Page images
PDF
EPUB

of the parishioners may be uncared for; gross ignorance may prevail ; bold, flaunting vice may rule in the parish; infidels, Mormons, and similar persons may be busy, sowing the seeds of error and misery; and yet the pious clergyman of the adjoining parish dare not set his foot, or open his mouth, or engage in any direct efforts in the dark, wicked place, without the sanction of the legal occupant.

No difficulty would be experienced in enlarging upon this subject, but our space is exhausted, and doubtless some able coadjutors, who are to follow, will take up other points, and furnish additional illustrations.

SIGMA.

Philosophy.

ARE THE INTRINSIC MERITS OF TUPPER'S “PRO

VERBIAL PHILOSOPHY” WORTHY OF ITS POPU. LARITY?

NEGATIVE ARTICLE.--I. NEARLY forty editions of “Proverbial Philosophy" testify in a tangible manner to its popularity, but-nothing more. That this discouraging conclusion should be forced upon us is certainly a matter for regret, as it conveys a sarcasm upon the whole community of his readers, and authors generally ; but the inference is inexorable, and cannot be ignored ; no platitudes are, therefore, here needed to show the exceedingly insecure tenure on which public favour is founded. The paradoxical and vacillating character of the popular voice has passed into a proverb, implying credulity on the one hand, and mendacity on the other. The fickleness of popularity ; its senseless enthusiasms and inert torpidity; its fits of fawning abasement and overweening arrogance; how it disregards its benefactors, is deaf to its poets and teachers, and passes by, with callous indifference, all that is truly great, to follow with servile and idiotic rapture the false gods which are successively set up by a shameless race of pandering charlatans, and is thus beguiled to listen to the shallow streams of babbling ignorance, rather than to delight in the depths of reflective and profound wisdom,--all this needs no amplification. The futility of appealing to popular opinion, when an appreciative judgment is required, must be conceded on all sides ; and it is obvious that merit and popularity by no means necessarily stand to each other in the logical relation of cause and effect. It is, therefore, requisite, in estimating the value of the book in question, to dismiss entirely from our minds any considerations, favourable or otherwise, which may arise from the fact of its having either been hailed with loud applause, or “damned with faint praise.”

But it may be urged by our opponents, that although they are

willing to admit the ephemeral and indiscriminating nature of popular opinion, this concession does not affect the question at issue, which is not whether present fame be a sure test of genuine worth, but whether, in this particular instance, Mr. Tupper's book has merited the flattering reception which popular opinion, such as it is, has accorded to it! They may not require proof that the vote of universal suffrage is unreliable in cases where critical acumen is necessary, but contend that an unanimous verdict having been granted by the tribunal, the book has thereby proved itself worthy of the honours which it sought and has gained.

To such arguments we reply, that they have the effect of removing the case completely out of court; they change the venu into an inquiry to decide the comparative demerits of the author, versus his readers ; which is not the matter in dispute. It is not our present purpose to ascertain how low the popular taste may be, or on what mental “garbage it may feed,” and still possess a teacher of merits superior to itself, whose teachings therefore, however poor, are still worthy of acceptation by this lower stratum of intelligence. The principle thus implied, of exalting the author at the expense of his audience, is palpably absurd, being totally destructive of the fixed and immutable standard of excellence, by which alone intrinsic literary merit can be gauged.

Wė thus see that popularity implies an objective value of a questionable and strictly comparative character, and that the degree of merit or demerit necessary to excite the fickle, favourable smile of the multitude, may be infinitesimal in positive amount, and, therefore, lie beyond the province of definition or discussion. But these somewhat general considerations are avowedly not adequate fully to dispose of the particular proposition now on the tapis, but are intended to lead up to it, and to show that the value of popularity, in a critical sense, is nil. And here we would suggest, What is the test of worth? Is there any touchstone, any talisman, by which merit may be revealed ? Or, is the only sure and final judgment, the only irrevocable verdict, to be found in that fiat which shall ultimately be pronounced by time? Have we any grounds of certitude, any canons of criticism ? or, in short, do we possess any available rule or measure by which the inherent value of a sample of literature may be meted out and practically stated in all the irrefragable formality of an algebraic equation ?

The only answer to these pertinent questions is, we opine, to be found in the book itself, and in the readers by whom it has been rendered popular ; these, the active agent and the object acted upon, or the effect produced, must be critically examined; not, however, in their separate and isolated entities, but cognate, linked together in their strict, logical sequence of cause and effect. And if we find that the former is commensurate with the latter, or, in other words, if it appears that the author, having set himself a distinct purpose to carry out, has adequately achieved this result; and further, if it be found that this labour has been intelligently

accepted by those for whose benefit it was undertaken ; then, and only then, can we affirm that the author has earned his guerdon, and that bonâ fide popularity is surely his, both by sacred right and by honest purchase.

The design of our author is emphatically a good and a lofty one, -would that it had been worthily accomplished! He attempts to

“Renew that hallowed theme,

And strike with feebler hand the harp of Sirach's son.” He proposes to range through the whole circle of things known, and by reinvestigating the mass of the "searchings after truth” which past ages have bequeathed to present humanity, thence to deduce 56 words of wisdom," and blazon them forth “in sayings as of old." He will offer us for our guidance “in meanest matters," and for our solace under the manifold ills to which we are heir,“The fruits I have gathered of prudence, the ripened harvest of my musings,

These commend I unto thee, O docile scholar of Wisdom.” He aims to utilize philosophy, and to apply it practically in all the varied occasions, whether of sorrow or of joy, which may arise throughout our mundane life, and in which its tempering efficacy may enable us to endure calmly, hope constantly, and otherwise exhibit the primary virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Availing himself of the fact that proverbs have always been the favourite form of wisdom's utterances, he essays to give us a system of everyday philosophy in proverbs. And the homely, rather than the heroic, is his peculiar theme. Truly a noble project. We know that often may be seen embalmed in one apt sentence the fruit of a life's reflective experience. We know that the sage and the cynic have each found in proverbs a ready vehicle alike for the profound apophthegm and the pungent philippic. The “winged words” and burning thoughts of the poet, together with the moralist's sterner truths and soberer musings, issuing spontaneously forth, are crystallized, by the touch of genius, into proverbs,-indelible, all-enduring, flashing gems of truth,—“ words of wisdom.”

Now Mr. Tupper has also sought to marry these “ words of wisdom.” to “immortal verse." By what may be termed a process of enamelling bis proverbs in metre, like the fabled “flies in amber," he attempts to make them at once attractive and telling: Would that success had crowned his efforts, for the result would have been the production of a book unique in the world of letters; but as it is, the attractiveness lies solely in the title, and that is a misnomer. Failure is stamped on every page. Instead of proverbial philosophy - philosophy in proverbs — we have dull verbosity. Instead of concentrated words of wisdom, we have maundering wordiness. We only hear the report of his intellectual artillery, and never feel the penetrating bullets of conviction. It is all a dull, reverberating echo-" sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Certainly in vast heaps of chaff there may be painfully discerned here and there a few grains of wheat; but even these are in most cases not his own. In fact, it may almost be said, that what he has borrowed is generally good, though often spoilt in the rendering; all else is tame mediocrity. There is abundance of tinsel, but little gold. He is involved, paradoxical, and contradictory. His “laboured lines limp lazily along;” and though they have a great many feet, they make but little progress. Of false brilliancy there is not much, but of turgid obscurity there is an abundance; and of these qualities we do not know which is the worst; but this book has both, though there is more of the somno. lent than the energetic in it. Now there is the same difference between proverbs--or words of wisdom, as Mr. Tupper prefers to call them--and ordinary prose, as there is between diamonds and common charcoal. The flashing “ king of gems ” is readily convertible into dull carbon; but the converse experiment is by no means so easily performed-a fact which Mr. Tupper has strangely ignored; for while he is an adept at the former process, he perversely seems to consider it to be fully equivalent to the latter, and more profitable transformation of carbon into diamonds. His book is full of instances of the conversion of borrowed wisdom into bald and ambling verse, and but few examples in which the mere dross of common-place experience has issued from the alembic of his mind in the sterling form of genius-flashing gems of wit and wisdom.

There are about sixty topics discussed in “Proverbial Philosophy," generally having a practical bearing upon the affairs and duties of ordinary life ; and it is obvious that any detailed criticism of this vast range of subjects must be dispensed with in the present article. We shall, however, indicate the leading characteristics which permeate—and which indeed constitute the philosophy of the whole series, and which faults are in themselves enough to condemn the book in every normal thinking mind, and to remove it, in the estimation of all but mere fools, from the pinnacle of popularity which it has adventitiously attained. The first impression to be recorded is that of the negative--the neutralizing-effect which it has on the aspiring mind. The reader, after perusing the book, lays it down with the conviction, more or less defined, that he has been comfortably and authoritatively assured that everything is all right; that there is good in everything, and everything is good, or vice versâ ; each state of mind being equally deadly to action. It is the old story over again, that “whatever is, is right.” Running through almost every theme, it is the doctrine of mere passivity, miscalled patience. To be simply contented is to attain our chief good. This is its boasted philosophy. Ambition is construed into a madness; aspiration is phantasy ; hope becomes a disordered dream ; duty is a pliable stick, which will bend as we lean. The general tenour of the string of platitudes which “ drag their slow length along” through the whole book is, that “all is vanity," and that inert neutrality, judiciously managed, constitutes “the

whole duty of man.” Its philosophy is thus only another name for inertia.

There is an entire want of thoroughness, of directness, in its teachings. It is continually temporizing, balancing, trying to hit the vaunted “happy medium” in all things. Its laboured doggerel has but one refrain, that of the adoption of the “ golden mean" 'as our rule of life. Now for those who are satisfied with this low standard of aspiration—who are content to fritter their whole life away in “inglorious ease," or in doing small imbeci lities--who are willing to dwell in the murky plains of stagnant thought, without ever striving, Excelsior-like, to ascend to the clearer air, and attain the stand-point of a wider circle, in the higher altitudes of the soul's career,-- for such as these the book is certainly well enough, and they are welcome to it, and may rest assured that it will never disturb their stolid equanimity.

We do not wish to disparage the book; it is a highly respectable book; it is orthodox; it is genteel; and it certainly is not new. It contains no dangerous doctrines; it is not revolutionary ; it will not remove any “landmarks," either political or social; it does zot patronize the ferocious virtues ; it does not aspire to insist on the ideal in men or things; it is not heroic ; and, as for martyr why, they are out of date. It is thus a highly proper book to possess, and is admirably adapted for a present, especially to a lady-and if well bound. She will exhibit it to her friends, who will procure a similar toy, to be afterwards laid, as a pretty ornament, upon their drawing-room tables. Here it enters on the ordinary routine of a popular book. It is praised-quoteddies; and then either goes to gather fresh laurels in the discriminating arena of the nursery, or else is coolly degraded to the common rank and file of a show book-case. We can therefore honestly commend “ Proverbial Philosophy" to those who are like that unexacting reader we have heard of, who unconsciously perused the whole of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, and thought it good sound reading." Mr. Tupper is evidently an industrious man; and, though no genius, yet he has excelled one-in the particular matter of having invented an attractive title! He has accumulated a desultory series of platitudes, and called them “ Proverbial Philosophy." And although he does not attempt to grasp the infinite, or to rise to the heroic, yet he is certainly a great man in small things,-these he enforces with all the power and originality which we usually find when medio crity, arrogating the preacher, addresses itself to mediocrity. But is this enough? No!

E. S. J.

A FAULT NOTED.It is especially the error of controversialists to urge everything that can be urged; to snatch up the first weapon that comes to hand (furor arma ministrat), without waiting to consider what is true.- WHATELY.

« PreviousContinue »