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In the Spelling-Book I do not feel myself at liberty to select the fables as I choose. I will : take only one, the first that comes. It is about the swallow and the sparrow. It is a very bad specimen for my contention, but as I am the challenger I have not the choice of weapons, and I accept the first presented by Cobbett.
A swallow coming back to her old nest in the spring finds it occupied by a sparrow and his brood of young ones.
The swallow demands possession on the grounds of having built the nest and brought up three broods in it. The sparrow will not budge. The swallow summons a number of swallows, and they wall up the sparrow and he and his brood die of hunger.
The first notice of bias the reader gets is that the swallow is called she, and the sparrow he. Why? For the dishonest purpose of enlisting sympathy with the swallow.
There is no evidence or statement the sparrow was aware when taking possession of the nest that it would be reclaimed by the swallow. How was the sparrow to know that the swallow was not dead and buried by the mole? The nest was
derelict. Again, when the swallow returned the sparrow had young ones, which it would be dangerous to remove from the nest. How was the sparrow to know the swallow was telling the truth, and that the nest was hers ? Then, even supposing the sparrow to be all in the wrong, the punishment was out of all proportion to the offence. The sparrow had done
harm beyond intruding He had not injured the furniture, or burned any of the swallow's gas, or broken into the wine-cellar. Justice would have been vindicated by the expulsion of the intruder and his brood. But what takes place instead? The door is built up, and the sparrow with his innocent young is murdered! Surely if this is a fruitful fable, the moral is immoral. This is the old Mosaic theory of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and a little, or rather a great deal more. It is hideously un-Christian. I believe Cobbett professed Christianity. Why did he put this odious vengeful story in the forefront of his exemplars of righteous doing?
But the worst part of the story is in the Moral. “Thus it always is with the unjust," says the Chorus of the fabulist. He means that the unjust are always nailed up in their houses with their blameless children and starved to death. Now neither Cobbett nor any other sane preacher believes anything of the kind. This is a lie, pure and simple; a lie no doubt told with a good object, but a lie all the same. Cobbett had too much common-sense not to know that it is not always "thus” with the "unjust.” As a rule, the unjust go scot free when they stop short of crime. The people who say otherwise are yielding to a feminine, sentimental weak
Poetic justice no doubt does exist–in poetry. Most men are as unjust as they dare be, and most men get on comfortably from their cradles to their graves. It is only the fools, the men of ungovernable passions and impulses and the blunderers who suffer. Man is at heart a rapacious brute. All his centuries of civilization have not quelled the predatory spirit in him. Any man will become a thief if he only be sufficiently tempted when he is sufficiently
desperate. The crime of the sparrow in appropriating the swallow's nest is intelligible, the crime of the swallow in murdering the sparrow and his brood is intelligible, the crime of lying committed by the moralist is abominable. When the child to whom Cobbett lied grows up, he will know the lie, despise the liar, and have nothing left of the precious fable but a shaken faith in the words of all men, whether they be liars like Cobbett and the other moralists, or truth-tellers like the ordinary everyday folk, who do not pose as teachers and latter-day prophets. It is very improving to reflect on the freedom these teachers give themselves in act when enforcing their theories in writing. In order that Cobbett might exemplify his principles against the credit system, he signed his name across the face of acceptances for seventy thousand pounds!
Cobbett's Grammar was written for sailors and soldiers and such men. I gave the only copy of it I ever had to a sailor who had abandoned living on the sea to live by the sea, who had
eschewed the paint-pot and the stage aboard the merchant service for the palette and stool of the studio. It is years since I have seen the book, but I remember the contemptuous way in which the ex-soldier disposes of prosody. He says to his pupil in effect : You need pay no attention to this branch of grammar, as it deals only with the noise made by words. Cobbett's treatment of prosody does not occupy more than one line or one line and a half of print. It is briefer than Dr. Johnson's Syntax :
“The established practice of grammarians requires that I should here treat of the Syntax; but our language has so little inflexion, or variety of terminations, that its construction neither requires nor admits many rules. Wallis, therefore, has totally neglected it; and Jonson, whose desire of following the writers upon the learned languages made him think a syntax indispensably necessary, has published such petty observations as were better omitted.
“ The verb, as in other languages, agrees with the nominative in number and person ; as Thou fliest from good; He runs to death.
“Our adjectives are invariable.
“Of two substantives the noun possessive is the genitive; as His father's glory; the sun's heat.