“Sayings, Wise and Otherwise,” (also in the “The Sayings of Dr. Bushwhacker and Other Wise Men”) by Frederic S. Cozzens; American Book Exchange, New York; 1880; pp. 73-80.
“IT sometimes happens at the end of a dinner, when jokes and walnuts are cracked together, that the paternity of some trite quotation is put in question, and at once the wit of the whole company is set wool-gathering.
If every printing office had a case filled with popular phrases arranged in the manner of types, it would save much manual labor, and the compositor would be surprised to find how often he had occasion to use them. For so inextricably are these “short sentences drawn from long experience” entangled in the meshes of language, that to eliminate them would be like drawing out of a carpet the threads that form the pattern. A few of these phrases, usually found floating in the currents of ordinary conversation, will be sufficient to consider in a paper like this: if we were to include those embraced in literature and oratory, it would require foolscap enough to cover the sands of Egypt, and an inkstand as large as one of 74 the pyramids. Not being disposed to make such an investment in stationery at present, we shall only play the literary chiffonier and hook a few scraps from the heaps of talk we meet with every day.
Mr. John Timmins, the broker, says of that stock, “there is a wheel within a wheel,” without giving Paradise Lost, Young’s Night Thoughts, and the Prophet Ezekiel credit for a phrase which may have saved him some thousands; and when he tells his boon companions at the club, that as for his wife, who is rather inclined to be extravagant, “he would deny her nothing,” he does not say how much he owes to Samson Agonistes for the words he makes use of. When he reaches his house, Mrs. Timmins takes him to task “for coming home at such an hour of the night, in such a state;” to which he replies, in a gay and festive manner: “My dear, ‘To err is human — to forgive, divine,’ ” from Pope’s essay on criticism; to which Mrs. T. answers in a snappish way, “Timmins, ‘there is a medium in all things’” (from Horace). Mr. T., disliking the tone in which this quotation is delivered, “snatches a fearful joy” (from the “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”), by saying he does not intend, in his house, to have “the grey mare prove the better horse” (from Prior’s epilogue). This only “adds fuel to the flame” (from Milton’s Samson), and Mrs. T. observes that if “we would only see ourselves as others see us” (from Burns), it would be better for some people; that ever since he had joined that club “a change had come o’er the spirit of her dream“ (from Byron); 75 that when she trusted her happiness to him she had “leaned upon a broken reed” (from Young’s Night Thoughts III, and Isaiah 36: 6), and winds up a long lecture with the reflection that “evil communications corrupt good manners” (from 1st Corinthians 15: 33). This last expression exasperates Mr. Timmins, and he asks Mrs. T., as he takes off his suspenders, “to whom she alludes?” Is it to Perkins who had stood by him “in evil report and good report?” (2d Corinthians 6: 8). Is it to Rapley? “a man take him for all in all” (Acts 13: 22), and as for Badger, who had extended to him in the tight times of ’36 and ’37 “the right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2: 9), he was as honest a man as ever breathed; and here Mr. Timmins, with one boot in his hand and the other in the boot-jack, eloquently adds, “an honest man is the noblest work of God!” (from Pope’s Essay). He was proud of the friendship of such men, if she meant them. Mrs. T., not at all carried away by such a flood of authorities, rather scornfully says, “O Timmins, ‘what is friendship but a name?’” (from Goldsmith’s Hermit); at which Mr. T., who by this time is undressed, and “as mad as a March hare” (from the old English superstition), puts out the candle “in the twinkling of an eye,” (1st Corinthians 15: 52), lies down as far as possible from the “weaker vessel,” (1st Epistle of Peter 2: 17), courts “tired Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy sleep!” (Young’s Night Thoughts), and wakes next morning “a sadder and a wiser man” (in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.)76
If we turn from the frescoed bed-chamber of Mrs. Timmins to the white-washed kitchen of Jim Skiver, the shoemaker, we find language not less elevated. Jim throws a leg of mutton upon the table and says: “There Mary, I had “to take Hobson’s choice,” although Jim had neither read the 509th Spectator, nor knew that Hobson’s epitaph had been written by Milton. Jim, not “having the fear of” Beaumont and Fletcher “before his eyes,” (Romans 3: 18), says, if he can “catch that man wot gave Bill Baxter a black eye the day afore his weddin’ he’ll ‘lamm’ him”, (King and No King, Act V, Scene Third). To which Mary replies: “I thought somethin’ would happin: ‘the course of true love never did run smooth,’” (Midsummers Night’s Dream, Act I, Scene 1), and Jim responds, “That’s so; and they’ve put off the weddin’ so often that it seems kind o’ ’hopin’ agin’ hope,’” (Romans 4: 18). Jim thinks after they’ve had a “snack,” (Pope and Dryden), they had better go see the Siamese Twins; “twins tied by nature; if they part, they die,” (Young’s Night Thoughts); puts on “a hat not much the worse for wear,” (John Gilpin), “dashes through thick and thin,” (same authority and Hudibras), and after he has seen the Siamese, requests to see the “Lilliputian King,” (from Gulliver’s travels).
How much language would be left us if these estrays were returned to their lawful owners, is a question. How could we console the dying if we had to give up to Gay’s twenty-seventh Fable the phrase, “while there is life 77 there’s hope?” and what could we say to the good in misfortune if we had to restore to Prior’s Ode, “Virtue is her own reward?” The shopkeeper who ends his long list of fancy articles with “and other articles too tedious to mention,” makes use of a sentence as old as the Latin language, and we would take the point from Byron’s hit at Coleridge, if we were to replace in “Garrick’s Epilogue on Leaving the Stage,” “a fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind.” So, too, must Goldsmith’s Hermit lose “man wants but little here below,” if Young’s Night Thought, IV, had its own property: and “all the jargon of the schools,” from Burns’ 1st epistle to J. Lapraik must be rendered up to Prior’s “Ode on Exodus,” which has a prior claim to it. Mr. Achitophel Scapegrace thinks the biggest stockholders in the Roaring River Canal Co. will have the best chance, as “all the big fish will eat up the little ones” (Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Act II, Scene First), and Mr. Bombastes Linderwold talks of a “platform” in precisely the same sense as Cromwell did two hundred years ago (Queries in Letter 97, Carlyle). It is in Cromwell’s seventh letter that we find for the first time that apt conjunction, “a gentleman and a Christian,” now somewhat threadbare from misuse, and if we want “mother-wit,” we must look for it in Spenser’s “Faërie Queen,” Book IV, Canto X, verse 21. Everybody has seen the man in Greek costume who sells soap by the ball, but nobody but Mr. Leviticus Gaylord suggested, “that if another Greek should meet that Greek then would be 78 a tug of war” and he has authority for saying so in the Rival Queens, Act IV, Scene First. We have to go back to Thomas ä Kempis for “a man proposes but God disposes;” but “what if thou withdraw and no friend takes note of thy departure?” was written by a young man only eighteen years of age nearly fifty years ago.* If we want to look up “the solemn brood of care,” we can find that, “and each one, as before, will chase his favorite phantom,” in Thanatopsis. There, too, we will see the hills “rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,” but “old as the hills” is older than the “oldest inhabitant,” and like him, has lost its parent. If we need “to point a moral and adorn a tale,” we must get Dr. Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes,” and “he that runs may read,” in Cowper’s “Tirocinium,” and “he may run that readeth it,” in Habakuk 2: 2. If any person wish to “consume the midnight oil,” let him read Gay’s Shepherd and Philosopher, and in Congreve’s “Mourning Bride” he will find “music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” “To be in the wrong box,” will occur to him who has dipped into the sixth book of “Fox’s Martyrs,” and Napoleon found “that from the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step,” in Tom Paine’s works translated and published in France, in 1791. We take “buds of promise,” from Young’s “Last Day,” “and men talk only to conceal their mind,” from his “Love of Fame,” although we attribute the thought to Talleyrand. “Good breeding 79 is the blossom of good sense,” is not quite so familiar, but it is also in the “Love of Fame,” from whence we get the original of what Matilda Jane Peabody believes when she ties up her hair before the looking glass and says that “Louisa Perkins and Betsey Baker can’t hold a candle to her.” “To hold their farthing candle to the sun” is in her mind, or its equivalent. “Who shall decide when doctors disagree?” is a question we may well ask between the Allopathists and the Homeœopathists, and Pope puts it in his “Fourth Moral Essay.” In “Lochiel’s Warning” we find “coming events cast their shadows before.” So Tim Taffeta thinks as he sees the shade deepen upon the brows of his creditor. So Dr. Senna thinks as he sees the premonitory symptoms of coming apoplexy in the fair round proportions of Alderman Broadbutton, and so thinks Peter Pipkin as the delicate adumbration is visible in Mrs. Pipkin’s “nature’s last best gift” (Paradise Lost, Book 5, line 19), who finds herself “as women wish to be who love their lords” (Douglass, Act I., Scene First), “not wisely but too well” (Othello, Act V, Scene Last). It is impossible to see the Ravels on the tight-rope without thinking of “the light fantastic toe,” and L’Allegro; and “thoughts that breath and words that burn,” live in the magic atmosphere that surrounds the orator, as well as in “Gray’s Progress of Poesy.” To make a complete collection of these phrases would be the labor of a life; so numerous are they, that if the door is once opened they pour in “thick as the leaves in Valambrosa” (Paradise 80 Lost, Book I, line 303); and although the “labor of love” (Hebrews 6: 10), might entertain the scholar, yet if he were to cast these pearls before an undiscriminating multitude, after he “had borne the burden and heat of the day” (Mathew 20: 12), his only recompense would be that he had made every one as wise as himself, which the true scholar cannot abide. “Brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene Second), and we must make our discourse “fine by degrees and beautifully less” (Prior’s Henry and Emma). These sentences — “jewels, five words long that on the stretched forefinger of old Time sparkle forever” (Tennyson’s Princess), are not to be scattered with too liberal a hand, and, therefore, we shall conclude with a quotation peculiarly appropriate: “FORSAKE NOT AN OLD FRIEND: WHEN WINE IS OLD, THOU SHALT DRINK WITH PLEASURE.” Eccl. 9: 10.