W hat I believe to be genuine and authentic the collected publications of William Colenso


On the Ideality of the Ancient New Zealander



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On the Ideality of the Ancient New Zealander.
Part II.—Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings.

I have long believed that there is much truth in that compendious remark of Lord Bacon, viz., that “the genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovered by their proverbs.” It is in them, no doubt, that a philosophical mind will discover a great variety of curious knowledge, particularly when [109] (as in the case of the New Zealanders) the nation has no literature, or, rather, no written records and books. It has been deliberately affirmed by a learned modern writer well acquainted with his subject, that there are 20,000 proverbs among the nations of Europe alone. Many of these have been handed down from ancient times; not a few from the Greeks, who also borrowed largely from the Eastern nations. Such proverbs were long confined to oral tradition (just like these of the New Zealanders); for, as it has been truly observed, “Proverbs were before books.” The most ancient, as well as the most refined and civilized of nations, have ever used them, and that effectively. We find them pervading all classes of literature—religious, moral, scientific, historical, domestic, social, and humorous; we find them made use of in the Old Testament from before the beginning of the Hebrew nation; we find their wisest king (with his wise men) compiling a book of Proverbs; we find the Great Teacher himself several times using them in his discourses, and after him Paul and Peter—as is recorded in the New Testament—borrowing them, too, from an alien people. And, in more modern times, Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Swift, Walter Scott, and other British standard writers, have also used them to great advantage. We all know what was Lord Chesterfield’s opinion concerning them, viz., “Never to be used by a man of taste or fashion;” and possibly that statement may have served to drive them out of polite conversation—in England, at least; but such was not the Court belief in the reigns of Elizabeth, James, and Charles. The Chinese, the Japanese, and the Hindoos abound in many wise and pithy sayings. The Italians and the Spaniards are still greatly addicted to the use of proverbs, especially the latter; witness Cervantes, the writer of “Don Quixote.” How, indeed, could the famous Governor of Barataria have possibly succeeded without them? Proverbs of all nations in common use are not only “the philosophy of the vulgar,” but they contain fragments of wisdom, they are true to nature, and are suited to the people in general by whom they are used. They reveal to us their ancient ways of thinking, and consequently their manner of acting. I have little doubt that not a few of the mottoes of our old nobility may be well accounted for in this manner—something of note in act or word that originated with, or in the times of, the founder.

To the ancient New Zealanders, however, the great value of their proverbs and proverbial sayings appeared in their oratory, of which they were passionately fond, and in which they excelled. At such times (as I myself have heard them with delight some 40–45 years ago!) their orators, by some well-chosen, some fitting proverb, carried everything before them, winning over their attentive auditory as if they were but one man! In which, no [110] doubt, they were ever largely aided by the very genius and structure of their noble Maori language, it being so highly terse, pregnant with meaning, and abounding in paronomasia465 and antithesis.466

Not a little has been written on the true definition of a proverb. A modern one of Lord John Russell has caused some noise, and obtains with a large number, viz., “The wit of one man and the wisdom of many;” but for my part I adhere to the older and more homely definition of Dr. Johnson, viz., “A short sentence frequently repeated by the people; an adage, name, or observation.”

I early commenced collecting the old Maori proverbs, as I saw of what great power and use they were in addressing the Maori people, and I have now more than 1200 (perhaps 1400). I have not, however, sought any for several years, and I have good reasons for believing there are not a few irrecoverably lost, and hundreds still unknown to Europeans. Lately I have been going over what I had secured (in part for this paper), and I have been again much struck with their appositeness, propriety, and usefulness, indicative of a high class of thought; though still more struck, in my attempt at classifying them, with their wide range, embracing almost everything objective or subjective that could possibly have entered into the mind of a New Zealander. No doubt not a few of them are of great antiquity, as they refer to the celebrated heroes and exploits of the olden time, of the beginnings of their traditionary times; to the legends of their demi-gods, and to animals and plants now and for some time extinct. Here, among these latter, I had long hoped to find something referring to that almost mysterious animal the Moa, something as to its size, form, powers, appearance, habits, food, uses, etc., that would have been of real service to us of to-day, but I have sought in vain! True, I have (as I by-and-bye hope to show467) obtained eight ancient proverbial sayings respecting it, but their very abrupt, primitive, and legendary style, and esoteric or hidden meaning, carry it very far back into the night of history! In this, however, we have but another phase of that same oneness of early testimony of the olden time, which (as I have already observed468) we find in their legends and myths and ancient stories; and, as we shall yet find, also in their songs.469



I have said that I was much struck in reviewing the very wide range whence the ancient New Zealanders had drawn their proverbial sayings; but there is still another more remarkable and noteworthy feature respecting them, which I wish particularly to bring before you, and which, indeed, is one of the principal reasons for my writing this paper; and that is what [111] you and almost all colonists of to-day could never expect to find; on the contrary, you would, I am inclined to believe, look for the very opposite. It is, the very large number of their proverbs inculcating industry (both of man and woman, chief and slave); their giving undivided attention to the regular planting and harvesting of their crops; in favour of perseverance, patience, and endurance; the preference of peace to war; the praise of hospitality and kindness, of deliberation, counsel, and prudence; sound advice to women and to children—to the young men in the taking a wife, and to young women in taking a husband; their openly exposing (even by name!) the mean and stingy conduct of their own greedy, inhospitable, and unkind chiefs;—also, all cowardly and rash conduct on their part; and against ill-manners, rudeness, and ill-temper; against laziness, begging, gluttony, slander, grumbling, and lying; the complaining of trifles and of weariness at work or in travelling. I repeat, I can well imagine you would quite expect to hear the contrary to all this. Those sayings of theirs—once “familiar in their mouths as household words”—are strong indications, however, of what the ancient New Zealander really was, and of what good human qualities were prized by him.

Referring again, briefly, to the very wide range of their proverbs, the New Zealanders seem to have drawn largely from Nature,—her various works and operations; clearly indicating that he had been not only a very attentive natural observer, but well able to make correct deductions; for, in addition to those already mentioned, he had proverbs drawn from the regular appearances of the stars, planets, and constellations,—from the varied seasons of the year,—from the several winds and meteors,—from the ever-varying forms and colours of the clouds, and of the rainbow,—from the sea, calm and raging,—from tides and currents, rocks and shoals,—from fountains, rivers, rain, hail, snow, and ice,—from the weather,—from mountains and hills, and from stones, both hard and soft,—from fire and smoke,—from cold and heat,—from times of drought, and of floods, and of overflowing rivers, and from boiling springs and earthquakes. I have attempted to classify them roughly, and I find that:—(1.) From Animals (exclusive of Man) he has derived 150 proverbs and proverbial sayings,—which may be divided thus,—of Mammals (including the Seals, Whales, and Bats), 22;—of Birds (including the largest and the smallest, extinct and present species), about 65:—of Fishes, both sea and fresh-water, about 30;—of Shell-fish and Crustaceans, a dozen;—of Reptiles and Worms about the same number; and another dozen, or more, of Insects, including larvæ. (2.) From Plants and their uses,—including the largest timber trees, and the tiny moss, and seaweeds,—their timber, fruits, edible roots, textile fibres, resins, gums, and scents,—upwards of 70. (3.) From Natural [112] Inanimate Objects, and the operations of Nature already mentioned, about 100. (4.) From Man,—both chief and slave, male and female, old and young,—the parts of the body, his ailments, infirmities and sins,—his faculties, habits, and great powers,—nearly 100. I also find (5.) that from their Gods, demi-gods, and ancient heroes, mythical or real, they derive above 100; and a like number, incidental, occasional, and peculiar, of particular or celebrated men; (6.) from Numbers, about a dozen; (7.) from Artificial Objects,—such as, the House and its belongings, the Canoe (their ship!) and its equipment,—from their many and varied garments,—from war, fishing, fowling, and husbandry implements,—from their artificial paper kites and other games,—from their many Ornaments of greenstone, birds’ feathers, and shark’s teeth,—and from their scented necklaces, anointing oils and various cosmetics, nearly 200; while (8.) for love, affection, sympathy nobility and greatness,—kindness and hospitality,—industry (both of men and women), quickness, and expertness,—endurance, patience, deliberation, counsel, and advice,—peace not war,—courage and bravery,—and, against ill-temper, ill-manners, and ill-nature,—laziness both of men and women,—weariness and grumbling,—slander, shame, lying, and theft,—begging, idleness, and gluttony,—disobedience, fear, cowardice, anger, hate, rashness, and threatening,—superstition and omens, they have more than 200; of which, it may be observed, that by far the largest number are in support of industry, and against slander, gluttony, and laziness—their present three common vices. “O tempora! O mores!

The colonist of to-day—aye, and most, too, of those of the last ten, or even 25–30 years—who have had many dealings with the Maoris, or who have had ample opportunities of observing them closely, will naturally feel a little perplexed at this; as, I fear, their own experience would generally tell a different tale. But it must be borne in mind that the present generation is a widely different one from their forefathers,—inheriting nearly all their vices (with those heavier and commoner ones too surely attendant on “civilization!”), and but little of their virtues. The modern settler in New Zealand would be quite prepared to hear of many Maori proverbs and proverbial sayings in favour of war, cruelty, anger, hate, murder, theft, gluttony, sloth, laziness, lying, duplicity, stratagem, over-reaching and over-bearing conduct, the ill-treatment of women, children, and slaves, and of superstition and omens; but of all such proverbs, as a rule, it may safely be affirmed they are not to be found among those of the Maori people.

There is something in all this which is of far greater moment than appears at first sight; which, I have little doubt, will be duly considered in time to come. The question here naturally arises, Were those many proverbs and proverbial sayings in favour of the good and the useful—real? [113]

What influence had they on the people? Were they ever acted upon? And here, with reference to some of them, I can personally bear testimony; especially to those referring to general industry, to kindness, and to hospitality; to quickness, diligence, and expertness; to endurance, patience, courage, and advice; to good manners, and to good temper;—all these manly and noble qualities I have seen largely practised by the old New Zealander, before Europeans came generally among them. The chief and the lady worked hard and regularly, as well as the plebeian and slave; and as to their hospitality, it was beyond all praise!—not unfrequently giving the whole of their meal (including that of their children), and that, too, in a time of scarcity, and contentedly going without! While ill-manners, ill-temper, and ill-nature,—slander, lying, theft, and disobedience,—idleness, laziness, and begging, gluttony, and anger,—I have not unfrequently heard rebuked with a timely-cutting proverb, and that with good effect. In nearly all those things the Maori has deteriorated fearfully since his close contact with “civilization,” and his becoming largely possessed of money!—the “love of which,”470 in his case, has truly been “the root of all evil” to the race!

Before, however, that I give you some examples of their proverbs and proverbial sayings, in proof of what I have already said, I would just make two brief remarks concerning proverbs, which alike pertain to proverbs of all countries, viz.: (1.) There are some which are wholly untranslateable, or which, when translated literally, lose their meaning. (2.) There are others, again, which from their very brevity yet well-known allusion in their own vernacular, are without any meaning when rendered into a foreign tongue, and can only be made intelligible by a long and perhaps a tedious translation.

The first arises from the total want of anything of the peculiar kind whence the simile is drawn in the proverb, being used among the people into whose language the proverb is to be translated. Of what use would such common European sayings as, “As hard as steel,” “As heavy as lead,” “As precious as gold,” be to a people who knew nothing of metals? Or, such allusions as, “As cold as ice,” “As white as snow,” be to the inhabitants of the tropics? Or, such proverbial sayings as, “Sour grapes,” “Great cry, but little wool,” “Boy and wolf,” be to a people who did not know anything whatever of the things mentioned?

The second arises from a similar cause, only here it is the peculiar event—the doing or saying—which is wholly unknown to the people into [114] whose language the proverb is about to be translated; such as, for instance, the common sayings,—“Coals to Newcastle,” “The Greek Kalends,” “Davy Jones’ locker,” “Hobson’s choice,” “Nelson’s signal,” etc. Now all such short proverbial sayings as these absolutely lose their pregnant meaning when literally translated, and can only be understood upon being fully explained. A notable instance of all this took place here in New Zealand, some twenty-five years ago. The “Pilgrim’s Progress,” of John Bunyan, which abounds in homely and useful proverbs and sayings, was translated into the Maori tongue471 by order of the Government, and the translator endeavoured to render all such sayings literally! The consequence was he completely spoiled his work,—as the wit, the allusion, or apt turn of such a saying could not possibly be so shown in the translation. He might, however, if he had known them sufficiently well, have supplied, in many places, similar and suitable Maori proverbs in their stead.

And this will be found to be more or less the case in all languages. Still, the rendering of any of the various European proverbs into another European or Western-Asiatic language than its own vernacular is not so difficult, at all events not under the first head, because the animals, plants, metals, and things in general, and their uses, are either the same or well known; indeed, it is sometimes a difficult matter to ascertain whence the proverb originally sprang—with the English, the Irish, the Welsh, or the Scotch, or with the British, the French or the German, etc.,—seeing such have ever been alike used by all;472 but such a thing can never happen with any Maori proverb, which, however much resembling a European one, must be original;—while, under the second head, many of them when translated into another European tongue are pretty well understood. But the very contrary of all this is the case in the endeavour to render our English proverbs into Maori, or the Maori proverbs into English. Hence, it will be observed that by far the larger number of the short, sharp, witty, pungent, and popular ones of the Maori, having no equivalents, cannot be readily rendered into English, and, therefore, must necessarily be omitted by me on this occasion. [115]



Once for all, I may say that, in translating those ancient proverbs and proverbial sayings which I now bring before you, I have studied accuracy before elegance, endeavouring also, at the same time (as far as the differing idioms of the two languages will allow), to preserve much of the manner in which the pregnant thought was originally expressed; such being just as important as the thought itself. In the original, the expressions are arranged for the most part antithetically in distichs, like the Proverbs of Solomon, and, not unfrequently, poetically; and are truly rich in images borrowed from the whole world of Nature.


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