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of Fuller is, perhaps, unequalled in harmonizing a play upon words, quiet jocularity, kindly irony, with thoughtfulness and genuine earnestness, and in making the transition from quaintness to sublimity.
The great satire of the eighteenth century, “Gulliver's Travels,” exemplifies another form of wit, too often repulsive, not only by indecent coarseness, but by that misanthropy which darkens the writings of Swift. His morbid contemplation of the vices and follies of his fellow-beings betrays the disease which, probably, clung to his whole life, distorting and darkening it with the dread that insanity had a lurking-place in his brain—that haunting consciousness, which once was expressed when walking with the author of the Night Thoughts, (like himself a dealer in distempered fancies and feelings, Swift, after gazing earnestly at a noble elm which was, in its uppermost branches, withered and decayed, pointing to it, said to Dr. Young, "I shall be like that tree—I shall die at the top.”* Arbuthnot, the friend of Swift and Pope, is believed to have had more learning and as much wit as either of them, and with it all a sweetness of temper and purity of character which made Swift exclaim, “Oh, if the world had but a dozen Arbuthnots in it, I would burn
my Travels !" It is a sad pity that his genius was not more open to influences of such a character, or of the equally admirable and amiable nature of his other friend, Bishop Berkeley.
The best and most agreeable specimen of English humour (it is humour in contrast to wit) which belongs to that period, is Steele's invention, and Addison's use, of tho character of Sir Roger de Coverley. This will be felt by any one who will select the papers in the Spectator which are devoted to him, and read them continuously, following the good knight to his mansion, to the assizes, to the parish church, where, as soon as he wakes out of a nap during the sermon, he sends his footman to wake up any of the congregation who chance to be asleep; then onward to his death-bed, after having bequeathed (his will chanced to be written on a very cold day) a stout frieze coat to the men, and a comfortable hood to the women, in the parish. The same species of pure, genial, wise, and healthful humour has been sustained in the incomparable Vicar of Wakefield, and in the writings of our countryman, Washington Irving, who is gifted with many of the best qualities of Goldsmith's genius. Among the humorous writers belonging to the literature of our own day, (there are several whom I will not stop to name,) Charles Lamb represented a form of humour of a very high order, and peculiar to himself—a humour which has assumed a deeper interest and commands a higher admiration, now that we know the terrible memories and sorrows of his days—
* Scott's Life of Swift, p. 291. Am. ed.
“ The troubles strange, Many and strange, that hung about his life,”* and his heroic self-devotion to his afflicted sister.
Our English literature of wit and humour gives abundant proof that these faculties may be either a precious or a perilous possession; precious, as ministering to thoughtful cheerfulness, and serving the cause of truth and gentleness; perilous, as coupled with intellectual pride and
* Wordsworth's Lines, written after the death of Charles Lamb, p. 467, Am. ed.
malevolent passions. I have spoken of the repulsive character of the wit of Dean Swift-still, if unattractive, there was something in his stern hatred of vice and folly, which commands respect; but when you turn to such as Lord Byron's, (as in Don Juan,) there is disease without a particle of the dignity of disease; there is lawless force of mind, owning no restraint of reverence for aught human or divine-sustained by no self-respect, by no confidence in virtue—womanly, even less than manly. Thus wit sinks down into barren scoffing. It is the lowest moral condition when crime clothes itself with jest. Salutary as the culture of the faculties of wit and humour may be, when justly proportioned and controlled, the indulgence of them as a habit is as injurious to him who so indulges it, as it is wearisome to all who encounter it. The habit of always looking at things on the laughable side is sure to lower the tone of thought and feeling, and at length can only content its restless craving by attributing the ridiculous to things which ought to be inviolate by such association. When the habitual joker is sometimes seized with a fit of seriousness, the change is such an incongruity, as to provoke the retaliation of unseasonable jocularity, and no one is as sensitive to ridicule as he who habitually handles it.
Another abuse which may be observed in intercourse with the world, is when jocularity is employed as subterfuge, to escape from the demands of earnestness and candour, and the jest is made a method of non-committal. It is said that Sir Robert Walpole used to divert his guests away from political conversation by a strain of ribald jesting; and a more modern prime minister, the late Lord Melbourne, is described as one whose first impulse, in ordinary conversation, was always to treat things lightly. This was an adroitness, which a higher order of statesmanship does not concern itself to use.
As a habit, wit will prove fatal to that better and wiser cheerfulness which is attendant on imaginative culture— the genuine poetic habit of beholding or discovering the beauty of truth, of moral worth, and whatever of beauty, spiritual or material, is given to man to enjoy. It is said that Hogarth lamented his talent for caricature, as the long practice of it had impaired his capacity for the enjoyment of beauty : while the best critic on his works applauded him as an artist “in whom the satirist never extinguished that love of beauty which belonged to him as a poet;" and who so used his genius as to "prevent the instructive merriment at the whims of nature, or the foibles or humours, of our fellow-men from degenerating into the heart-poison of contempt or hatred.”
It is a narrowness of mind which causes the exclusion of either the poetic sense or of wit; it is partial moral culture which refuses the good that is to be gained from either. The larger mind and the well-disciplined heart find room for both powers to dwell together in harmony. Of such harmony let me give a single example in proofa transition from a passage of well-conceived and wellexpressed satire to one no less distinguished by a deep poetic sense of beauty; or rather not so much a transition as a harmonious combination. I quote two passages which occur in close connection in the work of a living authorMr. Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture.
“ Another of the strange tendencies of the present day is to the decoration of the railroad station. Now if there be any place in the world in which people are deprived of that portion of temper and discretion which are necessary to the contemplation of beauty, it is there. It is the very temple of discomfort, and the only charity that the builder can extend to us is to show us, plainly as may as may be, how soonest to escape from it. The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable. No one would travel in that manner who could help it, who had time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges, instead of through tunnels and between banks; at least those who would, have no sense of beauty so acute as that we need consult it at the station. The railroad is, in all its relations, a matter of earnest business, to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man from a traveller into a living parcel. For the time, he has parted with the nobler characteristics of his humanity for the sake of a planetary motion of locomotion. Do not ask him to admire any thing. You might as well ask the wind. Carry him safely, dismiss him soon: he will thank you thing else. All attempts to please him in any other way are mere mockery, and insults to things by which you endeavour to do so. There never was more flagrant nor impertinent folly than the smallest portion of ornament in any thing connected with railroads or near them. Keep them out of the way, take them through the ugliest country you can find, confess them the miserable things they are, and spend nothing upon them but for safety and speed."*