Obrazy na stronie
PDF
ePub

that, "it is the contrast or opposition of dig"nity and meanness that occasions laughter." Granting this to be true, (and how far this is true will appear by and by) I would observe, in the first place, what the ingenious author seems to have been aware of, that there may be a mixture of meanness and dignity, where there is nothing ludicrous. A city, considered as a collection of low and lofty houses, is no laughable object. Nor was that personage either ludicrous or ridiculous, whom Pope so justly characterises,

The greatest, wisest, meanest, of mankind.

But, secondly, cases might be mentioned, of laughter arising from a group of ideas or objects, where there is no discernible opposition of meanness and dignity. We are told of the dagger of Hudibras, that

It could scrape trenchers, or chip bread,
Toast cheese or bacon, though it were
To bait a mouse trap, 'twould not care;
'Twould make clean shoes, or in the earth
Set leeks and onions, and so forth.

The humour of the passage cannot arise from the meanness of these offices compared with the dignity of the dagger, nor from any opposition of meanness and dignity in the offices themselves, they being all equally mean; and must therefore be owing to some other peculiarity in the description. We laugh, when a droll mimicks the solemnity of a grave person; here dignity and meanness are indeed united: but we laugh also (though not so heartily perhaps) when he mimicks the peculiarities of a fellow as insignificant as himself, and displays no opposition of dignity and meanness. The levities of Sancho Pancha opposed to the solemnity of his master, and compared with his own schemes of preferment, form an entertaining contrast: but some of the vagaries of that renowed squire are truely laughable, even when his preferment and his master are out of the question. We do not perceive any contrast of meanness and dignity in mistress Quickly, sir Toby in Twelfth JVight, the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, or Autolycus in the Winter's Tale; yet they arc all ludicrous characters. Dr. Harrison in Fielding's Amelia is never mean, but always respectable; yet there is a dash of humour in him, which often betrays the reader into a smile. Men laugh at puns; the wisest and wittiest of our species have laughed at them; queen Elizabeth, Cicero, and Shakspeare, laughed at them; clowns and children laugh

at them; and most men, at one time or other, are inclined to do the same: but in this sort of low wit, is it an opposition of meanness and dignity that entertains us? Is it not rather a mixture of sameness and diversity; sameness in the sound, and diversity in the signification?

IV. Akenside, in the third book of his excellent poem, treats of ridicule at considerable length. He gives a detail of ridiculous characters; ignorant pretenders to learning, boastful soldiers, and lying travellers, hypocritical churchmen, conceited politicians, old women that talk of their charms and virtue, ragged philosophers who rail at riches, virtuosi intent upon trifles, romantick lovers, wits wantonly satirical, fops that out of vanity affect to be diseased and profligate, dastards who are ashamed or afraid without reason, and fools who are ignorant of what they ought to know. These characters may no doubt be set in such a light as to move at once our laughter and contcmpt, and are therefore truly ridiculous, and fit objects, of comick satire: but the author does not distinguish between what is laughable in them and What is contemptible; so that we have no reason to think, that he meant to specify the qualities peculiar to those things that provoke pure laughter. Having finished the detail of characters, he makes some general remarks on the cause of ridicule; and explains himself more fully in a prose definition illustrated by examples. The definition, or rather description, is in these words. " That which makes objects ridiculous, "is some ground of admiration or esteem "connected with other more general circum"stances comparatively worthless or deformed; "or it is some circumstance of turpitude or "deformity connected with what is in general "excellent or beautiful: the inconsistent pro"perties existing either in the objects them"selves, or in the apprehension of the person "to whom they relate; belonging always to the "same order or class of being; implying senti"ment and design; and exciting no acute or "vehement emotion of the heart." Whatever account we make of this definition, which to those who acquiesce in the foregoing reasonings may perhaps appear not quite satisfactory, there is in the poem a passage that deserves particular notice, as it seems to contain a more exact account of the ludicrous quality, than is to be found in any of the theories above mentioned. This passage will be quoted in the next chapter.

CHAPTER II.

Laughter seems to arise from the View of Things incongruous united in the same Assemblage; l.By Juxtaposition; II. As Cause and Effect; III. By Comparison founded on Similitude; or, IV. United so as to exhibit an Opfiositionof Meanness and Dignity.

However imperfect these theories may appear, there is none of them destitute of merit: and indeed the most fanciful philosopher seldom frames a theory, without consulting nature, in some of her most obvious appearances. Laughter very frequently arises from the view of dignity and meanness united in the same object; sometimes ho doubt, from the appearance of assumed inferiority,* as well as of small

* Pope, Arbuthnot, and Swift, in some of their most humorous pieces, assume the character, and affect the ignorance, of Grubstreet writers; and from this circumstance part of the humour of such papers will perhaps be found to arise. "Valdehsec ridentur (says Cicero) "quse a prudentibus, quasi per dissimulationem non "intelligendi, subabsurde falseque dicuntur." De Orat. II. 68.

« PoprzedniaDalej »