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Drink ev'ry letter on't in stum,
Hudibras, Part 2. canto L Irony turns things into ridicule in a peculiar manner; it consists in laughing at a man under disguise of appearing to praise or speak well of him. Swift affords us many illustrious examples of that species of ridicule. Take the following.
By these methods, in a few weeks, there starts up many a writer, capable of managing the profoundest and most universal subjects. For what though his head be empty, provided his common-place book be full! And if you will bate him but the circumstances of method, and style, and grammar, and invention ; allow him but the common privileges of transcribing from others, and digressing from himself, as often as he shall see occasion ; he will desire no more ingredients towards fitting up a treatise that shall make a very comely figure on a bookseller's shelf, there to be preserved neat and clean, for a long eternity, adorned with the heraldry of its title, fairly inscribed on a label; never to be thumbed or greased by students, nor bound to everlasting chains of darkness in a library ; but when the fulness of time is come, shall happily undergo the trial of purgatory, in order to ascend the sky.*
I cannot but congratulate our age on this peculiar felicity, that though we have indeed made great progress in all other branches of luxury, we are not yet debauched with any high relish in poetry, but are in this one taste less nice than our
If the Reverend clergy shewed more concern than others, I charitably impute it to their great charge of souls; and what confirmed me in this opinion was, that the degrees of apprehension and terror could be distinguished to be greater or less, according to their ranks and degrees in the church.t
A parody must be distinguished from every species of ridicule: it enlivens à gay subject by imitating some important incident that is serious: it is ludicrous, and may be risible; but ridicule is not a necessary ingredient. Take the following examples, the first of which refers to an expression of Moses.
The skilful nymph reviews her force with care:
Rape of the Lock, Canto III. 45. The next is in imitation of Achilles's oath in Homer.
But by this lock, this sacred lock, I swear,
Clipp'd from the lovely head where late it grew,) * Tale of a Tub, sect. 7.
+ A true and faithful narrative of what passed in London during the general consternation of all ranks and degrees of mankind.
That while my nostrils draw the vital air,
Ibid, Canto IV. 133. The following imitates the history of Agamemnon's sceptre in Homer.
Now meet thy fate, incens'd Belinda cry'd,
Íbid, Canto V. 87. Though ridicule, as observed above, is no necessary ingredient in a parody, yet there is no opposition between them: ridicule may be successfully employed in a parody; and a parody may be employed to promote ridicule: witness the following example with respect the latter, in which the goddess of Dulness is addressed upon the subject of modern education:
Thou gav'st that ripeness, which so soon began,
Dunciad, B. IV. 287. The interposition of the gods, in the manner of Homer and Virgil, ought to be confined to ludicrous subjects, which are much enlivened by such interposition handled in the form of a parody; witness the cave of Spleen, Rape of the Lock, canto 4.; the goddess of Discord, Lutrin, canto 1.; and the goddess of Indolence, canto 2.
Those who have a talent for ridicule, which is seldom united with a taste for delicate and refined beauties, are quick-sighted in improprieties; and these they eagerly grasp, in order to gratify their favorite propensity. Persons galled are provoked to maintain, that ridicule is improper for grave subjects. Subjects really grave are by no means fit for ridicule: but then it is urged against them, that when it is called in question whether a certain subject be really grave,
ridicule is the only means of determining the controversy. Hence a celebrated question, whether ridicule is or is not a test of truth? I give this question a place here, because it tends to illustrate the nature of ridicule.
The question stated in accurate terms is, whether the sense of ridicule is the proper test for distinguishing ridiculous objects, from what are not so. Taking it for granted, that ridicule is not a subject of reasoning, but of sense or taste, f I proceed thus No person
* Æn. I. 1. At Venus obscuro, &c.
doubts but that our sense of beauty is the true test of what is beautiful; and our sense of grandeur, of what is great or sublime. Is it more doubtful whether our sense of ridicule be the true test of what is ridiculous? It is not only the true test, but indeed the only test; for this subject comes not, more than beauty or grandeur, under the province of reason. If any subject, by the influence of fashion or custom, have acquired a degree of veneration to which naturally it is not entitled, what are the proper means for wiping off the artificial coloring, and displaying the subject in its true light? A man of true taste sees the subject without disguise : but if he hesitate, let him apply the test of ridicule, which separates it from its artificial connections, and exposes it naked with all its native improprieties.
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 endeavoring 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, a quality of certain thoughts and expressions, not applicable to an action or a
passion-Divided into two kinds; in the thought, and in the expression-Wit in the thought, divided into two kinds: ludicrous images; and Iudicrous combinations of things-Ludicrous combinations, divided into five kinds: fanciful causes; fanciful reasoning; ludicrous junction of small things to great; joining things apparently opposite; promises, promising much, and performing nothing - Verbal wit depends upon choosing words of different significations Verbal wit of five kinds: seeming resemblance from the double meaning of the words; a verbal antithesis, or seeming contrast, from the same cause; seeming connection from the same cause; seeming opposition from the same cause; taking words in a different meaning from what they were intended-An assertion that bears a double meaning a species of wit, called a pun.
Wir 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 quickness and variety, wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures and agreeable visions in the fancy." It may
be defined more concisely, and perhaps more accurately, “ A junction of things by distant and fanciful relations, which surprise because they are unexpected.”+ The following is a proper example. * B. II. Ch. 11. & 2.
+ See Chap. 1.
We grant although he had much wit,
As men their best apparel do. Hudibras, Canto 1. Wit is of all the most elegant recreation : the image enters the mind with gayety, and gives a sudden flash, which is extremely pleasant. Wit thereby gently elevates without straining, raises mirth without dissoluteness, and relaxes while it entertains.
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: 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 show 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 show 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. 3. 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 1 said so; and they shook hands, and swore brothers; Your if is the only peacemaker; much virtue is in if.
Shakspeare. 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 brandy-shop at Wapping, &e.
History of John Bull, Part I. Ch. 16. The other branch of wit in the thought, namely, ludicrous combinations and oppositions, may be traced through various ramifications. And, first, fanciful causes assigned that have no natural relation to the effects produced:
Lancaster. Fare you well, Falstaff; I, in my condition,
[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 greensickness; 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 twofold operation in it: it ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish, dull, and crudy vapors 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