Some Old Saws Reëged, Etc


WE hear much about the sagacity and condensed wisdom of popular sayings and proverbs ; but to one unbejuggled by the established theory on this point it may well occur that the most of these sayings and proverbs display a kind of fatuous surface sharpness rather than absolute truth. While having the color of use and experience, they are often so lamentably infirm on their logical legs as to wobble very noticeably when sent on a didactic mission of any sort. Moreover, some of them are so mean in their deductions as to human motives, and in their arguments for conduct, that any person of average self-respect might be ashamed to utter them as original sentiment. It would seem as though peddlers and various petty disciples of Mercury had been the mint-masters of much of this dubious coinage. For example, take Honesty is the best policy. I am afraid the noble promoters of this aphorism were not quite disingenuous. On this line of policy, and in view of many commercial successes, there would have been more candor in announcing and defending Dishonesty in business is the best policy.

Some of these maxims are of a specious economical turn. Look out for the pennies, and the pounds will look out for themselves, could be restated with quite as much truth and more comprehensively, Look out for the pounds, and the pennies will be looked out for. Others of these aphorisms ring like the currency of cowards and losel knights: Discretion is the better part of valor (why not Valor is the better part of discretion ?) ; Look out for Number One; Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost ; Grant graciously what you cannot safely refuse. I suspect that Never put off till to-morrow that which can be done to-day, was the fetich of some feverish and ineffective hustler of issues (perhaps merely a fidgety housewife on her endless round). Contrariwise, it is extremely probable that Haste makes waste, Make haste slowly, and All things come to him who waits, were originally the little conscience-plasters of Master Slow and Master Ne’er-do-Weel. Even the Apostle, with his The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, is not quite free from the disposition to shift responsibility unfairly; for who does not, in his secret heart, know that it is often the spirit that is weak, while the willing body awaits the commands of its enervated superior ? It was a short-sighted but complacent soul, convinced of its own thriftiness, who gave currency to Do not count your chickens before they are hatched; and it was a grim and heavy-armed Philistine, supremely scornful of your John-a-dreams, who first rated the poor little bird in the hand as worth two of those airy chanters in the bush (Hope’s and Fancy’s very own). I dare say it was an envious rustic, or idle gossip at her window, who first announced that Fine feathers do not make fine birds. To which may be opposed the fact, neither does dingy plumage make fine birds. (Witness the squabbling English sparrow.) He was himself undoubtedly praised as a blunt but honest fellow who originally affirmed that Praise to the face is open disgrace.

Notwithstanding so much bluntness and honesty, a certain ambiguity rests upon this shining precept, since whose is the “ open disgrace,” the praiser’s or that of the praised ? A similar ambiguity, or rather a shakiness of syntax, characterizes three other pieces of proverbial wisdom; indeed, from my infant years I always interpreted them as pointing to unmitigated though deplorable fact, as follows: It’s a poor rule, and it does not work both ways; It’s a long lane, and it has no turning; It’s an ill wind, and it blows nobody good.

It is commonly believed that children and fools speak the truth. In reality, what is easier than to obtain false testimony from such innocent and irresponsible lips ? In vino veritas should be freely rendered, In wine are lies ; for what is more usual with the wine-mastered than a condition of tumid mendacity ?

When the easy optimist meets me with that pseudo-Scriptural, Sterneish aphorism, God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, I own I am sometimes moved to reply, " Yes, the wind is tempered to the shorn black lamb ; ” for circumstances often have a way of suiting themselves comfortably to the youthful renegado, while the young saint makes what shift he can amid their rough currents.

Here are a few scattering examples of old saws reedged : —

Where there is hope, there is life.

To be good, you must be happy.

Whom the gods love they first make mad. (Plato’s poet will please take notice.)

Dishonor and sham from bad condition rise. (Motto for an athlete of the ring.)

Godliness is next to cleanliness.

Whatever is, is wrong.

Lies crushed to earth will rise again.

They never love at all who love but once.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder — of another.

(I am indebted for the last four in my list to a cynic of wide experience.)

In connection with the reedging of old saws, I have had it in mind to attempt re-pointing the morals of certain time-honored fables. Two such ventures are subjoined : —



There was a waggish shepherd lad of old.
Who found it dull, no doubt, to watch a fold,
And practice on the pan-pipe innocent,
So sought and found a new divertisement,
To wit : whenever travelers passed him by,
“ Wolf ! wolf! Jove help me ! ” he would cry.
So many times this little game he tried,
At length ’t was known to all the countryside;
And when, in autumn weather, keen and cool,
The gray contractor came and took his wool,
(And eke his mutton, and himself as well!)
They thought his “ Wolf ” cry still the same old sell.
So runs our precious fable, but the truth
Is as I tell it now: That gamesome youth
Continued still to sell, and ne’er was sold,
But, full of honors and of love, grew old.
Whene’er he made a hue and cry, all ran,
Both gentlefolk and peasants, to a man.
’T is true the ferine foe they never saw,
But certain marks left by his savage paw,
Which tenderly they salved, whilst God they praised
Their shepherd true had not been slain, though badly grazed!


Another shepherd wight there was, alas!
As silly as the sheep that nipped the grass;
For he, in days of safety and content,
Did practice well the pan-pipe innocent;
And other times, when danger he surmised,
Kept faithful watch, so not to be surprised.
The grizzly mountaineer oft prowled about;
The shepherd stood his ground, but raised no shout,
Till on a day the wolf grew fell and fierce,
One cry the shepherd uttered, fit to pierce
Whatever ear to human anguish keen,
Whatever heart that pitiful had been.
The truth proceeds to say (no fable this),
No passer-by deemed aught had chanced amiss,
But one to other spake, “ That shepherd boy
Thinks he befools us with his cheap decoy! ”
’T is true, when half a twelvemonth had rolled by,
And pan-pipe melody and bleating cry
Of sheep no more were heard, but blanching
Were seen amid the upland turf and stones,
The question rose, “ Was there not once, up yonder,
A silly soul that used with flock and pipe to wander ? ”


A worthy person in a carapace,
A sound, well-balanced, worthy Philistine,
Once in an evil hour proposed a race
With the young scion of a wind-fleet line.
The latter gave his friend a trifling start
Of some few weeks (or months it was, perchance),
And meanwhile dozed, or, eyelids half apart,
Watched lazily his rival’s slow advance.
That patient plodder over plain and knoll
Had but some rods to creep, when thus it fell,
The sleeper woke — and leaped — and won the goal.
The umpire murmured, “ Humph! — but blood will tell.”