusing, often an instructive, study; and to trace this likeness in
difference has an interest lively enough. Thus the _forms_ of the
proverb, which brings out the absurdity of those reproving others
for a defect or a sin, to whom the same cleaves in an equal or in a
greater degree, have sometimes no visible connexion at all, or the very
slightest, with one another; yet for all this the proverb is at heart
and essentially but one. We say in English: _The kiln calls the oven,
“Burnt house;”_—the Italians: _The pan says to the pot “Keep off, or
you’ll smutch me;”_[71]—the Spaniards: _The raven cried to the crow,
“Avaunt, blackamoor;”_[72]—the Germans: _One ass nicknames another,
Long-ears_;[73]—while it must be owned there is a certain originality
in the Catalan version of the proverb: _Death said to the man with his
throat cut, “How ugly you look.”_ Under how rich a variety of forms
does one and the same thought array itself here.

[Sidenote: Various proverbs.]

Let me quote another illustration of the same fact. We probably
take for granted that _Coals to Newcastle_ is a thoroughly English
expression of the absurdity of sending to a place that which already
abounds there, water to the sea, faggots to the wood:—and English
of course it is in the outward garment which it wears; but in its
innermost being it belongs to the whole world and to all times. Thus
the Greeks said: _Owls to Athens_,[74] Attica abounding with these
birds; the Rabbis: _Enchantments to Egypt_, Egypt being of old esteemed
the head quarters of all magic; the Orientals: _Pepper to Hindostan_;
and in the middle ages they had this proverb: _Indulgences to Rome_,
Rome being the centre and source of this spiritual traffic; and these
by no means exhaust the list.

Let me adduce some other variations of the same descriptions, though
not running through quite so many languages. Thus compare the German,
_Who lets one sit on his shoulders, shall have him presently sit on
his head_,[75] with the Italian, _If thou suffer a calf to be laid on
thee, within a little they’ll clap on the cow_,[76] and, again, with
the Spanish, _Give me where I may sit down; I will make where I may
lie down_.[77] They all three plainly contain one and the same hint
that undue liberties are best resisted at the outset, being otherwise
liable to be followed up by other and greater ones; but this under how
rich and humorous a variety of forms. Not very different are these
that follow. We say: _Daub yourself with honey, and you’ll be covered
with flies_; the Danes: _Make yourself an ass, and you’ll have every
man’s sack on your shoulders_; while the French: _Who makes himself a
sheep, the wolf devours him_;[78] and the Persians: _Be not all sugar,
or the world will gulp thee down_;[79] to which they add, however, as
its necessary complement, _nor yet all wormwood, or the world will
spit thee out_. Or again, we are content to say without a figure: _The
receiver’s as bad as the thief_; but the French: _He sins as much
who holds the sack, as he who puts into it_;[80] and the Germans:
_He who holds the ladder is as guilty as he who mounts the wall_.[81]
We say: _A stitch in time saves nine_; the Spaniards: _Who repairs
not his gutter, repairs his whole house_.[82] We say: _Misfortunes
never come single_; the Italians have no less than three proverbs to
express the same popular conviction: _Blessed is that misfortune which
comes single_; and again: _One misfortune is the vigil of another_;
and again: _A misfortune and a friar are seldom alone_.[83] Or once
more, the Russians say: _Call a peasant, “Brother,” he’ll demand to be
called, “Father;”_ the Italians: _Reach a peasant your finger, he’ll
grasp your fist_.[84] Many languages have this proverb: _God gives the
cold according to the cloth_;[85] it is very beautiful, but attains not
to the tender beauty of our own: _God tempers the wind to the shorn

And, as in that last example, so not seldom will there be an evident
superiority of a proverb in one language over one, which however
resembles it closely in another. Moving in the same sphere, it will
yet be richer, fuller, deeper. Thus our own, _A burnt child fears
the fire_, is good; but that of many tongues, _A scalded dog fears
cold water_, is better still. Ours does but express that those who
have suffered once will henceforward be timid in respect of that same
thing from which they have suffered; but that other the tendency to
exaggerate such fears, so that now they shall fear even where no fear
is. And the fact that so it will be, clothes itself in an almost
infinite variety of forms. Thus one Italian proverb says: _A dog which
has been beaten with a stick, is afraid of its shadow_; and another,
which could only have had its birth in the sunny South, where the
glancing but harmless lizard so often darts across your path: _Whom
a serpent has bitten a lizard alarms_.[86] With a little variation
from this, the Jewish Rabbis had said long before: _One bitten by a
serpent, is afraid of a rope’s end_; even that which bears so remote
a resemblance to a serpent as this does, shall now inspire him with
terror; and the Cingalese, still expressing the same thought, but with
imagery borrowed from their own tropic clime: _The man who has received
a beating from a firebrand, runs away at sight of a firefly_.

[Sidenote: Rabbinical proverb.]

Some of our Lord’s sayings contain the same lessons which the proverbs
of the Jewish Rabbis contained already; for He was willing to bring
forth even from his treasury things old as well as new; but it is very
instructive to observe how they acquire in his mouth a dignity and
decorum which, it may be, they wanted before. We are all familiar with
that word in the Sermon on the Mount, “Whosoever shall compel thee
to go a mile, go with him twain.” The Rabbis had a proverb to match,
lively and piquant enough, but certainly lacking the gravity of this,
and which never could have fallen from the same lips: _If thy neighbour
call thee ass, put a packsaddle on thy back_; do not, that is, withdraw
thyself from the wrong, but rather go forward to meet it. But thus, in
least as in greatest, it was His to make all things new.

[Sidenote: Progress of ingratitude.]

Sometimes a proverb, without changing its shape altogether, will
yet on the lips of different nations be slightly modified; and
these modifications, slight as often they are, may not the less be
eminently characteristic. Thus in English we say, _The river past,
and God forgotten_, to express with how mournful a frequency He whose
assistance was invoked, it may have been earnestly, in the moment
of peril, is remembered no more, so soon as by his help the danger
has been surmounted. The Spaniards have the proverb too; but it is
with them: _The river past, the saint forgotten_,[87] the saints
being in Spain more prominent objects of invocation than God. And
the Italian form of it sounds a still sadder depth of ingratitude:
_The peril past, the saint mocked_;[88] the vows made to him in
peril remaining unperformed in safety; and he treated something as,
in Greek story, Juno was treated by Mandrabulus the Samian; who,
having under her auspices and through her direction discovered a gold
mine, in his instant gratitude vowed to her a golden ram; which he
presently exchanged in intention for a silver one; and again this
for a very small brass one; and this for nothing at all; the rapidly
descending scale of whose gratitude, with the entire disappearance of
his thank-offering, might very profitably live in our memories, as so
perhaps it would be less likely to repeat itself in our lives.


[37] The writer might have added, the superstitions; for proverbs not
a few involve and rest on popular superstitions, and a collection
of these would be curious and in many ways instructive. Such, for
instance, is the Latin, (it is, indeed, also Greek): _A serpent,
unless it devour a serpent, grows not to a dragon_; (Serpens, nisi
serpentem comederit, non fit draco); which Lord Bacon moralizes so
shrewdly: “The folly of one man is the fortune of another; for no man
prospers so suddenly as by other men’s errors.” Such again is the
old German proverb: _The night is no man’s friend_; (Die Nacht ist
keines Menschen Freund;) which rests, as Grimm has so truly observed
(_Deutsche Mythol._, p. 713) on the wide-spread feeling in the northern
mythologies, of the night as an unfriendly and, indeed, hostile power
to man. And such, too, the French: _A Sunday’s child dies never of the
plague_; (Qui nait le dimanche, jamais ne meurt de peste.)

[38] We may adduce further the words of Salmasius: Argutæ hæ brevesque
loquendi formulæ suas habent veneres, et genium cujusque gentis penes
quam celebrantur, atque acumen ostendunt.

[39] Thus Ἄϊδoς κυνῆ—Ἄπληστος πίθος.—Ἰλιὰς κακῶν.

[40] This Greek proverb on love is the noblest of the kind which I
remember: Μουσικὴν ἔρως διδάσκει, κἄντις ἄμουσος ᾖ τὸ πρίν.

[41] In this respect the Latin proverb, Mores amici noveris, non
oderis, on which Horace has furnished so exquisite a comment (_Sat._ i.
3, 24-93), and which finds its graceful equivalent in the Italian, Ama
l’amico tuo con il difetto suo (Love your friend with his fault), is
worthy of all admiration.

[42] By Zell, in his slight but graceful treatise, _On the proverbs of
the ancient Romans_ (_Ferienschriften_, v. 2, p. 1-96).

[43] Thus, Noxa caput sequitur;—Conscientia, mille testes.

[44] He has preserved for us that very sensible and at the same time
truly characteristic one, Quod non opus est, asse carum est.

[45] These are two or three of the most notable—the first against
“high farming,” which it is strange if it has not been appealed to
in the modern controversy on the subject: Nihil minus expedit quam
agrum optime colere. (Pliny, _H. N._, 6. 18.) Over against this,
however, we must set another, warning against the attempt to farm with
insufficient capital: Oportet agrum imbecilliorem esse quam agricolam;
and yet another, on the liberal answer which the land will make to the
pains and cost bestowed on it; Qui arat olivetum, rogat fructum; qui
stercorat, exorat; qui cædit, cogit.

[46] This was the judgment of Salmasius, who says: Inter Europæos
Hispani in his excellunt, Itali vix cedunt, Galli proximo sequuntur

[47] What may have become of this collection I know not; but it was
formerly in Richard Heber’s library, (see the _Catalogue_, v. 9. no.
1697.) Juan Yriarte was the collector, and in a note to the _Catalogue_
it is stated that he devoted himself with such eagerness to the
bringing of it to the highest possible state of completeness, that he
would give his servants a fee for any new proverb they brought him;
while to each, as it was inserted in his list, he was careful to attach
a memorandum of the quarter from which it came; and if this was not
from books but from life, an indication of the name, the rank, and
condition in life of the person from whom it was derived.

[48] Las manos blancas no ofenden.

[49] Bien sabe el asno en cuya cara rebozna.

[50] Quando vierás tu casa quemar, llega te á escalentar.

[51] El Rey va hasta do puede, y no hasta do quiere.

[52] Socorros de España, ó tarde, ó nunca.

[53] Matarás, y matarte han, y matarán a quien te matare.

[54] _Curiosities of Literature_, p. 391. London: 1838.

[55] These may serve as examples: Chi ha sospetto, di rado è in
difetto.—Fidarsi è bene, ma non fidarsi è meglio.—Da chi mi fido,
mi guardi Iddio; da chi non mi fido, mi guarderò io.—Con arte e con
inganno si vive mezzo l’anno; con inganno e con arte si vive l’altra

[56] Vendetta, boccon di Dio.

[57] Aspetta tempo e loco à far tua vendetta, che la non si fa mai ben
in fretta. Compare another: Vuoi far Vendetta del tuo nemico, governati
bene ed è bell’e fatta.

[58] Vendetta di cent’anni ha ancor i lattaiuoli.

[59] Con l’Evangelo si diventa eretico.

[60] Gli amici legono la borsa con un filo di ragnatelo.

[61] Ad un uomo dabbene avanza la metà del cervello; ad un tristo non
basta ne anche tutto.

[62] Jeremy Taylor appears to have found much delight in the proverbs
of Italy. In the brief foot notes which he has appended to the _Holy
Living_ alone I counted five and twenty such, to which he makes more
or less remote allusion in the text. There is an excellent article on
“Tuscan Proverbs” in _Fraser’s Magazine_, Jan. 1857.

[63] _Arabic Proverbs of the Modern Egyptians._ London: 1830.

[64] Yet this very mournful collection of Burckhardt’s possesses at
least one very beautiful proverb on the all conquering power of love:
_Man is the slave of beneficence_.

[65] En casa del Moro no hables algarabia.

[66] Sermon sin Agostino, olla sin tocino.

[67] Gross und leer, wie das Heidelberger Fass.

[68] Doctor Luther’s Schuhe sind nicht allen Dorfpriestern gerecht.

[69] Cum duplicantur lateres, Moses venit.

[70] La gente pone, y Dios dispone.—Der Mensch denkt’s; Gott lenkt’s.

[71] La padella dice al pajuolo, Fatti in là, che tu mi tigni.

[72] Dijó la corneja al cuervo, Quítate allá, negro.

[73] Ein Esel schimpft den andern, Langohr.

[74] Γλαῦκας εἰς Ἀθήνας.

[75] Wer sich auf der Achsel sitzen lässt, dem sitzt man nachher auf
dem Kopfe.

[76] Se ti lasci metter in spalla il vitello, quindi a poco ti metteran
la vacca.

[77] Dame donde me asiente, que yo haré donde me acueste.

[78] Qui se fait brebis, le loup le mange.

[79] There is a Catalan proverb to the same effect: Qui de tot es moll,
de tot es foll.

[80] Autant pèche celui qui tient le sac, que celui qui met dedans.

[81] Wer die Leiter hält, ist so schuldig wie der Dieb.

[82] Quien no adoba gotera, adoba casa entera.

[83] Benedetto è quel male, che vien solo.—Un mal è la vigilia
dell’altro.—Un male ed un Frate di rado soli.

[84] Al villano, se gli porgi il dito, ei prende la mano.

[85] Dieu donne le froid selon le drap.—Cada cual siente el frio como
anda vestido.

[86] Cui serpe mozzica, lucerta teme.

[87] El rio passado, el santo olvidado.

[88] Passato il punto, gabbato il santo.