« FöregåendeFortsätt »
productions, in this we find less of that sprightliness which once made sunshine for him within prison walls.
But when one comes to reflect upon it, it is not surprising that a subject of this kind should assume what appears to be an unwonted, and inapposite seriousness, when it is taken out of its life of activity, and made a matter of speculation. Everybody knows what a dull process it is to explain a piece of wit.
“A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it;"* and much graver than explanation is the work of analysis. It is a cruel business to anatomize the creatures of wit or humour, to place them on the metaphysical dissectingtable, and there to lay bare the hidden places of their power; and it demands, too, for this serious service the most acute intellectual scalpel which the metaphysician can handle.
This also is to be considered, that not only does a jest's prosperity lie in the ear of him that hears it, but it has its life in an atmosphere of its own; it springs up from a soil of its own; and there are few plants so tender in the transplanting. A happy, well-timed, well-applied piece of wit, which would electrify a House of Commons, becomes tame and vapid when removed by repetition out of its own sustaining atmosphere : one proof of this may be observed in the fact that there are few duller books than what are called “jest-books,” whether the collection be made by Hierocles or by Joe Miller, (who is, I believe, not an apocryphal person,) or by the capacious intellect of Lord Bacon. They are not only very lifeless reading, but are regarded with a degree of contempt, which almost denies them admission into a nation's literature, even with the authority of the name of the philosophic Lord Chancellor pleading for entrance.* The same cause makes it, to a certain degree, a difficult and delicate task to present illustrations of this subject, for even without subjecting them to the torture of analysis, they must, although synthetically considered, be detached from their context, separated from all that was preparatory of their reception, and upon which their welcome is so dependent. The magic of wit and humour will be found very often to be so intimately connected with other intellectual action and other states of feeling, that all effect is destroyed by the attempt to separate it; a dull, heavy residuum is left, and all the delicate, volatile spirit is evaporated away. It will be one of my purposes in this lecture, to show the harmonious connection of the faculties of wit and bumour with states of mind and of feeling with which we do not ordinarily associate them.
* Love's Labour Lost.
Assuming, as we are entitled to do, that that alone is genuine literature which contributes in some way to fashion the reader's character, to give both strength and guidance to his thoughts and feelings, books which abound
* There are, I believe, few more tedious books in the language than Butler's Hudibras; the perpetual and sustained effort at wit becomes oppressive, and it can be read only, I am disposed to think, in small quantities. It has been not unfrequently said, in Shakspearian criticism, that the gayest and one of the bitterest characters, Mercutio, is put out of the way in the third act, not because the poet's fund of inventive wit was exhausted, (that could not be with him who carried Falstaff through three dramas,) but the continuance of Mercutio's vivacity would have been inapposite. II. R.
with wit or humour are entitled to take a place in a nation's literature, only so far as they subserve the same ends. As in one of my lectures I spoke of the error of attempting to draw too precise a boundary line around sacred literature, making it too much a thing standing apart, so, in regard to the literature of wit and humour. I shall be sorry if such a title, which I have been obliged
led any one to think of it as of a more distinctive existence than is the case, instead of regarding those faculties as pervading the literature in various degrees, and thus forming some of the elements of its life. I shall have occasion to trace these elements in close contact with elements of tragedy, and to show how the processes which we generalize under the names of wit and humour are kindred with the most intense passion and with the deepest feeling. Our English literature shows, I think most conclusively, in ways that are respectively example and warning, that these faculties are strongest and healthiest when they exist and are cultivated.in just proportion with other faculties and feelings, without gaining a predominance or pre-eminence, which makes them perilous to him in whom they thus get the mastery, and formidable to others. The best books in the language prove the power and the beauty of this harmony and proportion of the faculties; the literature should serve as an agency of discipline to produce in readers a like well-balanced, well-proportioned condition of the mind, and in the literature of wit and humour we are to find help for the cultivation of those powers.
Sydney Smith said, “It is imagined that wit is a sort of inexplicable visitation, that it comes and goes with the rapidity of lightning, and that it is quite as unattainable as beauty or just proportion. I am so much of a contrary way of thinking, that I am convinced a man might sit down as systematically and as successfully to the study of wit as he might to the study of mathematics; and I would answer for it, that, by giving up only six hours à day to being witty, he should come on prodigiously before Midsummer, so that his friends should hardly know him again. For what is there to hinder the mind from gradually acquiring a habit of attending to the lighter relations of ideas in which wit consists ?”* Now this is obviously the exaggeration of one who, in the triumphant consciousness of his own endowment, pictures the perplexity of a student of wit coming to his task as he would to the differential calculus, giving only six hours a day to it, and astonishing his friends by Midsummer with his progress. But if this is witty exaggeration, so far as creative
power is concerned, it covers a truth with respect to the culture of a susceptibility to the productions of wit and humour; and that susceptibility may fairly be considered as a constituent of every vigorous and well-cultivated mind—undoubtedly so, when the full extent of the operations of wit and humour is justly appreciated.
In such culture, whether by literature or otherwise, there will of course be found the same disparity of natural endowment of those as of other faculties. As there are unimaginative intellects to which all poetry is a sealed mystery, so are there others which are impenetrable to all the influences of wit and humour, and this is owing not so much to any exclusive predominance of seriousness as to that of dulness. It was in this respect that Charles Lamb, in his Essay on “Imperfect Sympathies,” complained of his inability to like a certain description of Scotchmen—that dry, literal phase of intellect, which is so alien to all poetic or humorous liberty of language. “I was present," writes Lamb, "not long since, at a party of North Britons, where a son of Burns was expected; and happened to drop a silly expression (in my South British way) that I wished it were the father instead of the son, when four of them started up at once to inform me that that was impossible, because he was dead.' An impracticable wish, it seems, was more than they could conceive.” This character of mind (so different, I may remark from the genial Scotch humour of Burns, or Walter Scott, or John Wilson) is not peculiar to Scotland, but every one can probably find specimens of it in the range of his own acquaintance.
* Sketches on Moral Philosophy, Lecture x. p. 125, Am. edition.
The most remarkable instance of obtuseness to light letters that I ever met with occurred in another region. Goeller, a German editor of Thucydides, in annotating a passage of the Greek historian, describing the violence of the Athenian factions, gives two modern illustrations: one of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties in Italy; the other—he cites Washington Irving and his book very gravely in Latin–the factions of long pipes and short pipes in New York, under the administration of Peter Stuyvesant Imagine this erudite and ponderous German poring over Knickerbocker as seriously as over Guicciardini's History of the Italian Republics !*
* This instance of simplicity has a most grotesque effect in the original, printed at Leipsic in 1836. It literally reads thus: “Addo locum Washingtonis Irwingii, Hist. Novi Eboraci. lib. vii. cap. v.”—“ The old factions of Long Pipes and Short Pipes, strangled by the Herculean grasp of P. Stuyvesant.” W. B. R.