A term first coined in the 16th century by the Dutch Renaissance writer and theologian Erasmus, "adage" refers to a witty or wise saying that encompasses a general truth. Sometimes referred to as proverbs or maxims, adages are not only part of our everyday language, they also transcend cultural boundaries, span generations and appear in literature, including poetry.
Philosophy in Poetry
Adages in poetry frequently center on philosophical content, whether abstract wisdom or the musings of everyday life. The French poet Francois Villon, for example, wrote “Ballades de Proverbes,” a poem consisting entirely of wise adages, including the line, “So much a man journeys that he is forgotten.” British poet John Heywood penned the popular adage and piece of advice “Better late than never: / That is not true ever; / Some things, to rule in rate, / Better never than late.” Poetic adages may even make light of life’s obstacles and experiences. Canadian John Robert Columbo, for instance, combines several adages in "Proverbial Ruth" but replaces the original subject with the word “Ruth” for a comical effect. One line reads, “A good Ruth keeps off wrinkles.”
Adages in Religious Texts
Adages are found in many religious texts and poems. Solomon, a famously wise king of the Israelites, wrote thousands of proverbs that are included in the Bible. While examples appear in the books Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes, the most notable compilation is the book of Proverbs. Writing in stanzas, Solomon records thousands of adages relating to righteous living, morality, wisdom and caution. For example, Proverbs 22:3 states, “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.” Some include figurative language to create visual images for the readers: Proverbs 19:13b reads, "A quarrelsome wife is like the constant dripping of a leaky roof."
Adages in Oral Traditions
Adages are a vital part of many oral traditions, used to convey cultural expectations. Adages also aided the poet’s ability to perform the poem again. Although much of the modern world relies heavily on written and visual texts -- including copies of pieces that were once part of the oral tradition -- preliterate cultures were unable to record these poems. For instance, the Scandinavian nomadic people group called the Sami often told poetic tales using adages. An Inari Sami proverb, for example, says, “A tree won’t fall with just one swing.” Early African people groups also included adages in oral poetry, which was regarded as an authoritative carrier of cultural knowledge. Still an important part of the modern and literate African culture, adages and proverbs continue to be shared orally.
Adages in Modern Poetry
Adages are also found in modern poetry. The poem "Paradoxical Proverbs" by 20th-century poet Frank H. Woodstrike, for instance, is composed of several couplets that pair contradictory adages. “Live while you live. / Put by for a rainy day” and “Look before you leap. / Hesitate and all is lost” are two examples found in the poem. Another 20th-century poem, Eric Ormsby’s “Adages of a Grandmother,” shows the young narrator's growth as he reflects on his grandmother’s use of adages. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “A foolish son’s his mother’s grief” are two examples found in this poem. These nuggets of wisdom build character by teaching lessons.