From Virginibus Puerisque by Stevenson:

Hope is the boy, a blind, headlong, pleasant fellow, good to chase swallows with the salt; Faith is the grave, experienced, yet smiling man.

I did some googling, but nothing meaningful seems to come up. I have two vague guesses about either birds being chased and caught somehow using salt, very strange, or some alcoholic drinks being supplemented with salt, but how might that relate to Hope is beyond my grasp.

P.S. Could it mean to "chase things in life that have flavour (salt) in them" ? To chase delights, in other words.

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    It literally means chasing birds trying to put salt on their tails. It's an old folktale told to children that it will stop them flying away. Only someone naive and optimistic (e.g. the personification of Hope) would believe that.
    – user24964
    Nov 26, 2013 at 9:46

2 Answers 2


I am sorry that I can support my answer only with an 1834 German reference: Bayern Blatt

It says (roughly translated):

With their humorous salt they want to feed or catch time; and remind of children, which say to catch a swallow you only need to put salt on their tail.

I would say it means the erroneous believe, that salt is enough to catch a swallow, the hope that life is that easy a boy has, before he gets grave but experienced as a grown man. (But that is interpretation and wrong here.)

Edit: Thanks to the OPs comment I can now add another english reference stating the same act.

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    Very interesting, skymninge! I googled for "swallow tail salt" and found the following: books.google.ru/… Nov 26, 2013 at 8:45
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    Thank you! I added it to the answer for further reference.
    – skymningen
    Nov 26, 2013 at 10:21

What I suppose is the underlying message is that 'hope' is a characteristic of youth (the boy), and faith a virtue of an older person (the man). And that faith, which invests less in expectation is ultimately more satisfying.

The boy energetically goes into headlong pursuit of a near-impossible task, namely to catch swallows by 'chasing them with salt'. In doing so the thing that sustains him is 'hope'. But it is unlikely to deliver much.

Dictated by their experience, an older person is more realistic in their ambitions, and hence 'gravity'is more the man's outlook. But ultimately he is smiling, perhaps since a realistic approach is less likely to promise rewards that are unattainable. He will achieve more of what he expects from life.

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