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Literature of Wit and Humour.*
Subtilty of these emotions-Sydney Smith and Leigh Hunt-Dullness of jest-books-Hudibras a tedious book-Sydney Smith's idea of the study of wit-Charles Lamb-Incapacity for a jest-German note on Knickerbocker-Stoicism and Puritanism-Guesses at Truth--Cheerful literature needed for thoughtful minds-Recreative power of books--Different modes of mental relaxation-Napoleon-ShelleyCowper-Southey's merriness-Doctor Arnold-Shakspeare and Scott's humour-The Antiquary-Burke-Barrow's definition of wit -Hobbes-Forms of Humour-Doctor Johnson's grotesque definitions-Collins, the landscape painter-Examples of grotesque style -Irish Bulls-Rip Van Winkle--Sydney Smith and Doctor ParrHumour in old tragedies-Lear and the fool-Hamlet and the gravedigger-Irony-Macbeth and the doctor-Anne Boleyn-Bishop Latimer-Fuller-Dean Swift and Arbuthnot-Gulliver--Sir Roger De Coverley-Charles Lamb-Swift and Byron's humour-Prostitution of wit-Sir Robert Walpole-Lord Melbourne-HogarthDanger of power of humour illustrated-Ruskin's criticism.
In my last lecture I was engaged in the consideration ef some very serious subjects, the gravest that belong to literature. In passing from them at once to the Literature of Wit and Humour, I have less apprehension of the transition being felt as a violent one than that there will be found in this lecture more of seriousness than the chief title of it might lead one to expect. The movements of the mind which are connected with the faculties styled "Wit" and "Humour," are among the most subtile of
* University of Pennsylvania, March 13, 1851.
which the mind is capable, are, for the most part, difficult of description, and demand an acute and delicate analysis. In contrast with my last lecture, I am anxious at the outset to give you the assurance of a promise that I shall this evening make a more reasonable demand upon your time and thoughts, for the light artillery which I have now to do with can be more expeditiously manœuvred than the heavy ordnance to which I had to stand on the former occasion.
It is well that it should be understood between us that the subject of Wit and Humour does not at all imply that the treatment of it should be identical with the effects of those powers; on the contrary, by raising such expectation and not fulfilling it, the subject may, in reality, prove more serious than even a grave subject, wherewith such anticipations could not be associated. Though I am usually averse to adverting in any way to the difficulty of any subject on which I have undertaken to lecture, indulge me in saying that the subject of the literature of Wit and Humour is one for which there is peculiarly demanded, not only a genial and cultivated capacity to enjoy such literature, but a skill and tact in the handling of it; the importance of which I am so well aware of, that it is with no small misgiving that I have ventured upon the subject. When the late Sydney Smith, the most distinguished wit of contemporary literature, in a course of lectures on Moral Philosophy, discussed these faculties of Wit and Humour, the subject, though manifestly not an uncongenial one to him, becomes even in his hands, a somewhat sedate disquisition. When Leigh Hunt wrote his volume on "The Poetry of Wit and Humour," vivacious and pleasant and facetious as he has often shown himself in other
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
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
* Love's Labour's Lost.
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 humour with states of mind and of feeling with which we do not ordinarily associate them.
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. H. 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 to use, 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