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Humour in the British Isles

By Andrew Lang


UMOUR is not easily defined, but the most recent

definition of the humourous temperament, by Sir

F. C. Burnand, is illuminating. To be humourous, says Sir Francis, comes from “having seriousness of nature and not giving way to it.” Humour, in fact, is the result of a playfully affectionate contemplation of life, and only a serious man can be contemplative. Molière was named le contemplateur by his contemporaries, and Molère is the supreme example of humour in France. His humour is compassionate; he is, au fond, sorry for his Georges Dandin, and his Sganarelle, and the old men who thwart young lovers, and thereby are made ludicrous, but not unworthy of pity. It is the almost too tolerantly genial character of the Irish that inspires much of the humour of a people with an unhappy history, "set far amid the melancholy main.” In

" Shakespeare we see the deepest seriousness—when he “ gives way to it"-accompanied by an affectionate compassion for his rogues and scamps and clowns, and that immortal knight, “ Sir John to all Europe," nay, to all mankind. A more serious man than Dr. Johnson, with his black spiritual hypochondria, we cannot find, except in the poet Cowper. But Johnson seldom "gave way to it," and Cowper forgot it in “ John Gilpin," and in many of his letters. These are

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humourous, and there is no more humourous book in the world than Boswell's “ Life of Johnson.”

By humourous literature we do not, of course, mean literature that makes us laugh out aloud, and misconduct ourselves hysterically, if we are reading in a more or less public place, a railway train, or a club. To be personal, I confess myself “ tickle o' the sear,” and easily stirred to uncontrollable mirth. But one does not necessarily rank authors who provoke one to convulsions of laughter among the greatest humourists. Of these, undeniably, was Aristophanes, but Aristophanes is rather remote. His humour does not render the reader a marked object because he laughs till he cries. Among humourists who have made me lose all self-respect, and that decent measure of control which is not uncommon among the insane, I might mention Dickens, the late Mr. James Payn, and Mark Twain. It was my fortune to read

The Celebrated Jumping Frog” for the first time when an undergraduate, travelling with the late Master of Balliol, Mr. Jowett. After a convulsive interval I handed the book to the master, who read it without moving a muscle. Yet he was both humourous himself, and a very great admirer of the humour of Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, and Dickens.

The master's insensibility merely proved that all humour is not humour absolute, and equally excellent for all men at all times. Indeed, humour, among savages, boys, reformers, and other primitive people, seems to have its root rather in hatred and contempt than in affectionate playfulness. To knock on the head with a stone axe an enemy who expected no such matter, was probably the height of humour to the mind of palæolithic man, as, to a boy, is the successful setting of a booby trap, or snatching away a chair, or construction of an apple-pie bed. In further illustration I select a passage from the works of John Knox, the great Scottish reformer. His enemy, Cardinal Beaton, when he thought himself perfectly safe in his own castle, was set on, preached at, stabbed, slashed, and his body was subjected to savage indignities.

Knox writes: "And so they departed, without Requiem æternam and Requiescat in pace sung for his soul. Now, because the weather was hot and his funeral could not suddenly be prepared, it was thought best ... to give him salt enough, a cope of lead, and a corner in the bottom of the seatower to await what exequies his brethren the bishops would prepare for him. These things we write merrily."

Manifestly this kind of humour is primitive (though unknown to the primitive Christians), and is not equally diverting in all ages and all conditions of society. In the same way the humour of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog,” or of “The Genuine Mexican Plug,” may have been too primitive for the Master of Balliol. It consists in the extreme gravity with which the discomfiture of the frog and its sporting owner, in one case, and of the spirited purchaser of the Mexican plug in the other, are described. This is the primitive

. humour of all fabliaux and “merry tales" in which people, mainly husbands and priests, are cajoled, tricked, beaten, drenched, and deceived. The passages in Homer which would seem most humourous to his audience in some king's hall, are probably the beating of Thersites by Odysseus, and the drubbing of the muscular beggar-man, in the "Odyssey," by the same hero. The age was too primitive for real humour; and Homer, serious enough, and tender enough of heart, is rarely humourous. The horse-play of the old Greek or French or English comedians is apt to leave us cold. Molière, as an actor, had to thump and by thumped, on the stage, with a padded baton, but this kind of humourous performance, and the treatment threatened to Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, were survivals; and the heart of Molière was not in these assaults on the gravity of the groundlings.

Thus, much old humour, and most of what turns on personal peculiarities and temporary "topical” incidents, in Aristophanes for example, is necessarily lost on remote posterity, while the humour of Plato, of Lucian, and others, their grave and gentle irony is immortal. Humour ought to be of a sudden and unexpected effect; and caricature, exaggeration, cannot produce an effect sudden and unexpected, or the effect canno be durable. For caricature, at best, has a mechanical element; the artist or author has said to himself, “Go to, let us be funny!" In reading the opening chapters of “David Copperfield" and of “Martin Chuzzlewit,” you impiously long to have a blue pencil and delete long passages in which the author, not yet warmed to his work, is obviously forcing the fun in cold blood. The effort is mechanical; the high spirits have not risen to the proper temper; the passages are dull and superfluous.

I fear, too, that, as time goes on, the character parts will cease to please. One enters a room in which are Miss Betsey Trotwood, Mr. Micawber, and Mr. Dick. People are beginning to feel, if they do not say, “This is too much. There could not be so many incredibly eccentric personages all fortuitously congregated in one place." They are too like the "humours” of Ben Jonson, the personages each with a solitary "humour," of which he is the professional exponent. We know what he is expected to say and do, and he does it and says it. There are no surprises; this is not Shakespearean, this not human. These lines one

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