Academic journal article Folklore

"A Man of Fashion Never Has Recourse to Proverbs": Lord Chesterfield's Tilting at Proverbial Windmills

Academic journal article Folklore

"A Man of Fashion Never Has Recourse to Proverbs": Lord Chesterfield's Tilting at Proverbial Windmills

Article excerpt


Many scholars have claimed that proverbs largely dropped from polite speech during the eighteenth century in England. Often quoted in this context is Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son that proverbs are merely the "rhetoric of the vulgar man" and "a man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms." This article challenges the former assumption and shows that Chesterfield himself regularly used proverbs in his letters, and used them to great effect.

Unfounded generalisations and unproven claims are common in intellectual pursuits. The field of folklore in general, and that of paremiology in particular, are no exceptions. Even Archer Taylor, the grand master of proverb studies, fell into this trap in a chapter on "Proverbs in Literature" in his celebrated classic, The Proverb (1931). Commenting on the fact that "different attitudes [exist] toward proverbs in different ages," he observed correctly that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries exhibited a widespread interest in folk wisdom, but "during the eighteenth century a reaction set in: the rationalistic temper found little to admire in proverbs" (Taylor 1985, 173). Morris Palmer Tilley, the compiler of the acclaimed Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, similarly concluded that:

   as the seventeenth century drew to a close, there set in a reaction to the
   enthusiastic use of proverbs in literature, with the result that in the
   eighteenth century proverbs were first frowned upon and then banished from
   polite literature, and, finally, from polite conversation (Tilley 1950,

F. P. Wilson, editor of The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, also asserted that:

   polite writers in the eighteenth century despised these "vulgar sayings"
   and Swift pilloried them. The tide had turned against them, though in plays
   and novels they abound, particularly when low life is depicted (Wilson
   1970, ix).

Lastly, James Obelkevich, in his otherwise valuable essay on "Proverbs and Social History" (1987), concluded that:

   In the second half of the [seventeenth] century, however, the educated
   classes' enthusiasm for proverbs began to wane. They largely disappear from
   the literature of the period, and by the early decades of the eighteenth
   century opinion was turning sharply against them. Though evidently still
   widely used in conversation, there too they came under attack; Swift
   pillories them, along with trite witticisms and banal small talk of the
   day; other critics found them ostentatious, competitive, insincere--to use
   them was a "sign of a coxcomb." Having dropped out of polite literature
   (and the manuals of rhetoric), they were then banished from polite
   conversation; by the 1740s, when Lord Chesterfield advised his son that "a
   man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs or vulgar aphorisms," the
   process was complete (Obelkevich 1987, 57).

This is well argued, and to a degree convincing, but it simply does not hold water. There was no "general collapse of proverbiality" and no "nearly complete blackout" of proverbs, and, as will be shown in this present study, not even Lord Chesterfield himself could escape the spell of proverbs. Of course he used them ambiguously, contradictorily and dialectically, but use them he did.

Proverbs in the Eighteenth Century

Paremiologist Richard Jente reminded scholars in 1945 in an appropriately titled article on "The Untilled Field of Proverbs" that while the literature of that time, "with its enlightenment and sophistication made less use of the proverb than the preceding centuries ... we do find here and there examples to the contrary ... but no comprehensive studies have yet been made" (Jente 1945, 116). Some thirty years later, Lutz Rohrich and I (Rohrich and Mieder 1977) also observed that there are definite exceptions to the eighteenth century's apparent disregard and disrespect for proverbs, but that detailed literary studies were needed to prove this fact. …

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