Imagini ale paginilor

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."

And so in that form of error, which is regarded as belonging preeminently 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 haste, 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 carriage, just for nothing but to see how our honours got past.

It is curious, let me remark, to observe how a form of expression which is essentially a bull, inay be lifted out of the region of the ridiculous, as in that truly poetic expression of Keats ;

“So the two brothers and their murdered man
Rode toward fair Florence."

Now, if that be looked at in a prosaic point of view, it becomes a Jownright blunder, but, poetically, you see in it the activity of the

[ocr errors]

imagination darting forward to the murder, a ghastly foregone con clusion,” as Leigh Hunt has well called it.

I have spoken of the incongruity of style: there may also be such incongruity of time as to make the anachronism laughable. Washington Irving, one of the finest of modern humourous writers, has shown this in that practical anachronism, “ Rip Van Winkle.” It is, I believe, Horace Walpole, who tells of one of the family pictures of the De Levi's, a French family that prided itself on its great antiquity; it was a picture of an antediluvian scene, in whih Noah was represented going into the ark with a bundle of the archives of the house of De Levi under his arm. I have myself seen in a private library in this city an old Bible, with engravings, Dutch, I believe they were; one of which pictured an Old Testament event; in the foreground Sampson slaying the lion, if I remember riglıtly, and in the background a man with a fowling-piece shooting snipe.

These are broad incongruities, bordering upon the farcical: there are others, either wilful or unconscious, which are more delicate in their impression. When Lady Sale made in her diary the simple entry, “Earthquakes as usual,” the humour was in the coolness of the womanly courage, and the notion of the frequency coupled with one of the rarest and most appalling of earthly perils. It was not unlike the advertisement beginning, “Anybody in want of a diving-bell," as if a diving-bell was one of the common wants in society. A quaint example recurs to my mind in this connection: it is in Horrebou's History of Ireland, an old folio volume, which is divided into chapters according to various subjects: one of these is headed (chapter 47) “ Concerning Owls.” I can quote the whole chapter without fatiguing you, for it is in these words: “ There are in Ireland no owls of any kind whatever." Yet the historian seems to have considered himself under somne obligation to that species of birds, so far as to devote a chapter to their absence.

These unexpected connections, which are produced by wit or humour, carried beyond the mere ludicrous effect, are seen also subserving argumentation, as these processes are combined by Swift in his 6 Drapier's Letters," and other occasional pieces; by De Foe, or in later times by Walter Scott, in his letters on the Scotch currency question; and yet more in Sydney Smith's writings, the wittiest reasoning and satire in the language. There is, perhaps, no more characteristic passage than that suggested by his reflections on the earned prolixity of Dr. Parr. “There is an event,” he goes on to say, 6 recorded in the Bible, which men who write books should keep constantly in their remembrance. It is there set forth, that many centuries

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

ago the earth was covered with a great flood, by which the whole of the human race, with the exception of one family, were destroyed. It appears also, that from thence a great alteration was made in the longevity of mankind, who, from a range of seven hundred or eight hundred years, were confined to their present period of seventy or eighty years. This epoch in the history of man gave birth to the twofold division of the antediluvian and the postdiluvian style of writing, the latter of which naturally contracted itself into those inferior limits which were better accommodated to the abridged duration of human life and literary labour. Now to forget this event, to write without the fear of the deluge before his eyes, and to handle a subject as if mankind could lounge over a pamphlet for ten years, as before their submersion, is to be guilty of the most grievous error into which a writer can possibly fall. The author of this book should call in the aid of some brilliant pencil, and cause the distressing scenes of the deluge to be pourtrayed in the most lively colours for his use. He should gaze at Noah, and be brief. The ark should constantly remind him of the little time there is left for reading; and he should learn, as they did in the ark, to crowd a great deal of matter into a very little compass.” This was written in Sydney Smith's early reviewing days; but his wit took a more concentrated form, as when he said of Lord John Russell, “ His worst failure is that he is utterly ignorant of all moral fear; there is nothing he would not undertake. I believe he would perform the operation for the stone, build St. Peter's, or assume (with or without ten minutes' notice) the command of the channel fleet; and no one would discover by his manner that the patient had died, the church tumbled down, and the channel fleet been knocked to atoms;" and then he adds quietly in a note, “ Another peculiarity of the Russell's is, that they never alter their opinions: they are an excellent race, but they must be trepanned before they can be convinced.” Nay, sometimes the subtle element is concentrated in a single word or phrase, as when he speaks of “a gentleman lately from the Pyramids or the upper cataracts, let loose upon the drawing-room;" or that phrase, so excellent in the satire, and admitting unfortunately of such frequent application, which mentions an orator “ splashing in the froth of his own rhetoric”—a descriptive image which is worth a whole chapter of rhetorical admonition.

This combination of wit and reasoning makes also much of the virtue of that instruction which, in Fables, charms the mind of childhood, and is not cast aside by inature reason. It enters, too, into a people's instruction by proverbs, which have been happily described as “ the wisdom of many and the wit of one."

One of the most remarkable uses of wit and humour, is that which combines them with tragedy, and makes them subservient to tragic effect. These combinations seem to be denied to modern art by the refinement or daintiness of later times; and by such denial, modern art loves much of the power which resulted from that natural blending of the humorous and the serious, each equally earnest, which may be seen in the early ininstrelsy, and in the highest form of genius and the art in Shakspeare's deepest tragedies. The most careless reader must have noticed how profoundly the tragic pathos of King Lear is deepened by the wild wit and pathetic humour of that faithful and full-hearted follower the fool. Remember how, in Hanılet, one of the most solemnn scenes is preceded by the quaint professional witicisms of the gravedigger, so different and yet not discordant. In Macbeth the brief and awful interval between the murder of Duncan, and the disclosure of it, is filled with that rudely-comic passage of the drunken, half-sobered porter, to whose gross jocularity you pass from the highwrought frenzy of Macbeth, reeking with his victim's blood, and from the yet more fearful atrocity of his wife, to return quickly to the tragic horror on the discovery of the murder ; and in that transition, through a species of the comic, the harmony is preserved by the quaint allusions to hell and the vain equivocations to heaven.

Another kindred combination, which also shows a unity connecting the serious and the sportive, proving what Socrates is said to have asserted, that there is a common ground for tragedy and comedy is in that contrast between the thought or feeling and its expression, which is termed “irony." It is the humorous wresting of language from its literal use for the expression of feeling, either happy or painful, but too vehement to be contented with that literal use. The pensive perplexity of a gentle and philosophic soul like Hamlet, bewildered and self-secluded in a wicked world, finds relief in almost every form of bitter or tranquit humour for meditations and for emotions that overmaster him. When the thoughtful spirit of Macbeth is distorted by guilt, and as the agony of that guilt grows more and more intense, the pent-up misery either flows forth in a subdued irony, or breaks out in that which is fierce and frenzied. In one very familiar passage, the heauty of the expression makes many a reader forget that it is pure and essential irony: when Macbeth puts to the Doctor the simple and literal inquiry after Lady Macbeth:

[ocr errors]

How does your patient, doctor?

Doctor. Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies,
That keep her from her rest.”

[ocr errors]

Then comes the deep feeling, with its ironical questions, sounding more
like soliloquy:

• Cure her of that:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow?
Raze out the written troubles of the brain?
And, with some sweet, oblivious antidote,
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart ?"
The literal answer-

" Therein the patient

Must minister to himself”. brings him back to reality with the exclamation,

" Throw physic to the dogs, l'll none of it!" But, even in the irritable putting on of his armour, the bitter relief of an ironical humour comes again in another form:

“What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug

Would scour these English hence?"
If the truthfulness of such use of irony be doubted, let it be
remembered how abundantly and remarkably it pervades Holy Writ.
I do not refer merely to the bitter, ironical taunts which the prophet
hurled at the priests of Baal, but to the manifold use of it in the
expression of thoughts and emotions affecting the spiritual intercourse
of man and his Maker. Remember how something of the kind breaks
out in the very midst of St. Paul's most solemn argument. Again, it
is not contrary to nature—it is not a levity unworthy of man's nature-
that these playful faculties make their appearance in the most awful
realities of life. The gentle spirit of Anne Boleyn was pleasant with
the headsman on the scaffold ; and so

“ More's gay genius played
With the inoffensive sword of native wit,

Than the bare axe more luminous and keen."
The power of wit to combine itself harmoniously and vigorously
with sagacity and seriousness, is eminently exemplified in all the works
of that remarkable author of the seventeenth century, the church
historian, Thomas Fuller, whose wit, in the largeness of its circuit, the
variety of its expression, its exuberance, and its admirable sanity, stands
second only to that of Shakspeare. It has the indispensable inerit of
perfect naturalness, and the excellence of being a growth from a soil
&f sound wisdom. There are no large works in our language so

« ÎnapoiContinuați »