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ON WIT AND HUMOUR GENERALLY.
THE subject of this volume is described as the witty and humorous side of English poetry. Strictly speaking, however, we should not speak of poetry in this connection. Poetry is an affair of the emotions, whilst wit and humour are products of the intellect. Poetry is the offspring of the heart, whilst wit and humour are outcomes of the mind. Quotations will be made throughout this volume from the works of English poets, but the quotations themselves will in no sense be poetry. Verse, rather, is the term which ought in this instance to be used; and verse, because here we shall consider just that portion of our humorous and witty literature which has found rhythmical expression.
That wit and humour are, as they have been described, the products of the intellect alone is obvious on a consideration of their nature. For what is wit, and what is humour? Let us take the dicta of the two leading critics of the last generation, Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, both of whom have left essays on the subject.
'Wit,' says Leigh Hunt, may be defined to be the arbitrary juxtaposition of dissimilar ideas, for some lively purpose of assimilation or contrast, generally of both. Wit,' he adds, 'does not contemplate its ideas for their own sakes in any light apart from their ordinary prosaical one, but solely for the purpose of producing an effect from their combination. Humour,' he remarks, is a tendency of the mind to run in particular directions of thought or feeling more amusing than accountable.' The one, it will be observed, is a juxtaposition of dissimilar ideas, the other is a tendency of the mind.
Hazlitt describes wit, as distinguished from poetry' (the very point we are desirous to insist on), as the imagination
or fancy inverted, and so applied to given objects as to make the little look less, the mean more light and worthless.' He does not give a definition of humour, except in contrasting it with wit; but it is obvious that he regards them both as the outcomes of an intellectual process.
And to go back further for authority, what does Locke say on the subject? Wit,' he tells us, lies' most 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 to the fancy.' Here again ideas are made the chief material of wit, as they are in the papers which Addison contributed to the Spectator, and in which he says: 'Every resemblance in the ideas is not that which we call wit, unless it be one that gives delight and surprise to the reader ... particularly the last;' and again: It is necessary that the ideas should not lie too near one another in the nature of things; for where the likeness is obvious it gives no surprise.'
To particularise: Wit,' Leigh Hunt tells us, 'is the clash and reconcilement of incongruities; the meeting of extremes round a corner; the flashing of an artificial light from one object to another, disclosing some unexpected resemblance or connection. It is the detection of likeness in unlikeness, of sympathy in antipathy, or of the extreme points of antipathies themselves made friends by the very merriment of introduction. You may bring as many ideas together as can pleasantly assemble; but a single one is nothing. Two ideas are as necessary to wit as couples are to marriages.' 'Humour,' says the same writer, 'deals in incongruities of character and circumstance, as wit does in those of arbitrary ideas. The more the incongruities the better; but two, at any rate, are necessary to humour, as two ideas are to wit, and the more strikingly they differ, yet harmonise, the more amusing the result.' 'Humour,' says Hazlitt, is the describing the ludicrous as it is in itself; wit is the exposing it, by comparing it or contrasting it with something else. Humour is, as it were, the growth of nature and accident; wit is the product of art and fancy.'
It will be seen that wit and humour, which are frequently referred to as synonymous, or almost so, are very different things, with a different range of operation, and with different results. They may often mingle, or rather jostle one another, in talk or composition, but they are perfectly distinct in essence and in characteristics. Humour may be said to exist already in the very nature of men and of circumstances, and has only to be brought out by those who are capable of discerning it. Wit, on the other hand, is a conscious and deliberate exercise of the mental faculties in the direction of distinguishing the ludicrous connection between diverse things. The one is a case of discovery and of conjunction; the other of sympathy and of exposition. The one is a matter of rapidity and point; the other of exaggeration and accumulation. The one flashes keenly and decisively upon a subject; the other plays round it, and above it, and beneath it, with an enjoyment it is impossible to conceal. The one is too frequently inimical in its action and mordant in its effects; the other is generally kindly in its manner and innocuous in its results. The one is the instrument of satire, the other the weapon of mere persiflage. ?
As for the forms in which wit and humour show themselves, it would be absurd to lay down arbitrary rules. The fact is, their range is commensurate with the range of intellect no subject is sacred to them, no time is impossible for them, no circumstances are beyond them. Their possibilities are boundless, their actualities have been legion. They have existed from the beginning, and will go on to the end. The only boundaries you can set to them are those which are suggested by their separate peculiarities. Wit, which consists primarily in point, favours the pun, the epigram, the satire (which is but a series of connected epigrams), and all other forms in which conciseness of expression is the first requirement. Humour, which consists primarily in exaggeration, favours the burlesque (of generalities), the parody (of particularities), the mock heroic, the absolutely nonsensical, the wild extravagances of rhyme and rhythm; all forms, in fact, in which accumulation is the leading feature. There may, of course, be wit occa
sionally in parody, and humour occasionally in epigram: these two qualities are of such a Protean character that it is not always possible to seize upon them and chain them down to their appointed work. Still, as a rule, the limits we have indicated are the limits within which wit and humour usually move, and in which their effects are not only most legitimate, but greatest.
In the following pages no attempt will be made arbitrarily to separate the wits and humorists, and range them in their different categories; and this will be so for the simple reason that a wit has often been a humorist, and a humorist has often been a wit. The arrangement adopted will be, as nearly as possible, chronological, and will have the effect of tracing and exhibiting the ramifications of wit and humour through the English verse of several centuries. It will be seen that, though the forms in which they appear differ according to individual idiosyncrasies and the intellectual fashions of each epoch, true wit and true humour are essentially the same from whatever person and whatever epoch they proceed; that the quality of Chaucer's humour and of Shakespeare's wit is perennial in its nature; and that the humour of Butler and the wit of Pope are as intelligible to and enjoyable by us as the wit of Byron and the humour of James and Horace Smith. So far, the chronological order of treatment is not of much importance; yet, on the other hand, it will enable us to note the gradual deepening and broadening of the channels of the national work in wit and humour-to mark, how, from the comparatively meagre beginnings in the fourteenth century, have proceeded the fine performances of later times, when, if we have fewer great wits and humorists than there were in former days, we have a more widespread sense of what is humorous and witty, and a greater number of possessors of the true vis comica. If there were giants in those times, at least we may say of our own century that the general standard of the men is higher than it ever was before; that if the leaders are less magnificent in their proportions, the rank and file have a length and breadth of limb to which their ancestors had no pretensions.