The International Magazine/Volume 1/Issue 1/International Weekly Miscellany/Martin Farquhar Tupper
The recent appearance of some half dozen editions—some of them very beautiful in typography and pictorial illustrations—of The Proverbial Philosophy of Mr. Martin Farquhar Tupper, reminds us of the observation of Dana, that something “resembling poetry” is oftentimes borne into instant and turbulent popularity, while a work of genuine character may be lying neglected by all except the poets. But “the tide of time,” says the profound essayist, “flows on, and the former begins to settle to the bottom, while the latter rises slowly and steadily to the surface, and goes forward, for a spirit is in it.” We are not without the hope that Richard H. Dana will one day be in as frequent demand as Martin Farquhar Tupper is now.
The merits of this “gentleman of acknowledged genius and sovereign popularity,” we have never been able to discover. If oddity were always originality, if quaintness and beauty were synonymous, if paradox were necessarily wisdom, we should be ready to grant that Mr. Tupper is a wise, beautiful and original thinker. But thought, after all, is an affair of mind, and though a man of genius may write what is far more brilliant than common sense ever is, yet no man can utter valuable truth on mortal and prudential subjects, unless he possesses a vigorous and powerful understanding. Now Mr. Tupper’s art consists in contriving, not thought, but things that look like thoughts; fancies, in imitation of truths. The Proverbial Philosophy, in fact, appears to us one of the most curious impositions we have ever met with. When you first read one of the aphorisms, it strikes you as a sentiment of extraordinary wisdom. But look more closely at it; try to apply it; and you will find that it is merely a trick of words. What flashed upon you as a profound distinction in morals, turns out to be nothing but a verbal antithesis. What was paraded, as a kind of transcendental analogy between things not before suspected of resemblance, discovered by the “spiritual insight” of the moral seer, is in fact no more than a grave clench,—a solemn quibble,—a conceit; arising not from the perfection of mind, but the imperfection of language. Those conceptions, fabricated by Fancy out of the materials that Fancy deals in, and colored by the rays of a poetic sentiment, wear the same relation to truths, that the prismatic hues of the spray of a fountain in the sunshine bear to the gems which it perhaps outshines. It dazzles and delights, but if we try to apprehend it we become bewildered; and finally discover that we were deceived by a brilliant phantom of air. You may admire Mr. Tupper; you may enjoy him; but you cannot understand him: the staple of his sentences is not stuff of the understanding. Take one of Mr. Tupper’s and one of Lord Bacon’s aphorisms; they flash with an equal bravery. But try them upon the glassy surface of life. Bacon’s cut it as if it were air: Tupper’s turn into a little drop of dirty water. One was a diamond, the other but an icicle; one was the commonest liquor artificially refrigerated; the other was a crystal in form, but in its substance the pure carbon of truth. If these bright delusions which Mr. Tupper turns out to the wonder and praise of his admirers, were really thoughts, is it to be supposed that he would go on in this way, stringing them together, or evolving one out of the other, as a spider weaves its unending line, or as a boy blows soap bubbles from the nose of a tobacco pipe? Fancies, conceits, intellectual phantoms, may be engendered out of the mind, brooding in self-creation upon its own suggestions: but truth is to be mined from Nature, to be wrung from experience, to be seized as the victor’s trophy on the battlefield of action and suffering. The flowers of poetry may bud spontaneously around the meditative spirit of genius, but the harvest of Truth, though, to be reaped by mind, must grow out of Reality.