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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Andrew Lang (1844–1912)

Introduction: Humour in the British Isles

HUMOUR 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 Molière 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 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 sea-tower … 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 be 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 cannot 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 is not human. These lines one writes with regret, and with allowance for Mrs. Gamp, and Mr. Pecksniff, and Sam Weller, and a score of Dickens’s other characters, who are never stereotyped. You never know what they may say next, whereas you know pretty well where to find Betsey Trotwood, and Mr. Micawber, excellent as he is, after all. Still, no man could be always Micawberesque.

Now, the humour of Falstaff is infinite and endless; you nor any man “knows not where to have him.” He is not a caricature; he is a human being. So are Scott’s Cuddie and Mause in “Old Mortality”; there is no caricature. Given the period and her Covenanting ideas, Mause is historically accurate to a shade; so is Davie Deans, incredibly preposterous as his opinions and behaviour may seem to us. He is minutely studied from an historical prototype. So is Dominie Sampson, but he and Caleb Balderstone are touched with caricature; they tend to become clichés, stereotyped and mechanical. We get too much of them, and too much of Miss Austen’s Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates. Of her Mr. Collins we can never have too much, because in every turn of circumstances he appropriately, and yet unexpectedly, plays the solemn, heartless, pompous ass that he is. We know that he will do it, but not how he will do it, the stupid tree ever bringing forth stupid fruits of new flavours and excellence. Thus, Miss Austen, on her scale of miniature, is a humourist as true as Shakespeare on his vast canvases, or as Chaucer, our first great humourist, whose affectionate contemplation plays round and lights up the whole English world of the late fourteenth century.

Of Mr. Pepys we may perhaps say that his humour is unconscious, like that of Mr. Collins. He does not mean to be comic, but as he sets down everything, his own inconsistencies, selfishnesses, foppishnesses, snobbishnesses, fears, and follies, are patent to us as if we saw the Puritan turned rake, and not at ease in the character which he played with shameful and singular heartlessness. If we could give extracts from a famous old pamphlet, “Scottish Presbyterian Eloquence Displayed,” the reader would certainly laugh aloud, not that the preachers dream of being humourous (like Latimer in some sermons), but because of their naive unconscious absurdities. Portions of “Hudibras” imperfectly supply the place of the genuine article. Cotton Mather and his Scottish correspondent, the Rev. Mr. Woodrow, are equally serious and equally comic, but not humourous; the reader must bring the humour in which they shine.

Swift has his own, the gravest and most severe, but, on occasion, the most laughable of all, especially in his thoughts on the unadvisability of at once abolishing the Christian religion. His is not precisely an affectionate kind of humour, but always gravely ironical. He did not, indeed, give way wholly to his innate seriousness, but his humour is rather that of one who despises than of one who pities men. He has no rival in his own bitter way, while Addison’s and Steele’s humour is full of the milk of human kindness, like that of Goldsmith, and the greatest of them all, next to Shakespeare the greatest English master of humour, Henry Fielding.

Fielding, like Shakespeare, defies the maker of extracts; you must read him all; through whatever he writes shines out the playful, generous, pitying, and loving nature of the man; his glorious high spirits, his mild wisdom. Smollett can be extracted from; deodorized passages can be selected from novels that are decidedly in need of some sanitary precautions. “That noble lady, or gentleman, who is not freely merry” over Hawser Trunnion, Esq., “is not my friend.” Sterne, too, needs picking and choosing from; I do not think that extracts of Sterne’s really best things can be entirely “elegant.” Like Fielding, Thackeray can scarcely be illustrated by way of samples. The Marchioness once had “a sip” of beer, which Mr. Richard Swiveller deemed pitifully inadequate, like extracts from Thackeray and Dickens. We must go to “the full welling fountainheads” for satisfaction. Jos. Sedley—no sample of his manner can do him justice; and Mr. James Crawley demands a careful study, while Mr. Harry Foker is not to be appreciated except at full length. The humour of Mr. Meredith and Mr. Barrie is also best to be taken in long draughts, as is that of many foreign authors. Let us hope that the portions provided, like the milk sparingly administered by Mr. Squeers to the new boys, will make the consumer “wish for more.” Of our modern humourists to-day, the authors of “Reminiscences of an Irish R.M.”—two ladies—appear to me to take the foremost place; their work is classically good, full of fun and melancholy, and their style is excellent.