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first hint of that weary scepticism that stands fully revealed in Ecclesiastes.
I have been speaking of the topics of proverbs; it may be asked, what are the methods by which these topics are treated? Without attempting minute analysis I may remark that three characteristics of gnomic method stand out. Antithesis is the very life blood of the proverb: antithesis, in the form of adversative or other contrast, belongs to the vast majority of them.
Understanding is a well-spring of life unto him that hath it:
Children's children are the crown of old men;
Next in importance to antithesis, comparison is a mode of emphasis in proverbial sayings.
A rebuke entereth deeper into one that hath understanding
Wrath is cruel,
And anger is outrageous:
Such comparison reaches its fullest form in the enumerations of the Number Sonnets.
For three things the earth doth tremble,
For a servant when he is king;
For an odious woman when she is married;
A third mode of treatment found in the proverbs is the kind of comparison called Imagery. Very striking images are employed by the wise men, especially in the fourth book of Proverbs. Such is the simile of the will o' the wisp :
The getting of treasures by a lying tongue
Is a vapour driven to and fro;
Three striking similes are massed together in a single saying, where the contentious woman is compared to con tinual dropping in a very rainy day; restraining her is like holding the wind, using force is like fighting slippery oil.
The reader of Proverbs must be on his guard against a first impression of commonplaceness. Proverbs have a prerogative to be commonplace; their mission is to voice the most widely diffused experience. And there is no literary function higher than that of giving point to what is ordinary, and rescuing a truth from the obscurity of obviousness. No impression is left on the mind by the dry statement that the behaviour of a pair of lovers is irreducible to principle. But Agur can strike a spark when he makes this topic into a number sonnet:
There be three things which are too wonderful for me,
The way of an eagle in the air ;
The way of a ship in the midst of the sea;
It must be remembered, moreover, that proverbs suffer more than any other kind of literature by being read in collections. Most readers have grown weary even of excellent lyric poems when they have tried to read through a disconnected series. But Wisdom literature contains the briefest of all literary compositions, and three hundred and seventy-five of these, wholly unconnected, are massed together in a single book of The Proverbs. Many of the sayings will justify themselves at once ; for others the reader must be content to wait. It may well happen that proverbs which seemed the coldest in the mere reading may glow with wisdom if the reader himself happens to pass into the experience they describe. No special information is given by the familiar saying that the heart knoweth its own bitterness. But those who have had to suffer some pang of disaster have realised how this and other proverbs attain the very perfection of adequacy.
We seem to pass into a different region of literature when we turn from the collections of proverbs to the introductory book of Poems on Wisdom as a whole. The word wisdom is associated with other names — Knowledge, Discretion, Understanding, Discernment: the individual words are not to be pressed, either in the original language or in any other, but the idea is a profusion of synonyms intended to take in all excellence. When to these synonyms is added 'Instruction' and 'Law,' the man of wisdom and the scribe join hands. To such Wisdom are opposed special errors sluggishness, the sowing of discord — or, in general terms, scorners and men of violence, as blind to their inevitable doom as the silly bird in whose very eyes the fowler may safely spread his net. Or the foes of Wisdom are the simple; or again the 'perverse' and “froward'— terms suggesting those who do not yield to temptation, but go to meet it: in Southey's phrase, they tempt Hell to tempt them.
The Wisdom celebrated is a thing of character; but of character viewed as a whole. It is an air or presence, that hangs about a man like a chaplet of grace on his head or chains about his neck. Sought at first with strain and effort - with searching as for hid treasures, with watching daily at gates and waiting at the posts of doors, with the pain of Divine chastening - Wisdom becomes at last a heart possession, restraining the mouth, directing the eyes, establishing the feet, watching over the sleeper, talking with him when he wakes: by multiplied expressions like these the poets of Wisdom strive to express the overflowing of vigorous consciousness, as when an epic hero is made to converse with his dear heart.' Character passes into action, and Wisdom appears as a 'way' and a 'path': a path of light growing from dawn into full day, in contrast with another path that leads down into darkness and stumbling. And in this connection of thought a single poem identifies Wisdom with a mocking retribution, such as a Greek poet would call “Nemesis,' which the Hebrew poet, by an interlocking of metaphors, describes as a man's eating of the fruit of his way.' Viewed from the past, Wisdom is the “principal thing' which has come down by tradition from instructing father to son that becomes instructor in his turn; viewed from yet another standpoint, Wisdom is the grand bargain of life, whose merchandise is better than merchandise of silver, and her gain than gold and rubies.
But Wisdom can rise higher still in the scale of personality. The same impulse which leads a sailor lad to speak of his ship as 'she,' or a poet to deify his inspiration as a Muse, leads the wise men to clothe their theme with a feminine personality. Wisdom is a sister, Understanding a kinswoman; the final poem of the book paints Wisdom as the universal hostess, with her house of seven pillars and her maidens bidding to a rich feast. But the great monologue which is the crown of the Wisdom poems contains another personification, as bold as it is brilliant.