Short is sweet

Christopher Ricks

  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs edited by J.A. Simpson
    Oxford, 256 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 19 866131 2
  • A World of Proverbs by Patricia Houghton
    Blandford, 152 pp, £5.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 7137 1114 0

The alphabet does happy things. The first entry in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs is able to give unforced priority to some of the most important properties of proverbs. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder.’ First, that it is more recent than you think (c.1850). Second, that nobody has ever heard of the talented person who endowed it with the anonymity of genius (T.H. Bayly). Third, that – divinely wise – it sprang full-grown from its creator’s head; perfect, just like that. Fourth, that it evokes what for some is the glory of proverbs and is their ignominy for others. The Observer in 1923 waxed: ‘These saws are constantly cutting one another’s throats. How can you reconcile the statement that “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” with “Out of sight, out of mind”?’ Later in the book, there appears another of the newspaper’s rhetorical questions: ‘What is the use of saying that “Many hands make light work” when the same copy-book tells you that “Too many cooks spoil the broth”?’

Proverbs themselves are inimical to rhetorical questions. ‘Why buy a cow when milk is so cheap?’. ‘One of the few proverbs in the form of a rhetorical question; cf. Why keep a dog, and bark yourself?’ Such questions are not natural to the proverb because they insinuatingly coerce instead of straightly asseverating.

‘Dreams go by contraries’ (evolved since 1400). ‘Without Contraries is no progression,’ announced the author of the Proverbs of Hell, in the knowledge that it was the prevalence of Proverbs of Heaven which made it necessary for him to issue some of the other sort. So that when Edward Bond appropriated Blake, ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires,’ he vitiated it with his tacit pretence that the prevalence in our day is that everyone is going about nursing unacted desires. Given these contraries, it will come as no surprise that of each of those properties of proverbs, the contrary could be said. First, that a proverb is older than you think. (‘Rome was not built in a day,’ 1545). Second, that everybody has heard of the genius who endowed it with the anonymity of genius. Alexander Pope, say, for his ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ Or for ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing,’ which anybody with any learning or knowledge knows to be the right reading, with ‘little’ alliteratively locked to ‘learning’, with ‘dangerous’ lengthily isolated (as it isn’t so much if ‘knowledge’ shares its n and d and g), and with ‘thing’ as a lopped off-balance rhyme with ‘learning’. Which said, and then coming as a rebuke to such scholarship or criticism, the proverb now stands under ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,’ with the note: ‘The original learning is also used instead of knowledge.’ Patricia Houghton’s genial anthology by topics, A World of Proverbs, gives both forms, more than thirty pages apart and both unattributed.

Third of the contraries, a proverb doesn’t spring complete but is rolled and rounded into its perfection of laconic utterability. ‘Tomorrow never comes’: there are citations from 1523, 1602 and 1678 before Franklin gets it right, in 1756. Fourth, a proverb need not have any counter-proverb against which to brace itself.

‘Life begins at forty,’ the world was told in 1932. The prophetic W.B. Pitkin went on: ‘Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom.’ Today it is something better than an axiom: a proverb – that is to say, half a truth. Proverbs are undeceptive half-truths, so they themselves need counter-descriptions. They need sometimes to evolve over the years, because otherwise they would not be folk-formed. They need at other times to issue fully-formed, since otherwise it might falsely seem that the folk could be formed other than of particular folks. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs brings home the way in which tradition and the individual talent can converge in that astonishing thing, a well-nigh instant authentic tradition. ‘It is a reflection of the proverb’s vitality that new ones are continually being created’; on the other hand (a proverb is a one-handed engine), ‘a proverb is a traditional saying which offers advice or presents a moral in a short and pithy manner.’ A tradition newly created? We all know the factitious forms of this: From today it will be a tradition in this school that no one except a prefect walks on the lawn. But the proverb that is newly unroyally minted is a reminder that any tradition must start somewhere and somewhen.

Instant tradition would be an overstatement, but it is amazing, the speed with which a new saying can become traditionally authoritative. One reason why Pope was so good at uttering sentences which at once entered upon proverb-hood was that for him, after all, wit was what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed. Keats too, who loved proverbs, possessed a belief about poetry which permitted of its being a true sibling of proverbs: that it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.

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