proverb: A terse didactic statement that embodies a general truth, the proverb is short and pithy, akin to the aphorism and the maxim, and draws attention to itself as a formal artistic entity. Folk and traditional proverbs are well-known expressions, usually the length of a simple sentence, that function in conversation. They are part of daily discourse. They also operate in educational situations and judicial proceedings. Proverbs take personal circumstances and embody them in impersonal form. Their meanings seem fixed, but depend on context, since texts are adapted to different situations. Proverbs are normative, consensual. The proverb simplifies a problem by naming and solving it with a traditional solution.
The linguist Roman Jakobson called the proverb “the largest coded unit occurring in our speech and at the same time the shortest poetic composition.” Proverbs frequently employ traditional devices of poetry, such as balanced phrasing (“Out of sight, out of mind”) and binary construction (“A stitch in time / saves nine”), rhyme (“Haste makes waste”), alliteration (“Live and learn”), and repetition (“Live and let live”). They often apply a metaphor to a situation (“Don’t change horses in midstream”). By definition, proverbs must be memorable. Expressions become proverbial through quotation. In “Literature as Equipment for Living” (1938), Kenneth Burke pointed out that “social structures give rise to ‘type’ situations . . . many proverbs seek to chart, in more or less homey and picturesque ways, these ‘type’ situations.” Proverbs are a fundamental way that literature provides “equipment for living.” He then extended the analysis of proverbs to the whole field of literature in Philosophy of Literary Forms: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941). “Could the most complex and sophisticated works of art legitimately be considered somewhat as ‘proverbs writ large’?”
The humble proverb has an ancient and generally overlooked literary provenance. Proverbs are amongst the oldest works in Sansrkit. Daniel Ingalls writes: “A collection of Sanskrit proverbs would soon attain a size that no book could hold, for it is consonant with the Sanskrit preference for the general over the particular, for the type over the individual, that it should use proverbs very widely.” Proverbs also animated early Germanic, Scandinavian, and especially Hebrew literature, as in the book of Proverbs, a form of wisdom literature whose principle is encapsulated in the following example:
Treasures of wickedness profit nothing:
but righteousness deliverith from death. (10:2)
The binary proverb is the literary foundation of wisdom poetry. It consists of two units brought together in a type of parallelism:
Pride goeth before destruction,
and an haughty spirit before a fall. (16:18)
A soft answer turneth away wrath:
but grievous words stir up anger. (15:1)
Proverbs entered European literature through the Bible, the Church fathers, and classical Greek writers, such as Aristophanes (ca. 450–ca. 388 BCE), Plautus (ca. 254–184 BCE), and Lucian (ca. 125–after 180). Erasmus’s enormously popular Adagia (1500) was crucial in spreading classical proverbs into vernacular European languages. John Heywood’s A Dialogue contening. . . . all the proverbs in the English tongue (1546) was the first English collection. There is an intermittent tradition of creating poems and songs from proverbs that extends from François Villon’s virtuoso display “Ballade des proverbes” (1458) to works by Gilbert and Sullivan, such as the Pinafore duet (1878), which has sixteen identifiable proverbs. The proverb contributed to the development of the epigram, an occasional short verse with a moral point. Proverbs are employed in face-to-face situations, and the literary epigram compensates by pointing to the situation, either as a title or within the poem itself. The proverb also had a direct influence on the heroic couplet, which in turn provided proverbs that became part of conventional wisdom, such as Alexander Pope’s “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Proverbs are embedded in poems from Geoffrey Chaucer, especially in Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1380s), to Carl Sandburg (“Good Morning, America”) and Robert Frost (“Good fences make good neighbors”). William Blake’s provocative “Proverbs of Hell” (1790–1793) teaches that “Exuberance is Beauty.”
Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.