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Trifles





In the elder days of Art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the gods see everywhere.
--LONGFELLOW.

Think naught a trifle, though it small appear,
Small sands the mountain, moments make the year,
And trifles, life.
--YOUNG.

The smallest hair throws its shadow.
--GOETHE.

He that despiseth small things shall fall little by little.
--ECCLESIASTES.

It is the little rift within the lute,
That by and by will make the music mute,
And ever widening slowly silence all.
--TENNYSON.

"A pebble in the streamlet scant
Has turned the course of many a river:
A dewdrop on the baby plant
Has warped the giant oak forever."

It is the close observation of little things which is the
secret of success in business, in art, in science, and in every
pursuit of life.
--SMILES.

"Only!--But then the onlys
Make up the mighty all."


"My rule of conduct has been that whatever is worth doing at all is
worth doing well," said Nicolas Poussin, the great French painter. When
asked the reason why he had become so eminent in a land of famous
artists he replied, "Because I have neglected nothing."

"Do little things now," says a Persian proverb; "so shall big things
come to thee by and by asking to be done." God will take care of the
great things if we do not neglect the little ones.

A gentleman advertised for a boy to assist him in his office, and nearly
fifty applicants presented themselves to him. Out of the whole number he
in a short time selected one and dismissed the rest. "I should like to
know," said a friend, "on what ground you selected that boy, who had not
a single recommendation?" "You are mistaken," said the gentleman, "he
had a great many. He wiped his feet when he came in, and closed the door
after him, showing that he was careful. He gave up his seat instantly to
that lame old man, showing that he was kind and thoughtful. He took off
his cap when he came in, and answered my questions promptly and
respectfully, showing that he was polite and gentlemanly. He picked up
the book which I had purposely laid upon the floor, and replaced it on
the table, while all the rest stepped over it, or shoved it aside; and
he waited quietly for his turn, instead of pushing and crowding, showing
that he was honest and orderly. When I talked to him, I noticed that
his clothes were carefully brushed, his hair in nice order, and his
teeth as white as milk; and when he wrote his name, I noticed that his
finger-nails were clean, instead of being tipped with jet, like that
handsome little fellow's, in the blue jacket. Don't you call those
letters of recommendation? I do; and I would give more for what I can
tell about a boy by using my eyes ten minutes, than for all the fine
letters he can bring me."

"Least of all seeds, greatest of all harvests," seems to be one of the
great laws of nature. All life comes from microscopic beginnings. In
nature there is nothing small. The microscope reveals as great a world
below as the telescope above. All of nature's laws govern the smallest
atoms, and a single drop of water is a miniature ocean.

"I cannot see that you have made any progress since my last visit," said
a gentleman to Michael Angelo. "But," said the sculptor, "I have
retouched this part, polished that, softened that feature, brought out
that muscle, given some expression to this lip, more energy to that
limb, etc." "But they are trifles!" exclaimed the visitor. "It may be
so," replied the great artist, "but trifles make perfection, and
perfection is no trifle." That infinite patience which made Michael
Angelo spend a week in bringing out a muscle in a statue with more
vital fidelity to truth, or Gerhard Dow a day in giving the right effect
to a dewdrop on a cabbage leaf, makes all the difference between success
and failure.

"Of what use is it?" people asked with a sneer, when Franklin told of
his discovery that lightning and electricity are identical. "What is the
use of a child?" replied Franklin; "it may become a man."

In the earliest days of cotton spinning, the small fibres would stick to
the bobbins, and make it necessary to stop and clear the machinery.
Although this loss of time reduced the earnings of the operatives, the
father of Robert Peel noticed that one of his spinners always drew full
pay, as his machine never stopped. "How is this, Dick?" asked Mr. Peel
one day; "the on-looker tells me your bobbins are always clean." "Ay,
that they be," replied Dick Ferguson. "How do you manage it, Dick?"
"Why, you see, Meester Peel," said the workman, "it is sort o' secret!
If I tow'd ye, yo'd be as wise as I am." "That's so," said Mr. Peel,
smiling; "but I'd give you something to know. Could you make all the
looms work as smoothly as yours?" "Ivery one of 'em, meester," replied
Dick. "Well, what shall I give you for your secret?" asked Mr. Peel, and
Dick replied, "Gi' me a quart of ale every day as I'm in the mills, and
I'll tell thee all about it." "Agreed," said Mr. Peel, and Dick
whispered very cautiously in his ear, "Chalk your bobbins!" That was the
whole secret, and Mr. Peel soon shot ahead of all his competitors, for
he made machines that would chalk their own bobbins. Dick was handsomely
rewarded with money instead of beer. His little idea has saved the world
millions of dollars.

The totality of a life at any moment is the product mainly of little
things. Trifling choices, insignificant exercises of the will,
unimportant acts often repeated,--things seemingly of small
account,--these are the thousand tiny sculptors that are carving away
constantly at the rude block of our life, giving it shape and feature.
Indeed the formation of character is much like the work of an artist in
stone. The sculptor takes a rough, unshapen mass of marble, and with
strong, rapid strokes of mallet and chisel quickly brings into view the
rude outline of his design; but after the outline appears then come
hours, days, perhaps even years, of patient, minute labor. A novice
might see no change in the statue from one day to another; for though
the chisel touches the stone a thousand times, it touches as lightly as
the fall of a rain-drop, but each touch leaves a mark.

The smallest thing becomes respectable when regarded as the commencement
of what has advanced or is advancing into magnificence. The crude
settlement of Romulus would have remained an insignificant circumstance
and might have justly sunk into oblivion, if Rome had not at length
commanded the world.

Beecher says that men, in their property, are afraid of conflagrations
and lightning strokes; but if they were building a wharf in Panama, a
million madrepores, so small that only the microscope could detect them,
would begin to bore the piles down under the water. There would be
neither noise nor foam; but in a little while, if a child did but touch
the post, over it would fall as if a saw had cut it through.

Men think, with regard to their conduct, that, if they were to lift
themselves up gigantically and commit some crashing sin, they should
never be able to hold up their heads; but they will harbor in their
souls little sins, which are piercing and eating them away to inevitable
ruin.

Lichens, of themselves of little value, prepare the way for important
vegetation. They deposit, in dying, an acid which wears away the rock
and prepares the mould necessary for the nourishment of superior plants.

It was but a tiny rivulet trickling down the embankment that started the
terrible Johnstown flood and swept thousands into eternity. One noble
heroic act has elevated a nation. Franklin's whole career was changed
by a torn copy of Cotton Mather's Essays to Do Good. Taking up a stone
to throw at a turtle was the turning point in Theodore Parker's life. As
he raised the stone something within him said, "Don't do it," and he
didn't. He went home and asked his mother what it was in him that said
"don't." She told him it was conscience. Small things become great when
a great soul sees them. A child, when asked why a certain tree grew
crooked, answered, "Somebody trod upon it when it was a little fellow."

By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation. A little boy
in Holland saw water trickling from a small hole near the bottom of a
dike. He realized that the leak would rapidly become larger if the water
was not checked, so he held his hand over the hole for hours on a dark
and dismal night until he could attract the attention of passers-by. His
name is still held in grateful remembrance in Holland.

We may tell which way the wind blew before the Deluge by marking the
ripple and cupping of the rain in the petrified sand now preserved
forever. We tell the very path by which gigantic creatures, whom man
never saw, walked to the river's edge to find their food.

The tears of Virgilia and Volumnia saved Rome from the Volscians when
nothing else could move the vengeful heart of Coriolanus.

Not even Helen of Troy, it is said, was beautiful enough to spare the
tip of her nose; and if Cleopatra's had been an inch shorter Mark Antony
would never have become infatuated with her wonderful charms, and the
blemish would have changed the history of the world. Anne Boleyn's
fascinating smile split the great Church of Rome in twain, and gave a
nation an altered destiny. Napoleon, who feared not to attack the
proudest monarchs in their capitals, shrank from the political influence
of one independent woman in private life, Madame de Stael.

It was a little thing for a cow to kick over a lantern left in a shanty,
but it laid Chicago in ashes, and rendered homeless a hundred thousand
people.

The discovery of glass was due to a mere accident--the building of a
fire on the sand; and the bayonet, first made at Bayonne, in France,
owes its existence to the fact that a Basque regiment, being hard
pressed by the enemy, one of the soldiers suggested that, as their
ammunition was exhausted, they should fix their long knives into the
barrels of their muskets, which was done, and the first bayonet-charge
was made.

A jest led to a war between two great nations. The presence of a comma
in a deed, lost to the owner of an estate five thousand dollars a month
for eight months. The battle of Corunna was fought and Sir John Moore's
life sacrificed, in 1809, through a dragoon stopping to drink while
bearing despatches.

"You do no work," said the scissors to the rivet. "Where would your work
be," said the rivet to the scissors, "if I didn't keep you together?"

Every day is a little life; and our whole life but a day repeated. Those
that dare lose a day are dangerously prodigal; those that dare misspend
it, desperate. What is the happiness of your life made up of? Little
courtesies, little kindnesses, pleasant words, genial smiles, a friendly
letter, good wishes, and good deeds. One in a million--once in a
lifetime--may do a heroic action.

We call the large majority of human lives _obscure_. Presumptuous that
we are! How know we what lives a single thought retained from the dust
of nameless graves may have lighted to renown?





Next: Courage

Previous: Thoroughness



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