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Old Time Customs
Memories and Traditions and Other Essays
Jack and Jill

MANY things are better than they appear at first sight. Have you not found it so? Even a hen finds it pays to scratch and look beneath the surface. Often she gets a worm for her pains,—and sometimes a kernel of corn. You will see this exemplified in many of the old nursery stories such as "Jack and the Bean Stalk," "Little Jack Horner," "Jack the Giant Killer," and the subject before us—"Jack and Jill." We all remember the fun we got out of them in our younger days. We then thought that there was nothing in them but nonsense. Look farther down into the heart of them and see if you do not find richer treasure.

Did you ever notice that every one of these heroes is a Jack. Look up this word in an unabridged dictionary, such as The Century, which I hope you have, and note how many useful things are called Jack something, as jack-knife, jack-plane, jack-screw, jack-smith, boot-jack, and scores of others. Note that they are all made for doing things—for important service. The world could not get along without them. From its associated content the word jack would suit as well for a patriot's motto as the historic Ich Dien in the Prince of Wales's coat of arms. But I must not wander about in this fashion or I shall never get there. I have set out to tell you, my reader, what I have discovered in Jack and Jill—the poem I mean.

Nobody knows when this poem was written, by whom, or where. Like the story of the Noachian Deluge its variant tradition is almost world wide. It is told in every civilized language, and it goes back beyond the dawn of veritable history into the shadowy past where truth and fiction are inextricably tangled together. In the Northlands the peasants have a legend that a crusty old tyrant compelled the heroes that figure in the poem to fetch water from a distant well until they would have died from exhaustion had not the man in the moon snatched them away to live with him. And to this day these simple minded people believe, so it is said, that Jack and Jill may be seen on the face of the moon.

I have called this piece of early composition a poem. It is difficult to give a very satisfactory definition of poetry, and I shall not now undertake the task. Suffice it to say that some of its elements are rhythm, the choice and arrangement of such words as are adapted to the awakening of emotion, due recurrence of accented and unaccented syllables, and often, though not always, combined with definitely measured lines and rhyme or similarity of sound at the end of the lines. Of the three great kinds of poetry, dramatic, epic and lyric, I do not hesitate to place the poem "Jack and Jill" in the class epic, it being in form of a narrative, the author telling the story in his own words.

Yes, Jack and Jill is a great epic. True, when measured by lines or by words, it falls far behind others of its class; but in thought and style it transcends them all. Allow your mind to dwell on the picture so vividly portrayed by a few skilful touches, and idea is superadded to idea until one is simply amazed at its content. So far reaching and ever widening is the conception that the mind fairly loses itself in the vast field spread out in panoramic distinctness and beauty. Its magnitude consists rather in its implications than in multitude of words;—in fact this marvellous economy of words is beyond compare and adds greatly to the forcefulness of the thought. The famous artist and author Ruskin well says,—"It is not always easy in painting or in literature to determine where the influence of language stops and where thought begins. The higher thoughts are those which are least dependent on language. No weight, nor mass, nor beauty of execution can outweigh one grain or fragment of thought."

Now Jack and Jill are wrought into a thing of beauty and power with the least possible expenditure of effort and external show. The author knew what to say, and he stopped when he was done. And so, whether one regards the mechanical structure of the poem, the beauty of its style, its easy flow as it glides smoothly along its limpid path, its rhythm, pathos and tenderness, it simply challenges all competition. Throughout, the poem is good Anglo Saxon, and with only three exceptions every word is a monosyllable.

You will observe that this poem divides itself into two distinct parts. The first part, consisting of two lines, describes the ascent or going up of the heroes, with the purpose of the action. This I shall designate The Anabasis. The remaining two lines tell the story of the descent or the Katabasis, I shall call it, that is the going down, with the tragic ending.

The Anabasis

THE word Jack is evidently derived from the Hebrew word Jacob rather than the Greek Johannes, from which the English John is derived. The name was probably a surname added to the original name of the hero to express some incident or characteristic of his life history.

You will remember that the Hebrew-Jacob means supplanter, and that it was given to the patriarch because of the fraud he practised on his brother Esau. This gives a certain tenability to the idea that the name was given to our hero on account of some strategy by which he had got the better of a rival in winning the affections of the fair one with whom he is here associated. To my mind the more probable idea is that the name was given to him on account of his resemblance to the Hebrew patriarch in another prominent feature of character. It is to be noted that Jacob of Scripture record was a man of affairs, eminent as a doer of things. This gives to the name a fine fitness for the man of exploits described in the poem, and it also harmonizes with the application of the name Jack to so many appliances or instruments in economic service spoken of on a preceding page.

The name Jill, as was befitting, is of very different type. Mark the softness and delicacy of its note—the limpid smoothness with which it flows from the lips. Well matched pair were these, "He for manly vigor formed; for softness she, and, sweet attractive grace."

And now you will please note that this was no play day or occasion for vain show, but rather for arduous and persevering toil. Many there are who make progress when wind and tide are in their favor, but, when hardship and hazard assail them they turn back in helpless despondency,–nor have they, in the vicissitudes of life's journey, reserve force or ambition to help themselves. "Jack and Jill went up the hill." Nor was it an aimless going that is here pictured. No, indeed; they went "to draw a pail of water." Note the implication in this little word draw. It was not to turn a tap or handle a pump. The old time well-sweep with its crotch and pole rises in our mental vision,;—more probably, indeed the hand pole with hook on the end—undesigned but unmistakable evidence of the early origin of the poem.

The Katabasis

ALLOW me now to hasten forward to the second part of our story—the Katabasis. Here the author wastes no words i n the way of preparation for the momentous scene he is about to introduce. There are no rhetorical flourishes, such as—"If you have tears, prepare to shed them now." The story moves on quietly and calmly without the least foreshadowing of catastrophe. We are left to fill in for ourselves the fact that the happy pair have gone on to the well, have filled the pail with water, and are now returning, tripping down the hillside on the homeward way. Suddenly the denouement! The great sad event breaks in upon us like a peal of thunder from a clear sky. With all the emphasis of explosion it comes. Nor does the writer use effort to enforce the impression by comparison or figure of speech, as you may often find even in Homer, the prince of poets, though he was. To the intelligent reader there cannot fail to come suggestions of resemblance and contrast. Especially there occurs the picture of that other fall when "You and I and all of us fell down." But at the moment what a medley of ideas present themselves to the mental vision,—the humorous and the grave come up in quick succession. The ludicrous holds sway for the moment as we see Jack plunging forward, dragging after him Jill, his better half, who, holding on to the pail, comes tumbling headlong over him, and the pair of them, drenched with water, lying a shapeless heap along the hillside. But, as one takes in the whole situation mirthfulness is soon checked giving place to sadness and sympathy.

Just another thought and I am done. In that other fall that I have referred to, it was the weaker one who made the first misstep, and Adam, the strong man, who came tumbling after. Indeed, does it not often occur when one is on the very verge of success, some mishap or carelessness results in failure? The wise may not glory in his wisdom nor the strong in his strength. In the experience of life it is often the unexpected thing that happens.

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