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“What is called Wit, is sometimes a new comparison, sometimes a subtle allusion; here it is the abuse of a word, which is presented in one sense and left to be understood in another; there, a delicate relation between two ideas not very common. It is a singular metaphor; it is the discovery of something in an object which does not at first strike the observation, but which is really in it; it is the art either of bringing together two things apparently remote, or of dividing two things which seem to be united, or of opposing them to each other. It is that of expressing only one half of what you think, and leaving the other to be guessed. In short, I would tell you of all the different ways
of showing Wit, if I had more."
Dryden, with classic terseness, says that Wit is “ a propriety of thoughts and words adapted to the subject;" and Pope plagiarises or rather paraphrases the same idea, thus
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
Locke's definition of Wit, lauded by Addison, is a plagiarism from Montaigne. The English philosopher asserts that “men who have a great deal of Wit, and prompt memories, have not always the clearest Judgment or deepest reason. For Wit, lying most in the assemblage of ideas, and putting those to gether with quickness and variety, wherein can be found any semblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures and agreeable visions in the fancy; Judgment, on the contrary, lies quite on the other side, in separating carefully, one from another, ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by similitude, and by affinity, to take one thing for another.” Addison says this is a most admirable reflection upon the difference of Wit and Judgment; and Judgment is elsewhere described as the offspring of Truth and Wisdom. "In his Genealogy of Humor, Addison states that “Truth was the founder of the family, and the father of Good Sense. Good Sense was the father of Wit, who married a lady of collateral line called Mirth, by whom she had issue Humor. Humor, therefore, being the young. est of this illustrious family, and descended from parents of such different dispositions, is very various and unequal in his temper; sometimes you see him putting on grave looks and a solemn habit; sometimes airy in his behavior, and fantastic in his dress, insomuch that at different times he appears as grave as a judge, and as jocular as a merry-andrew. But as he has a good deal of his mother in his constitution, whatever mood he is in, he never fails to make his company laugh.” This is very Spectatorial and witty, but how can the son of Wit and Mirth be the offspring of different dispositions ? Mirth is the natural associate of Wit. Archdeacon Hare tells us that Wit and Wisdom are sisters; and Voltaire says that“ Wisdom used to be termed Wit in former days.”
La Bruyère calls “Wit the God of moments as Genius is the God of ages.' This is a sparkling phrase—but Genius without Wit is not destined to enjoy immortality
Addison remarks that “the greatest wits I have conversed with, are men eminent for their humanity.” Sydney Smith, on the contrary, asserts that“ the tendency of Wit and Humor is to corrupt the heart.” This is a strange phrase to be penned by a man who was not only extremely witty himself, but the constant associate of the greatest wits of the age.
Leigh Hunt, beautifully and delicately appreciative in his Discourse on Imagination and Fancy, seems to have labored unsuccessfully in his Illustrative Essay on Wit and Humor. Indeed, he acknowledges as much in his opening page, and confesses that he found himself so perplexed that he feared he “ should never be able to give any tolerable account of the matter.” His selection of specimens is far from happy; and his arbitrary classification of the “Forms of Wit" is, in many instances, sciolistic and absurd.
Leigh Hunt affirms that Addison first pointed out the necessity of surprise as an absolute requirement in Wit's concomitants. Not so. Barrow distinctly characterizes Wit as a pretty surprising uncouthness in conceit or expression. Sydney Smith reiterates the Addisonian dictum, without acknowledging the paternity of the idea.
Sydney Smith, in his Lectures on Wit and Humor, establishes in his instances no new postulatum. He writes pleasantly but paradoxically, and contradicts himself in several important positions. He states that ideas, in order to be witty, must not excite any feelings of the beautiful or the sublime. “The good man,” says a Hindoo epigram, “ gives not upon enmity, but rewards with kindness the very being who injures him. So, the sandal-wood, while it is felling, imparts to the edge of the axe its aromatic flavor.”
“ Now here,” says Sydney, “is a relation which would be witty if it were not beautiful! The moral beauty of the thought throws the mind into a more solemn and elevated mood than is compatible with Wit." In the next page, he destroys the effect of these assertions by instancing the beautiful line of Crashaw's, on the miracle at the marriage supper in Cana of Galilee, “ Lympha pudica Deum vidit et erubuit”-translated thus by Smith, who does not give the Latin : “The conscious water saw its God and blushed.” “Here,” he says, “the sublimity is destroyed by the Wit." In one instance, the solemnity is too much for the Wit, and in the other the Wit is too much for the sublimity.
The mighty canon goes on to state, that “if a tradesman of a corpulent and respectable appearance, with habiliment somewhat ostentatious, were to slide down gently in the mud, and decorate a pea-green coat, I am afraid we should all have the barbarity to laugh; but if he were to fall into a violent passion, and abuse everybody about him, nobody could possibly resist the incongruity of a pea-green tradesman, very respectable, sitting in the mud, and threatening all the passers-by with the effects of his wrath. Here every incident heightens the humor of the scene; the gayety of his tunic, the general respectability of his appearance, the rills of muddy water which trickle down his cheeks, and the harmless violence of his rage.
But the sense of the humorous is incompatible with tenderness and respect.* I should like to know if any man living could have laughed if he had seen Sir Isaac Newton rolling in the mud.”
Laughed? Certainly. And if the great philosopher had tumbled into a puddle, spattering his embroidered coat, losing his periwig, staining his silken hose, and bedraggling his subligacuļi as he sat in the mud, in a dignified posture, while, with begrimed countenance and a bald and shiny caput, he berated the passers-by in the same strain with the respectable tradesman instanced by Smith, there is little doubt but that the cachinnations of the multitude would be equally boisterous in both cases, notwithstanding the world's respect for the man of science in the mud. Nay, were the very Reverend the Archbishop of Canterbury to be placed in the same ludicrous position, the mob would prove but poor respecters of place or character; they would greet the great church dignitary in black with the same rude guffaw bestowed on the respectable tradesman in green. The humorous, the ludicrous, the ridiculous, are as dependent on surprise as the finest point of Wit itself—and a ludicrous surprise overpowers for the moment the highest sentiments of respect and tenderness.
Our Smith again indulges in paradoxology. He repudiates laughing at a well-dressed philosopher sprawling in the mud, but says that the most laughable scene he ever saw in his life was the complete overturning of a very large table with all the dinner upon it. “ It is impossible to avoid laughing at such absurdities, because the incongruities they involve are so very great." Now, there certainly is as much food for mirth in the overturning of a philosopher in a mud pool, as in the upsetting of a dinner table with all its positive annoyance and personal distress. Such positions are not examples of Humor. An accident may be laughable in its effects, without being either witty or humorous.
How could the friend and avowed admirer of Dickens utter such a ridiculous remark !
Sydney Smith, following Addison, expresses hatred and contempt for puns, and yet he has made several which are bad enough to earn the notoriety of excellence. Charles Lamb honestly admires the pun. “It is a noble thing, per se—a sole digest of reflection; it is entire; it fills the mind; it is as perfect as a sonnet—better. It limps ashamed in the retinue of Humor—it knows it should have an establishment of its own."
The difference between Wit and Humor is, at best, an undefined distinction. Addison's relation of their connexion has been already quoted. Charles Lamb says that “Humor is Wit, steeped in mannerism.” Sydney Smith repeats the same words; but this double authority gives no extra lucidness to the remark. The question remains open :- What manner of Wit constitutes Humor?
The title of this work is “The Cyclopædia of Modern Wit and Humor,” and, in the English, Irish, and Scotch departments, the selections are confined to the writers of the present century. But in the choice of American authors, I have, for obvious reasons, enlarged my sphere of action; and have gathered the earliest blossoms into the same bouquet with the matured flowers of the present day. The collection is a full answer to the whilom scandal of the Reviewer as to the lack of geniality in American Wit and Humor.
The dates prefixed to the American articles are not always those of the earliest editions. When altered or amended copies have been published under the author's supervision, I have given the revised text with its date of publication. In the national classification of writers, I have included amongst the Americans such persons of foreign birth whose well-known citizenship or long residence in the States authorized the distinction.
The rich and genial humor displayed by HENRY L. STEPHENS, the artist, whose creative fancy supplied a large majority of the original designs which illustrate these volumes, cannot fail to be appreciated. His subjects are too numerous to catalogue, but may easily be distinguished by their excellence. Choice specimens of Pictorial Humor have been transferred to these pages from the well-known pencils of Cruikshank, Leech, Darley, Seymour, Hine, Kenny Meadows, Johnson, Crowquill, etc. A reference to the Index will point out their several places.
WILLIAM E. BURTON.
New York, 1858.