The axioms most familiar to men of the world, are passed from one tongue to another without much reflection. They are merely parroted. Some critics have thought that the advice which Polonius, in the tragedy of Hamlet, gives his son, on his going abroad, exhibits a degree of wisdom wholly inconsistent with the general character of that weak and foolish old man. But in this case, as in most others of a similar nature, we find, on closer consideration, that what may seem at the first glance an error or oversight of Shakespeare's, is only another illustration of his accurate knowledge of human life. The precepts which the old man desires to fix in the mind of Laertes, are just such as he might have heard a hundred thousand times in his long passage through the world. They are not brought out from the depths of his own soul. They have only fastened themselves on his memory, and are much nearer to his tongue than to his heart. No one is surprised at the innumerable wise saws and proverbial phrases that issue from the lips of the most silly and ignorant old women in all ranks of life, in town and country, in cottages and in courts. In the conversation of the weakest-minded persons, we often find, as in that of Polonius, both "matter and impertinency mixed." His advice is not that of a philosopher, but of a courtier and man of the world. He echoes the common wisdom of his associates.

"Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice:

Take each man's censure*, but reserve thy judgment."

He is indebted to his court education for this mean and heartless maxim. To listen eagerly to the communications of others, and to conceal his own thoughts, is the first lesson that a courtier learns. Let us quote another specimen of his paternal admonitions.

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be:

For loan oft loses both itself and friend;
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry."


Polonius might have picked up this marvellous scrap of prudence in some petty tradesman's shop; not, however, in a pawnbroker's, for the sign of which it would form a very forbidding motto. It is similar in tone to the maxims of Poor Richard*. There are a few precepts in the parting advice of Polonius of a somewhat higher character; but they are only such as float about the world, and are repeated on occasion by all well-intentioned people. They are not of that high and original cast which Shakespeare would have put into the mouth of Hamlet, or any other thoughtful and noble-hearted personage.

It seems paradoxical to affirm, that men who are out of the world know more of the philosophy of its movements than those who are in it; but it is nevertheless perfectly true, and easily accounted for. The busy man is so rapidly whirled about in the vast machine, that he has not leisure to observe its motion. An observer stationed on a hill that overlooks a battle, can see more distinctly the operations of either army than the combatants themselves. They who have attained success by mere good fortune, are particularly ill-fitted to direct and counsel others who are struggling through the labyrinths of life. A shrewd observer, who has touched the rocks, is a better pilot than he who has passed through a difficult channel in ignorance of its dangers.

The extent of a person's knowledge of mankind is not to be calculated by the number of his years. The old, indeed, are always wise in their own estimation, and eagerly volunteer advice, which is not in all cases as eagerly received. The stale preparatory sentence of "When you have come to my years, &c." is occasionally a prologue to the wearisome farce of second childhood. A Latin proverb says, that "experience It sometimes does so, but not always. Experience

"Wealth, as clearly shewn in the preface of our old Pennsylvanian Almanack, entitled 'Poor Richard Improved.' Written by Dr. Franklin."

cannot confer natural sagacity, and without that it is nearly useless. It is said to be an axiom in natural history, that a cat will never tread again the road on which it has been beaten ; but this has been disproved in a thousand experiments. It is the same with mankind. A weak-minded man, let his years be few or numerous, will no sooner be extricated from a silly scrape, than he will fall again into the same difficulty in the very same way. Nothing is more common than for old women (of either sex) to shake with a solemn gravity their thin grey hairs, as if they covered a repository of gathered wisdom, when perchance some clear and lively head upon younger shoulders has fifty times the knowledge with less than half the pretension. We are not always wise in proportion to our opportunities of acquiring wisdom, but according to the shrewdness and activity of our observation. Nor is a man's fortune in all cases an unequivocal criterion of the character of his intellect* or his knowledge of the world. Men in business acquire a habit of guarding themselves very carefully against the arts of those with whom they are brought in contact in their commercial transactions; but they are, perhaps, better versed in goods and securities than in the human heart. They wisely trust a great deal more to law papers, than to the human face divine," or any of those indications of character which are so unerringly perused by a profound observer. A great dramatic poet can lift the curtain of the human heart; but mere men of business must act always in the dark, and, taking it for granted that every individual, whatever his ostensible character, may be a secret villain, they will have no transactions with their fellow-creatures, until they have made “ assurance double sure," and secured themselves from the possibility of roguery and imposition. They carry this habit of caution and mistrustfulness to


There are some few professions, indeed, in which success is a pretty certain indication of learning or of genius.

such a melancholy extreme, that they will hardly lend a guinea to a father or a brother without a regular receipt. They judge of all mankind by a few wretched exceptions. Lawyers have a similar tendency to form partial and unfavorable opinions of their fellowcreatures; because they come in contact with the worst specimens of humanity, and see more of the dark side of life than other men. Of all classes of men, perhaps the members of the medical profession have the best opportunity of forming a fair and accurate judgment of mankind in general, and it is gratifying to know that none have a higher opinion of human nature.

It is observable, that men are very much disposed to "make themselves the measure of mankind," or, in other words, when they paint their fellow-creatures, to dip their brush in the colours of their own heart.

"All seems infected that the infected spy,
As all seems yellow to the jaundiced eye."

On the other hand, a frank and noble spirit observes the world. by the light of its own nature;-and indeed all who have studied mankind without prejudice or partiality, and with a wide and liberal observation, have felt that man is not altogether unworthy of being formed after the image of his Maker.

Though I have alluded to the tendency of some particular professions to indurate the heart and limit or warp the judgment, I should be sorry, indeed, if the remarks that I have ventured upon this subject, should be regarded as an avowal of hostility towards any class whatever of my fellow-creatures. I should be guilty of a gross absurdity and injustice if I did not readily admit, that intellect and virtue are not confined to one class or excluded from another. Men are, generally speaking, very much the creatures of circumstance; but there is no condition of life, in which the soul has not sometimes asserted her independence of all adventitious distinctions; and there is no trade or profession, in which we do not meet with men who are an honour to human nature.




I STOOD Upon an English hill,
And saw the far meandering rill,
A vein of liquid silver, run
Sparkling in the summer sun;

While adown that green hill's side,

And along the valley wide,

Sheep, like small clouds touched with light,

Or like little breakers bright
Sprinkled o'er a smiling sea,
Seemed to float at liberty.

Scattered all around were seen

White cots on the meadows green,

Open to the sky and breeze,

Or peeping through the sheltering trees.
On rustic gateways, loosely swung,
Laughing children idly hung:

Oft their glad shouts, shrill and clear,
Came upon the startled ear,

Blended with the tremulous bleat
Of truant lambs, or voices sweet
Of birds that take us by surprise,
And mock the quickly-searching eyes.

Nearer sat a bright-haired boy,
Whistling with a thoughtless joy;
A shepherd's crook was in his hand,
Emblem of a mild command;

And upon his rounded cheek
Were hues that ripened apples streak.

« ElőzőTovább »