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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.
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 fan66 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,
As being loth to wear it out;
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 enter. tains.
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 Coleville 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,
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.
fanciful causes assigned that have no natural relation to the effects produced:
Lancast. Fare you well, Falstaff; I, in my condition, shall better speak of you than you deserve. [Exit.
Falstaff. I would you had but the wit; 'twere better than your dukedom. Good faith, this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me; nor a man cannot make him laugh; but that's no marvel, he drinks no wine. There's never any of these demure boys come to any proof; for thin drink doth so overcool their blood, and making many fish-meals, that they fall into a kind of male green-sickness; and then, when they marry, they get wenches. They are generally fools and cowards; which some of us should be too, but for inflammation. A good sherris-sack hath a two-fold operation in it: it ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish, dull, and crudy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes; which delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit. The second property of your excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood; which before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale; which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice: but the sherris warms it, and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extreme; it illuminateth the face, which, as a beacon, gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great, and puff'd up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage: and thus valour comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till sack commences it, and sets it in act and use. Hereof comes it, that Prince Harry is valiant; for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father, he hath, like lean, steril, and bare land, manured, husbanded, and till'd, with excellent endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them, should be to forswear thin potations, and to addict themselves to sack.
Second Part of Henry IV. Act IV. Sc. 7.
The trenchant blade, toledo trusty, For want of fighting was grown rusty,