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beauties, are quick-sighted in improprieties; and these they eagerly grasp, in order to gratify their favourite propensity. Persons galled are provoked to maintain, that ridicule is improper for grave subjects. Subjects really grave are by no means fit for ridicule but then it is urged against them, that when it is called in question whether a certain subject be really grave, ridicule is the only means of determining the controversy. Hence a celebrated question, Whether ridicule be or be not a test of truth? I give this question a place here, because it tends to illustrate the nature of ridicule.

The question stated in accurate terms is, Whether the sense of ridicule be the proper test for distinguishing ridiculous objects, from what are not $0. Taking it for granted, that ridicule is not a subject of reasoning, but of sense or taste,* I proceed thus. No person doubts but that our sense of beauty is the true test of what is beautiful; and our sense of grandeur, of what is great or sublime. Is it more doubtful whether our sense of ridicule be the true test of what is ridiculous? It is not only the true test, but indeed the only test; for this subject comes not, more than beauty or grandeur, under the province of reason. If any subject, by the influence of fashion or custom, have acquired a degree of veneration to which naturally it is not entitled, what are the proper means for wiping off the artificial colouring, and displaying the subject in its true light? A man of true taste sees the subject without disguise: but if he hesitate, let him apply the test of ridicule, which separates it from its artificial connexions, and exposes it naked with all its native improprieties.

* See Chapter X. compared with Chapter VIL

But it is urged, that the gravest and most serious matters may be set in a ridiculous light. Hardly so; for where an object is neither risible nor improper, it lies not open in any quarter to an attack from ridicule. But supposing the fact, I foresee not any harmful consequence. By the same sort of reasoning, a talent for wit ought to be condemned, because it may be employed to burlesque a great or lofty subject. Such irregular use made of a talent for wit or ridicule, cannot long impose upon mankind it cannot stand the test of correct and delicate taste; and truth will at last prevail even with the vulgar. To condemn a talent for ridicule because it may be perverted to wrong purposes, is not a little ridiculous: could one forbear to smile, if a talent for reasoning were condemned because it also may be perverted? and yet the conclusion in the latter case, would be not less just than in the former perhaps more just; for no talent is more frequently perverted than that of reason.

We had best leave nature to her own operations: the most valuable talents may be abused, and so may that of ridicule: let us bring it under proper culture if we can, without endeavouring to pluck it up by the root. Were we destitute of this test of truth, I know not what might be the consequences: I see not what rule would be left us to prevent splendid trifles passing for matters of importance, show and form for substance, and superstition or enthusiasm for pure religion.




WIT is a quality of certain thoughts and expressions the term is never applied to an action nor a passion, and as little to an external object.

However difficult it may be, in many instances, to distinguish a witty thought or expression from one that is not so, yet, in general, it may be laid down, that the term wit is appropriated to such thoughts and expressions as are ludicrous, and also occasion some degree of surprise by their singularity. Wit, also, in a figurative sense, expresses a talent for inventing ludicrous thoughts or expressions we say commonly a witty man, or a man of


Wit in its proper sense, as explained above, is distinguishable into two kinds; wit in the thought, and wit in the words or expression. Again, wit in the thought is of two kinds; ludicrous images, and ludicrous combinations of things that have little.or no natural relation.

Ludicrous images that occasion surprise by their singularity, as having little or no foundation in nature, are fabricated by the imagination: and the imagination is well qualified for the office; being of all our faculties the most active, and the least under restraint. Take the following example :

Shylock. You knew (none so well, none so well as you) of my daughter's flight.

Salino. That's certain; I for my part knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal.

Merchant of Venice, Act III. Sc. 1.

The image here is undoubtedly witty. It is ludicrous and it must occasion surprise; for having no natural foundation, it is altogether unexpected.

The other branch of wit in the thought, is that only which is taken notice of by Addison, following Locke, who defines it "to lie in the assemblage "of ideas; and putting those together, with quick"ness and variety, wherein can be found any re"semblance or congruity, thereby to make up plea. "sant pictures and agreeable visions in the fan"cy." It may be defined more concisely, and perhaps more accurately, "A junction of things by distant and fanciful relations, which surprise be"cause they are unexpected." The following is a proper example.

We grant although he had much wit,
He was very shy of using it,
As being loth to wear it out;
And therefore bore it not about,
Unless on holidays, or so,
As men their best apparel do.

Hudibras, Canto i.

Wit is of all the most elegant recreation: the image enters the mind with gaiety, and gives a sudden flash, which is extremely pleasant. Wit thereby gently elevates without straining, raises mirth without dissoluteness, and relaxes while it entertains.

Wit in the expression, commonly called a play of words, being a bastard sort of wit, is reserved for the last place. I proceed to examples of wit in the thought; and first of ludicrous images.

Falstaff, speaking of his taking Sir John Cole

ville of the Dale:

B. II. ch. xi. sect. 2.

† See Chapter I.

Here he is, and here I yield him; and I beseech your Grace, let it be book'd with the rest of this day's deeds; or, by the Lord, I will have it in a particular ballad else, with mine own picture on the top of it, Coleville kissing my foot: to the which course if I be enforc'd, if you do not all shew like gilt twopences to me; and I, in the clear sky of fame, o'ershine you as much as the full moon doth the cinders of the element, which shew like pins' heads to her; believe not the word of the Noble. Therefore let me have right, and let desert mount.

Second Part Henry IV. Act IV. Sc. 6.

I knew, when seven justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an if; as, if you said so, then I said so; and they shook hands, and swore brothers; Your if is the only peacemaker; much virtue is in if.


For there is not through all Nature, another so callous, and insensible a member, as the world's posteriors, whether you apply to it the toe or the birch.

Preface to a Tale of a Tub.

The war hath introduced abundance of polysyllables, which will never be able to live many more campaigns. Speculations, operations, preliminaries, ambassadors, palisadoes, communication, circumvallation, battalions, as numerous as they are, if they attack us too frequently in our coffeehouses, we shall certainly put them to flight, and cut off the rear. Tatler, No. 230.

Speaking of Discord,

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She never went abroad, but she brought home such a bundle of monstrous lies, as would have amazed any mortal, but such as knew her; of a whale that had swallowed a fleet of ships; of the lions being let out of the Tower to destroy the Protestant Religion; of the Pope's being seen in a brandyshop at Wapping, &c.

History of John Bull, Part I. Ch. xvi.

The other branch of wit in the thought, namely, ludicrous combinations and oppositions, may be traced through various ramifications. And, first, VOL. I.


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