Wednesday, August 22, 1711.
‘Nil habet infelix paupertas durius in se,
Quam quod ridiculos homines facit …’
As I was walking in my Chamber the Morning before I went last into the Country, I heard the Hawkers with great Vehemence crying about a Paper, entitled, The ninety nine Plagues of an empty Purse. I had indeed some Time before observed, that the Orators of Grub-street had dealt very much in Plagues. They have already published in the same Month, The Plagues of Matrimony, The Plagues of a single Life, The nineteen Plagues of a Chambermaid, The Plagues of a Coachman, The Plagues of a Footman, and The Plague of Plagues. The success these several Plagues met with, probably gave Occasion to the above-mentioned Poem on an empty Purse. However that be, the same Noise so frequently repeated under my Window, drew me insensibly to think on some of those Inconveniences and Mortifications which usually attend on Poverty, and in short, gave Birth to the present Speculation: For after my Fancy had run over the most obvious and common Calamities which Men of mean Fortunes are liable to, it descended to those little Insults and Contempts, which though they may seem to dwindle into nothing when a Man offers to describe them, are perhaps in themselves more cutting and insupportable than the former. Juvenal with a great deal of Humour and Reason tells us, that nothing bore harder upon a poor Man in his Time, than the continual Ridicule which his Habit and Dress afforded to the Beaus of Rome.
Quid, quod materiam praebet causasque jocorum
Omnibus hic idem? si foeda et scissa lacerna,
Si toga sordidula est, et rupta calceus alter
Pelle patet, vel si consuto vulnere crassum
Atque recens linam ostendit non una Cicatrix.
(Juv. Sat. 3.)
Add, that the Rich have still a Gibe in Store,
And will be monstrous witty on the Poor;
For the torn Surtout and the tatter’d Vest,
The Wretch and all his Wardrobe are a Jest:
The greasie Gown sully’d with often turning,
Gives a good Hint to say the Man’s in Mourning;
Or if the Shoe be ript, or Patch is put,
He’s wounded I see the Plaister on his Foot.
‘Tis on this Occasion that he afterwards adds the Reflection which I have chosen for my Motto.
Want is the Scorn of every wealthy Fool,
And Wit in Rags is turn’d to Ridicule.
It must be confess’d that few things make a Man appear more despicable or more prejudice his Hearers against what he is going to offer, than an awkward or pitiful Dress; insomuch that I fancy, had Tully himself pronounced one of his Orations with a Blanket about his Shoulders, more People would have laughed at his Dress than have admired his Eloquence. This last Reflection made me wonder at a Set of Men, who, without being subjected to it by the Unkindness of their Fortunes, are contented to draw upon themselves the Ridicule of the World in this Particular; I mean such as take it into their Heads, that the first regular Step to be a Wit is to commence a Sloven. It is certain nothing has so much debased that, which must have been otherwise so great a Character; and I know not how to account for it, unless it may possibly be in Complaisance to those narrow Minds who can have no Notion of the same Person’s possessing different Accomplishments; or that it is a sort of Sacrifice which some Men are contented to make to Calumny, by allowing it to fasten on one Part of their Character, while they are endeavouring to establish another. Yet however unaccountable this foolish Custom is, I am afraid it could plead a long Prescription; and probably gave too much Occasion for the Vulgar Definition still remaining among us of an Heathen Philosopher.