Humor Magazine

In the Archives: Agnes Repplier, “Wit and Humor” (1893)

By Humorinamerica

Tracy Wuster

Last time I posted “In the Archives,” I posted William Hazlitt’s “On Wit and Humour” (1818).  In her 1893 book, Essays in Idlesness, the critic Agnes Repplier takes up many of the threads of Hazlitt’s easy in her own essay entitled, “Wit and Humor.”  Repplier was a prominent essayist who published many books over almost 50 years, often writing on the subject of humor (a primer on Repplier’s works).  Repplier is better known in humor studies for her essay, “A Plea for Humor,” (1891) which will undoubtedly show up here in a future post.

In the Archives: Agnes Repplier, “Wit and Humor” (1893)

Repplier at Mark Twain’s 70th Birthday Party

Published in the same year as James Russell Lowell’s “Humor, Wit, Fun, and Satire,” Repplier’s essay shows less of Lowell’s didactic style and classical leanings, offering a much more direct discussion of humor and one that reflects her concerns with the place of humor in her society.

In this essay, reprinted in full below, Repplier takes up Hazlitt’s subject, examining it from new perspectives and extending or revising some of his main points.  She starts with this point:

while he gathers and analyzes every species of wit and
humor, it plainly does not occur to him for a
moment that either calls for any protection at
his hands. Hazlitt is so sure that laughter is
our inalienable right, that he takes no pains
to soften its cadences or to justify its mirth. 

In the age of George Vasey and his philosophy that viewed humor as dangerous, Repplier found it necessary to defend humor.  The bulk of the essay, in fact, seeks to redeem the rougher edges of humor in favor of an essence of “geniality” as the keynote of humor.

for sympathy is the legitimate attribute of
humor, and even where the humorist seems
most pitiless, and even brutal, in his apprehen-
sion of the absurd, he has a living tenderness
for our poor humanity which is so rich in its
absurdities. 

After discussing Hazlitt’s definition of humor, Repplier then discusses the difference between wit and humor (see pages 169-170 below).  As is common in the nineteenth century, Repplier discusses the national characteristics of humor:

Nevertheless, an understanding of the differ-
ences in nations and in epochs helps us to the
enjoyment of many humorous situations. 

But:

It is in its simplest forms, however, that
humor enjoys a world-wide actuality, and is
the connecting link of all times and places and
people.

And though some humor may be cruel–witness the scene of the wealthy man falling on his backside while a chimney sweep laughs uproariously–the humorist’s view of life is, she argues, at heart “genial.”  True, many of the great English humorist (even Dickens) were often cruel, but humor had changed:

But we have now reached that
point of humane seriousness when even puppet-
shows cannot escape their educational respon-
sibilities, and when Punch and Judy are
gravely censured for teaching a lesson in bru-
tality. (175)

Indeed, much of the essay seems to be a defense of a genial humor in the face of other not-so-kind variations, such as “hoaxing, quizzing, ” selling,” and other variations of the game” (177).  With reference to great humorists of the past, Repplier smoothes the rough edges of the less kind uses of humor.

It is in her discussion of satire where Repplier shines:

A keen sense of the absurd is so little rel-
ished by those who have it not that it is too
often considered solely as a weapon of offense,
and not as a shield against the countless ills
that come to man through lack of sanity and
judgment. There is a well-defined impression
in the world that the satirist, like the devil,
roams abroad, seeking whom he may devour,
and generally devouring the best ; whereas his
position is often that of the besieged, who
defends himself with the sharpest weapons at
his command against a host of invading evils.
There are many things in life so radically un-
wholesome that it is not safe to approach them
save with laughter as a disinfectant ; and when
people cannot laugh, the moral atmosphere
grows stagnant, and nothing is too morbid, too
preposterous, or too mischievous to meet with
sympathy and solemn assurances of good will. (179)
 

And:

The best use we can make of humor is, not to
divert ourselves with, but to defend ourselves
against, the folly of fools ; for much of the world’s
misery is entailed upon her by her eminently
well-meaning and foolish children. (180-181)
 

Her goal of defending humor thus shifts subtly from a keynote of “geniality” to one of complexity in the role humor plays in helping people adjust to the ills of modern society:

Humor has been somewhat daringly defined as
” a sympathy for the seamy side of things.”
It does not hover on the borders of the light
and trifling ; it does not linger in that keen
and courtly atmosphere which is the chosen
playground of wit ; but diffusing itself subtly
throughout all nature, reveals to us life, — life
which we love to consider and to judge from
some pet standpoint of our own, but which is so
big and wonderful, and good and bad, and fine
and terrible, that our little peaks of observa-
tion command only a glimpse of the mysteries
we are so ready and willing to solve. (185)

The following section is well worth reading in its entirety to trace her argument that the humorous view of life is the healthiest and that , in fact, “we are too impatient to understand that they represent an attitude, and a very healthy attitude, towards life.” (188) Enjoy.

WIT AND HUMOR.

It is dubious wisdom to walk in the foot-

prints of a giant, and to stumble with little

steps along the road where his great strides

were taken. Yet many years have passed

since Hazlitt trod this way; fresh flowers have

grown by the route, and fresh weeds have

fought with them for mastery. The face of

the country has changed for better or for

worse, and a brief survey reveals much that

never met his eyes. The journey, too, was

safer in his day than in ours; and while he

gathers and analyzes every species of wit and

humor, it plainly does not occur to him for a

moment that either calls for any protection at

his hands. Hazlitt is so sure that laughter is

our inalienable right, that he takes no pains

to soften its cadences or to justify its mirth.

” We laugh at that in others which is a serious

matter to ourselves,” he says, and sees no

reason why this should not be. ” Some one 5s

WJT AND HUMOR. 169

generally sure to be the sufferer by a joke ; “

and, fortified with this assurance, he confesses

to a frank delight in the comic parts of the

Arabian Nights, although recognizing keenly

the spirit of cruelty that underlies them, and

aware that they ” carry the principle of callous

indifference in a jest as far as it can go.”

Don Quixote, too, he stoutly affirms to be as

fitting a subject for merriment as Sancho

Panza. Both are laughable, and both are

meant to be laughed at ; the extravagances of

each being pitted dexterously against those of

the other by a great artist in the ridiculous.

But he is by no means insensible to the charm

and goodness of the ” ingenious gentleman ; “

for sympathy is the legitimate attribute of

humor, and even where the humorist seems

most pitiless, and even brutal, in his apprehen-

sion of the absurd, he has a living tenderness

for our poor humanity which is so rich in its

absurdities.

Hazlitt’s definition of wit and humor is per-

haps as good as any definition is ever likely to

be ; that is, it expresses a half-truth with a

great deal of reasonableness and accuracy.

“Humor,” he says, *’is the describing the

170 ESSAYS IN IDLENESS,

ludicrous as it is in itself ; wit is the exposing

it by comparing or contrasting it with some-

thing else. Humor is the growth of nature

and accident; wit is the product of art and

fancy. Humor, as it is shown in books, is an

imitation of the natural or acquired absurdities

of mankind, or of the ludicrous in accident,

situation, and character; wit is the illustrating

and heightening the sense of that absurdity by

some sudden and unexpected likeness or oppo-

sition of one thing to another, which sets off

the quality we laugh at or despise in a still

more contemptible or striking point of view.”

This is perhaps enough to show us at least

one cause of the endless triumph of humor over

wit, — a triumph due to its closer affinity with

the simple and elementary conditions of human

nature and life. Wit is artificial; humor is

natural. Wit is accidental ; humor is inevi-

table. Wit is born of conscious effort ; humor,

of the allotted ironies of fate. Wit can be

expressed only in language; humor can be

developed sufficiently in situation. Wit is the

plaything of the intellectual, or the weapon of

nimble minds ; humor is the possession of all

sorts and conditions of men. Wit is truly

WIT AND HUMOR. 171

what Shelley falsely imagined virtue to be,

” a refinement of civilized life ; ” humor is the

property of all races in every stage of develop-

ment. Wit possesses a species of immortality,

and for many generations holds its own;

humor is truly immortal, and as long as the

eye sees, and the ear hears, and the heart

beats, it will be our privilege to laugh at the

pleasant absurdities which require no other

seed or nurture than man’s endless intercourse

with man.

Nevertheless, an understanding of the differ-

ences in nations and in epochs helps us to the

enjoyment of many humorous situations. We

should know something of England and of

India to appreciate the peculiar horror with

which Lord Minto, on reaching Calcutta, be-

held the fourteen male attendants who stood

in his chamber, respectfully prepared to help

him into bed ; or his still greater dismay at

being presented by the rajah of Bali with

seven slaves, — five little boys and two little

girls, — all of whom cost the conscientious

governor-general a deal of trouble and expense

before they were properly disposed of, and in a

fair way to learn their alphabet and catechism.

172 ESSAYS IN IDLENESS,

Yet perhaps a deeper knowledge of time and

character is needed to sound the depths of Sir

Robert Walpole’s cynical observation, ” Grati-

tude is a lively sense of future favors ; ” al-

though this is indeed a type of witticism which

possesses inherent vitality, not depending upon

any play of words or double meanings, but

striking deep root into the fundamental fail-

ings of the human heart.

It is in its simplest forms, however, that

humor enjoys a world-wide actuality, and is

the connecting link of all times and places and

people. ” Let us start from laughter,” says M.

Edmond Scherer, “since laughter is a thing

familiar to every one. It is excited by a sense

of the ridiculous, and the ridiculous arises

from the contradiction between the use of a

thing and its intention.” Even that common-

est of all themes, a fellow-creature slipping or

falling, M. Scherer holds to be provocative of

mirth ; and in selecting this elementary ex-

ample he bravely drives the matter back to its

earliest and rudest principles. For it is a

weapon in the hands of the serious that such

casualties, which should excite instant sym-

pathy and alarm, awaken laughter only in

WIT AND HUMOR. 173

those who are too foolish or too brutal to ex-

perience any other sensation. It would seem,

indeed, that the sight of a man falling on the

ice or in the mud cannot be, and ought not to

be, very amusing. But before we frown se-

verely and forever upon such vulgar jests, let

us turn for a moment to a well-known essay,

and see what Charles Lamb has to plead in

their extenuation : —

“I am by nature extremely susceptible of

street affronts; the jeers and taunts of the

populace ; the low-bred triumph they display

over the casual trip or splashed stocking of a

gentleman. Yet I can endure the jocularity

of a young sweep with something more than

forgiveness. In the last winter but one, pacing

along Cheapside with my accustomed precipi-

tation when I walk westward, a treacherous

slide brought me upon my back in an instant.

I scrambled up with pain and shame enough,

— yet outwardly trying to face it down, as if

nothing had happened, — when the roguish

grin of one of these young wits encountered

me. There he stood, pointing me out with his

dusky finger to the mob, and to a poor woman

(I suppose his mother) in particular, till the

174 ESSAYS IN IDLENESS.

tears for the exquisiteness of the fun (so he

thought it) worked themselves out at the cor-

ners of his poor red eyes, red from many a pre-

vious weeping, and soot-inflamed, yet twinkling

through all with such a joy, snatched out of

desolation, that Hogarth — but Hogarth has

got him already (how could he miss him ?) in

the March to Finchley, grinning at the pieman ;

— there he stood, as he stands in the picture,

irremovable, as if the jest was to last forever,

with such a maximum of glee and minimum

of mischief in his mirth — for the grin of a

genuine sweep hath absolutely no malice in it

— that I could have been content, if the honor

of a gentleman might endure it, to have re-

mained his butt and his mockery till mid-

night.”

Ah, prince of kindly humorists, to whom

shall we go but to you for tears and laughter,

and pastime and sympathy, and jests and

gentle tolerance, and all things needed to make

light our trouble-burdened hearts !

It is not worth while to deny or even to

soften the cruel side of humor, though it is a

far more grievous error to overlook its gener-

ous forbearance. The humorist’s view of life

WIT AND HUMOR. 175

IS essentially genial ; but he has given stout

blows in his day, and the sound of his vigorous

warfare rings harshly in our unaccustomed

ears. *’ The old giants of English fun ” were

neither soft-spoken nor soft-handed gentry,

and it seems to us now and then as if they

laid about them with joyous and indiscriminate

activity. Even Dickens, the last and greatest

of his race, and haunted often to his fall by

the beckoning of mirthless modern phantoms,

shows in his earlier work a good deal of this

gleeful and unhesitating belligerency. The

scenes between old Weller and Mr. Stiggins

might be successfully acted in a spirited

puppet-show, where conversation is of less

importance than well-timed and well-bestowed

pommeling. But we have now reached that

point of humane seriousness when even puppet-

shows cannot escape their educational respon-

sibilities, and when Punch and Judy are

gravely censured for teaching a lesson in bru-

tality. The laughter of generations, which

should protect and hallow the little manikins

at play, counts for nothing by the side of their

irresponsible naughtiness, and their cheerful

disregard of all our moral standards. Yet

176 KSSAYS IN IDLENESS.

here, too, Hazlitt has a seasonable word of

defense, holding indeed that he who invented

such diverting pastimes was a benefactor to

his species, and gave us something which it

was rational and healthy to enjoy. ” We place

the mirth and glee and triumph to our own

account,” he says, “and we know that the

bangs and blows the actors have received go

for nothing as soon as the showman puts them

up in his box, and marches off quietly with

them, as jugglers of a less amusing description

sometimes march off with the wrongs and

rights of mankind in their pockets.” It has

been well said that wit requires a good head ;

humor, a good heart; and fun, high spirits.

Punch’s spirits, let us hasten to admit, are

considerably in advance of his head and heart ;

yet nevertheless he is wanting neither in

acuteness nor in the spirit of good-fellowship.

He has hearkened to the advice given by

Seneca many years ago, “Jest without bit-

terness ” ! and has practiced this delightful

accomplishment for centuries, as befits the

most conservative joker in the world.

Another reproach urged against humor

rather than wit is its somewhat complicated

IV IT AND HUMOR. Ill

system of lying ; and much well-merited sever-

ity has been expended upon such questionable

diversions as hoaxing, quizzing, ” selling,” and

other variations of the game, the titles of

which have long since passed away, leaving

their substance behind them. It would be

easy, but untrue, to say that real humor has

nothing whatever to do with these unworthy

offshoots, and never encourages their growth.

The fact remains that they spring from a great

humorous principle, and one which critics have

been prompt to recognize, and to embody in

language as clear and unmistakable as possible.

“Lying,” says Hazlitt, “is a species of wit

and humor. To lay anything to a person’s

charge from which he is perfectly free shows

spirit and invention ; and the more incredible

the effrontery the greater is the joke.” ” The

terrors of Sancho,” observes M. Scherer, ” the

rascalities of Scapin, the brags of Falstaff,

amuse us because of their disproportion with

circumstances, or their disagreement with

facts.” Just as Charles Lamb humanizes a

brutal jest by turning it against himself, so

Sir Walter Scott gives amusing emphasis to a

lie by directing it against his own personality.

178 ESSAYS IN IDLENESS.

His description of himself in his journal as a

“pebble-hearted cur,” the occasion being his

parting with the emotional Madame Mirbel, is

truly humorous, because of its remoteness from

the truth. There are plenty of men who could

have risked using the phrase without exciting

in us that sudden sense of incongruity which

is a legitimate source of laughter. A delight-

ful instance of effrontery, which shows both

spirit and invention, is the story told by Sir

Francis Doyle of the highwayman who, having

attacked and robbed Lord Derby and his

friend Mr. Grenville, said to them with re-

proachful candor, ” What scoundrels you must

be to fire at gentlemen who risk their lives

upon the road ! ” As for the wit that lies in

playful misstatements and exaggerations, we

must search for it in the riotous humor of

Lamb’s letters, where the true and the false

are often so inextricably commingled that it is

a hopeless task to separate facts from fancies.

” I shall certainly go to the naughty man for

fibbing,” writes Lamb, with soft laughter ; and

the devout apprehension may have been justly

shared by Edward Fitzgerald, when he de-

scribes the parish church at Woodbridge as

WIT AND HUM on. 179

being so damp that the fungi grew in great

numbers about the communion table.

A keen sense of the absurd is so little rel-

ished by those who have it not that it is too

often considered solely as a weapon of offense,

and not as a shield against the countless ills

that come to man through lack of sanity and

judgment. There is a well-defined impression

in the world that the satirist, like the devil,

roams abroad, seeking whom he may devour,

and generally devouring the best ; whereas his

position is often that of the besieged, who

defends himself with the sharpest weapons at

his command against a host of invading evils.

There are many things in life so radically un-

wholesome that it is not safe to approach them

save with laughter as a disinfectant ; and when

people cannot laugh, the moral atmosphere

grows stagnant, and nothing is too morbid, too

preposterous, or too mischievous to meet with

sympathy and solemn assurances of good will.

This is why a sense of the ridiculous has been

justly called the guardian of our minor morals,

rendering men in some measure dependent

upon the judgments of their associates, and

laying the basis of that decorum and propriety

180 ESSAYS IN IDLENESS.

of conduct which is a necessary condition of

human life, and upon which is founded the

great charm of intercourse between equals.

From what pitfalls of vanity and self-assurance

have we been saved by this ever-watchful pres-

ence ! Into what abysmal follies have we

fallen when she withholds her restraining

hand ! Shelley’s letters are perhaps the

strongest argument in behalf of healthy hu-

mor that literature has yet offered to the

world. Only a man burdened with an “in-

vincible repugnance to the comic ” could have

gravely penned a sentence like this : ” Cer-

tainly a saint may be amiable, — she may be

so ; but then she does not understand, — has

neglected to investigate the religion which re-

tiring, modest prejudice leads her to profess.”

Only a man afflicted with what Mr. Arnold

mildly calls an ” inhuman ” lack of humor

could have written thus to a female friend:

“The French language you already know;

and, if the great name of Rousseau did not

redeem it, it would have been perhaps as well

that you had remained ignorant of it.” Our

natural pleasure at this verdict may be agree-

ably heightened by placing alongside of it

WIT AND HUMOR. 181

Madame de Stael’s moderate statement, ” Con-

versation, like talent, exists only in France.”

And such robust expressions of opinion give

us our clearest insight into at least one of the

dangers from which a sense of the ridiculous

rescues its fortunate possessor.

When all has been said, however, we must

admit that edged tools are dangerous things to

handle, and not infrequently do much hurt.

” The art of being humorous in an agreeable

way ” is as difficult in our day as in the days

of Marcus Aurelius, and a disagreeable exer-

cise of this noble gift is as unwelcome now as

then. ” Levity has as many tricks as the kit-

ten,” says Leigh Hunt, who was quite capable

of illustrating and proving the truth of his as-

sertion, and whose scratching at times closely

resembled the less playful manifestations of a

full-grown cat. Wit is the salt of conversation,

not the food, and few things in the world are

more wearying than a sarcastic attitude towards

life. ” Je goute ceux qui sont raisonnables, et

me divertis des extravagants,” says Uranie, in

” La Critique de I’Ecole des Femmes ; ” and

even these words seem to tolerant ears to savor

unduly of arrogance. The best use we can make

182 ESSAYS IN IDLENESS,

of humor is, not to divert ourselves with, but

to defend ourselves against, the folly of fools ;

for much of the world’s misery is entailed upon

her by her eminently well-meaning and foolish

children. There is no finer proof of Miss

Austen’s matured genius than the gradual

mellowing of her humor, from the deliberate

pleasure affected by Elizabeth Bennet and her

father in the foibles of their fellow-creatures to

the amused sympathy betrayed in every page

of ” Emma ” and ” Persuasion.” Not even the

charm and brilliance of ” Pride and Prejudice “

can altogether reconcile us to a heroine who,

like Uranie, diverts herself with the failings of

mankind. What a gap between Mr. Bennet’s

cynical praise of his son-in-law, Wickliam, —

which, under the circumstances, is a little re-

volting, — and Mr. Knightley’s manly reproof

to Emma, whose youthful gayety beguiles her

into an unkind jest. While we talk much of

Miss Austen’s merciless laughter, let us remem-

ber always that the finest and bravest defense

of harmless folly against insolent wit is embod-

ied in this (against remonstrance from the lips

of a lover who is courageous enough to speak

plain truths, with no suspicion of priggishness

to mar their wholesome* flavor.

WIT AND HUMOR, 183

It is difficult, at any time, to deprive wit

of its social or political surroundings ; it is

impossible to drive it back to those deeper,

simpler sources whence humor springs un-

veiled. “Hudibras,” for example, is witty;

” Don Quixote ” is humorous. Sheridan is

witty ; Goldsmith is humorous. To turn from

the sparkling scenes where the Rivals play their

mimic parts to the quiet fireside where the

Vicar and Farmer Flamborough sit sipping

their gooseberry wine is to reenter life, and to

feel human hearts beating against our own.

How delicate the touch which puts everything

before us with a certain gentle, loving malice,

winning us to laughter, without for a moment

alienating our sympathies from the right.

Hazlitt claims for the wicked and witty come-

dies of the Restoration that it is their privilege

to allay our scruples and banish our just re-

grets ; but when Goldsmith brings the profli-

gate squire and his female associates into the

Vicar’s innocent household, the scene is one

of pure and incomparable humor, which never-

theless leaves us more than ever in love with

the simple goodness which is so readily de-

ceived. Mr. Thornhill utters a questionable

184 ESSAYS IN IDLENESS.

sentiment. The two fine ladies, who have been

striving hard to play their parts, and only let-

ting slip occasional oaths, affect great displea-

sure at his laxness, and at once begin a very dis-

creet and serious dialogue upon virtue. ” In this

my wife, the chaplain, and I soon joined ; and

the squire himself was at last brought to con-

fess a sense of sorrow for his former excesses.

We talked of the pleasures of temperance, and

of the sunshine of the mind unpolluted with

guilt. I was so well pleased that my little

ones were kept up beyond the usual time, to

be edified by so much good conversation. Mr.

Thornhill even went beyond me, and demanded

if I had any objection to giving prayers. I

joyfully embraced the proposal ; and in this

manner the night was passed in a most com-

fortable way, till at length the company began

to think of returning.” What a picture it is I

What an admirably humorous situation I

What easy tolerance in the treatment ! We

laugh, but even in our laughter we know that

not for the space of a passing breath does

Goldsmith yield his own sympathy, or divert

ours, away from the just cause of innocence

and truth.

WIT AND HUMOR. 185

If men of real wit have been more numer-

ous in the world than men of real humor, it is

because discernment and lenity, mirth and

conciliation, are qualities which do not blend

easily with the natural asperity of our race.

Humor has been somewhat daringly defined as

” a sympathy for the seamy side of things.”

It does not hover on the borders of the light

and trifling ; it does not linger in that keen

and courtly atmosphere which is the chosen

playground of wit ; but diffusing itself subtly

throughout all nature, reveals to us life, — life

which we love to consider and to judge from

some pet standpoint of our own, but which is so

big and wonderful, and good and bad, and fine

and terrible, that our little peaks of observa-

tion command only a glimpse of the mysteries

we are so ready and willing to solve. Thus, the

degree of wit embodied in an old story is a mat-

ter of much dispute and of scant importance ;

but when we read that Queen Elizabeth, in her

last illness, turned wearily away from matters

of state, “yet delighted to hear some of the

‘ Hundred Merry Tales,’ and to such was very

attentive,” we feel we have been lifted into

the regions of humor, and by its sudden light

lA-

186 ESSAYS IN IDLENESS.

we recognize, not the dubious merriment of the

tales, but the sick and world-worn spirit seek-

ing a transient relief from fretful care and

poisonous recollections. So, too, when Sheri-

dan said of Mr. Dundas that he resorted to

his memory for his jests, and to his imagina-

tion for his facts, the great wit, after the

fashion of wits, expressed a limited truth. It

was a delightful statement so far as it went,

but it went no further than Mr. Dundas, with

just the possibility of a second application.

When Voltaire sighed, ” Nothing is so dais-

greeable as to be obscurely hanged,” he gave

utterance to a national sentiment, which is not

in the least witty, but profoundly humorous,

revealing with charming distinctness a French-

man’s innate aversion to all dull and common-

place surroundings. Dying is not with him,

as with an Englishman, a strictly ” private af-

fair ; ” it is the last act of life’s brilliant play,

which is expected to throw no discredit upon

the sparkling scenes it closes.

The breadth of atmosphere which humor

requires for its development, the saneness and

sympathy of its revelations, are admirable’

described by one of the most remonstrating and

WJT AND HUMOR, 187

least humorous of French critics, M. Edmond

Scherer, whose words are all the more grateful

and valuable to us when they refer, not to his

own countrymen, but to those robust English

humorists whom it is our present pleasure to

ignore. M. Scherer, it is true, finds much

fault, and reasonable fault ever, with these

stout-hearted, strong-handed veterans. They

are not always decorous. They are not always

sincere. They are wont to play with their

subjects. They are too eager to amuse them-

selves and other people. It is easy to make

out a list of their derelictions. ” Yet this does

not prevent the temperament of the humorist

from being, on the whole, the happiest that a

man can bring with him into this world, nor

his point of view from being the fairest from

which the world can be judged. The satirist

grows wroth ; the cynic banters ; the humorist

laughs and sympathizes by turns. . . . He has

neither the fault of the pessimist, who refers

everything to a purely personal conception,

and is angry with reality for not being such

as he conceives it ; nor that of the optimist,

who shuts his eyes to everything missing on

the real earth, that he may comply with the

188 ESSAYS IN IDLENESS.

demands of his heart and of his reason. The

humorist feels the imperfections of reality,

and resigns himself to them with good temper,

knowing that his own satisfaction is not the

rule of things, and that the formula of the

universe is necessarily larger than the prefer-

ences of a single one of the accidental beings

of whom the universe is composed. He is be-

yond doubt the true philosopher.”

\ This is a broad statement ; yet to endure

life smilingly is no ignoble task ; and if the

humors of mankind are inseparably blended

with all their impulses and actions, it is worth

while to consider bravely the value of quali-

ties so subtle and far-reaching in their influ-

ences. Steele, as we know, dressed the invad-

ing bailiffs in liveries, and amazed his guests

by the number and elegance of his retainers.

Sydney Smith fastened antlers on his sheep,

for the gratification of a lady who thought he

ought to have deer in his park. Such elabo-

rate jests, born of invincible gayety and high

spirits, seem childish to our present adult

seriousness ; and we are too impatient to im-

derstand that they represent an attitude, and

a very healthy attitude, towards life. The

WIT AND HUMOR. 189

iniquity of Steele’s career lay in his repeatedly

running into debt, not in the admirable temper

with which he met the consequences of that

debt when they were forced upon him ; and

if the censorious are disposed to believe that

a less happy disposition would have avoided

these consequences, let them consider the ca-

reers of poor Richard Savage and other mis-

anthropic prodigals. As for Sydney Smith,

he followed Burton’s excellent counsel, ” Go

on then merrily to heaven ; ” and his path was

none the less straight because it was smoothed

by laughter. That which must be borne had

best be borne cheerfully, and sometimes a

single telling stroke of wit, a single word rich

in manly humor, reveals to us that true cour-

age, that fine philosophy, which endures and

even tolerates the vicissitudes of fortune,

without for a moment relinquishing its honest

hold upon the right. Mr. Lang has told us

such a little story of the verger in a Saxon

town who was wont to show visitors a silver

mouse, which had been offered by the women

to the Blessed Virgin that she might rid the

town of mice. A Prussian officer, with that

prompt brutality which loves to offend religious

190 ESSAYS IN IDLENESS.

sentiment it does not share, asked jeeringly,

“Are you such fools as to believe that the

creatures went away because a silver mouse

was dedicated ? ” ” Ah, no,” replied the ver-

ger, “or long ago we should have offered a

silver Prussian.”

It is the often-expressed opinion of Leigh

Hunt that although wit and humor may be

found in perfection apart from each other, yet

their best work is shared in common. Wit

separated from humor is but an element of

sport ; ” a laughing jade,” with petulant

whims and fancies, which runs away with our

discretion, confuses our wisdom, and mocks at

holy charity ; yet adds greatly, withal, to the

buoyancy and popularity of life. It makes

gentlefolk laugh, — a difficult task, says Mo-

liere ; it scatters our faculties, and ” bears

them off deridingly into pastime.” It is a

fire-gleam in our dull world, a gift of the gods,

who love to provide weapons for the amuse-

ment and discomfiture of mankind. But hu-

mor stands on common soil, and breathes our

common air. The kindly contagion of its

mirth lifts our hearts from their personal ap-

prehension of life’s grievances, and links us

WJT AND HUMOR. 191

together in a bond of mutual tears and laugh-

ter. If it be powerless to mould existence, or

even explain it to our satisfaction, it can give

us at least some basis for philosophy, some

scope for sympathy, and sanity, and endurance.

” The perceptions of the contrasts of human

destiny,” says M. Scherer, “by a man who

does not sever himself from humanity, but

who takes his own shortcomings and those of

his dear fellow-creatures cheerfully, — this is

the essence of humor.”


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