I find, too, many fine aphorisms from “Carmen Sylva” (Queen of Roumania):
“Il vaut mieux avoir pour confesseur un medecin qu’un pretre. Vous dites au pretre que vous detestez les hommes, il vous reponds que vous n’etes pas chretien. Le medecin vous donne de la rhubarbe, et voila que vous aimez votre semblable.”
“Vous dites au pretre que vous etes fatigue de vivre; il vous reponds que le suicide est un crime. Le medecin vous donne un stimulant, et voila que vous trouvez la vie supportable.”
“La contradiction anime la conversation; voila pourquoi les cours sont si ennuyeuses.”
“Quand on veut affirmer quelque chose, on appelle toujours Dieu a temoin, parce qu’il ne contredit jamais.”
“On ne peut jamais etre fatigue de la vie, on n’est fatigue que de soi-meme.”
“Il faut etre ou tres-pieux ou tres-philosophe! il faut dire: Seigneur, que ta volonte soit faite! ou: Nature, j’admets tes lois, meme lorsqu’elles m’ecrasent.”
“L’homme est un violon. Ce n’est que lorsque sa derniere corde se brise qu’il devient un morceau de bois.”
In the recently published sketch of Madame Mohl there are several sentences which show trenchant wit, as: “Nations squint in looking at one another; we must discount what Germany and France say of each other.”
Several Englishwomen can be recalled who were noted for their epigrammatic wit: as Harriet, Lady Ashburton. On some one saying that liars generally speak good-naturedly of others, she replied: “Why, if you don’t speak a word of truth, it is not so difficult to speak well of your neighbor.”
“Don’t speak so hardly of –-,” some one said to her; “he lives on your good graces.”
“That accounts,” she answered, “for his being so thin.”
Again: “I don’t mind the canvas of a man’s mind being good, if only it is completely hidden by the worsted and floss.”
Or: “She never speaks to any one, which is, of course, a great advantage to any one.”
Mrs. Carlyle was an epigram herself—small, sweet, yet possessing a sting—and her letters give us many sharp and original sayings.
She speaks in one place of “Mrs. –-, an insupportable bore; her neck and arms were as naked as if she had never eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
And what a comical phrase is hers when she writes to her “Dearest”—”I take time by the pig-tail and write at night, after post-hours”—that growling, surly “dearest,” of whom she said, “The amount of bile that he brings home is awfully grand.”
For a veritable epigram from an American woman’s pen we must rely on Hannah F. Gould, who wrote many verses that were rather graceful and arch than witty. But her epitaph on her friend, the active and aggressive Caleb Cushing, is as good as any made by Saxe.
“Lay aside, all ye dead,
For in the next bed
Reposes the body of Cushing;
He has crowded his way
Through the world, they say,
And even though dead will be pushing.”
Such a hit from a bright woman is refreshing.
Our literary foremothers seemed to prefer to be pedantic, didactic, and tedious on the printed page.
Catharine Sedgwick dealt somewhat in epigram, as when she says: “He was not one of those convenient single people who are used, as we use straw and cotton in packing, to fill up vacant places.”
Eliza Leslie (famed for her cook-books and her satiric sketches), when speaking of people silent from stupidity, supposed kindly to be full of reserved power, says: “We cannot help thinking that when a head is full of ideas some of them must involuntarily ooze out.”
And is not this epigrammatic advice? “Avoid giving invitations to bores—they will come without.”
Some of our later literary women prefer the epigrammatic form in sentences, crisp and laconic; short sayings full of pith, of which I have made a collection.
Gail Hamilton’s books fairly bristle with epigrams in condensed style, and Kate Field has many a good thought in this shape, as: “Judge no one by his relations, whatever criticism you pass upon his companions. Relations, like features, are thrust upon us; companions, like clothes, are more or less our own selection.”
Miss Jewett’s style is less epigrammatic, but just as full of humor. Speaking of a person who was always complaining, she says: “Nothing ever suits her. She ain’t had no more troubles to bear than the rest of us; but you never see her that she didn’t have a chapter to lay before ye. I’ve got ‘s much feelin’ as the next one, but when folks drives in their spiggits and wants to draw a bucketful o’ compassion every day right straight along, there does come times when it seems as if the bar’l was getting low.”
“The captain, whose eyes were not much better than his ears, always refused to go forth after nightfall without his lantern. The old couple steered slowly down the uneven sidewalk toward their cousin’s house. The captain walked with a solemn, rolling gait, learned in his many long years at sea, and his wife, who was also short and stout, had caught the habit from him. If they kept step all went well; but on this occasion, as sometimes happened, they did not take the first step out into the world together, so they swayed apart, and then bumped against each other as they went along. To see the lantern coming through the mist you might have thought it the light of a small craft at sea in heavy weather.”
“Deaf people hear more things that are worth listening to than people with better ears; one likes to have something worth telling in talking to a person who misses most of the world’s talk.”
“Emory Ann,” a creation of Mrs. Whitney’s, often spoke in epigrams, as: “Good looks are a snare; especially to them that haven’t got ‘em.” While Mrs. Walker’s creed, “I believe in the total depravity of inanimate things,” is more than an epigram—it is an inspiration.
Charlotte Fiske Bates, who compiled the “Cambridge Book of Poetry,” and has given us a charming volume of her own verses, which no one runs any “Risk” in buying, in spite of the title of the book, has done a good deal in this direction, and is fond of giving an epigrammatic turn to a bright thought, as in the following couplet:
“Would you sketch in two words a coquette and deceiver?
Name two Irish geniuses, Lover and Lever!”
She also succeeds with the quatrain:
ON BEING CALLED A GOOSE.
A signal name is this, upon my word!
Great Juno’s geese saved Rome her citadel.
Another drowsy Manlius may be stirred
And the State saved, if I but cackle well.
I recall a charming jeu d’esprit from Mrs. Barrows, the beloved “Aunt Fanny,” who writes equally well for children and grown folks, and whose big heart ranges from earnest philanthropy to the perpetration of exquisite nonsense.
It is but a trifle, sent with a couple of peanut-owls to a niece of Bryant’s. The aged poet was greatly amused.
“When great Minerva chose the Owl,
That bird of solemn phiz,
That truly awful-looking fowl,
To represent her wisDom, little recked the goddess of
The time when she would howl
To see a Peanut set on end,
And called—Minerva’s Owl.”