Still Waters Not Necessarily Deep


A GOOD many erroneous notions go floating about in the world, embodied in the shape of familiar sayings or proverbs, full of that superficial common sense which is so given to putting on airs of superior insight. They are often in reality the record of a very short-sighted observation of men and things, formulated in a fashion which recommends the misleading half truth to the unthinking. I have a grudge against these pretentious proverbs, as any one must who has had occasion to fathom their falsity. I have now in mind one in particular, which, for all its specious show of verity, I take to be without ground in the truth of human nature. " Still waters run deep,” so the saying goes; and as the proposition stands in the universal affirmative, I for one must flatly deny it. Even as mere figure the analogy does not work ; for though there are lakes both deep and tranquil, and little brooks that prattle noisily, so, on the other hand, many a placid pond is shallow, and the ocean is forever unquiet. The proverb has two implications : it seems to have reference to force and amount of intelligence and knowledge as well as to depth of the affections, but I think it is more often applied in the latter sense. With regard to any particular person it is a question to be settled by time and experience; sooner or later we find out if our effusive friend is no more than an agreeable speech-maker, and whether or not this other one, who is so averse to demonstration, will prove in time of need the force of his true affection. The mischief that lies in this popular fallacy, as Charles Lamb would call it, is that it gives a bias to people’s judgment of each other before they come to know and be known by the sure and final test of time and intimate intercourse. This pre-judgment, which is so common, in my opinion tells unfairly in favor of the “ still ” people, who are almost always credited with powers of feeling shut away behind their mask of reticence. The fact is we know nothing about their feelings, but we begin by taking for granted that treasures of affection must be hidden away that by and by will be revealed to us. But in our ignorance we are sometimes as easily taken in by this non-appearance of feeling as in a reverse case by its manifestation ; in both instances it may be equally wanting. If we ourselves are worthy of the name of friend, we may go on trusting to an affection we have had reason to suppose ours, — or thought we had, — and in face of disappointment we make excuses, and say, “It is his way; he is true, though so undemonstrative.” But we may come to learn that there are natures so shallow that an inch rule will measure the capacity of their feelings, and natures so cold that no affection will create the glow of an answering warmth within them. The reserved manner is the convenient covering that conceals the poverty of such souls. The depth of people’s feeling is not in proportion to their power or habit of expression ; that is partly a question of temperament. Where there is a difference in this respect between friends, it is often difficult for the one whose temperament is warm and disposition open to habituate himself to doing without those manifestations in word as well as deed which to him are natural and necessary. My own belief, the result of observation and meditation, is that the expression of a sentiment tends to strengthen it. Habits are formative of character, as character predisposes to habits. We often say of a man that he has uttered such or such an opinion so long that it has become fixed in him beyond modification, and why may not feeling in like manner settle and root itself in the heart more strongly by every recognition of its presence there ? I lately read a little story, quaintly entitled Bulldog and Butterfly, illustrative of the popular misjudgment which is expressed and reinforced by the saying about the “ still waters.” The heroine, to whom the Bulldog and the Butterfly each makes love in his own fashion, refuses to trust her heart and its instincts, and chooses to rely rather on the second-hand wisdom which in the end proves to be so cheap. Mr. David Murray’s tale pleased me, as things do which fall in with our own ideas, and I recommend it to my readers for the reason that parables are both more entertaining and more convincing than bare dissertation.