Imagini ale paginilor
[ocr errors]

thoroughly ingrained with wit and humour as Fuller's “ Worthies of England,” his Church History of Britain no less so, and the essays entitled “ The Holy and Profane State"--essays which, in wit, and wisdom, and just feeling, are not unlike the Elia Essays of Charles Lamb. The genius of Fuller is, perhaps, unequalled in harmonizing a play upon words, quiet jocularity, kindly irony, with thoughtfulness and genuine earnestness, and in making the transition from quaintness to sublimity.

The great satire of the eighteenth century, “Gulliver's Travels,” exemplifies another form of wit, too often repulsive, not only by indecent coarseness, but by that misanthropy which darkens the writings of Swift. His morbid contemplation of the vices and follies of his fellowbeings betrays the disease which, probably, clung to his whole life, distorting and darkening it with the dread that insanity bad a lurkingplace in his brain—that haunting consciousness, which once was expressed when walking with the author of the Night Thoughts (like himself a dealer in distempered fancies and feelings). Swift, after gazing earnestly at a noble elm which was, in its uppermost branches, withered and decayed, pointing to it, said to Dr. Young, “I shall be like that tree-I shall die at the top." Arbuthnot, the friend of Swift and Pope, is believed to have had more learning and as much wit as either of them and with it all a sweetness of temper and purity of character which made Swift exclaim, “Oh, if the world had but a dozen Arbuthnots in it, I would burn my Travels!” It is a sad pity that his genius was not more open to influences of such a character, or of the equally admirable and amiable nature of his other friend, Bishop Berkeley.

The best and most agreeable specimen of English humour (it is humour in contrast to wit) which belongs to that period, is Steele's invention and Addison's use of the character of Sir Roger de Coverley. 'This will be felt by any one who will select the papers in the Spectator which are devoted to him, and read them continuously, following the good knight to his mansion, to the assizes, to the parish church, where, as soon as he wakes out of a nap during the sermon, he sends his footman to wake up any of the congregation who chance to be asleep; then onward to his death-bed, after having bequeathed (his will chanced to be written on a very cold day) a stout frieze coat to the men, and a comfortable hood to the women, in the parish. The same species of pure, genial, wise, and healthful humour has been sustained in the incomparable Vicar of Wakefield, and in the writings of our countryman, Washington Irving, who is gifted with many of the best qualities of Goldsmith's genius. Among the humorous writers belonging to the

literature of our own day (there are several whom I will not stop to name), Charles Lamb represented a form of humour of a very high order, and peculiar to himself—a humour which has assumed a deeper interest and commands a higher admiration, now that we know the terrible memories and sorrows of his days,

"The troubles strange, Mavy and strange, that hung about his life,"

and his heroic self-devotion to his afflicted sister.

Our English literature of wit and humour gives abundant proof that these faculties may be either a precious or a perilous possession ; precious, as ministering to thoughtful cheerfulness, and serving the cause of truth and gentleness; perilous, as coupled with intellectual pride and malevolent passions. I have spoken of the repulsive character of the wit of Dean Swift-still, if unattractive, there was something in his stern hatred of vice and folly, which commands respect; but when you turn to such as Lord Byron's (as in Don Juan), there is disease without a particle of the dignity of disease; there is lawless force of mind, owning no restraint of reverence for aught human or divine sustained by no self-respect, by no confidence in virtue—womanly, even less than manly. Thus wit sinks down into barren scoffing. It is the lowest moral condition when crime clothes itself with jest. Salutary as the culture of the faculties of wit and humour may be, when justly proportioned and controlled, the indulgence of them as a habit is as injurious to him who so indulges it, as it is wearisome to all who encounter it. The habit of always looking at things on the laughable side is sure to lower the tone of thought and feeling, and at length can only content its restless craving by attributing the ridiculous to things which ought to be inviolate by such association. When the habitual joker is sometimes seized with a fit of seriousness, the change is such an incongruity, as to provoke the retaliation of unseasonable jocularity, and no one is as sensitive to ridicule as he who habitually handles it.

Another abuse which inay be observed in intercourse with the world, is when jocularity is employed as subterfuge, to escape from the demands of earnestness and candour, and the jest is made a method of non-committal. It is said that Sir Robert Walpole used to divert his guests away from political conversation by a strain of ribald jesting; and a more modern prime minister, the late Lord Melbourne, is described as one whose first impulse, in ordinary conversation, was always to treat things lightly. This was an adroitness, which a higher order of statea manship does not concern itself to use.

As a habit, wit will prove fatal to that better and wiser cheerfulness which is attendant on imaginative culture—the genuine poetic habit of beholding or discovering the beauty of truth, of moral worth, and whatever of beauty, spiritual or material, is given to man to enjoy. It is said that Hogarth lamented his taient for caricature, as the long practice of it had impaired his capacity for the enjoyment of beauty : while the best critics on his works applauded him as an artist “ in whom the satirist never extinguished that love of beauty which belonged to him as a poet;" and who so used his genius as to "prevent the instinctive merriment at the whims of nature, or the foibles or humour, of our fellow-men from degeneratiny into the heart-poison of contempt or hatred."

It is a narrowness of inind which causes the exclusion of either the poetic sense or of wit; it is partial moral culture which refuses the good that is to be gained from either. The larger mind and the well-disciplined heart find room for both powers to dwell together in harmony. Of such harmony let me give a single example in proof-a transition from a passage of well-conceived and well-expressed satire to one no less distinguished by a deep poetic sense of beauty; or rather not so much a transition as a harmonious combination. I quote two passages which occur in close connection in the work of a living author—Mr. Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture.

“ Another of the strange tendencies of the present day is to the decoration of the railroad station. Now if there be any place in the world in which people are deprived of that portion of temper and discretion which are necessary to the contemplation of beauty, it is there. It is the very temple of discomfort, and the only charity that the builder can extend to us is to show us, plainly as may be, how soonest to escape from it. The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry are therefore, for the time being, miserable. No one would travel in that manner who could help it, who had time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges, instead of through tunnels and between banks; at least those who would have no sense of beauty so acute as we need consult it at the station The railroad is, in all its relations, a matter of earnest business, to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man from a traveller into a living parcel. For the time, he has parted with the nobler characteristics of his humanity for the sake of a planetary motion of locomotion. Do not ask him to admire any thing. You might as well ask the wind. Carry him safely, dismiss him soon: he will thank you for nothing else. All attempts to please him in any other way are mere mockery, and insults to things by

which you endeavour to do so. There never was more fragrant nor impertinent folly than the smallest portion of ornament in any thing connected with railroads or near them. Keep them out of the way, take them through the ugliest country you can find, confess thein the miserable things they are, and spend nothing upon them but for safety or speed.”

Now turning from satire on ornament misplaced to the sense of beauty well-placed:

“ The question of greatest external or internal decoration depends entirely on the condition of probable repose. It was a wise feeling which made the streets of Venice so rich in external ornament, for there is no couch of rest like the gondola. So, again, there is no subject of street ornament so wisely chosen as the fountain, where it is a fountain of use; for it is just there that perhaps the happiest pause takes place in the labour of the day, when the pitcher is rested on the edge of it, and the breath of the bearer is drawn deeply, and the hair swept from the forehead, and the uprightness of the form declined against the marble ledge, and the sound of the kind word or light laugh mixes with the tricle of the falling water, heard shriller and shriller as the pitcher fills. What pause is so sweet as that—so full of the depth of ancient days, so softened with the calm of pastoral solitude ?"

[merged small][ocr errors]

The Literature of Letter-Idriting.



In devoting a lecture to what I have entitled “ The Literature of Letter-Writing,” I had less hope of being able to make the treatment of such a subject interesting than of pointing out some of the uses of this department, and suggesting the agreeable and instructive reading which is to be found in collections of letters. It is a department which may be viewed in several aspects, either as tributary to history, political or literary, or as a form of biography—thus helping us to a knowledge of the movements of mankind, or of individual character, by its written disclosures. Our English literature is enriched with collections of remarkable and very various interest: so varied as to furnish an abundant adaptation to different tastes. In treating this subject, my aim will be to endeavour not to wander off into either history or biography, but, as far as possible, to confine my attention to the epistolary literature in itself, making some comments on the principal collections, and incidentally considering the character of a true letter. It happens not unfrequently that the form of the letter is assumed for the sake of convenience, when neither the writer nor the hearer is at all deluded in the belief that the production is what is usually understood by the term “a letter," or epistle. Essays, disquisitions, satires, wear the epistolary name and garb, fulfilling a not unreasonable fancy of the writer that such a medium interposes less of formality between him and his readers, and, indeed, brings them into closer and more life-like relations--the letter being somehow more of a reality between the writer and the recipient, than a book is between the author and the reader. The “Drapier's Letters” of Swift, Boling broke's Letter to Wyndham, the “ Letters of Junius,” Burke's “Reflections on the French Revolution," and other


« ÎnapoiContinuați »