Billeder på siden

Hubberd's Tale, an old poem of Queen Elizabeth's time, the

to the scholar. Through how many centuries of babyhood have come down to us the references to two of the legendary kings of Britain in the lines

Old King Cole

Was a merry old soul, and

When good King Arthur ruled this land

He was a goodly king, etc. ! Jack Horner-a veritable personage—and his pie (filled with parchment deeds for plums) carry us back to the days, of Henry VIII. By the way, do we not now speak of political plums for office-seekers ?

Mother Hubbard is no other than the heroine of Mother


written by Edmund Spenser

Mother Goose herself was not a myth, but was made so to appear through her graceless son-in-law, Thomas Fleet, a printer of Boston, who long ago lampooned the venerable dame for her never-ending singing of folk-ditties to her precious grandchild. We may go through the whole line of nursery literature— Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Bluebeard, Munchausen, etc.—and we shall find in each a reminder of some event of past ages which possesses an interest for children of larger growth.

The student of the classics is well aware of the popular use made of references to old legendary characters of the Greeks and Romans. We speak of a hectoring fellow; a stentorian voice; a palladium of liberty; an herculean feat; a procrustean rule; a friend and mentor; the protean forms of water, etc. In all this the student sees at a glance the direct reference to the old tales of Hector, Stentor, the Palladium, Hercules, Procrustes, Mentor, Proteus, etc.; and the words have to him the full force of the narratives to which they relate.

It is not necessary, however, to go back to the ancient days and the dead languages to trace the origin of pregnant

sayings in common use. Our political folk-lore, for instance, is of recent origin, and possesses a deep significance. We have such political expressions as—log-rolling, pipe-laying, wire-pulling, gerrymandering, speaking for buncombe, mending fences, etc., each of which refers humorously to a real experience which has become proverbial. Of like nature are our party and faction names and sobriquets, as -Barnburners, Hunkers, and Silver Grays; Copperheads and Carpetbaggers; Old Hickory and Old Bullion; the Sages of Monticello, Lindenwald, Montpelier, and Ashland; the Little Giant, and the Rail-splitter.

The theatrical world has also its own folk-lore. Many a barn-storming troupe in sorry luck has had to “ John Audley” its play, and often to present, practically, a “Hamlet with Hamlet left out.”

In our daily conversation we find the very essence of old stories, of which the morat adds force to language and gives it deeper meaning. We speak of Hobson's choice, and Gilderoy's kite; of having an axe to grind, and of paying too dear for the whistle; of counting chickens before they are hatched, and of crying for spilt milk. We remind one another of the dog in the manger, the bull in the china shop, the goose that laid the golden egg, King Log and King Stork. We speak of Old Dog Tray, the monkey and the parrot, the town rat and the country rat. In all these, and a thousand like expressions, we do not find it necessary to relate the story to which reference is made. Everybody knows it. It is part of our very being.

The illusions of history are almost infinite in number, and illusory etymologies are very apt to lead the unwary scholar astray. The critical student of history will be amazed at the number of errors which are shown to have crept into almost every historical work of the past; and he will appreciate the magnitude of the task presented to one who would undertake now to write a history—to sift out and eliminate from his facts all error, leaving only the exact truth, in accordance

with the rigid requirements of modern historical criticism. From all this labor, perplexity, and conscientious care the student of folk-lore, who loves folk-lore for its own sake, is free. It matters not at all whether the head of Horace Greeley did or did not shoot up through the top of Hank Monk's coach; whether Peter Cartwright really did or did not blaze his way with a hatchet through the labyrinth of corridors in a New York hotel; whether Zachary Taylor, imperturbable in the midst of the hottest fire, did or did not drawl out, A l-i-t-t-l-e more grape, Captain Bragg." In either case, the story is equally good. If it be characteristic of the person to whom it is applied, it will answer every purpose of folklore.

Witty sayings are often remembered when their authors are forgotten or are confounded with other persons. There is a vast amount of sparkling thought and apt expression which is firmly held in the memory of the people, but for which no legitimate sponsor appears. There is a very common tendency, however, to ascribe a smart saying, whether correctly or not, to some noted individual; and thus a few men whose reputation for smartness is once established receive credit for much which did not originate with them. In Europe it has been (unconsciously, perhaps) the custom to ascribe this flotsam and jetsam of witty and pithy sayings to Talleyrand-just as it has been the tendency in this country to ascribe unlabeled specimens of wit and humor to Henry Ward Beecher or to Abraham Lincoln. Doubtless whole volumes of the witty sayings of these men-which they never said-might be compiled. It does not matter at all who really said them. If they sound like Talleyrand or Beecher or Lincoln, if they are characteristic and fit the case, that is all that is necessary for the requirements of folk-lore.

As a single initial letter may represent an entire word, so a single word may have the meaning of a whole lifetime of human endeavor, or a whole comedy or tragedy of human experience. Words are wonderful things; they carry with

them the story of our race. They are sacred things; they hold all that can be expressed of human happiness and misery, hope and despair.

The universality of our folk-lore is marvelous. One of our lightly spoken proverbs may date back through thousands of years to Æsop; the next one uttered may go back only to Benjamin Franklin. One comes from King Solomon or the Emperor Jamshyd, another from a wretched slave. Our common expressions of worldly wisdom have been gleaned from pleasant home lands, from the burning desert, and from the arctic snows; from the days of Job to our own time; from city and country, and from all ranks and conditions of men.

The study of folk-lore is delightful to the philosophic mind and to the generous heart. It enlarges the view of human life, and brings the individual into closer union with his fellows. It teaches the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

1 Franklin is said to have taught more of practical wisdom than any other uninspired man. His apt and homely sayings have created a world of folklore in themselves.


The mythology of ancient America is meager, and is generally of little importance in its relation to literature and art, though it possesses considerable interest in connection with geographical names and local traditions, especially in North America.

The red men of the New World believed generally in the existence of a Great Spirit,' the Master of Life. They cherished a belief in the immortality of the soul, and in a barbarous heaven. Their simple faith is happily expressed in the well-known and frequently quoted lines :

Lo, the poor Indian, whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk, or Milky Way;
Yet simple Nature to his hope has given,
Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heaven ;
Some safer world, in depth of wood embraced,
Some happier island in the watery waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold.
To be, contents his natural desire ;
He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire;
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.

-Pope's Essay on Man.

1 It is a remarkable fact that many, if not most, of the rude tribes inhabiting the vast American continent, however disfigured their creeds may have been in other respects by childish superstition, had attained to the sublime conception of one Great Spirit, the Creator of the universe, who, immaterial in his own nature, was not to be dishonored by an attempt at visible representation, and who, pervading all space, was not to be circumscribed within the

« ForrigeFortsæt »