Abbildungen der Seite

Wit may,

laughable, when he said it depended on what is out of its proper time and place, yet without danger or pain. That remarkable but wrong-headed English philosopher, Hobbes, who thought that war was man's natural state, defined laughter to be “a sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with infirmity of others or our own infirmity.” The definitions given by Locke and by the Scotch rhetoricians, and the analysis made by Coleridge and by Sydney Smith, have done little more than trace the effect of wit or humour to an agreeable surprise occasioned by an unusual connection of thoughts. Still more difficult would it be to trace the subtle relations between wit and humour, and to analyze that higher form in which both are combined, but for which language helps us with no name. I think, be regarded as a purely intellectual process, while humour is a sense of the ridiculous controlled by feeling, and coexistent often with the gentlest and deepest pathos, visible, it may be, even in those smiles which have been finely described, as "a sad heart's sunshine.

Often the simple sense of incongruity produces the effect of the laughable—the unfitness of the means to the end, as in some of Dr. Johnson's definitions, where his Latinized dialect makes him like the interpreter in Sheridan's farce, the harder to be understood of the two-his definition of “Network—any thing reticulated or decussated at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections," or when, in the preface to his Dictionary, in explanation of the difficulty of ranging the meanings of a word in order, he asks: “When the radical idea branches out into parallel ramifications, how can a consecutive series be formed of senses in their nature collateral ?":



Again, when Johnson defines “Excise,” to be "a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged, not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid :" and Pension, to be “an allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a statehireling for treason to his country"—a comic effect is produced by the unexpected encounter with such a fervid temper among the dispassionate definitions of a dictionary, almost as if one should meet with a spiteful demonstration in geometry.* To an ear accustomed to simple English, simple in the choice and in the arrangement of the words, the highly Latinized and stately sentences of Dr. Johnson now make an impression bordering sometimes on the ludicrous—owing, I think, to the unnatural disparity between his style and the ordinary colloquial use of language: this was curiously shown by a practical joke that was practised on that worthy and simple-mannered man, the late Sir David Wilkie, by a fellow-painter and his brother, and described in the Memoir of Collins, the landscape-painter: “Mr. Collins's brother Francis possessed a remarkably retentive memory, which he was accustomed to use for the amusement of himself and others in the following manner. He learnt by heart a whole number of one of Dr. Johnson's · Ramblers,' and used to occasion considerable diversion to those in the secret, by repeating it all through to a new company, in a conversational tone, as if it was the accidental product of his own fancy,-now

* It may have been a definition like that of “excise," which occasioned the criticism from a Scotch peasant, whom Sir Walter Scott found reading aloud the Dictionary containing the authorities, “that thoy wero draw stories, but unco short." H. R.


addressing his flow of moral eloquence to one astonished auditor, and now to another. One day, when the two brothers were dining at Wilkie's, it was determined to try the experiment upon their host. After dinner, accordingly, Mr. Collins paved the way for the coming speech, by leading the conversation imperceptibly to the subject of the paper in the · Rambler.' At the right moment, Francis Collins began. As the first grand Johnsonian sentences struck upon his ear, (uttered, it should be remembered, in the most elaborately careless and conversational manner,) Wilkie started at the high tone that the conversation had suddenly assumed, and looked vainly for explanation to his friend Collins, who, on his part, sat with his eyes respectfully fixed on his brother, all wrapt attention to the eloquence that was dropping from his lips. Once or twice, with perfect mimicry of the conversational character he had assumed, Francis Collins hesitated, stammered, and paused, as if collecting his thronging ideas. At one or two of these intervals, Wilkie endeavoured to speak, to ask a moment for consideration; but the torrent of his guest's eloquence was not to be delayed . . . until at last it reached its destined close; and then Wilkie, who, as host, thought it his duty to break silence by the first compliment, exclaimed, with the most perfect unconsciousness of the trick that had been played him, "Ay, ay, Mr. Francis; verra clever—(though I did not understand it all)-verra clever !'

It not unfrequently happens, also, that a sense of the ludicrous in style may be traced in a false and florid rhetoric to the incongruous combination of literal and figurative forms of expression. Reading the Earl of Ellesmere's agreeable and usually well-written History of the Two


Sieges of Vienna, I noted this sentence: speaking of Sobieski, he says, “inspired by the memory of former victories, ..

... he flung his powerful frame into the saddle, and his great soul into the cause.” This is that juxtaposition of the literal and metaphorical, which is best exemplified by a well-known instance in a panegyric on the celebrated Robert Boyle, in which he was described as “father of chemistry, and brother of the Earl of Cork." Again, another form of the literary ludicrous, is in the incongruous combination of metaphors produced by the want of discipline in speech, increased, perhaps, by an excess of unguided fancy. Lord Castlereagh's parliamentary speeches are said to have been full of such confusion of language—without, however, spoiling the speaker's high bearing and elegance of manner: in one of these speeches he used that sentence in which, perhaps, there is as curious an infelicity of speech and confusion of figure as ever were crowded into as small a number of words, “And now, sir, I must embark into the feature on which this question chiefly hinges."*

* My impression is, that these traditions as to Lord Castlereagh are not now regarded as trustworthy. His is one of the cases (I speak of the American mind) in which a healthy revolution of opinion may be traced. Thirty-nay, twenty-years ago, when Gallican sympathies were active, and Moore's clever pasquinades in every one's mouth, Lord Castlereagh was an especial object of disparagement. Let any one study his correspondence, lately published, especially in 1814 and 1815, and it will be seen what a manly, honest-minded statesman he

It is a matter, I believe, of well-ascertained diplomatic tradi. tion, that such was his uniform temper and tone in all his relations to this country. The fact, too, is unquestionable, that extreme conservatives, such as Lord Castlereagh and Lord Aberdeen have always shown more consideration, and made themselves more acceptable to our representatives abroad, than others claiming to be more liberal. W. B. R.


[ocr errors]

And so in that form of error, which is regarded as belonging pre-eminently to Lord Castlereagh's countrymen, that strange mixture of error and accuracy, called an Irish bull,” the ludicrous effect is, I believe, produced by the sense working its way out through the complexity and confusion of the phrase.

Sir Walter Scott, in the account of his tour in Ireland, mentions an occurrence which illustrates this form of the laughable, for it is a sort of bull in action. “They were widening,” he says, “ the road near Lord Claremont's seat as we passed. A number of cars were drawn up together at a particular point, where we also halted, as we understood they were blowing a rock, and the shot was expected presently to go off. After waiting two minutes or so, a fellow called out something, and our carriage as a planet, and the cars for satellites, started all forward at once, the Irishmen whooping and the horses galloping. Unable to learn the meaning of this, I was only left to suppose that they had delayed firing the intended shot till we should pass, and that we were passing quickly to make the delay as short as possible. No such thing; by dint of making great baste, we got within ten yards of the rock just when the blast took place, throwing dust and gravel in our carriage; and had our postillion brought us a little nearer, (it was not for want of hollowing and flogging that he did not,) we should have had a still more serious share of the explosion. The explanation I received from the drivers was, that they had been told by the overseer that as the mine had been so long in going off, he dared say we would have time to pass it, so we just waited long enough to make the danger imminent. I have only to add, that two or three people got behind the


« ZurückWeiter »