6.0497 Query: Folk Wisdom or Bunk? (1/96)

Wed, 10 Feb 1993 06:05:50 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 6, No. 0497. Wednesday, 10 Feb 1993.

Date: 03 February 1993
From: Roy Flannagan <FLANNAGA@OUACCVMB>
Subject: Folk Wisdom Query

I am reproducing below two small collections of folk wisdom.
My question to Humanist is "Are they fraudulent?"

"Desiderata" ("dated 1692")

Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember
what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without
surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your
truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull
and ignorant, for they too have their story. Avoid loud and
aggressive persons--they are vexations to the spirit. If you
compare yourself with others, you may become vain and
bitter, for there will always be greater and lesser persons than
yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career: however humble: it is a real
possession in the changing fortune of time. Exercise caution in
your business affairs, for the world is full of treachery. But let
that not blind you for what virtue there is: many persons
strive for high ideas and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be
yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical
about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it
is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly to the counsel of the
years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture
strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do
not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born
from fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle on yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees
and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or
not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive
him to be; and whatever your labours and aspirations in the
noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its
shame, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful
Be careful, strive always to be happy.

(This copy was given to me just today by a student, and I have
corrected a few bits of spelling ["counsel" for "council"] and
punctuation [adding commas after introductory clauses]. The
title suggests something to be longed for. I have heard various
accounts of its origin. It is supposed to be American, an
engraving on the wall or on a tombstone in a New England
church. If it is to be considered as coming from 1692, I worry
about the use of the "Keep interested," about the idioms
"exercise caution" and "be gentle on yourself." But I haven't
been into the {OED} yet to try to determine when the various
idioms entered English usage.)
"17th Century Nun's Prayer"

LORD, Thou knowest better than I know myself that I am
growing older and will some day be old. Keep me from the
fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject
and on every occasion. Release me from craving to straighten
out everybody's affairs. Make me thoughtful but not moody:
helpful but not bossy. With my vast store of wisdom, it seems
a pity not to use it all, but Thou knowest Lord that I want a
few friends at the end.
Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details;
give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips on my aches
and pains. They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is
becoming sweeter as the years go by. I dare not ask for grace
enough to enjoy the tales of others' pains, but help me to
endure them with patience.
I dare not ask for improved memory, but for a growing
humility and a lessing [lessening?] cocksureness when my
memory seems to clash with the memories of others. Teach
me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken.
Keep me reasonably sweet; I don not want to be a Saint
-- some of them are so hard to live with -- but a sour old
person is one of the crowning works of the devil. Give me
the ability to see good things in unexpected place, and talents
in unexpected people. And, give me, O Lord, the grace to tell
them so. AMEN

(My copy is "Published by Tim Tiley Ltd., 57 Cheltenham
Rd., Bristol B56 5RR." It is hand-lettered in italic script and
"Designed by Noreen Littleton, Member of the Guild of
Gloucestershire Craftsmen, England." The copy I have has at
the bottom "The title of this prayer is traditional, the source is
unknown." I bought it in Winchester Cathedral. I am
suspicious of its being a "Nun's Prayer," my first question
being "Where was the nun in seventeenth-century England?" I
worry again about the idioms "straighten out ... affairs" and
"vast store" of something, and "it seems a pity." So far as I
know, checking the OED this time, there is no adjective
"lessing;" that might represent a scribal error.)

Can any one of our linguists or collectors of corpora or idioms
attempt to authenticate or debunk either of these--are they real
or are they fakes?

Roy Flannagan
Department of English, Ohio University