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  Mar 7, 2012                  

Philosophy: "On Wit and Humour" - William Hazlitt

  "I should wish to quote more, for though we are mighty fine fellows nowadays, we cannot write like Hazlitt."
  -- Robert Louis Stevenson

Hazlitt's Text: On Wit and Humour



I heartily agree with Stevenson, but then I seem to be one of the few who do think so, while those who professedly agree with Stevenson or me are all too often  professors of English literature or schoolmasters, who should allow that whereas I am pleased with their recommendations of Hazlitt, I often doubt their sincerity: They tend to speak like schoolmasters rather than like lovers of literature or wit, and indeed those who can do, and those who can't teach.

In any case, another halcyon day has arrived on which you find some Hazlitt on my site, edited to html by me, because all those healthy native English speakers who claim to admire Hazlitt, many of whom seem to have chairs teaching Eng.Lit., seem not to be able or to be willing to do it: I couldn't find any decent edition.

So as before, and as is true of nearly everything that is in the Hazlitt-section on my site, I had to prepare my own html-edition because nobody else seems to have done it, and because what is to be found is for the greatest part appropriated by Google in horrendously bad editions, that seem to serve only one purpose that I can see: Make the owners of Google the effective owners - "possession is half the law" - of all literature that is free from copyright, as proof of which they also love to leave their Google-brandmark on each and every page they have copied with such great sloppiness and without the least interest in or care for the works their rented menials copied. More on this here, later and below, for I find this pretty nauseating, simply because the editions are useless and the morality of is extremely questionable, for it seems to me effective appropriation of what ought to be freely available in good editions, also without the disgusting Google imprinted on each and every page of a classic text, as if it has been pissed on by a randy dog trying to mark of his territory

As to Hazlitt's essay: The opening sentence

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the
only animal that is struck with the difference between what
things are, and what they ought to be.

is fairly often quoted, but the essay it opens appears not to have been fit to be made into a decent html-edition, by anyone who read, tenured Lit.Crit. prof or whatever, even though I did find some excruciatingly boring exam-questions that some scholarly pedant - the kind that poisons what it touches upon - put on line about Hazlitt's essay.

The following, between two horizontal lines, is Hazlitt's text as edited by me, as explained in my endnote.

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                                On Wit and Humour.

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the
only animal that is struck with the difference between what
things are, and what they ought to be. We weep at what
thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters: we laugh at
what only disappoints our expectations in trifles. We shed tears 
from sympathy with real and necessary distress; as we burst
into laughter from want of sympathy with that which is unrea-
sonable and unnecessary, the absurdity of which provokes our
spleen or mirth, rather than any serious reflections on it.

To explain the nature of laughter and tears, is to account for
the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded
of these two! It is a tragedy or a comedy — sad or merry, as it
happens. The crimes and misfortunes that are inseparable from
it, shock and wound the mind when they once seize upon it,
and when the pressure can no longer be borne, seek relief in
tears : the follies and absurdities that men commit, or the odd
accidents that befal them, afford us amusement from the very
rejection of these false claims upon our sympathy, and end in
laughter. If everything that went wrong, if every vanity or

- 2 - 

weakness in another gave us a sensible pang, it would be hard
indeed : but as long as the disagreeableness of the consequences
of a sudden disaster is kept out of sight by the immediate oddity
of the circumstances, and the absurdity or unaccountableness
of a foolish action is the most striking thing in it, the ludicrous
prevails over the pathetic, and we receive pleasure instead of
pain from the farce of life which is played before us, and which
discomposes our gravity as often as it fails to move our anger or
our pity !

Tears may be considered as the natural and involuntary re-
source of the mind overcome by some sudden and violent emo-
tion, before it has had time to reconcile its feelings to the change
of circumstances : while laughter may be defined to be the same
sort of convulsive and involuntary movement, occasioned by
mere surprise or contrast (in the absence of any more serious
emotion,) before it has time to reconcile its belief to contradicto-
ry appearances. If we hold a mask before our face, and ap-
proach a child with this disguise on, it will at first, from the
oddity and incongruity of the appearance, be inclined to laugh;
if we go nearer to it, steadily, and without saying a word, it
will begin to be alarmed, and be half-inclined to cry: if we sud-
denly take off the mask, it will recover from its fears, and burst
out a-laughing ; but if, instead of presenting the old well-known countenance, we have concealed a satyr's head or some frightful
caricature behind the first mask, the suddenness of the change
will not in this case be a source of merriment to it, but will con-
vert its surprise into an agony of consternation, and will make
it scream out for help, even though it may be convinced that the
whole is a trick at bottom.

The alternation of tears and laughter, in this little episode in
common life, depends almost entirely on the greater or less de-
gree of interest attached to the different changes of appearance.

The mere suddenness of the transition, the mere baulking
our expectations, and turning them abruptly into another chan-
nel, seems to give additional liveliness and gaiety to the animal
spirits; but the instant the change is not only sudden, but
threatens serious consequences, or calls up the shape of danger,
terror supersedes our disposition to mirth, and laughter gives

- 3 -

place to tears. It is usual to play with infants, and make them
laugh by clapping your hands suddenly before them; but if
you clapped your hands too loud, or too near their sight, their
countenances immediately change, and they hide them in the
nurse's arms. Or suppose the same child, grown up a little
older, comes to a place, expecting to meet a person it is particu-
larly fond of, and does not find that person there, its countenance
suddenly falls, its lips begin to quiver, its cheek turns pale, its
eye glistens, and it vents its little sorrow (grown too big to be
concealed) in a flood of tears. Again, if the child meets the
same person unexpectedly after a long absence, the same effect
will be produced by an excess of joy, with different accompani-
ments; that is, the surprise and the emotion excited will make
the blood come into his face, his eyes sparkle, his tongue falter
or be mute, but in either case the tears will gush to his relief,
and lighten the pressure about his heart. On the other hand,
if a child is playing at hide-and-seek, or blind-man's-buff, with
persons it is ever so fond of, and either misses them where it
had made sure of finding them, or suddenly runs up against
them where it had least expected it, the shock or additional im-
petus given to the imagination by the disappointment or the dis-
covery, in a matter of this indifference, will only vent itself in a
fit of laughter.* The transition here is not from one thing of
importance to another, or from a state of indifference to a state
of strong excitement; but merely from one impression to an-
other that we did not at all expect, and when we had expected
just the contrary. The mind having been led to form a certain
conclusion, and the result producing an immediate solution of
continuity in the chain of our ideas, this alternate excitement
and relaxation of the imagination, the object also striking upon
the mind more vividly in its loose unsettled state, and be-
fore it has had time to recover and collect itself, causes that
alternate excitement and relaxation, or irregular convulsive
movement of the muscular and nervous system, which consti-

* A child that has hid itself out of the way in sport, is under a great
temptation to laugh at the unconsciousness of others as to its situation. A
person concealed from assassins, is in no danger of betraying his situation
by laughing.

- 4 -

tutes physical laughter. The discontinuous in our sensations
produces a correspondent jar and discord in the frame. The
steadiness of our faith and of our features begins to give way at
the same time. We turn with an incredulous smile from a
story that staggers our belief: and we are ready to split our
sides with laughing at an extravagance that sets all common
sense and serious concern at defiance.

To understand or define the ludicrous, we must first know
what the serious is. Now the serious is the habitual stress
which the mind lays upon the expectation of a given order of
events, following one another with a certain regularity and
weight of interest attached to them. When this stress is in-
creased beyond its usual pitch of intensity, so as to overstrain
the feelings by the violent opposition of good to bad, or of ob-
jects to our desires, it becomes the pathetic or tragical. The
ludicrous, or comic, is the unexpected loosening or relaxing this
stress below its usual pitch of intensity, by such an abrupt trans-
position of the order of our ideas, as taking the mind unawares,
throws it off its guard, startles it into a lively sense of pleasure,
and leaves no time nor inclination for painful reflections.

The essence of the laughable then is the incongruous, the
disconnecting one idea from another, or the jostling of one feel-
ing against another. The first and most obvious cause of laugh-
ter is to be found in the simple succession of events, as in the
sadden shifting of a disguise, or some unlooked-for accident,
without any absurdity of character or situation. The accidental
contradiction between our expectations and the event can hardly
be said, however, to amount to the ludicrous ; it is merely laugh-
able. The ludicrous is where there is the same contradiction
between the object and our expectations, heightened by some
deformity or inconvenience, that is, by its being contrary to 
what is customary or desirable; as the ridiculous, which is the
highest degree of the laughable, is that which is contrary not
only to custom but to sense and reason, or is a voluntary depar-
ture from what we have a right to expect from those who are
conscious of absurdity and propriety in words, looks, and actions.

Of these different kinds of degrees of the laughable, the first
is the most shallow and short-lived; for the instant the imme-

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diate surprise of a thing's merely happening one way or another
is over, there is nothing to throw us back upon our former expect-
tation, and renew our wonder at the event a second time. The
second sort, that is, the ludicrous arising out of the improbable
or distressing, is more deep and lasting, either because the pain-
ful catastrophe excites a greater curiosity, or because the old
impression, from its habitual hold on the imagination, still re-
curs mechanically, so that it is longer before we can seriously
make up our minds to the unaccountable deviation from it. The
third sort, or the ridiculous arising out of absurdity as well as
improbability, that is, where the defect or weakness is of a man's
own seeking, is the most refined of all, but not always so plea-
sant as the last, because the same contempt and disapprobation
which sharpens and subtilises our sense of the impropriety, adds
a severity to it inconsistent with perfect ease and enjoyment
This last species is properly the province of satire. The princi-
ple of contrast is, however, the same in all the stages, in the
simply laughable, the ludicrous, the ridiculous; and the effect
is only the more complete, the more durably and pointedly this
principle operates.

To give some examples in these different kinds. We laugh,
when children, at the sudden removing of a paste-board mask:
we laugh, when grown up, more gravely at the tearing off the
mask of deceit. We laugh at absurdity; we laugh at deform-
ity. We laugh at a bottle-nose in a caricature; at a stuffed
figure of an alderman in a pantomime, and at the tale of Slau-
kenbergius. A dwarf standing by a giant makes a contemptible
figure enough. Rosinante and Dapple are laughable from con-
trast, as their masters from the same principle make two for a
pair. We laugh at the dress of foreigners, and they at ours.
Three chimney-sweepers meeting three Chinese in Lincoln's
Fields, they laughed at one another till they were ready to
drop down. Country people laugh at a person because they
never saw him before. Any one dressed in the height of the
fashion, or quite out of it, is equally an object of ridicule. One
rich source of the ludicrous is distress with which we cannot
sympathise from its absurdity or insignificance. Women laugh
at their lovers. We laugh at a damned author, in spite of our 

- 6 -
teeth, and though he may be our friend. 'There is something
in the misfortunes of our best friends that pleases us.' It is hard
to hinder children from laughing at a stammerer, at a negro,
at a drunken man, or even at a madman. We laugh at mischief.
We laugh at what we do not believe. We say that an argument
or an assertion that is very absurd, is quite ludicrous. We laugh
to shew our satisfaction with ourselves, or our contempt for
those about us, or to conceal our envy or our ignorance.
We laugh at fools, and at those who pretend to be wise — at
extreme simplicity, awkwardness, hypocrisy and affectation.
'They were talking of me,' says Scrub, 'for they laughed
consumedly.' Lord Foppington's insensibility to ridicule, and airs
of ineffable self-conceit, are no less admirable; and Joseph
Surface's cant maxims of morality, when once disarmed of their
power to do hurt, become sufficiently ludicrous.

— We laugh at that in others which is a serious matter in
ourselves; because our self-love is stronger than our sympathy,
sooner takes alarm, and instantly turns our heedless mirth into
gravity, which only enhances the jest to others. Some one is
generally sure to be the sufferer of a joke. What is sport to one,
is death to another. It is only very sensible or very honest people,
who laugh as freely at their own absurdities as at those of their
neighbours. In general the contrary rule holds, and we only laugh
at those misfortunes in which we are spectators, not sharers.
The injury, the disappointment, shame, and vexation that we
feel, put a stop to our mirth; while the disasters that come
home to us, and excite our repugnance and dismay, are an
amusing spectacle to others. The greater resistance we make,
and the greater the perplexity into which we are thrown, the
more lively and piquant is the intellectual display of cross-
purposes to the by-standers. Our humiliation is their triumph.
We are occupied with the disagreeableness of the result instead
of its oddity or unexpectedness. Others see only the conflict of
motives; we feel the pain as well, which more than counter-
balances  the speculative entertainment we might receive from
the contemplation of our abstract situation.

- 7 -

You cannot force people to laugh: you cannot give a reason
why they should laugh; — they must laugh of themselves, or
not at all. As we laugh from a spontaneous impulse, we laugh
the more at any restraint upon this impulse. We laugh at a
thing merely because we ought not. If we think we must not
laugh, this perverse impediment makes our temptation to laugh
the greater; for by endeavouring to keep the obnoxious image
out of sight, it comes upon us more irresistibly and repeatedly,
and the inclination to indulge our mirth, the longer it is held
back, collects its force, and breaks out the more violently in peals
of laughter. In like manner anything we must not think of
makes us laugh, by its coming upon us by stealth and unawares,
and from the very efforts we make to exclude it. A secret, a
loose word, a wanton jest, makes people laugh. Aretine laughed
himself to death at hearing a lascivious story. Wickedness is
often made a substitute for wit; and in most of our good old
comedies the intrigue of the plot and the double meaning of the
dialogue go hand-in-hand, and keep up the ball with wonderful
spirit between them. The consciousness, however it may arise,
that there is something that we ought to look grave at, is almost
always a signal for laughter outright: we can hardly keep our
countenance at a sermon, a funeral, or a wedding. What an
excellent old custom was that of throwing the stocking! What
a deal of innocent mirth has been spoiled by the disuse of it!
It is not an easy matter to preserve decorum in courts of justice.
The smallest circumstance that interferes with the solemnity of
the proceedings throws the whole place into an uproar of laugh-
ter. People at the point of death often say smart things. Sir
Thomas Browne jested with his executioner. Rabelais and
Wycherley both died with a bon-mot in their mouths.

Misunderstandings (malentendus) where one person means one
thing; and another is aiming at something else, are another great
source of comic humour, on the same principle of ambiguity
and contrast. There is a high-wrought instance of this in the
dialogue between Aimwell and Gibbet in the Beaux' Stratagem,
where Aimwell mistakes his companion for an officer in a marching
regiment and Gibbet takes it for granted that the gentleman is

- 8 -

a highwayman. The alarm and consternation occasioned by
some one saying to him in the course of common conversation
"I apprehend you,'' is the most ludicrous thing in that admi-
rably natural and powerful performance, Mr. Emery's ' Robert
Tyke.' Again, unconsciousness in the person himself of what
he is about, or of what others think of him, is also a great
heightener of the sense of absurdity. It makes it come the fuller
home upon us from his insensibility to it. His simplicity sets
off the satire, and gives it a finer edge. It is a more extreme
case still where the person is aware of being the object of ridi-
cule, and yet seems perfectly reconciled to it as a matter of
course. So wit is often the more forcible and pointed for being
dry and serious, for it then seems as if the speaker himself had
no intention in it, and we were the first to find it out. Irony,
as a species of wit, owes its force to the same principle. In
such cases it is the contrast between the appearance and the
reality, the suspense of belief, and the seeming incongruity,
that gives point to the ridicule, and makes it enter the
deeper when the first impression is overcome. Excessive im-
pudence, as in the 'Liar;' or excessive modesty, as in the
hero of 'She Stoops to Conquer;' or a mixture of the two,
as in the 'Busy Body,' are equally amusing. Lying is a spe-
cies of wit and humour. 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.

There is nothing more powerfully humorous than what is
called keeping in comic character, as we see it very finely exem-
plified in Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. The proverbial
phlegm and the romantic gravity of these two celebrated persons
may be regarded as the height of this kind of excellence.
The deep feeling of character strengthens the sense of the ludi-
crous. Keeping in comic character is consistency in absurdity;
a determined and laudable attachment to the incongruous and
singular. The regularity completes the contradiction; for the
number of instances of deviation from the right line, branching
out in all directions, shows the inveteracy of the original bias to
any extravagance or folly, the natural improbability, as it were,
increasing every time with the multiplication of chances for a

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return to common sense, and in the end mounting up to an in-
credible and unaccountably ridiculous height, when we find
our expectations as invariably baffled. The most curious prob-
lem of all, is this truth of absurdity to itself. That reason and
good sense should be consistent, is not wonderful: but that
caprice, and whim, and fantastical prejudice, should be uniform
and infallible in their results, is the surprising thing. But while
this characteristic clue to absurdity helps on the ridicule, it also
softens and harmonises its excesses; and the ludicrous is here
blended with a certain beauty and decorum, from this very truth
of habit and sentiment, or from the principle of similitude and
dissimilitude. The devotion to nonsense, and enthusiasm about
trifles, is highly affecting as a moral lesson: it is one of the
striking weaknesses and greatest happinesses of our nature.
That which excites so lively and lasting an interest in itself
even though it should not be wisdom, is not despicable in the
sight of reason and humanity. We cannot suppress the smile
on the lip; but the tear should also stand ready to start from
the eye. The history of hobby-horses is equally instructive and
delightful; and after the pair I have just alluded to. My Uncle
Toby's is one of the best and gentlest that "ever lifted leg!"
The inconveniences, odd accidents, falls, and bruises to which
they expose their riders, contribute their share to the amusement
of the spectators; and the blows and wounds that the Knight of
the Sorrowful Countenance received in his many perilous ad-
ventures, have applied their healing influence to many a hurt
mind.—In what relates to the laughable, as it arises from un-
foreseen accidents or self-willed scrapes, the pain, the shame, the
mortification, and utter helplessness of situation, add to the joke,
provided they are momentary, or overwhelming only to the ima-
gination of the sufferer. Malvolio's punishment and apprehen-
sions are as comic, firom our knowing that they are not real, as
Christopher Sly's drunken transformation and short-lived dream
of happiness are for the like reason. Parson Adams's fall into
the tub at the Squire's, or his being discovered in bed with Mrs.
Slipslop, though pitiable, are laughable accidents; nor do we
read with much gravity of the loss of his Aeschylus, serious as
it was to him at the time. A Scotch clergyman, as he was

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going to church, seeing a spruce, conceited mechanic, who was
walking before him, suddenly covered all over with dirt, either
by falling into the kennel, or by some other calamity befalling
him, smiled and passed on; but afterwards seeing the same per-
son, who had stopped to refit, seated directly facing him in the
gallery, with a look of perfect satisfaction and composure, as if
nothing of the sort had happened to him, the idea of his late
disaster and present self-complacency struck him so powerfully,
that, unable to resist the impulse, he flung himself back in the
pulpit, and laughed till he could laugh no longer. I remem-
ber reading a story in an odd number of the 'European Maga-
zine,' of an old gentleman who used to walk out every afternoon
with a gold-headed cane, in the fields opposite Baltimore House,
which were then open, only with foot-paths crossing them. He
was frequently accosted by a beggar with a wooden leg, to
whom he gave money, which only made him more importunate.
One day, when he was more troublesome than usual, a well-
dressed person happening to come up, and observing how saucy
the fellow was, said to the gentleman, "Sir, if you will lend me
your cane for a moment, I'll give him a good threshing for his
impertinence." The old gentleman, smiling at the proposal,
handed him his cane, which the other no sooner was going to
apply to the shoulders of the culprit, than he immediately whip-
ped off his wooden leg, and scampered off with great alacrity,
and his chastiser after him as hard as he could go. The faster
the one ran the faster the other followed him, brandishing the
cane, to the great astonishment of the gentleman who owned it,
till having fairly crossed the fields, they suddenly turned a cor-
ner, and nothing more was seen of either of them.

In the way of mischievous adventure, and a wanton exhibi-
tion of ludicrous weakness in character, nothing is superior to
the comic parts of the 'Arabian Nights' Entertainments.' To
take only the set of stories of the Little Hunchback, who was
choked with a bone, and the Barber of Bagdad and his seven
brothers—there is that of the tailor who was persecuted by the
miller's wife, and who, after toiling all night in the mill, got
nothing for his pains—of another who fell in love with a fine
lady, who pretended to return his passion and inviting him to

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her house, as the preliminary condition of her favour, had his
eyebrows shaved, his clothes stripped off, and being turned loose
into a winding gallery, he was to follow her, and by overtaking
obtain all his wishes, but after a turn or two, stumbled on a trap-
door, and fell plump into the street, to the great astonishment of
the spectators and his own, shorn of his eyebrows, naked, and
without a ray of hope left:—that of the castle-building pedler,
who in kicking his wife, the supposed daughter of an emperor,
kicks down his basket of glass, the brittle foundation of his ideal
wealth, his good fortune, and his arrogance:—that, again, of the
beggar who dined with the Barmecide, and feasted with him on
the names of wines and dishes: and, last and best of all, the
inimitable story of the impertinent Barber, himself one of the
seven; and worthy to be so; his pertinacious, incredible, teasing,
deliberate, yet unmeaning folly, his wearing out the patience
of the young gentleman whom he is sent for to shave, his prepa-
rations and his professions of speed, his taking out an astrolabe
to measure the height of the sun while his razors are getting
ready, his dancing the dance of Zimri and singing the song of
Zamtout, his disappointing the young man of an assignation,
following him to the place of rendezvous, and alarming the mas-
ter of the house in his anxiety for his safety, by which his un-
fortunate patron loses his hand in the affray, and this is felt as
an awkward accident. The danger which the same loquacious
person is afterwards in of losing his head for want of saying
who he was, because he would not forfeit his character of being
" justly called the Silent," is a consummation of the jest, though,
if it had really taken place, it would have been carrying the
joke too far. There are a thousand instances of the same sort in
the Thousand and One Nights, which are an inexhaustible mine
of comic humour and invention, and which, from the manners
of the East which they describe, carry the principle of callous
indifference in a jest as far as it can go. The serious and mar-
vellous stories in that work, which have been so much admired
and so greedily read, appear to me monstrous and abortive fic-
tions, like disjointed dreams, dictated by a preternatural dread
of arbitrary and despotic power, as the comic and familiar stories
are rendered proportionally amusing and interesting from the

- 12 -

same principle operating in a different direction, and producing
endless uncertainty and vicissitude, and an heroic contempt for
the untoward accidents and petty vexations of human life. It
is the gaiety of despair, the mirth and laughter of a respite
during pleasure from death. The strongest instances of ef-
fectual and harrowing imagination are in the story of Amine
and her three sisters, whom she led by her side as a leash of
hounds, and of the goul who nibbled grains of rice for her dinner,
and preyed on human carcasses. In this condemnation of the
serious parts of the Arabian Nights, I have nearly all the world,
and in particular the author of the ' Ancient Mariner,' against
me, who must be allowed to be a judge of such matters, and who
said, with a subtlety of philosophical conjecture which he alone
possesses, that "if I did not like them, it was because I did not
dream." On the other hand, I have Bishop Atterbury on my
side, who, in a letter to Pope, fairly confesses that "he could not
read them in his old age."

There is another source of comic humour which has been
but little touched on or attended to by the critics—not the inflic-
tion of casual pain, but the pursuit of uncertain pleasure and idle
gallantry. Half the business and gaiety of comedy turns upon
this. Most of the adventures, difficulties, demurs, hair-breadth
'scapes, disguises, deceptions, blunders, disappointments, successes,
excuses, all the dextrous manoeuvres, artful innuendoes, assigna-
tions, billets-doux, double entendres, sly allusions, and elegant
flattery, have an eye to this—to the obtaining of those "favours
secret, sweet, and precious," in which love and pleasure consist,
and which when attained, and the equivoque is at an end, the
curtain drops, and the play is over. All the attractions of a
subject that can only be glanced at indirectly, that is a sort of
forbidden ground to the imagination, except under severe restric-
tions, which are constantly broken through; all the resources it
supplies for intrigue and invention; the bashfulness of the
clownish lover, his looks of alarm and petrified astonishment;
the foppish affectation and easy confidence of the happy man ;
the dress, the airs, the languor, the scorn, and indifference of the
fine lady ; the bustle, pertness, loquaciousness, and tricks of the
chambermaid; the impudence, lies, and roguery of the valet,

- 13 -

the match-making and unmaking ; the wisdom of the wise; the
sayings of the witty; the folly of the fool ; "the soldier's, schol-
ar's, courtier's eye, tongue, sword, the glass of fashion and the
mould of form," have all a view to this. It is the closet of Blue-
Beard. It is the life and soul of Wycherley, Congreve, Van-
brugh, and Farquhar's plays. It is the salt of comedy, without
which it would be worthless and insipid. It makes Horner de-
cent, and Millamant divine. It is the jest between Tattle and
Miss Prue. It is the bait with which Olivia, in the 'Plain
Dealer,' plays with honest Manly. It lurks at the bottom of the
catechism which Archer teaches Cherry, and which she learns
by heart. It gives the finishing grace to Mrs. Amlet's confes-
sion—"Though I'm old, I'm chaste." Valentine and his An-
gelica would be nothing without it; Miss Peggy would not be
worth a gallant; and Slender's 'sweet Anne Page' would be no
more! "The age of comedy would be gone, and the glory of
our play-houses extinguished for ever." Our old comedies
would be invaluable, were it only for this, that they keep alive
this sentiment, which still survives in all its fluttering grace and
breathless palpitations on the stage.

Humour is the describing the ludicrous as it is in itself; wit
is the exposing it, by comparing or contrasting it with something
else. Humour is, as it were, the growth of nature and acci-
dent; wit is the product of art and fancy. Humour, as it is
shown in books, is an imitation of the natural or acquired ab-
surdities 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 op-
position 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. Wit, as distinguished from poetry, is the imagination
or fancy inverted and so applied to given objects, as to make the
little look less, the mean more light and worthless; or to divert
our admiration or wean our affections from that which is lofty
and impressive, instead of producing a more intense admiration
and exalted passion, as poetry does. Wit may sometimes, in-
deed, be shown in compliments as well as satire; as in the com-
mon epigram—

- 14 -

" Accept a miracle, instead of wit:
See two doll lines with Stanhope's pencil writ."

But then the mode of paying it is playful and ironical, and con-
tradicts itself in the very act of making its own performance an
humble foil to another's. Wit hovers round the borders of the
light and trifling, whether in matters of pleasure or pain; for as
soon as it describes the serious seriously, it ceases to be wit, and
passes into a different form. Wit is, in fact, the eloquence of in-
difference, or an ingenious and striking exposition of those eva-
nescent and glancing impressions of objects which affect us
more from surprise or contrast to the train of our ordinary and
literal preconceptions, than from anything in the objects them-
selves exciting our necessary sympathy or lasting hatred. The
favourite employment of wit is to add littleness to littleness, and
heap contempt on insignificance by all the arts of petty and in-
cessant warfare; or if it ever affects to aggrandise, and use the
language of hyperbole, it is only to betray into derision by a fa-
tal comparison, as in the mock-heroic; or if it treats of serious
passion, it must do it so as to lower the tone of intense and high-
wrought sentiment by the introduction of burlesque and familiar
circumstances. To give an instance or two. Butler, in his
' Hudibras,' compares the change of night into day to the change
of colour in a boiled lobster.

" The sun had long since, in the lap
Of Thetis, taken out his nap ;
And, like a lobster boil'd, the morn 
From black to red began to turn :
When Hudibras, whom thoughts and aching
'Twixt sleeping kept all night and waking,
Began to rub his drowsy eyes.
And from his couch prepared to rise,
Resolving to dispatch the deed
He vow'd to do with trusty speed."

Compare this with the following stanzas in Spenser, treating of
the same subject : —

"By this the Northern Wagoner had set
His seven-fold team behind the steadfast star,

- 15 -

That was in Ocean waves, yet never wet,
But firm is fix'd and sendeth light from far
To all that in the wide deep wand'ring are :
And cheerful chanticleer with his note shrill,
Had warned once that Phoebus' fiery car
In haste was climbing up the eastern hill,
Full envious that night so long his room did fill.

At last the golden oriental gate
Of greatest heaven 'gan to open fair,
And Phoebus, fresh as bridegroom to his mate,
Came dancing forth, shaking his dewy hair.
And hurl'd his glist'ring beams through gloomy air:
Which when the wakeful elf perceiv'd, straitway
He started up, and did himself prepare
In sun-bright arms and battailous array.
For with that pagan proud he combat will that day."

In this last passage every image is brought forward that can
give effect to our natural impressions of the beauty, the splen-
dour, and solemn grandeur of the rising sun; pleasure and
power wait on every line and word: whereas, in the other, the
only memorable thing is a grotesque and ludicrous illustration
of the alteration which takes place from darkness to gorgeous
light, and that brought from the lowest instance, and with asso-
ciations that can only disturb and perplex the imagination in
its conception of the real object it describes. There cannot be
a more witty, and at the same time degrading comparison, than
that in the same author, of the Bear turning round the pole-star
to a bear tied to a stake:—

" But now a sport more formidable
Had raked together village rabble;
'Twas an old way of recreating
Which learned butchers call bear-baiting,
A bold adventurous exercise
With ancient heroes in high prize,
For authors do affirm it came
From Isthmian or Nemean game;
Others derive it from the Bear
That's fixed in northern hemisphere,
And round about his pole does make
A circle like a bear at stake,

- 16 -

That at the chain's end wheels about
And overturns the rabble rout.''

I need not multiply examples of this sort.—Wit or ludicrous in-
vention produces its effect oftenest by comparison, but not al-
ways. It frequently effects its purposes by unexpected and
subtle distinctions. For instance, in the first kind, Mr. Sheri-
dan's description of Mr. Addington's administration as the fag-
end of Mr. Pitt's, who had remained so long on the treasury
bench that, like Nicias in the fable, 'he left the sitting part of
the man behind him,' is as fine an example of metaphorical wit
as any on record. The same idea seems, however, to have
been included in the old well-known nickname of the Rump
Parliament. Almost as happy an instance of the other kind of
wit, which consists in sudden retorts, in turns upon an idea, and
diverting the train of your adversary's argument abruptly and
adroitly into another channel, may be seen in the sarcastic reply
of Porson, who hearing some one observe, that "certain modem
poets would be read and admired when Homer and Virgil were 
forgotten," made answer—"And not till then!" Sir Robert 
Walpole's definition of the gratitude of place-expectants, "That it
is a lively sense of future favours," is no doubt wit, but it does
not consist in the finding out any coincidence or likeness, but in
suddenly transposing the order of time in the common account
of this feeling, so as to make the professions of those who pre-
tend to it correspond more with their practice. It is filling up a
blank in the human heart with a word that explains its hollow-
ness at once. Voltaire's saying, in answer to a stranger who
was observing how tall his trees grew—"That they had nothing
else to do,"—was a quaint mixture of wit and humour, making
it out as if they really led a lazy, laborious life; but there was
here neither allusion nor metaphor. Again, that master-stroke
in Hudibras is sterling wit and profound satire, where, speak-
ing of certain religious hypocrites, he says, that they

"Compound for sins they are inclin'd to,
By damning those they have no mind to;"

but the wit consists in the truth of the character, and in the hap-
py exposure of the ludicrous contradiction between the pretext

- 17 -

and the practice; between their lenity towards their own vices
and their seyerity to those of others. The same principle of nice
distinction must be allowed to prevail in those lines of the same
author, where he is professing to expound the dreams of judicial

"There's but a twinkling of a star
Betwixt a man of peace and war,
A thief and justice, fool and knave,
A huffing officer and a slave;
A crafty lawyer and pickpocket;
A great philosopher and a blockhead;
A formal preacher and a player;
A learned physician and man-slayer."

The finest piece of wit I know of, is in the lines of Pope on the
Lord Mayor's show—

"Now night descending, the proud scene is o'er ;
But lives in Settle's numbers one day more."

This is certainly as mortifying an inversion of the idea of poeti-
cal immortality as could be thought of: it fixes the maximum of
littleness and insignificance; but it is not by likeness to any-
thing else that it does this, but by literally taking the lowest
possible duration of ephemeral reputation, marking it (as with a
slider) on the scale of endless renown, and giving a rival credit
for it as his loftiest praise. In a word, the shrewd separation
or disentangling of ideas that seem the same, or where the
secret contradiction is not sufficiently suspected, and is of a
ludicrous and whimsical nature, is wit just as much as the
bringing together those that appear at first sight totally different.
There is then no sufficient ground for admitting Mr. Locke's
celebrated definition of wit, which he makes to consist in the
finding out striking and unexpected resemblances in things so
as to make pleasant pictures in the fancy, while judgment and
reason, according to him, lie the clean contrary way, in separat-
ing and nicely distinguishing those wherein the smallest differ-
ence is to be found. 1

1  His words are—" If in having our ideas in the memory ready at hand
consists quickness of parts, in this of having them unconfiised, and being
able nicely to distinguish one thing from another, where there is but the

- 18 -

On this definition, Harris, the author of 'Hermes,' has very
well observed, that the demonstrating the equality of the three
angles of a right-angled triangle to two right ones, would, upon
the principle here stated, be a piece of wit instead of an act of
the judgment or understanding, and Euclid's Elements a col-
lection of epigrams. On the contrary, it has appeared that the 
detection and exposure of difference, particularly where this 
implies nice and subtle observation, as in discriminating be-
tween pretence and practice, between appearance and reality, is
common to wit and satire with judgment and reasoning, and
certainly the comparing and connecting our ideas together is
an essential part of reason and judgment, as well as of wit and

least difference, consists in a great measure the exactness of judgment and
clearness of reason, which is to be observed in one man above another.
And hence, perhaps, may be given some reason of that common observa-
tion, that men who have a great deal of wit and prompt memories, have not
always the clearest judgment or deepest reason. For wit lying mostly in
the assemblage of ideas, and putting them together with quickness and var-
riety, wherein can be found any resemblance 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 an-
other ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by similitude, and by affinity to take one thing for another."
(Essay, vol. i, p. 143.) This definition, such as it is, Mr. Locke took without
acknowledgment from Hobbes, who says in his ' Leviathan,' "This dif-
ference of quickness in imagining is caused by the difference of men's
passions, that love and dislike some one thing, some another, and
therefore some men's thoughts run one way, some another, and are held
to and observe differently the things that pass through their imagina-
tion. And whereas in this succession of thoughts there is nothing to ob-
serve in the things they think on, but either in what they be like one
another, or in what they be unlike, those that observe their similitudes, in
case they be such as are but rarely observed by others, are said to have a
good wit, by which is meant on this occasion a good fancy. But they that
observe their differences and dissimilitudes, which is called distinguishing
and discerning, and judging between thing and thing, in case such discern-
ing be not easy, are said to have a good judgment; and particularly in
matter of conversation and business, wherein times, places, and persons are
to be discerned, this virtue is called discretion. The former, that is, fancy,
without the help of judgment, is not commended for a virtue ; but the latter, which is judgment or discretion, is commended for itself, without the help of fancy."—Leviathan, p. 32

- 19 -

fancy. Mere wit, as opposed to reason or argument, consists in
striking out some casual and partial coincidence which has no-
thing to do, or at least implies no necessary connection with the
nature of the things, which are forced into a seeming analogy
by a play upon words, or some irrelevant conceit, as in puns,
riddles, alliteration, &c. The jest, in all such cases, lies in the sort
of mock-identity, or nominal resemblance, established by the
intervention of the same words expressing different ideas, and
countenancing, as it were, by a fatality of language, the mis-
chievous insinuation which the person who has the wit to take
advantage of it wishes to convey. So when the disaffected
French wits applied to the new order of the Fleur du lys the
double entendre of Compagnons d'Ulysse, or companions of
Ulysses, meaning the animal into which the fellow-travellers of
the Hero of the Odyssey were transformed, this was a shrewd
and biting intimation of a galling truth (if truth it were) by a
fortuitous concourse of letters of the alphabet, jumping in "a
foregone conclusion," but there was no proof of the thing,
unless it was self-evident. And, indeed, this may be considered
as the best defence of the contested maxim, that ridicule is the
test of truth
; viz. that it does not contain or attempt a formal
proof of it, but owes its power of conviction to the bare sugges-
tion of it, so that if the thing when once hinted is not clear in
itself, the satire fails of its effect and falls to the ground. The
sarcasm here glanced at the character of the new or old French
noblesse may not be well-founded; but it is so like truth, and
"comes in such a questionable shape," backed with the appear-
'ance of an identical proposition, that it would require a long
train of facts and laboured arguments to do away the impres-
sion, even if we were sure of the honesty and wisdom of the
person who undertook to refute it. A flippant jest is as good a
test of truth as a solid bribe; and there are serious sophistries,

"Soul-killing lies, and truths that work small good,"

as well as idle pleasantries. Of this we may be sure, that ridi-
cule fastens on the vulnerable points of a cause, and finds out
the weak sides of an argument; if those who resort to it some-
times rely too much on its success, those who are chiefly annoy-

- 20 -

ed by it almost always are so with reason, and cannot be too
much on their guard against deserving it. Before we can
laugh at a thing, its absurdity must at least be open and palpa-
ble to common apprehension. Ridicule is necessarily built on
certain supposed facts, whether true or false, and on their incon-
sistency with certain acknowledged maxims, whether right or
wrong. It is, therefore, a fair test, if not a philosophical or
abstract truth, at least of what is truth according to public
opinion and common sense; for it can only expose to instanta-
neous contempt that which is condemned by public opinion,
and is hostile to the common sense of mankind. Or, to put it
differently, it is the test of the quantity of truth that there is in
our favourite prejudices. To show how nearly allied wit is
thought to be to truth, it is not unusual to say of any person—
"Such a one is a man of sense, for though he said nothing, he
laughed in the right place."—Alliteration comes in here under
the head of a certain sort of verbal wit; or, by pointing the
expression, sometimes points the sense. Mr. Grattan's wit or
eloquence (I don't know by what name to call it) would be
nothing without this accompaniment. Speaking of some minis-
ters whom he did not like, he said, "Their only means of
government are the guinea and the gallows." There can
scarcely, it must be confessed, be a more effectual mode of
political conversion than one of these applied to a man's friends,
and the other to himself. The fine sarcasm of Junius on the
effect of the supposed ingratitude of the Duke of Grafton at
court—"The instance might be painful, but the principle would
please"—notwithstanding the profound insight into human
nature it implies, would hardly pass for wit without the allite-
ration, as some poetry would hardly be acknowledged as such
without the rhyme to clench it. A quotation or a hackneyed
phrase, dexterously turned or wrested to another purpose, has
often the effect of the liveliest wit. An idle fellow who had
only fourpence left in the world, which had been put by to pay
for the baking some meat for his dinner, went and laid it out
to buy a new string for a guitar. An old acquaintance, on
hearing this story, repeated those lines out of the "Allegro"—

- 21 -

"And ever against eating cares
Lap me in soft Lydian airs."

The reply of the author of the periodical paper called the
'World' to a lady at church, who seeing him look thoughtful,
asked what he was thinking of—"The next World,"—is a per-
version of an established formula of language, something of
the same kind.—Rhymes are sometimes a species of wit, where
there is an alternate combination and resolution or decomposi-
tion of the elements of sound, contrary to our usual division
and classification of them in ordinary speech, not unlike the
sudden separation and re-union of the component parts of the
machinery in a pantomime. The author who excels infinitely
the most in this way is the writer of 'Hudibras.' He also ex-
cels in the invention of single words and names, which have
the effect of wit by sounding big, and meaning nothing:— "full
of sound and fury, signifying nothing." But of the artifices of
this author's burlesque style I shall have occasion to speak here-
after.—It is not always easy to distinguish between the wit of
words and that of things, "For thin partitions do their bounds
divide." Some of the late Mr. Curran's bon mots or jeux d'es-
, might be said to owe their birth to this sort of equivocal
generation; or were a happy mixture of verbal wit and a lively
and picturesque fancy, of legal acuteness in detecting the vari-
able applications of words, and of a mind apt at perceiving the
ludicrous in external objects. "Do you see any thing ridiculous
in this wig?" said one of his brother judges to him. "Nothing
but the head," was the answer. Now here instantaneous ad-
vantage was taken of the slight technical ambiguity in the con-
struction of language, and the matter-of-fact is flung into the
scale as a thumping makeweight. After all, verbal and acci-
dental strokes of wit, though the most surprising and laughable,
are not the best and most lasting. That wit is the most refined
and effectual, which is founded on the detection of unexpected
likeness or distinction in things, rather than in words. It is more
severe and galling, that is, it is more unpardonable though less
surprising, in proportion as the thought suggested is more com-
plete and satisfactory, from its being inherent in the nature of

- 22 -

the things themselves. Haret lateri lethalis arundo. (**) Truth
makes the greatest libel, and it is that which barbs the darts of
wit. The Duke of Buckingham's saying, "Laws are not, like 
women, the worse for being old," is an instance of a harmless
truism and the utmost malice of wit united. This is, perhaps,
what has been meant by the distinction between true and false
wit. Mr. Addison, indeed, goes so far as to make it the exclu-
sive test of true wit that it will bear translation into another lan-
guage, that is to say, that it does not depend at all on the form
of expression. But this is by no means the case. Swift would
hardly have allowed of such a strait-laced theory, to make havoc
with his darling conundrums; though there is no one whose
serious wit is more that of things, as opposed to a mere play
either of words or fancy. I ought, I believe, to have noticed
before, in speaking of the difference between wit and humour,
that wit is often pretended absurdity, where the person overacts
or exaggerates a certain part with a conscious design to expose
it as if it were another person, as when Mandrake in the Twin
Rivals says, "This glass is too big, carry it away, I'll drink out
of the bottle." On the contrary, when Sir Hugh Evans says
very innocently, " 'Od's plessed will, I will not be absent at the
grace," though there is here a great deal of humour, there is no
wit. This kind of wit of the humourist, where the person
makes a butt of himself, and exhibits his own absurdities or
foibles purposely in the most pointed and glaring lights, runs
through the whole of the character of Falstaff, and is, in truth,
the principle on which it is founded. It is an irony directed
against oneself. Wit is, in fact, a voluntary act of the mind, or
exercise of the invention, showing the absurd and ludicrous
consciously, whether in ourselves or another. Cross-readings,
where the blunders are designed, are wit; but if any one were
to light upon them through ignorance or accident, they would
be merely ludicrous.

It might be made an argument of the intrinsic superiority of
poetry or imagination to wit, that the former does not admit of
mere verbal combinations. Whenever they do occur, they are
uniformly blemishes. It requires something more solid and
substantial to raise admiration or passion. The general forms

- 23 -

and aggregate masses of our ideas must be brought more into
play, to give weight and magnitude. Imagination may be said
to be the finding out something similar in things generally alike,
or with like feelings attached to them, while wit principally
aims at finding out something that seems the same, or amounts
to a momentary deception where you least expected it, viz. in
things totally opposite. The reason why more slight and par-
tial, or merely accidental and nominal resemblances, serve the
purposes of wit, and indeed characterise its essence as a distinct
operation and faculty of the mind, is, that the object of ludicrous
poetry is naturally to let down and lessen; and it is easier to let
down than to raise up; to weaken than to strengthen; to dis-
connect our sympathy from passion and power, than to attach
and rivet it to any object of grandeur or interest; to startle and
shock our preconceptions, by incongruous and equivocal combi-
nations, than to confirm, enforce, and expand them by powerful
and lasting associations of ideas, or striking and true analogies.
A slight cause is sufficient to produce a slight effect. To be in-
different or sceptical, requires no effort; to be enthusiastic and
in earnest, requires a strong impulse, and collective power.
Wit and humour (comparatively speaking, or taking the ex-
tremes to judge of the gradations by) appeal to our indolence,
our vanity, our weakness, and insensibility; serious and impas-
sioned poetry appeals to our strength, our magnanimity, our vir-
tue, and humanity. Anything is sufficient to heap contempt
upon an object; even the bare suggestion of a mischievous allu-
sion to what is improper, dissolves the whole charm, and puts
an end to our admiration of the sublime or beautiful. Reading
the finest passage in Milton's 'Paradise Lost' in a false tone,
will make it seem insipid and absurd. The cavilling at, or in-
vidiously pointing out, a few slips of the pen, will embitter the
pleasure, or alter our opinion of a whole work, and make us
throw it down in disgust. The critics are aware of this vice
and infirmity in our nature, and play upon it with periodical
success. The meanest weapons are strong enough for this kind
of warfare, and the meanest hands can wield them. Spleen can
subsist on any kind of food. The shadow of a doubt, the hint
of an inconsistency, a word, a look, a syllable, will destroy our

- 24 -

best-formed convictions. What puts this argument in as strik-
ing a point of view as anything, is the nature of parody or bur-
lesque, the secret of which lies merely in transposing or apply-
ing at a venture to anything, or to the lowest objects, that which
is applicable only to certain given things, or to the highest mat-
ters. "From the sublime to the ridiculous, there is but one
step." The slightest want of unity of impression destroys the
sublime; the detection of the smallest incongruity is an infalli-
ble ground to rest the ludicrous upon. But in serious poetry,
which aims at rivetting our affections, every blow must tell
home. The missing a single time is fatal, and undoes the spell.
We see how difficult it is to sustain a continued flight of im-
pressive sentiment: how easy it must be then to travestie or
burlesque it, to flounder into nonsense, and be witty by playing
the fool. It is a common mistake, however, to suppose that
parodies degrade, or imply a stigma on the subject: on the con-
trary, they in general imply something serious or sacred in the
originals. Without this, they would be good for nothing; for
the immediate contrast would be wanting, and with this they
are sure to tell. The best parodies are, accordingly, the best
and most striking things reversed. Witness the common traves-
ties of Homer and Virgil. Mr. Canning's court parodies on
Mr. Southey's popular odes are also an instance in point (I do
not know which were the cleverest;) and the best of the 'Re-
jected Addresses' is the parody on Crabbe, though I do not
certainly think that Crabbe is the most ridiculous poet now

Lear and the Fool are the sublimest instance I know of pas-
sion and wit united, or of imagination unfolding the most tre-
mendous sufferings, and of burlesque on passion playing with
it, aiding and relieving its intensity by the most pointed, but
familiar and indifferent illustrations of the same thing in differ-
ent objects, and on a meaner scale. The Fool's reproaching
Lear with "making his daughters his mothers," his snatches of
proverbs and old ballads, "The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo
so long, that it had its head bit off by its young," and " Whoop
jug, I know when the horse follows the cart," are a running
commentary of trite truisms, pointing out the extreme folly of

- 25 -

the infatuated old monarch, and in a manner reconciling us to
its inevitable consequences.

Lastly, there is a wit of sense and observation, which consists
in the acute illustration of good sense and practical wisdom by
means of some far-fetched conceit or quaint imagery. The mat-
ter is sense, but the form is wit. Thus the lines in Pope—

"Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike; yet each believes his own—"

are witty rather than poetical ; because the truth they convey
is a mere dry observation on human life, without elevation or
enthusiasm, and the illustration of it is of that quaint and famil-
iar kind that is merely curious and fanciful. Cowley is an in-
stance of the same kind in almost all his writings. Many of
the jests and witticisms in the best comedies are moral aphorisms
and rules for the conduct of life, sparkling with wit and fancy
in the mode of expression. The ancient philosophers also
abounded in the same kind of wit, in telling home truths in the
most unexpected manner.—In this sense Aesop was the greatest
wit and moralist that ever lived. Ape and slave, he looked
askance at human nature, and beheld its weaknesses and errors
transferred to another species. Vice and virtue were to him as
plain as any objects of sense. He saw in man a talking, ab-
surd, obstinate, proud, angry animal ; and clothed these abstrac-
tions with wings, or a beak, or tail, or claws, or long ears, as
they appeared embodied in these hieroglyphics in the brute
creation. His moral philosophy is natural history. He makes
an ass bray wisdom, and a frog croak humanity. The store of
moral truth, and the fund of invention in exhibiting it in eternal
forms, palpable and intelligible, and delightful to children and
grown persons, and to all ages and nations, are almost miracu-
lous. The invention of a fable is to me the most enviable exer-
tion of human genius: it is the discovering a truth to which
there is no clue, and which, when once found out, can never be
forgotten. I would rather have been the author of 'Aesop's
Fables' than of 'Euclid's Elements!' That popular entertain-
ment, Punch and the Puppet-show, owes part of its irresistible
and universal attraction to nearly the same principle of inspiring

- 26 -

inanimate and mechanical agents with sense and consciousness.
The drollery and wit of a piece of wood is doubly droll and far-
cical. Punch is not merry in himself, but "he is the cause of
heartfelt mirth in other men." The wires and pulleys that
govern his motions are conductors to carry off the spleen, and
all "that perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart." If we see
a number of people turning the corner of a street, ready to burst
with secret satisfaction, and with their faces bathed in laughter,
we know what is the matter—that they are just come from a
puppet-show. Who can see three little painted, patched-up
figures, no bigger than one's thumb, strut, squeak, and gibber,
sing, dance, chatter, scold, knock one another about the head,
give themselves airs of importance, and "imitate humanity most
abominably," without laughing immoderately? We overlook
the farce and mummery of human life in little, and for nothing;
and what is still better, it costs them who have to play in it
nothing. We place the mirth, and glee, and triumph, to our
own account; and we know that the bangs and blows they
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!  I have heard no bad
judge of such matters say, that "he liked a comedy better than
a tragedy, a farce better than a comedy, a pantomime better than
a farce, but a puppet-show best of all." I look upon it, that he
who invented puppet-shows was a greater benefactor to his
species, than he who invented Operas!

I shall conclude this imperfect and desultory sketch of wit
and humour with Barrow's celebrated description of the same
subject. He says, "—But first it may be demanded, what the
thing we speak of is, or what this facetiousness doth import; to
which question I might reply, as Democritus did to him that ask-
ed the definition of a man — 'tis that which we all see and know';
and one better apprehends what it is by acquaintance than I can
inform him by description. It is, indeed, a thing so versatile and
multiform, appearing in so many shapes, so many postures, so
many garbs, so variously apprehended by several eyes and judg-
ments, that it seemeth no less hard to settle a clear and certain

- 27 -

notice thereof, than to make a portrait of Proteus, or to define the
figure of fleeting air. Sometimes it lieth in pat allusion to a
known story, or in seasonable application of a trivial saying, or
in forging an apposite tale; sometimes it playeth in words and
phrases, taking advantage from the ambiguity of their sense, or
the affinity of their sound; sometimes it is wrapped in a dress
of luminous expression; sometimes it lurketh under an odd
similitude. Sometimes it is lodged in a sly question, in a smart
answer; in a quirkish reason; in a shrewd intimation; in cun-
ningly diverting or cleverly restoring an objection: sometimes
it is couched in a bold scheme of speech; in a tart irony; in a
lusty hyperbole; in a startling metaphor; in a plausible reconcil-
ing of contradictions, or in acute nonsense: sometimes a scenical
representation of persons or things, a counterfeit speech, a mimi-
cal look or gesture passeth for it; sometimes an affected simpli-
city, sometimes a presumptuous bluntness giveth it being; some-
times it riseth only from a lucky hitting upon what is strange;
sometimes from a crafty wresting obvious matter to the purpose;
often it consisteth in one knows not what, and springeth up one
can hardly tell how. Its ways are unaccountable and inexpli-
cable, being answerable to the numberless rovings of fancy and
windings of language. It is, in short, a manner of speaking out
of the simple and plain way (such as reason teacheth and
knoweth things by,) which by a pretty surprising uncouthness
in conceit or expression doth affect and amuse the fancy, show-
ing in it some wonder, and breathing some delight thereto. It
raiseth admiration, as signifying a nimble sagacity of apprehen-
sion, a special felicity of invention, a vivacity of spirit, and reach
of wit more than vulgar: it seeming to argue a rare quickness
of parts, that one can fetch in remote conceits applicable; a no-
table skill that he can dextrously accommodate them to a pur-
pose before him, together with a lively briskness of humour, not
apt to damp those sportful flashes of imagination. (Whence in
Aristotle such persons are termed έπιδξιοι, dexterous men, and
εύτροποι, men of facile or versatile manners, who can easily turn
themselves to all things, or turn all things to themselves.) It also
procureth delight by gratifying curiosity with its rareness or
semblance of difficulty (as monsters, not for their beauty but

- 28 -

their rarity; as juggling tricks, not for their use but their ab-
struseness, are beheld with pleasure;) by diverting the mind
from its road of serious thoughts; by instilling gaiety and airi-
ness of spirit; by provoking to such dispositions of spirit, in way
of emulation of complaisance, and by seasoning matter, other-
wise distasteful or insipid, with an unusual and thence grateful
tang."—Barrow's Works, Serm. 14.

I will only add, by way of general caution, that there is noth-
ing more ridiculous than laughter without a cause, nor anything
more troublesome than what are called laughing people. A
professed laugher is as contemptible and tiresome a character as
a professed wit: the one is always contriving something to laugh
at, the other is always laughing at nothing. An excess of levity
is as impertinent as an excess of gravity. A character of this sort
is well personified by Spenser, in the 'Damsel of the Idle Lake'—

"——who did assay
To laugh at shaking of the leaves light."

Any one must be mainly ignorant or thoughtless, who is
surprised at everything he sees; or wonderfully conceited, who
expects everything to conform to his standard of propriety.
Clowns and idiots laugh on all occasions; and the common fail-
ing of wishing to be thought satirical often runs through whole
families in country places, to the great annoyance of their neigh-
bours. To be struck with incongruity in whatever comes be-
fore us, does not argue great comprehension or refinement of
perception, but rather a looseness and flippancy of mind and
temper, which prevents the individual from connecting any two
ideas steadily or consistently together. It is owing to a natural
crudity and precipitateness of the imagination, which assimilates
nothing properly to itself.  People who are always laughing,
at length laugh on the wrong side of their faces; for they can-
not get others to laugh with them. In like manner, an affecta-
tion of wit by degrees hardens the heart, and spoils good com-
pany and good manners. A perpetual succession of good things
puts an end to common conversation. There is no answer to a
jest, but another; and even where the ball can be kept up in
this way without ceasing, it tires the patience of the by-standers,

- 29 -

and runs the speakers out of breath. Wit is the salt of conver-
sation, not the food.

The four chief names for comic humour out of our own lan-
guage are Aristophanes and Lucian among the ancients, Molière
and Rabelais among the moderns. Of the two first I shall say,
for I know but little. I should have liked Aristophanes better
if he had treated Socrates less scurvily, for he has treated him
most scurvily both as to wit and argument. His Plutus and his
Birds are striking instances, the one of dry humour, the other
of airy fancy.—Lucian is a writer who appears to deserve his
full fame: he has the licentious and extravagant wit of Rabelais,
but directed more uniformly to a purpose; and his comic pro-
ductions are interspersed with beautiful and eloquent descrip-
tions, full of sentiment, such as the exquisite account of the fable
of the halcyon put into the mouth of Socrates, and the heroic
eulogy on Bacchus, which is conceived in the highest strain of
glowing panegyric.

The two other authors I proposed to mention are modern, and
French. Molière, however, in the spirit of his writings, is
almost as much an English as a French author—quite a barbare
in all in which he really excelled. He was unquestionably one
of the greatest comic geniuses that ever lived; a man of infinite
wit, gaiety, and invention—full of life, laughter, and whim.
But it cannot be denied that his plays are in general mere farces,
without scrupulous adherence to nature, refinement of character,
or common probability. The plots of several of them could not
be carried on for a moment without a perfect collusion between
the parties to wink at contradictions, and act in defiance of the evi-
dence of their senses. For instance, take the 'Medecin malgré lui'
('The Mock Doctor,') in which a common wood-cutter takes upon
himself, and is made successfully to support through a whole play,
the character of a learned physician, without exciting the least
suspicion and yet notwithstanding the absurdity of the plot, it
'is one of the most laughable and truly comic productions that
can well be imagined. The rest of his lighter pieces, the
'Bourgeois Gentilhomme', 'Monsieur Pourceaugnac', 'George
Damdin' (or 'Barnaby Brittle,') &c. are of the same descrip-
tion—gratuitous assumptions of character, and fanciful and out-

- 30 -

rageous caricatures of nature. He indulges at his peril in the
utmost license of burlesque exaggeration; and gives a loose to
the intoxication of his animal spirits. With respect to his two
most laboured comedies, the 'Tartuffe' and 'Misanthrope,' I
confess that I find them rather hard to get through: they have
much of the improbability and extravagance of the others, united
with the endless common-place prosing of French declamation.
What can exceed, for example, the absurdity of the 'Misan-
thrope,' who leaves his mistress, after every proof of her attach-
ment and constancy, for no other reason than that she will not
submit to the technical formality of going to live with him in a
wilderness? The characters, again, which Celimene gives of
her female friends, near the opening of the play, are admirable
satires, (as good as Pope's characters of women,) but not exacdy
in the spirit of comic dialogue. The strictures of Rousseau on
this play, in his ' Letter to D' Alembert,' are a fine specimen of
the best philosophic criticism.—The same remarks apply in a
greater degree to the 'Tartuffe.' The long speeches and rea-
sonings in this play tire one almost to death: they may be very
good logic, or rhetoric, or philosophy, or anything but comedy.
If each of the parties had retained a special pleader to speak his
sentiments, they could not have appeared more verbose or intri-
cate. The improbability of the character of Orgon is wonderful.
This play is in one point of view invaluable, as a lasting monu-
ment of the credulity of the French to all verbal professions of
wisdom or virtue; and its existence can only be accounted for
from that astonishing and tyrannical predominance which words
exercise over things in the mind of every Frenchman. The
'École des Femmes' from which Wycherley has borrowed his
'Country Wife,' with the true spirit of original genius, is, in my
judgment, the master-piece of Molière. The set speeches in the
original play, it is true, would not be borne on the English
stage, nor indeed on the French, but that they are carried off by
the verse. The 'Critique de École des Femmes,' the dialogue
of which is prose, is written in a very different style. Among
other things, this little piece contains an exquisite, and almost
unanswerable defence of the superiority of comedy over tragedy.
Molière was to be excused for taking this side of the question.

- 31 -

A writer of some pretensions among ourselves has reproached
the French with "an equal want of books and men." There
is a common French print, in which Molière is represented
eading one of his plays in the presence of the celebrated Ninon
de l'Enclos, to a circle of the wits and first men of his own time.
Among these are the great Corneille; the tender, faultless Ra-
cine; Fontaine, the artless old man, unconscious of immortality;
the accomplished St. Evremond; the Duke de la Rochefoucault,
the severe anatomiser of the human breast; Boileau, the flat-
terer of courts and judge of men! Were these men nothing ?
they have passed for men (and great ones) hitherto, and though
the prejudice is an old one, I should hope it may still last our

Rabelais is another name that might hare saved this unjust
censure. The wise sayings and heroic deeds of Gargantua and
Pantagruel ought not to be set down as nothing. I have already
spoken my mind at large of this author; but I cannot help
thinking of him here, sitting in his easy chair, with an eye lan-
guid with excess of mirth, his lip quivering with a new-born
conceit, and wiping his beard after a well-seasoned jest, with his
pen held carelessly in his hand, his wine-flagons, and his books
of law, of school divinity, and physic before him, which were
his jest-books, whence he drew endless stores of absurdity;
laughing at the world and enjoying it by turns, and making the
world laugh with him again, for the last three hundred years, at
his teeming wit and its own prolific follies. Even to those who
have never read his works, the name of Rabelais is a cordial to
the spirits, and the mention of it cannot consist with gravity or

Endnote: Hazlitt's essay is the first essay in his Lectures on the English comic writers, that were delivered and first printed in 1818.

These Lectures were since then reprinted repeatedly, e.g. by Hazlitt's son, with some additions, which reprint, as published in in 1845 by an American publisher, was scanned by Google (*), and eventually found by me on Archive.org, which is an excellent organization, not to be blamed for Google's sloppy totally disinterested scanning.

As it happens, I also owe a reprint, since some 30 years, of a very good edition of the same work in the excellent Everyman's Library, in which it is bundled, in my edition, with Hazlitt's Fugitive Writings. This helped me to prepare the above edition, for which I also used the sloppy Google "copy" in pdf (that doesn't contain the Fugitive Writings) and the even more sloppy Google "copy" of that "copy" in text-format.

I have followed the outline of the Google copy, that as I said was made from a 1845 US reprint of the edition of Hazlitt's son of the work, and indeed have preserved the pages and the lines, wherever possible. This is also the reason why there are some hyphenatings of words at the end of a line that do not conform to modern English usage, whether in England, the US or elsewhere.

And I have also provided links to authors and their works in Wikipedia, since such background knowledge helps one to understand Hazlitt's text, and besides belongs to a liberal education hardly anyone gets these days, to the detriment of what remains of human civilization. (So... DIY!)

Finally, having done all this, what I have not done is comparing the text I have on paper (originally from a 1910 edition) with the US edition of Hazlitt's son's 1845 edition that Google used, though indeed I have consulted both. This I left undone because it seems to me to be the work doctors of Eng.Lit. are admirably trained to do, and should much excel at. (***)


(*) Only in this one essay of Hazlitt's there are hundreds of typos in the non-pdf Google-supplied editions, which make them totally useless and - here as in other Google-appropriated classics I've seen - often completely unreadable, whereas only in this one essay of Hazlitt's in the Google-produced pdf two pages are defiled thus:

To quote Google's opening line of all classics it misappropriates and lousely scans, with my bolding:

This is a digital copy of a book that was preserved for generations on library shelves before it was carefully scanned by Google as part of a project to make the world’s books discoverable online.

Another example, more gross and in nauseating colour is here, in my  Creeps... Google scans ALL - plus some!, also "carefully scanned by Google as part of a project to make the world’s books" the effective property of Google's owners.

(**) Haret lateri lethalis arundo, Virgil: Roughly: Around here are many pleasing walks.

(***) In Holland this is what professors and lecturers in the Science of Literature do, it they don't lecture on the virtues of  postmodernism: Compare different editions of the same work, and write A Scientific Paper on the differences. Du holde Wissenschaft! Wo wärest du wenn du nicht die hättest welche du leuchtest!

Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.


As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):
1.  Anthony Komaroff Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)
3.  Hillary Johnson The Why
4.  Consensus of M.D.s Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5.  Eleanor Stein Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)
6.  William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7.  Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8.  Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
 Maarten Maartensz
ME in Amsterdam - surviving in Amsterdam with ME (Dutch)
 Maarten Maartensz Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Short descriptions of the above:                

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understa, but nds ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:

7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.
9. I tell my story of surviving (so far) in Amsterdam/ with ME.
10. The directory on my site about ME.

See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.

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