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´╗┐Title: An Essay on comedy and the uses of the comic spirit
Author: Meredith, George, 1828-1909
Language: English
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Transcribed from the 1897 Archibald Constable and Company edition by


AN ESSAY ON COMEDY AND THE USES OF THE COMIC SPIRIT
by George Meredith


_This Essay was first published in 'The New Quarterly Magazine' for April
1877_.



ON THE IDEA OF COMEDY AND OF THE USES OF THE COMIC SPIRIT {1}


Good Comedies are such rare productions, that notwithstanding the wealth
of our literature in the Comic element, it would not occupy us long to
run over the English list.  If they are brought to the test I shall
propose, very reputable Comedies will be found unworthy of their station,
like the ladies of Arthur's Court when they were reduced to the ordeal of
the mantle.

There are plain reasons why the Comic poet is not a frequent apparition;
and why the great Comic poet remains without a fellow.  A society of
cultivated men and women is required, wherein ideas are current and the
perceptions quick, that he may be supplied with matter and an audience.
The semi-barbarism of merely giddy communities, and feverish emotional
periods, repel him; and also a state of marked social inequality of the
sexes; nor can he whose business is to address the mind be understood
where there is not a moderate degree of intellectual activity.

Moreover, to touch and kindle the mind through laughter, demands more
than sprightliness, a most subtle delicacy.  That must be a natal gift in
the Comic poet.  The substance he deals with will show him a startling
exhibition of the dyer's hand, if he is without it.  People are ready to
surrender themselves to witty thumps on the back, breast, and sides; all
except the head: and it is there that he aims.  He must be subtle to
penetrate.  A corresponding acuteness must exist to welcome him.  The
necessity for the two conditions will explain how it is that we count him
during centuries in the singular number.

'C'est une etrange entreprise que celle de faire rire les honnetes gens,'
Moliere says; and the difficulty of the undertaking cannot be
over-estimated.

Then again, he is beset with foes to right and left, of a character
unknown to the tragic and the lyric poet, or even to philosophers.

We have in this world men whom Rabelais would call agelasts; that is to
say, non-laughers; men who are in that respect as dead bodies, which if
you prick them do not bleed.  The old grey boulder-stone that has
finished its peregrination from the rock to the valley, is as easily to
be set rolling up again as these men laughing.  No collision of
circumstances in our mortal career strikes a light for them.  It is but
one step from being agelastic to misogelastic, and the [Greek text], the
laughter-hating, soon learns to dignify his dislike as an objection in
morality.

We have another class of men, who are pleased to consider themselves
antagonists of the foregoing, and whom we may term hypergelasts; the
excessive laughers, ever-laughing, who are as clappers of a bell, that
may be rung by a breeze, a grimace; who are so loosely put together that
a wink will shake them.

   '. . . C'est n'estimer rien qu'estioner tout le monde,'

and to laugh at everything is to have no appreciation of the Comic of
Comedy.

Neither of these distinct divisions of non-laughers and over-laughers
would be entertained by reading The Rape of the Lock, or seeing a
performance of Le Tartuffe.  In relation to the stage, they have taken in
our land the form and title of Puritan and Bacchanalian.  For though the
stage is no longer a public offender, and Shakespeare has been revived on
it, to give it nobility, we have not yet entirely raised it above the
contention of these two parties.  Our speaking on the theme of Comedy
will appear almost a libertine proceeding to one, while the other will
think that the speaking of it seriously brings us into violent contrast
with the subject.

Comedy, we have to admit, was never one of the most honoured of the
Muses.  She was in her origin, short of slaughter, the loudest expression
of the little civilization of men.  The light of Athene over the head of
Achilles illuminates the birth of Greek Tragedy.  But Comedy rolled in
shouting under the divine protection of the Son of the Wine-jar, as
Dionysus is made to proclaim himself by Aristophanes.  Our second Charles
was the patron, of like benignity, of our Comedy of Manners, which began
similarly as a combative performance, under a licence to deride and
outrage the Puritan, and was here and there Bacchanalian beyond the
Aristophanic example: worse, inasmuch as a cynical licentiousness is more
abominable than frank filth.  An eminent Frenchman judges from the
quality of some of the stuff dredged up for the laughter of men and women
who sat through an Athenian Comic play, that they could have had small
delicacy in other affairs when they had so little in their choice of
entertainment.  Perhaps he does not make sufficient allowance for the
regulated licence of plain speaking proper to the festival of the god,
and claimed by the Comic poet as his inalienable right, or for the fact
that it was a festival in a season of licence, in a city accustomed to
give ear to the boldest utterance of both sides of a case.  However that
may be, there can be no question that the men and women who sat through
the acting of Wycherley's Country Wife were past blushing.  Our tenacity
of national impressions has caused the word theatre since then to prod
the Puritan nervous system like a satanic instrument; just as one has
known Anti-Papists, for whom Smithfield was redolent of a sinister smoke,
as though they had a later recollection of the place than the lowing
herds.  Hereditary Puritanism, regarding the stage, is met, to this day,
in many families quite undistinguished by arrogant piety.  It has
subsided altogether as a power in the profession of morality; but it is
an error to suppose it extinct, and unjust also to forget that it had
once good reason to hate, shun, and rebuke our public shows.

We shall find ourselves about where the Comic spirit would place us, if
we stand at middle distance between the inveterate opponents and the drum-
and-fife supporters of Comedy: 'Comme un point fixe fait remarquer
l'emportement des autres,' as Pascal says.  And were there more in this
position, Comic genius would flourish.

Our English idea of a Comedy of Manners might be imaged in the person of
a blowsy country girl--say Hoyden, the daughter of Sir Tunbelly Clumsy,
who, when at home, 'never disobeyed her father except in the eating of
green gooseberries'--transforming to a varnished City madam; with a loud
laugh and a mincing step; the crazy ancestress of an accountably fallen
descendant.  She bustles prodigiously and is punctually smart in her
speech, always in a fluster to escape from Dulness, as they say the dogs
on the Nile-banks drink at the river running to avoid the crocodile.  If
the monster catches her, as at times he does, she whips him to a froth,
so that those who know Dulness only as a thing of ponderousness, shall
fail to recognise him in that light and airy shape.

When she has frolicked through her five Acts to surprise you with the
information that Mr. Aimwell is converted by a sudden death in the world
outside the scenes into Lord Aimwell, and can marry the lady in the light
of day, it is to the credit of her vivacious nature that she does not
anticipate your calling her Farce.  Five is dignity with a trailing robe;
whereas one, two, or three Acts would be short skirts, and degrading.
Advice has been given to householders, that they should follow up the
shot at a burglar in the dark by hurling the pistol after it, so that if
the bullet misses, the weapon may strike and assure the rascal he has it.
The point of her wit is in this fashion supplemented by the rattle of her
tongue, and effectively, according to the testimony of her admirers.  Her
wit is at once, like steam in an engine, the motive force and the warning
whistle of her headlong course; and it vanishes like the track of steam
when she has reached her terminus, never troubling the brains afterwards;
a merit that it shares with good wine, to the joy of the Bacchanalians.
As to this wit, it is warlike.  In the neatest hands it is like the sword
of the cavalier in the Mall, quick to flash out upon slight provocation,
and for a similar office--to wound.  Commonly its attitude is entirely
pugilistic; two blunt fists rallying and countering.  When harmless, as
when the word 'fool' occurs, or allusions to the state of husband, it has
the sound of the smack of harlequin's wand upon clown, and is to the same
extent exhilarating.  Believe that idle empty laughter is the most
desirable of recreations, and significant Comedy will seem pale and
shallow in comparison.  Our popular idea would be hit by the sculptured
group of Laughter holding both his sides, while Comedy pummels, by way of
tickling him.  As to a meaning, she holds that it does not conduce to
making merry: you might as well carry cannon on a racing-yacht.  Morality
is a duenna to be circumvented.  This was the view of English Comedy of a
sagacious essayist, who said that the end of a Comedy would often be the
commencement of a Tragedy, were the curtain to rise again on the
performers.  In those old days female modesty was protected by a fan,
behind which, and it was of a convenient semicircular breadth, the ladies
present in the theatre retired at a signal of decorum, to peep, covertly
askant, or with the option of so peeping, through a prettily fringed
eyelet-hole in the eclipsing arch.

   'Ego limis specto sic per flabellum clanculum.'--

   TERENCE.

That fan is the flag and symbol of the society giving us our so-called
Comedy of Manners, or Comedy of the manners of South-sea Islanders under
city veneer; and as to Comic idea, vacuous as the mask without the face
behind it.

Elia, whose humour delighted in floating a galleon paradox and wafting it
as far as it would go, bewails the extinction of our artificial Comedy,
like a poet sighing over the vanished splendour of Cleopatra's
Nile-barge; and the sedateness of his plea for a cause condemned even in
his time to the penitentiary, is a novel effect of the ludicrous.  When
the realism of those 'fictitious half-believed personages,' as he calls
them, had ceased to strike, they were objectionable company, uncaressable
as puppets.  Their artifices are staringly naked, and have now the effect
of a painted face viewed, after warm hours of dancing, in the morning
light.  How could the Lurewells and the Plyants ever have been praised
for ingenuity in wickedness?  Critics, apparently sober, and of high
reputation, held up their shallow knaveries for the world to admire.
These Lurewells, Plyants, Pinchwifes, Fondlewifes, Miss Prue, Peggy,
Hoyden, all of them save charming Milamant, are dead as last year's
clothes in a fashionable fine lady's wardrobe, and it must be an
exceptionably abandoned Abigail of our period that would look on them
with the wish to appear in their likeness.  Whether the puppet show of
Punch and Judy inspires our street-urchins to have instant recourse to
their fists in a dispute, after the fashion of every one of the actors in
that public entertainment who gets possession of the cudgel, is open to
question: it has been hinted; and angry moralists have traced the
national taste for tales of crime to the smell of blood in our nursery-
songs.  It will at any rate hardly be questioned that it is unwholesome
for men and women to see themselves as they are, if they are no better
than they should be: and they will not, when they have improved in
manners, care much to see themselves as they once were.  That comes of
realism in the Comic art; and it is not public caprice, but the
consequence of a bettering state. {2}  The same of an immoral may be said
of realistic exhibitions of a vulgar society.

The French make a critical distinction in _ce qui remue_ from _ce qui
emeut_--that which agitates from that which touches with emotion.  In the
realistic comedy it is an incessant _remuage_--no calm, merely bustling
figures, and no thought.  Excepting Congreve's Way of the World, which
failed on the stage, there was nothing to keep our comedy alive on its
merits; neither, with all its realism, true portraiture, nor much
quotable fun, nor idea; neither salt nor soul.

The French have a school of stately comedy to which they can fly for
renovation whenever they have fallen away from it; and their having such
a school is mainly the reason why, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, they
know men and women more accurately than we do.  Moliere followed the
Horatian precept, to observe the manners of his age and give his
characters the colour befitting them at the time.  He did not paint in
raw realism.  He seized his characters firmly for the central purpose of
the play, stamped them in the idea, and by slightly raising and softening
the object of study (as in the case of the ex-Huguenot, Duke de
Montausier, {3} for the study of the Misanthrope, and, according to St.
Simon, the Abbe Roquette for Tartuffe), generalized upon it so as to make
it permanently human.  Concede that it is natural for human creatures to
live in society, and Alceste is an imperishable mark of one, though he is
drawn in light outline, without any forcible human colouring.  Our
English school has not clearly imagined society; and of the mind hovering
above congregated men and women, it has imagined nothing.  The critics
who praise it for its downrightness, and for bringing the situations home
to us, as they admiringly say, cannot but disapprove of Moliere's comedy,
which appeals to the individual mind to perceive and participate in the
social.  We have splendid tragedies, we have the most beautiful of poetic
plays, and we have literary comedies passingly pleasant to read, and
occasionally to see acted.  By literary comedies, I mean comedies of
classic inspiration, drawn chiefly from Menander and the Greek New Comedy
through Terence; or else comedies of the poet's personal conception, that
have had no model in life, and are humorous exaggerations, happy or
otherwise.  These are the comedies of Ben Jonson, Massinger, and
Fletcher.  Massinger's Justice Greedy we can all of us refer to a type,
'with fat capon lined' that has been and will be; and he would be comic,
as Panurge is comic, but only a Rabelais could set him moving with real
animation.  Probably Justice Greedy would be comic to the audience of a
country booth and to some of our friends.  If we have lost our youthful
relish for the presentation of characters put together to fit a type, we
find it hard to put together the mechanism of a civil smile at his
enumeration of his dishes.  Something of the same is to be said of
Bobadil, swearing 'by the foot of Pharaoh'; with a reservation, for he is
made to move faster, and to act.  The comic of Jonson is a scholar's
excogitation of the comic; that of Massinger a moralist's.

Shakespeare is a well-spring of characters which are saturated with the
comic spirit; with more of what we will call blood-life than is to be
found anywhere out of Shakespeare; and they are of this world, but they
are of the world enlarged to our embrace by imagination, and by great
poetic imagination.  They are, as it were--I put it to suit my present
comparison--creatures of the woods and wilds, not in walled towns, not
grouped and toned to pursue a comic exhibition of the narrower world of
society.  Jaques, Falstaff and his regiment, the varied troop of Clowns,
Malvolio, Sir Hugh Evans and Fluellen--marvellous Welshmen!--Benedict and
Beatrice, Dogberry, and the rest, are subjects of a special study in the
poetically comic.

His Comedy of incredible imbroglio belongs to the literary section.  One
may conceive that there was a natural resemblance between him and
Menander, both in the scheme and style of his lighter plays.  Had
Shakespeare lived in a later and less emotional, less heroical period of
our history, he might have turned to the painting of manners as well as
humanity.  Euripides would probably, in the time of Menander, when Athens
was enslaved but prosperous, have lent his hand to the composition of
romantic comedy.  He certainly inspired that fine genius.

Politically it is accounted a misfortune for France that her nobles
thronged to the Court of Louis Quatorze.  It was a boon to the comic
poet.  He had that lively quicksilver world of the animalcule passions,
the huge pretensions, the placid absurdities, under his eyes in full
activity; vociferous quacks and snapping dupes, hypocrites, posturers,
extravagants, pedants, rose-pink ladies and mad grammarians, sonneteering
marquises, high-flying mistresses, plain-minded maids, inter-threading as
in a loom, noisy as at a fair.  A simply bourgeois circle will not
furnish it, for the middle class must have the brilliant, flippant,
independent upper for a spur and a pattern; otherwise it is likely to be
inwardly dull as well as outwardly correct.  Yet, though the King was
benevolent toward Moliere, it is not to the French Court that we are
indebted for his unrivalled studies of mankind in society.  For the
amusement of the Court the ballets and farces were written, which are
dearer to the rabble upper, as to the rabble lower, class than
intellectual comedy.  The French bourgeoisie of Paris were sufficiently
quick-witted and enlightened by education to welcome great works like Le
Tartuffe, Les Femmes Savantes, and Le Misanthrope, works that were
perilous ventures on the popular intelligence, big vessels to launch on
streams running to shallows.  The Tartuffe hove into view as an enemy's
vessel; it offended, not _Dieu mais les devots_, as the Prince de Conde
explained the cabal raised against it to the King.

The Femmes Savantes is a capital instance of the uses of comedy in
teaching the world to understand what ails it.  The farce of the
Precieuses ridiculed and put a stop to the monstrous romantic jargon made
popular by certain famous novels.  The comedy of the Femmes Savantes
exposed the later and less apparent but more finely comic absurdity of an
excessive purism in grammar and diction, and the tendency to be idiotic
in precision.  The French had felt the burden of this new nonsense; but
they had to see the comedy several times before they were consoled in
their suffering by seeing the cause of it exposed.

The Misanthrope was yet more frigidly received.  Moliere thought it dead.
'I cannot improve on it, and assuredly never shall,' he said.  It is one
of the French titles to honour that this quintessential comedy of the
opposition of Alceste and Celimene was ultimately understood and
applauded.  In all countries the middle class presents the public which,
fighting the world, and with a good footing in the fight, knows the world
best.  It may be the most selfish, but that is a question leading us into
sophistries.  Cultivated men and women, who do not skim the cream of
life, and are attached to the duties, yet escape the harsher blows, make
acute and balanced observers.  Moliere is their poet.

Of this class in England, a large body, neither Puritan nor Bacchanalian,
have a sentimental objection to face the study of the actual world.  They
take up disdain of it, when its truths appear humiliating: when the facts
are not immediately forced on them, they take up the pride of
incredulity.  They live in a hazy atmosphere that they suppose an ideal
one.  Humorous writing they will endure, perhaps approve, if it mingles
with pathos to shake and elevate the feelings.  They approve of Satire,
because, like the beak of the vulture, it smells of carrion, which they
are not.  But of Comedy they have a shivering dread, for Comedy enfolds
them with the wretched host of the world, huddles them with us all in an
ignoble assimilation, and cannot be used by any exalted variety as a
scourge and a broom.  Nay, to be an exalted variety is to come under the
calm curious eye of the Comic spirit, and be probed for what you are.  Men
are seen among them, and very many cultivated women.  You may distinguish
them by a favourite phrase: 'Surely we are not so bad!' and the remark:
'If that is human nature, save us from it!' as if it could be done: but
in the peculiar Paradise of the wilful people who will not see, the
exclamation assumes the saving grace.

Yet should you ask them whether they dislike sound sense, they vow they
do not.  And question cultivated women whether it pleases them to be
shown moving on an intellectual level with men, they will answer that it
does; numbers of them claim the situation.  Now, Comedy is the fountain
of sound sense; not the less perfectly sound on account of the sparkle:
and Comedy lifts women to a station offering them free play for their
wit, as they usually show it, when they have it, on the side of sound
sense.  The higher the Comedy, the more prominent the part they enjoy in
it.  Dorine in the Tartuffe is common-sense incarnate, though palpably a
waiting-maid.  Celimene is undisputed mistress of the same attribute in
the Misanthrope; wiser as a woman than Alceste as man.  In Congreve's Way
of the World, Millamant overshadows Mirabel, the sprightliest male figure
of English comedy.

But those two ravishing women, so copious and so choice of speech, who
fence with men and pass their guard, are heartless!  Is it not preferable
to be the pretty idiot, the passive beauty, the adorable bundle of
caprices, very feminine, very sympathetic, of romantic and sentimental
fiction?  Our women are taught to think so.  The Agnes of the Ecole des
Femmes should be a lesson for men.  The heroines of Comedy are like women
of the world, not necessarily heartless from being clear-sighted: they
seem so to the sentimentally-reared only for the reason that they use
their wits, and are not wandering vessels crying for a captain or a
pilot.  Comedy is an exhibition of their battle with men, and that of men
with them: and as the two, however divergent, both look on one object,
namely, Life, the gradual similarity of their impressions must bring them
to some resemblance.  The Comic poet dares to show us men and women
coming to this mutual likeness; he is for saying that when they draw
together in social life their minds grow liker; just as the philosopher
discerns the similarity of boy and girl, until the girl is marched away
to the nursery.  Philosopher and Comic poet are of a cousinship in the
eye they cast on life: and they are equally unpopular with our wilful
English of the hazy region and the ideal that is not to be disturbed.

Thus, for want of instruction in the Comic idea, we lose a large audience
among our cultivated middle class that we should expect to support
Comedy.  The sentimentalist is as averse as the Puritan and as the
Bacchanalian.

Our traditions are unfortunate.  The public taste is with the idle
laughers, and still inclines to follow them.  It may be shown by an
analysis of Wycherley's Plain Dealer, a coarse prose adaption of the
Misanthrope, stuffed with lumps of realism in a vulgarized theme to hit
the mark of English appetite, that we have in it the keynote of the
Comedy of our stage.  It is Moliere travestied, with the hoof to his foot
and hair on the pointed tip of his ear.  And how difficult it is for
writers to disentangle themselves from bad traditions is noticeable when
we find Goldsmith, who had grave command of the Comic in narrative,
producing an elegant farce for a Comedy; and Fielding, who was a master
of the Comic both in narrative and in dialogue, not even approaching to
the presentable in farce.

These bad traditions of Comedy affect us not only on the stage, but in
our literature, and may be tracked into our social life.  They are the
ground of the heavy moralizings by which we are outwearied, about Life as
a Comedy, and Comedy as a jade, {4} when popular writers, conscious of
fatigue in creativeness, desire to be cogent in a modish cynicism:
perversions of the idea of life, and of the proper esteem for the society
we have wrested from brutishness, and would carry higher.  Stock images
of this description are accepted by the timid and the sensitive, as well
as by the saturnine, quite seriously; for not many look abroad with their
own eyes, fewer still have the habit of thinking for themselves.  Life,
we know too well, is not a Comedy, but something strangely mixed; nor is
Comedy a vile mask.  The corrupted importation from France was noxious; a
noble entertainment spoilt to suit the wretched taste of a villanous age;
and the later imitations of it, partly drained of its poison and made
decorous, became tiresome, notwithstanding their fun, in the perpetual
recurring of the same situations, owing to the absence of original study
and vigour of conception.  Scene v. Act 2 of the Misanthrope, owing, no
doubt, to the fact of our not producing matter for original study, is
repeated in succession by Wycherley, Congreve, and Sheridan, and as it is
at second hand, we have it done cynically--or such is the tone; in the
manner of 'below stairs.'  Comedy thus treated may be accepted as a
version of the ordinary worldly understanding of our social life; at
least, in accord with the current dicta concerning it.  The epigrams can
be made; but it is uninstructive, rather tending to do disservice.  Comedy
justly treated, as you find it in Moliere, whom we so clownishly
mishandled, the Comedy of Moliere throws no infamous reflection upon
life.  It is deeply conceived, in the first place, and therefore it
cannot be impure.  Meditate on that statement.  Never did man wield so
shrieking a scourge upon vice, but his consummate self-mastery is not
shaken while administering it.  Tartuffe and Harpagon, in fact, are made
each to whip himself and his class, the false pietists, and the insanely
covetous.  Moliere has only set them in motion.  He strips Folly to the
skin, displays the imposture of the creature, and is content to offer her
better clothing, with the lesson Chrysale reads to Philaminte and Belise.
He conceives purely, and he writes purely, in the simplest language, the
simplest of French verse.  The source of his wit is clear reason: it is a
fountain of that soil; and it springs to vindicate reason, common-sense,
rightness and justice; for no vain purpose ever.  The wit is of such
pervading spirit that it inspires a pun with meaning and interest. {5}
His moral does not hang like a tail, or preach from one character
incessantly cocking an eye at the audience, as in recent realistic French
Plays: but is in the heart of his work, throbbing with every pulsation of
an organic structure.  If Life is likened to the comedy of Moliere, there
is no scandal in the comparison.

Congreve's Way of the World is an exception to our other comedies, his
own among them, by virtue of the remarkable brilliancy of the writing,
and the figure of Millamant.  The comedy has no idea in it, beyond the
stale one, that so the world goes; and it concludes with the jaded
discovery of a document at a convenient season for the descent of the
curtain.  A plot was an afterthought with Congreve.  By the help of a
wooden villain (Maskwell) marked Gallows to the flattest eye, he gets a
sort of plot in The Double Dealer. {6}  His Way of the World might be
called The Conquest of a Town Coquette, and Millamant is a perfect
portrait of a coquette, both in her resistance to Mirabel and the manner
of her surrender, and also in her tongue.  The wit here is not so salient
as in certain passages of Love for Love, where Valentine feigns madness
or retorts on his father, or Mrs. Frail rejoices in the harmlessness of
wounds to a woman's virtue, if she 'keeps them from air.'  In The Way of
the World, it appears less prepared in the smartness, and is more
diffused in the more characteristic style of the speakers.  Here,
however, as elsewhere, his famous wit is like a bully-fencer, not ashamed
to lay traps for its exhibition, transparently petulant for the train
between certain ordinary words and the powder-magazine of the
improprieties to be fired.  Contrast the wit of Congreve with Moliere's.
That of the first is a Toledo blade, sharp, and wonderfully supple for
steel; cast for duelling, restless in the scabbard, being so pretty when
out of it.  To shine, it must have an adversary.  Moliere's wit is like a
running brook, with innumerable fresh lights on it at every turn of the
wood through which its business is to find a way.  It does not run in
search of obstructions, to be noisy over them; but when dead leaves and
viler substances are heaped along the course, its natural song is
heightened.  Without effort, and with no dazzling flashes of achievement,
it is full of healing, the wit of good breeding, the wit of wisdom.

'Genuine humour and true wit,' says Landor, {7} 'require a sound and
capacious mind, which is always a grave one.  Rabelais and La Fontaine
are recorded by their countrymen to have been _reveurs_.  Few men have
been graver than Pascal.  Few men have been wittier.'

To apply the citation of so great a brain as Pascal's to our countryman
would be unfair.  Congreve had a certain soundness of mind; of capacity,
in the sense intended by Landor, he had little.  Judging him by his wit,
he performed some happy thrusts, and taking it for genuine, it is a
surface wit, neither rising from a depth nor flowing from a spring.

   'On voit qu'il se travaille a dire de bons mots.'

He drives the poor hack word, 'fool,' as cruelly to the market for wit as
any of his competitors.  Here is an example, that has been held up for
eulogy:

   WITWOUD: He has brought me a letter from the fool my brother, etc.
   etc.

   MIRABEL: A fool, and your brother, Witwoud?

   WITWOUD: Ay, ay, my half-brother.  My half-brother he is; no nearer,
   upon my honour.

   MIRABEL: Then 'tis possible he may be but half a fool.

By evident preparation.  This is a sort of wit one remembers to have
heard at school, of a brilliant outsider; perhaps to have been guilty of
oneself, a trifle later.  It was, no doubt, a blaze of intellectual
fireworks to the bumpkin squire, who came to London to go to the theatre
and learn manners.

Where Congreve excels all his English rivals is in his literary force,
and a succinctness of style peculiar to him.  He had correct judgement, a
correct ear, readiness of illustration within a narrow range, in
snapshots of the obvious at the obvious, and copious language.  He hits
the mean of a fine style and a natural in dialogue.  He is at once
precise and voluble.  If you have ever thought upon style you will
acknowledge it to be a signal accomplishment.  In this he is a classic,
and is worthy of treading a measure with Moliere.  The Way of the World
may be read out currently at a first glance, so sure are the accents of
the emphatic meaning to strike the eye, perforce of the crispness and
cunning polish of the sentences.  You have not to look over them before
you confide yourself to him; he will carry you safe.  Sheridan imitated,
but was far from surpassing him.  The flow of boudoir Billingsgate in
Lady Wishfort is unmatched for the vigour and pointedness of the tongue.
It spins along with a final ring, like the voice of Nature in a fury, and
is, indeed, racy eloquence of the elevated fishwife.

Millamant is an admirable, almost a lovable heroine.  It is a piece of
genius in a writer to make a woman's manner of speech portray her.  You
feel sensible of her presence in every line of her speaking.  The
stipulations with her lover in view of marriage, her fine lady's
delicacy, and fine lady's easy evasions of indelicacy, coquettish airs,
and playing with irresolution, which in a common maid would be
bashfulness, until she submits to 'dwindle into a wife,' as she says,
form a picture that lives in the frame, and is in harmony with Mirabel's
description of her:

   'Here she comes, i' faith, full sail, with her fan spread, and her
   streamers out, and a shoal of fools for tenders.'

And, after an interview:

   'Think of you!  To think of a whirlwind, though 'twere in a whirlwind,
   were a case of more steady contemplation, a very tranquillity of mind
   and mansion.'

There is a picturesqueness, as of Millamant and no other, in her voice,
when she is encouraged to take Mirabel by Mrs. Fainall, who is 'sure she
has a mind to him':

   MILLAMANT: Are you?  I think I have--and the horrid man looks as if he
   thought so too, etc. etc.

One hears the tones, and sees the sketch and colour of the whole scene in
reading it.

Celimene is behind Millamant in vividness.  An air of bewitching
whimsicality hovers over the graces of this Comic heroine, like the
lively conversational play of a beautiful mouth.

But in wit she is no rival of Celimene.  What she utters adds to her
personal witchery, and is not further memorable.  She is a flashing
portrait, and a type of the superior ladies who do not think, not of
those who do.  In representing a class, therefore, it is a lower class,
in the proportion that one of Gainsborough's full-length aristocratic
women is below the permanent impressiveness of a fair Venetian head.

Millamant side by side with Celimene is an example of how far the
realistic painting of a character can be carried to win our favour; and
of where it falls short.  Celimene is a woman's mind in movement, armed
with an ungovernable wit; with perspicacious clear eyes for the world,
and a very distinct knowledge that she belongs to the world, and is most
at home in it.  She is attracted to Alceste by her esteem for his
honesty; she cannot avoid seeing where the good sense of the man is
diseased.

Rousseau, in his letter to D'Alembert on the subject of the Misanthrope,
discusses the character of Alceste, as though Moliere had put him forth
for an absolute example of misanthropy; whereas Alceste is only a
misanthrope of the circle he finds himself placed in: he has a touching
faith in the virtue residing in the country, and a critical love of sweet
simpleness.  Nor is he the principal person of the comedy to which he
gives a name.  He is only passively comic.  Celimene is the active
spirit.  While he is denouncing and railing, the trial is imposed upon
her to make the best of him, and control herself, as much as a witty
woman, eagerly courted, can do.  By appreciating him she practically
confesses her faultiness, and she is better disposed to meet him half-way
than he is to bend an inch: only she is _une ame de vingt ans_, the world
is pleasant, and if the gilded flies of the Court are silly,
uncompromising fanatics have their ridiculous features as well.  Can she
abandon the life they make agreeable to her, for a man who will not be
guided by the common sense of his class; and who insists on plunging into
one extreme--equal to suicide in her eyes--to avoid another?  That is the
comic question of the Misanthrope.  Why will he not continue to mix with
the world smoothly, appeased by the flattery of her secret and really
sincere preference of him, and taking his revenge in satire of it, as she
does from her own not very lofty standard, and will by and by do from his
more exalted one?

Celimene is worldliness: Alceste is unworldliness.  It does not quite
imply unselfishness; and that is perceived by her shrewd head.  Still he
is a very uncommon figure in her circle, and she esteems him, _l'homme
aux rubans verts_, 'who sometimes diverts but more often horribly vexes
her,' as she can say of him when her satirical tongue is on the run.
Unhappily the soul of truth in him, which wins her esteem, refuses to be
tamed, or silent, or unsuspicious, and is the perpetual obstacle to their
good accord.  He is that melancholy person, the critic of everybody save
himself; intensely sensitive to the faults of others, wounded by them; in
love with his own indubitable honesty, and with his ideal of the simpler
form of life befitting it: qualities which constitute the satirist.  He
is a Jean Jacques of the Court.  His proposal to Celimene when he pardons
her, that she should follow him in flying humankind, and his frenzy of
detestation of her at her refusal, are thoroughly in the mood of Jean
Jacques.  He is an impracticable creature of a priceless virtue; but
Celimene may feel that to fly with him to the desert: that is from the
Court to the country

   'Ou d'etre homme d'honneur on ait la liberte,'

she is likely to find herself the companion of a starving satirist, like
that poor princess who ran away with the waiting-man, and when both were
hungry in the forest, was ordered to give him flesh.  She is a _fieffee_
coquette, rejoicing in her wit and her attractions, and distinguished by
her inclination for Alceste in the midst of her many other lovers; only
she finds it hard to cut them off--what woman with a train does not?--and
when the exposure of her naughty wit has laid her under their rebuke, she
will do the utmost she can: she will give her hand to honesty, but she
cannot quite abandon worldliness.  She would be unwise if she did.

The fable is thin.  Our pungent contrivers of plots would see no
indication of life in the outlines.  The life of the comedy is in the
idea.  As with the singing of the sky-lark out of sight, you must love
the bird to be attentive to the song, so in this highest flight of the
Comic Muse, you must love pure Comedy warmly to understand the
Misanthrope: you must be receptive of the idea of Comedy.  And to love
Comedy you must know the real world, and know men and women well enough
not to expect too much of them, though you may still hope for good.

Menander wrote a comedy called Misogynes, said to have been the most
celebrated of his works.  This misogynist is a married man, according to
the fragment surviving, and is a hater of women through hatred of his
wife.  He generalizes upon them from the example of this lamentable
adjunct of his fortunes, and seems to have got the worst of it in the
contest with her, which is like the issue in reality, in the polite
world.  He seems also to have deserved it, which may be as true to the
copy.  But we are unable to say whether the wife was a good voice of her
sex: or how far Menander in this instance raised the idea of woman from
the mire it was plunged into by the comic poets, or rather satiric
dramatists, of the middle period of Greek Comedy preceding him and the
New Comedy, who devoted their wit chiefly to the abuse, and for a
diversity, to the eulogy of extra-mural ladies of conspicuous fame.
Menander idealized them without purposely elevating.  He satirized a
certain Thais, and his Thais of the Eunuchus of Terence is neither
professionally attractive nor repulsive; his picture of the two Andrians,
Chrysis and her sister, is nowhere to be matched for tenderness.  But the
condition of honest women in his day did not permit of the freedom of
action and fencing dialectic of a Celimene, and consequently it is below
our mark of pure Comedy.

Sainte-Beuve conjures up the ghost of Menander, saying: For the love of
me love Terence.  It is through love of Terence that moderns are able to
love Menander; and what is preserved of Terence has not apparently given
us the best of the friend of Epicurus.  [Greek text] the lover taken in
horror, and [Greek text] the damsel shorn of her locks, have a promising
sound for scenes of jealousy and a too masterful display of lordly
authority, leading to regrets, of the kind known to intemperate men who
imagined they were fighting with the weaker, as the fragments indicate.

Of the six comedies of Terence, four are derived from Menander; two, the
Hecyra and the Phormio, from Apollodorus.  These two are inferior in
comic action and the peculiar sweetness of Menander to the Andria, the
Adelphi, the Heautontimorumenus, and the Eunuchus: but Phormio is a more
dashing and amusing convivial parasite than the Gnatho of the last-named
comedy.  There were numerous rivals of whom we know next to
nothing--except by the quotations of Athenaeus and Plutarch, and the
Greek grammarians who cited them to support a dictum--in this as in the
preceding periods of comedy in Athens, for Menander's plays are counted
by many scores, and they were crowned by the prize only eight times.  The
favourite poet with critics, in Greece as in Rome, was Menander; and if
some of his rivals here and there surpassed him in comic force, and out-
stripped him in competition by an appositeness to the occasion that had
previously in the same way deprived the genius of Aristophanes of its due
reward in Clouds and Birds, his position as chief of the comic poets of
his age was unchallenged.  Plutarch very unnecessarily drags Aristophanes
into a comparison with him, to the confusion of the older poet.  Their
aims, the matter they dealt in, and the times, were quite dissimilar.  But
it is no wonder that Plutarch, writing when Athenian beauty of style was
the delight of his patrons, should rank Menander at the highest.  In what
degree of faithfulness Terence copied Menander, whether, as he states of
the passage in the Adelphi taken from Diphilus, _verbum de verbo_ in the
lovelier scenes--the description of the last words of the dying Andrian,
and of her funeral, for instance--remains conjectural.  For us Terence
shares with his master the praise of an amenity that is like Elysian
speech, equable and ever gracious; like the face of the Andrian's young
sister:

   'Adeo modesto, adeo venusto, ut nihil supra.'

The celebrated 'flens quam familiariter,' of which the closest rendering
grounds hopelessly on harsh prose, to express the sorrowful confidingness
of a young girl who has lost her sister and dearest friend, and has but
her lover left to her; 'she turned and flung herself on his bosom,
weeping as though at home there': this our instinct tells us must be
Greek, though hardly finer in Greek.  Certain lines of Terence, compared
with the original fragments, show that he embellished them; but his taste
was too exquisite for him to do other than devote his genius to the
honest translation of such pieces as the above.  Menander, then; with
him, through the affinity of sympathy, Terence; and Shakespeare and
Moliere have this beautiful translucency of language: and the study of
the comic poets might be recommended, if for that only.

A singular ill fate befell the writings of Menander.  What we have of him
in Terence was chosen probably to please the cultivated Romans; {8} and
is a romantic play with a comic intrigue, obtained in two instances, the
Andria and the Eunuchus, by rolling a couple of his originals into one.
The titles of certain of the lost plays indicate the comic illumining
character; a Self-pitier, a Self-chastiser, an Ill-tempered man, a
Superstitious, an Incredulous, etc., point to suggestive domestic themes.

Terence forwarded manuscript translations from Greece, that suffered
shipwreck; he, who could have restored the treasure, died on the way
home.  The zealots of Byzantium completed the work of destruction.  So we
have the four comedies of Terence, numbering six of Menander, with a few
sketches of plots--one of them, the Thesaurus, introduces a miser, whom
we should have liked to contrast with Harpagon--and a multitude of small
fragments of a sententious cast, fitted for quotation.  Enough remains to
make his greatness felt.

Without undervaluing other writers of Comedy, I think it may be said that
Menander and Moliere stand alone specially as comic poets of the feelings
and the idea.  In each of them there is a conception of the Comic that
refines even to pain, as in the Menedemus of the Heautontimorumenus, and
in the Misanthrope.  Menander and Moliere have given the principal types
to Comedy hitherto.  The Micio and Demea of the Adelphi, with their
opposing views of the proper management of youth, are still alive; the
Sganarelles and Arnolphes of the Ecole des Maris and the Ecole des
Femmes, are not all buried.  Tartuffe is the father of the hypocrites;
Orgon of the dupes; Thraso, of the braggadocios; Alceste of the 'Manlys';
Davus and Syrus of the intriguing valets, the Scapins and Figaros.  Ladies
that soar in the realms of Rose-Pink, whose language wears the nodding
plumes of intellectual conceit, are traceable to Philaminte and Belise of
the Femmes Savantes: and the mordant witty women have the tongue of
Celimene.  The reason is, that these two poets idealized upon life: the
foundation of their types is real and in the quick, but they painted with
spiritual strength, which is the solid in Art.

The idealistic conceptions of Comedy gives breadth and opportunities of
daring to Comic genius, and helps to solve the difficulties it creates.
How, for example, shall an audience be assured that an evident and
monstrous dupe is actually deceived without being an absolute fool?  In
Le Tartuffe the note of high Comedy strikes when Orgon on his return home
hears of his idol's excellent appetite.  '_Le pauvre homme_!' he
exclaims.  He is told that the wife of his bosom has been unwell.  '_Et
Tartuffe_?' he asks, impatient to hear him spoken of, his mind suffused
with the thought of Tartuffe, crazy with tenderness, and again he croons,
'_Le pauvre homme_!'  It is the mother's cry of pitying delight at a
nurse's recital of the feats in young animal gluttony of her cherished
infant.  After this masterstroke of the Comic, you not only put faith in
Orgon's roseate prepossession, you share it with him by comic sympathy,
and can listen with no more than a tremble of the laughing muscles to the
instance he gives of the sublime humanity of Tartuffe:

   'Un rien presque suffit pour le scandaliser,
   Jusque-la, qu'il se vint l'autre jour accuser
   D'avoir pris une puce en faisant sa priere,
   Et de l'avoir tuee avec trop de colere.'

And to have killed it too wrathfully!  Translating Moliere is like
humming an air one has heard performed by an accomplished violinist of
the pure tones without flourish.

Orgon, awakening to find another dupe in Madame Pernelle, incredulous of
the revelations which have at last opened his own besotted eyes, is a
scene of the double Comic, vivified by the spell previously cast on the
mind.  There we feel the power of the poet's creation; and in the sharp
light of that sudden turn the humanity is livelier than any realistic
work can make it.

Italian Comedy gives many hints for a Tartuffe; but they may be found in
Boccaccio, as well as in Machiavelli's Mandragola.  The Frate Timoteo of
this piece is only a very oily friar, compliantly assisting an intrigue
with ecclesiastical sophisms (to use the mildest word) for payment.  Frate
Timoteo has a fine Italian priestly pose.

DONNA: Credete voi, che'l Turco passi questo anno in Italia?

F. TIM.: Se voi non fate orazione, si.

Priestly arrogance and unctuousness, and trickeries and casuistries,
cannot be painted without our discovering a likeness in the long Italian
gallery.  Goldoni sketched the Venetian manners of the decadence of the
Republic with a French pencil, and was an Italian Scribe in style.

The Spanish stage is richer in such Comedies as that which furnished the
idea of the Menteur to Corneille.  But you must force yourself to believe
that this liar is not forcing his vein when he piles lie upon lie.  There
is no preceding touch to win the mind to credulity.  Spanish Comedy is
generally in sharp outline, as of skeletons; in quick movement, as of
marionnettes.  The Comedy might be performed by a troop of the _corps de
ballet_; and in the recollection of the reading it resolves to an
animated shuffle of feet.  It is, in fact, something other than the true
idea of Comedy.  Where the sexes are separated, men and women grow, as
the Portuguese call it, _affaimados_ of one another, famine-stricken; and
all the tragic elements are on the stage.  Don Juan is a comic character
that sends souls flying: nor does the humour of the breaking of a dozen
women's hearts conciliate the Comic Muse with the drawing of blood.

German attempts at Comedy remind one vividly of Heine's image of his
country in the dancing of Atta Troll.  Lessing tried his hand at it, with
a sobering effect upon readers.  The intention to produce the reverse
effect is just visible, and therein, like the portly graces of the poor
old Pyrenean Bear poising and twirling on his right hind-leg and his
left, consists the fun.  Jean Paul Richter gives the best edition of the
German Comic in the contrast of Siebenkas with his Lenette.  A light of
the Comic is in Goethe; enough to complete the splendid figure of the
man, but no more.

The German literary laugh, like the timed awakenings of their Barbarossa
in the hollows of the Untersberg, is infrequent, and rather
monstrous--never a laugh of men and women in concert.  It comes of
unrefined abstract fancy, grotesque or grim, or gross, like the peculiar
humours of their little earthmen.  Spiritual laughter they have not yet
attained to: sentimentalism waylays them in the flight.  Here and there a
Volkslied or Marchen shows a national aptitude for stout animal laughter;
and we see that the literature is built on it, which is hopeful so far;
but to enjoy it, to enter into the philosophy of the Broad Grin, that
seems to hesitate between the skull and the embryo, and reaches its
perfection in breadth from the pulling of two square fingers at the
corners of the mouth, one must have aid of 'the good Rhine wine,' and be
of German blood unmixed besides.  This treble-Dutch lumbersomeness of the
Comic spirit is of itself exclusive of the idea of Comedy, and the poor
voice allowed to women in German domestic life will account for the
absence of comic dialogues reflecting upon life in that land.  I shall
speak of it again in the second section of this lecture.

Eastward you have total silence of Comedy among a people intensely
susceptible to laughter, as the Arabian Nights will testify.  Where the
veil is over women's-faces, you cannot have society, without which the
senses are barbarous and the Comic spirit is driven to the gutters of
grossness to slake its thirst.  Arabs in this respect are worse than
Italians--much worse than Germans; just in the degree that their system
of treating women is worse.

M. Saint-Marc Girardin, the excellent French essayist and master of
critical style, tells of a conversation he had once with an Arab
gentleman on the topic of the different management of these difficult
creatures in Orient and in Occident: and the Arab spoke in praise of many
good results of the greater freedom enjoyed by Western ladies, and the
charm of conversing with them.  He was questioned why his countrymen took
no measures to grant them something of that kind of liberty.  He jumped
out of his individuality in a twinkling, and entered into the sentiments
of his race, replying, from the pinnacle of a splendid conceit, with
affected humility of manner: '_You_ can look on them without
perturbation--but _we_!' . . . And after this profoundly comic
interjection, he added, in deep tones, 'The very face of a woman!'  Our
representative of temperate notions demurely consented that the Arab's
pride of inflammability should insist on the prudery of the veil as the
civilizing medium of his race.

There has been fun in Bagdad.  But there never will be civilization where
Comedy is not possible; and that comes of some degree of social equality
of the sexes.  I am not quoting the Arab to exhort and disturb the
somnolent East; rather for cultivated women to recognize that the Comic
Muse is one of their best friends.  They are blind to their interests in
swelling the ranks of the sentimentalists.  Let them look with their
clearest vision abroad and at home.  They will see that where they have
no social freedom, Comedy is absent: where they are household drudges,
the form of Comedy is primitive: where they are tolerably independent,
but uncultivated, exciting melodrama takes its place and a sentimental
version of them.  Yet the Comic will out, as they would know if they
listened to some of the private conversations of men whose minds are
undirected by the Comic Muse: as the sentimental man, to his
astonishment, would know likewise, if he in similar fashion could receive
a lesson.  But where women are on the road to an equal footing with men,
in attainments and in liberty--in what they have won for themselves, and
what has been granted them by a fair civilization--there, and only
waiting to be transplanted from life to the stage, or the novel, or the
poem, pure Comedy flourishes, and is, as it would help them to be, the
sweetest of diversions, the wisest of delightful companions.

Now, to look about us in the present time, I think it will be
acknowledged that in neglecting the cultivation of the Comic idea, we are
losing the aid of a powerful auxiliar.  You see Folly perpetually sliding
into new shapes in a society possessed of wealth and leisure, with many
whims, many strange ailments and strange doctors.  Plenty of common-sense
is in the world to thrust her back when she pretends to empire.  But the
first-born of common-sense, the vigilant Comic, which is the genius of
thoughtful laughter, which would readily extinguish her at the outset, is
not serving as a public advocate.

You will have noticed the disposition of common-sense, under pressure of
some pertinacious piece of light-headedness, to grow impatient and angry.
That is a sign of the absence, or at least of the dormancy, of the Comic
idea.  For Folly is the natural prey of the Comic, known to it in all her
transformations, in every disguise; and it is with the springing delight
of hawk over heron, hound after fox, that it gives her chase, never
fretting, never tiring, sure of having her, allowing her no rest.

Contempt is a sentiment that cannot be entertained by comic intelligence.
What is it but an excuse to be idly minded, or personally lofty, or
comfortably narrow, not perfectly humane?  If we do not feign when we say
that we despise Folly, we shut the brain.  There is a disdainful attitude
in the presence of Folly, partaking of the foolishness to Comic
perception: and anger is not much less foolish than disdain.  The
struggle we have to conduct is essence against essence.  Let no one doubt
of the sequel when this emanation of what is firmest in us is launched to
strike down the daughter of Unreason and Sentimentalism: such being
Folly's parentage, when it is respectable.

Our modern system of combating her is too long defensive, and carried on
too ploddingly with concrete engines of war in the attack.  She has time
to get behind entrenchments.  She is ready to stand a siege, before the
heavily armed man of science and the writer of the leading article or
elaborate essay have primed their big guns.  It should be remembered that
she has charms for the multitude; and an English multitude seeing her
make a gallant fight of it will be half in love with her, certainly
willing to lend her a cheer.  Benevolent subscriptions assist her to hire
her own man of science, her own organ in the Press.  If ultimately she is
cast out and overthrown, she can stretch a finger at gaps in our ranks.
She can say that she commanded an army and seduced men, whom we thought
sober men and safe, to act as her lieutenants.  We learn rather gloomily,
after she has flashed her lantern, that we have in our midst able men and
men with minds for whom there is no pole-star in intellectual navigation.
Comedy, or the Comic element, is the specific for the poison of delusion
while Folly is passing from the state of vapour to substantial form.

O for a breath of Aristophanes, Rabelais, Voltaire, Cervantes, Fielding,
Moliere!  These are spirits that, if you know them well, will come when
you do call.  You will find the very invocation of them act on you like a
renovating air--the South-west coming off the sea, or a cry in the Alps.

No one would presume to say that we are deficient in jokers.  They
abound, and the organisation directing their machinery to shoot them in
the wake of the leading article and the popular sentiment is good.

But the Comic differs from them in addressing the wits for laughter; and
the sluggish wits want some training to respond to it, whether in public
life or private, and particularly when the feelings are excited.

The sense of the Comic is much blunted by habits of punning and of using
humouristic phrase: the trick of employing Johnsonian polysyllables to
treat of the infinitely little.  And it really may be humorous, of a
kind, yet it will miss the point by going too much round about it.

A certain French Duke Pasquier died, some years back, at a very advanced
age.  He had been the venerable Duke Pasquier in his later years up to
the period of his death.  There was a report of Duke Pasquier that he was
a man of profound egoism.  Hence an argument arose, and was warmly
sustained, upon the excessive selfishness of those who, in a world of
troubles, and calls to action, and innumerable duties, husband their
strength for the sake of living on.  Can it be possible, the argument
ran, for a truly generous heart to continue beating up to the age of a
hundred?  Duke Pasquier was not without his defenders, who likened him to
the oak of the forest--a venerable comparison.

The argument was conducted on both sides with spirit and earnestness,
lightened here and there by frisky touches of the polysyllabic playful,
reminding one of the serious pursuit of their fun by truant boys, that
are assured they are out of the eye of their master, and now and then
indulge in an imitation of him.  And well might it be supposed that the
Comic idea was asleep, not overlooking them!  It resolved at last to
this, that either Duke Pasquier was a scandal on our humanity in clinging
to life so long, or that he honoured it by so sturdy a resistance to the
enemy.  As one who has entangled himself in a labyrinth is glad to get
out again at the entrance, the argument ran about to conclude with its
commencement.

Now, imagine a master of the Comic treating this theme, and particularly
the argument on it.  Imagine an Aristophanic comedy of THE CENTENARIAN,
with choric praises of heroical early death, and the same of a stubborn
vitality, and the poet laughing at the chorus; and the grand question for
contention in dialogue, as to the exact age when a man should die, to the
identical minute, that he may preserve the respect of his fellows,
followed by a systematic attempt to make an accurate measurement in
parallel lines, with a tough rope-yarn by one party, and a string of
yawns by the other, of the veteran's power of enduring life, and our
capacity for enduring _him_, with tremendous pulling on both sides.

Would not the Comic view of the discussion illumine it and the disputants
like very lightning?  There are questions, as well as persons, that only
the Comic can fitly touch.

Aristophanes would probably have crowned the ancient tree, with the
consolatory observation to the haggard line of long-expectant heirs of
the Centenarian, that they live to see the blessedness of coming of a
strong stock.  The shafts of his ridicule would mainly have been aimed at
the disputants.  For the sole ground of the argument was the old man's
character, and sophists are not needed to demonstrate that we can very
soon have too much of a bad thing.  A Centenarian does not necessarily
provoke the Comic idea, nor does the corpse of a duke.  It is not
provoked in the order of nature, until we draw its penetrating
attentiveness to some circumstance with which we have been mixing our
private interests, or our speculative obfuscation.  Dulness, insensible
to the Comic, has the privilege of arousing it; and the laying of a dull
finger on matters of human life is the surest method of establishing
electrical communications with a battery of laughter--where the Comic
idea is prevalent.

But if the Comic idea prevailed with us, and we had an Aristophanes to
barb and wing it, we should be breathing air of Athens.  Prosers now
pouring forth on us like public fountains would be cut short in the
street and left blinking, dumb as pillar-posts, with letters thrust into
their mouths.  We should throw off incubus, our dreadful familiar--by
some called boredom--whom it is our present humiliation to be just alive
enough to loathe, never quick enough to foil.  There would be a bright
and positive, clear Hellenic perception of facts.  The vapours of
Unreason and Sentimentalism would be blown away before they were
productive.  Where would Pessimist and Optimist be?  They would in any
case have a diminished audience.  Yet possibly the change of despots,
from good-natured old obtuseness to keen-edged intelligence, which is by
nature merciless, would be more than we could bear.  The rupture of the
link between dull people, consisting in the fraternal agreement that
something is too clever for them, and a shot beyond them, is not to be
thought of lightly; for, slender though the link may seem, it is
equivalent to a cement forming a concrete of dense cohesion, very
desirable in the estimation of the statesman.

A political Aristophanes, taking advantage of his lyrical Bacchic
licence, was found too much for political Athens.  I would not ask to
have him revived, but that the sharp light of such a spirit as his might
be with us to strike now and then on public affairs, public themes, to
make them spin along more briskly.

He hated with the politician's fervour the sophist who corrupted
simplicity of thought, the poet who destroyed purity of style, the
demagogue, 'the saw-toothed monster,' who, as he conceived, chicaned the
mob, and he held his own against them by strength of laughter, until
fines, the curtailing of his Comic licence in the chorus, and ultimately
the ruin of Athens, which could no longer support the expense of the
chorus, threw him altogether on dialogue, and brought him under the law.
After the catastrophe, the poet, who had ever been gazing back at the men
of Marathon and Salamis, must have felt that he had foreseen it; and that
he was wise when he pleaded for peace, and derided military coxcombry,
and the captious old creature Demus, we can admit.  He had the Comic
poet's gift of common-sense--which does not always include political
intelligence; yet his political tendency raised him above the Old Comedy
turn for uproarious farce.  He abused Socrates, but Xenophon, the
disciple of Socrates, by his trained rhetoric saved the Ten Thousand.
Aristophanes might say that if his warnings had been followed there would
have been no such thing as a mercenary Greek expedition under Cyrus.
Athens, however, was on a landslip, falling; none could arrest it.  To
gaze back, to uphold the old times, was a most natural conservatism, and
fruitless.  The aloe had bloomed.  Whether right or wrong in his politics
and his criticisms, and bearing in mind the instruments he played on and
the audience he had to win, there is an idea in his comedies: it is the
Idea of Good Citizenship.

He is not likely to be revived.  He stands, like Shakespeare, an
unapproachable.  Swift says of him, with a loving chuckle:

   'But as for Comic Aristophanes,
   The dog too witty and too profane is.'

Aristophanes was 'profane,' under satiric direction, unlike his rivals
Cratinus, Phrynichus, Ameipsias, Eupolis, and others, if we are to
believe him, who in their extraordinary Donnybrook Fair of the day of
Comedy, thumped one another and everybody else with absolute heartiness,
as he did, but aimed at small game, and dragged forth particular women,
which he did not.  He is an aggregate of many men, all of a certain
greatness.  We may build up a conception of his powers if we mount
Rabelais upon Hudibras, lift him with the songfulness of Shelley, give
him a vein of Heinrich Heine, and cover him with the mantle of the Anti-
Jacobin, adding (that there may be some Irish in him) a dash of Grattan,
before he is in motion.

But such efforts at conceiving one great one by incorporation of minors
are vain, and cry for excuse.  Supposing Wilkes for leading man in a
country constantly plunging into war under some plumed Lamachus, with
enemies periodically firing the land up to the gates of London, and a
Samuel Foote, of prodigious genius, attacking him with ridicule, I think
it gives a notion of the conflict engaged in by Aristophanes.  This
laughing bald-pate, as he calls himself, was a Titanic pamphleteer, using
laughter for his political weapon; a laughter without scruple, the
laughter of Hercules.  He was primed with wit, as with the garlic he
speaks of giving to the game-cocks, to make them fight the better.  And
he was a lyric poet of aerial delicacy, with the homely song of a jolly
national poet, and a poet of such feeling that the comic mask is at times
no broader than a cloth on a face to show the serious features of our
common likeness.  He is not to be revived; but if his method were
studied, some of the fire in him would come to us, and we might be
revived.

Taking them generally, the English public are most in sympathy with this
primitive Aristophanic comedy, wherein the comic is capped by the
grotesque, irony tips the wit, and satire is a naked sword.  They have
the basis of the Comic in them: an esteem for common-sense.  They
cordially dislike the reverse of it.  They have a rich laugh, though it
is not the _gros rire_ of the Gaul tossing _gros sel_, nor the polished
Frenchman's mentally digestive laugh.  And if they have now, like a
monarch with a troop of dwarfs, too many jesters kicking the dictionary
about, to let them reflect that they are dull, occasionally, like the
pensive monarch surprising himself with an idea of an idea of his own,
they look so.  And they are given to looking in the glass.  They must see
that something ails them.  How much even the better order of them will
endure, without a thought of the defensive, when the person afflicting
them is protected from satire, we read in Memoirs of a Preceding Age,
where the vulgarly tyrannous hostess of a great house of reception
shuffled the guests and played them like a pack of cards, with her exact
estimate of the strength of each one printed on them: and still this
house continued to be the most popular in England; nor did the lady ever
appear in print or on the boards as the comic type that she was.

It has been suggested that they have not yet spiritually comprehended the
signification of living in society; for who are cheerfuller, brisker of
wit, in the fields, and as explorers, colonisers, backwoodsmen?  They are
happy in rough exercise, and also in complete repose.  The intermediate
condition, when they are called upon to talk to one another, upon other
than affairs of business or their hobbies, reveals them wearing a curious
look of vacancy, as it were the socket of an eye wanting.  The Comic is
perpetually springing up in social life, and, it oppresses them from not
being perceived.

Thus, at a dinner-party, one of the guests, who happens to have enrolled
himself in a Burial Company, politely entreats the others to inscribe
their names as shareholders, expatiating on the advantages accruing to
them in the event of their very possible speedy death, the salubrity of
the site, the aptitude of the soil for a quick consumption of their
remains, etc.; and they drink sadness from the incongruous man, and
conceive indigestion, not seeing him in a sharply defined light, that
would bid them taste the comic of him.  Or it is mentioned that a newly
elected member of our Parliament celebrates his arrival at eminence by
the publication of a book on cab-fares, dedicated to a beloved female
relative deceased, and the comment on it is the word 'Indeed.'  But,
merely for a contrast, turn to a not uncommon scene of yesterday in the
hunting-field, where a brilliant young rider, having broken his collar-
bone, trots away very soon after, against medical interdict, half put
together in splinters, to the most distant meet of his neighbourhood,
sure of escaping his doctor, who is the first person he encounters.  'I
came here purposely to avoid you,' says the patient.  'I came here
purposely to take care of you,' says the doctor.  Off they go, and come
to a swollen brook.  The patient clears it handsomely: the doctor tumbles
in.  All the field are alive with the heartiest relish of every incident
and every cross-light on it; and dull would the man have been thought who
had not his word to say about it when riding home.

In our prose literature we have had delightful Comic writers.  Besides
Fielding and Goldsmith, there is Miss Austen, whose Emma and Mr. Elton
might walk straight into a comedy, were the plot arranged for them.
Galt's neglected novels have some characters and strokes of shrewd
comedy.  In our poetic literature the comic is delicate and graceful
above the touch of Italian and French.  Generally, however, the English
elect excel in satire, and they are noble humourists.  The national
disposition is for hard-hitting, with a moral purpose to sanction it; or
for a rosy, sometimes a larmoyant, geniality, not unmanly in its verging
upon tenderness, and with a singular attraction for thick-headedness, to
decorate it with asses' ears and the most beautiful sylvan haloes.  But
the Comic is a different spirit.

You may estimate your capacity for Comic perception by being able to
detect the ridicule of them you love, without loving them less: and more
by being able to see yourself somewhat ridiculous in dear eyes, and
accepting the correction their image of you proposes.

Each one of an affectionate couple may be willing, as we say, to die for
the other, yet unwilling to utter the agreeable word at the right moment;
but if the wits were sufficiently quick for them to perceive that they
are in a comic situation, as affectionate couples must be when they
quarrel, they would not wait for the moon or the almanac, or a Dorine, to
bring back the flood-tide of tender feelings, that they should join hands
and lips.

If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled by it, you are
slipping into the grasp of Satire.

If instead of falling foul of the ridiculous person with a satiric rod,
to make him writhe and shriek aloud, you prefer to sting him under a semi-
caress, by which he shall in his anguish be rendered dubious whether
indeed anything has hurt him, you are an engine of Irony.

If you laugh all round him, tumble him, roll him about, deal him a smack,
and drop a tear on him, own his likeness to you and yours to your
neighbour, spare him as little as you shun, pity him as much as you
expose, it is a spirit of Humour that is moving you.

The Comic, which is the perceptive, is the governing spirit, awakening
and giving aim to these powers of laughter, but it is not to be
confounded with them: it enfolds a thinner form of them, differing from
satire, in not sharply driving into the quivering sensibilities, and from
humour, in not comforting them and tucking them up, or indicating a
broader than the range of this bustling world to them.

Fielding's Jonathan Wild presents a case of this peculiar distinction,
when that man of eminent greatness remarks upon the unfairness of a trial
in which the condemnation has been brought about by twelve men of the
opposite party; for it is not satiric, it is not humorous; yet it is
immensely comic to hear a guilty villain protesting that his own 'party'
should have a voice in the Law.  It opens an avenue into villains'
ratiocination. {9}  And the Comic is not cancelled though we should
suppose Jonathan to be giving play to his humour.  I may have dreamed
this or had it suggested to me, for on referring to Jonathan Wild, I do
not find it.

Apply the case to the man of deep wit, who is ever certain of his
condemnation by the opposite party, and then it ceases to be comic, and
will be satiric.

The look of Fielding upon Richardson is essentially comic.  His method of
correcting the sentimental writer is a mixture of the comic and the
humorous.  Parson Adams is a creation of humour.  But both the conception
and the presentation of Alceste and of Tartuffe, of Celimene and
Philaminte, are purely comic, addressed to the intellect: there is no
humour in them, and they refresh the intellect they quicken to detect
their comedy, by force of the contrast they offer between themselves and
the wiser world about them; that is to say, society, or that assemblage
of minds whereof the Comic spirit has its origin.

Byron had splendid powers of humour, and the most poetic satire that we
have example of, fusing at times to hard irony.  He had no strong comic
sense, or he would not have taken an anti-social position, which is
directly opposed to the Comic; and in his philosophy, judged by
philosophers, he is a comic figure, by reason of this deficiency.  'So
bald er philosophirt ist er ein Kind,' Goethe says of him.  Carlyle sees
him in this comic light, treats him in the humorous manner.

The Satirist is a moral agent, often a social scavenger, working on a
storage of bile.

The Ironeist is one thing or another, according to his caprice.  Irony is
the humour of satire; it may be savage as in Swift, with a moral object,
or sedate, as in Gibbon, with a malicious.  The foppish irony fretting to
be seen, and the irony which leers, that you shall not mistake its
intention, are failures in satiric effort pretending to the treasures of
ambiguity.

The Humourist of mean order is a refreshing laugher, giving tone to the
feelings and sometimes allowing the feelings to be too much for him.  But
the humourist of high has an embrace of contrasts beyond the scope of the
Comic poet.

Heart and mind laugh out at Don Quixote, and still you brood on him.  The
juxtaposition of the knight and squire is a Comic conception, the
opposition of their natures most humorous.  They are as different as the
two hemispheres in the time of Columbus, yet they touch and are bound in
one by laughter.  The knight's great aims and constant mishaps, his
chivalrous valiancy exercised on absurd objects, his good sense along the
highroad of the craziest of expeditions; the compassion he plucks out of
derision, and the admirable figure he preserves while stalking through
the frantically grotesque and burlesque assailing him, are in the
loftiest moods of humour, fusing the Tragic sentiment with the Comic
narrative.

The stroke of the great humourist is world-wide, with lights of Tragedy
in his laughter.

Taking a living great, though not creative, humourist to guide our
description: the skull of Yorick is in his hands in our seasons of
festival; he sees visions of primitive man capering preposterously under
the gorgeous robes of ceremonial.  Our souls must be on fire when we wear
solemnity, if we would not press upon his shrewdest nerve.  Finite and
infinite flash from one to the other with him, lending him a two-edged
thought that peeps out of his peacefullest lines by fits, like the
lantern of the fire-watcher at windows, going the rounds at night.  The
comportment and performances of men in society are to him, by the vivid
comparison with their mortality, more grotesque than respectable.  But
ask yourself, Is he always to be relied on for justness?  He will fly
straight as the emissary eagle back to Jove at the true Hero.  He will
also make as determined a swift descent upon the man of his wilful
choice, whom we cannot distinguish as a true one.  This vast power of
his, built up of the feelings and the intellect in union, is often
wanting in proportion and in discretion.  Humourists touching upon
History or Society are given to be capricious.  They are, as in the case
of Sterne, given to be sentimental; for with them the feelings are
primary, as with singers.  Comedy, on the other hand, is an
interpretation of the general mind, and is for that reason of necessity
kept in restraint.  The French lay marked stress on _mesure et gout_, and
they own how much they owe to Moliere for leading them in simple justness
and taste.  We can teach them many things; they can teach us in this.

The Comic poet is in the narrow field, or enclosed square, of the society
he depicts; and he addresses the still narrower enclosure of men's
intellects, with reference to the operation of the social world upon
their characters.  He is not concerned with beginnings or endings or
surroundings, but with what you are now weaving.  To understand his work
and value it, you must have a sober liking of your kind and a sober
estimate of our civilized qualities.  The aim and business of the Comic
poet are misunderstood, his meaning is not seized nor his point of view
taken, when he is accused of dishonouring our nature and being hostile to
sentiment, tending to spitefulness and making an unfair use of laughter.
Those who detect irony in Comedy do so because they choose to see it in
life.  Poverty, says the satirist, has nothing harder in itself than that
it makes men ridiculous.  But poverty is never ridiculous to Comic
perception until it attempts to make its rags conceal its bareness in a
forlorn attempt at decency, or foolishly to rival ostentation.  Caleb
Balderstone, in his endeavour to keep up the honour of a noble household
in a state of beggary, is an exquisitely comic character.  In the case of
'poor relatives,' on the other hand, it is the rich, whom they perplex,
that are really comic; and to laugh at the former, not seeing the comedy
of the latter, is to betray dulness of vision.  Humourist and Satirist
frequently hunt together as Ironeists in pursuit of the grotesque, to the
exclusion of the Comic.  That was an affecting moment in the history of
the Prince Regent, when the First Gentleman of Europe burst into tears at
a sarcastic remark of Beau Brummell's on the cut of his coat.  Humour,
Satire, Irony, pounce on it altogether as their common prey.  The Comic
spirit eyes but does not touch it.  Put into action, it would be
farcical.  It is too gross for Comedy.

Incidents of a kind casting ridicule on our unfortunate nature instead of
our conventional life, provoke derisive laughter, which thwarts the Comic
idea.  But derision is foiled by the play of the intellect.  Most of
doubtful causes in contest are open to Comic interpretation, and any
intellectual pleading of a doubtful cause contains germs of an Idea of
Comedy.

The laughter of satire is a blow in the back or the face.  The laughter
of Comedy is impersonal and of unrivalled politeness, nearer a smile;
often no more than a smile.  It laughs through the mind, for the mind
directs it; and it might be called the humour of the mind.

One excellent test of the civilization of a country, as I have said, I
take to be the flourishing of the Comic idea and Comedy; and the test of
true Comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter.

If you believe that our civilization is founded in common-sense (and it
is the first condition of sanity to believe it), you will, when
contemplating men, discern a Spirit overhead; not more heavenly than the
light flashed upward from glassy surfaces, but luminous and watchful;
never shooting beyond them, nor lagging in the rear; so closely attached
to them that it may be taken for a slavish reflex, until its features are
studied.  It has the sage's brows, and the sunny malice of a faun lurks
at the corners of the half-closed lips drawn in an idle wariness of half
tension.  That slim feasting smile, shaped like the long-bow, was once a
big round satyr's laugh, that flung up the brows like a fortress lifted
by gunpowder.  The laugh will come again, but it will be of the order of
the smile, finely tempered, showing sunlight of the mind, mental richness
rather than noisy enormity.  Its common aspect is one of unsolicitous
observation, as if surveying a full field and having leisure to dart on
its chosen morsels, without any fluttering eagerness.  Men's future upon
earth does not attract it; their honesty and shapeliness in the present
does; and whenever they wax out of proportion, overblown, affected,
pretentious, bombastical, hypocritical, pedantic, fantastically delicate;
whenever it sees them self-deceived or hoodwinked, given to run riot in
idolatries, drifting into vanities, congregating in absurdities, planning
short-sightedly, plotting dementedly; whenever they are at variance with
their professions, and violate the unwritten but perceptible laws binding
them in consideration one to another; whenever they offend sound reason,
fair justice; are false in humility or mined with conceit, individually,
or in the bulk--the Spirit overhead will look humanely malign and cast an
oblique light on them, followed by volleys of silvery laughter.  That is
the Comic Spirit.

Not to distinguish it is to be bull-blind to the spiritual, and to deny
the existence of a mind of man where minds of men are in working
conjunction.

You must, as I have said, believe that our state of society is founded in
common-sense, otherwise you will not be struck by the contrasts the Comic
Spirit perceives, or have it to look to for your consolation.  You will,
in fact, be standing in that peculiar oblique beam of light, yourself
illuminated to the general eye as the very object of chase and doomed
quarry of the thing obscure to you.  But to feel its presence and to see
it is your assurance that many sane and solid minds are with you in what
you are experiencing: and this of itself spares you the pain of satirical
heat, and the bitter craving to strike heavy blows.  You share the
sublime of wrath, that would not have hurt the foolish, but merely
demonstrate their foolishness.  Moliere was contented to revenge himself
on the critics of the Ecole des Femmes, by writing the Critique de
l'Ecole des Femmes, one of the wisest as well as the playfullest of
studies in criticism.  A perception of the comic spirit gives high
fellowship.  You become a citizen of the selecter world, the highest we
know of in connection with our old world, which is not supermundane.  Look
there for your unchallengeable upper class!  You feel that you are one of
this our civilized community, that you cannot escape from it, and would
not if you could.  Good hope sustains you; weariness does not overwhelm
you; in isolation you see no charms for vanity; personal pride is greatly
moderated.  Nor shall your title of citizenship exclude you from worlds
of imagination or of devotion.  The Comic spirit is not hostile to the
sweetest songfully poetic.  Chaucer bubbles with it: Shakespeare
overflows: there is a mild moon's ray of it (pale with super-refinement
through distance from our flesh and blood planet) in Comus.  Pope has it,
and it is the daylight side of the night half obscuring Cowper.  It is
only hostile to the priestly element, when that, by baleful swelling,
transcends and overlaps the bounds of its office: and then, in extreme
cases, it is too true to itself to speak, and veils the lamp: as, for
example, the spectacle of Bossuet over the dead body of Moliere: at which
the dark angels may, but men do not laugh.

We have had comic pulpits, for a sign that the laughter-moving and the
worshipful may be in alliance: I know not how far comic, or how much
assisted in seeming so by the unexpectedness and the relief of its
appearance: at least they are popular, they are said to win the ear.
Laughter is open to perversion, like other good things; the scornful and
the brutal sorts are not unknown to us; but the laughter directed by the
Comic spirit is a harmless wine, conducing to sobriety in the degree that
it enlivens.  It enters you like fresh air into a study; as when one of
the sudden contrasts of the comic idea floods the brain like reassuring
daylight.  You are cognizant of the true kind by feeling that you take it
in, savour it, and have what flowers live on, natural air for food.  That
which you give out--the joyful roar--is not the better part; let that go
to good fellowship and the benefit of the lungs.  Aristophanes promises
his auditors that if they will retain the ideas of the comic poet
carefully, as they keep dried fruits in boxes, their garments shall smell
odoriferous of wisdom throughout the year.  The boast will not be thought
an empty one by those who have choice friends that have stocked
themselves according to his directions.  Such treasuries of sparkling
laughter are wells in our desert.  Sensitiveness to the comic laugh is a
step in civilization.  To shrink from being an object of it is a step in
cultivation.  We know the degree of refinement in men by the matter they
will laugh at, and the ring of the laugh; but we know likewise that the
larger natures are distinguished by the great breadth of their power of
laughter, and no one really loving Moliere is refined by that love to
despise or be dense to Aristophanes, though it may be that the lover of
Aristophanes will not have risen to the height of Moliere.  Embrace them
both, and you have the whole scale of laughter in your breast.  Nothing
in the world surpasses in stormy fun the scene in The Frogs, when Bacchus
and Xanthias receive their thrashings from the hands of businesslike
OEacus, to discover which is the divinity of the two, by his
imperviousness to the mortal condition of pain, and each, under the
obligation of not crying out, makes believe that his horrible bellow--the
god's _iou iou_ being the lustier--means only the stopping of a sneeze,
or horseman sighted, or the prelude to an invocation to some deity: and
the slave contrives that the god shall get the bigger lot of blows.
Passages of Rabelais, one or two in Don Quixote, and the Supper in the
Manner of the Ancients, in Peregrine Pickle, are of a similar cataract of
laughter.  But it is not illuminating; it is not the laughter of the
mind.  Moliere's laughter, in his purest comedies, is ethereal, as light
to our nature, as colour to our thoughts.  The Misanthrope and the
Tartuffe have no audible laughter; but the characters are steeped in the
comic spirit.  They quicken the mind through laughter, from coming out of
the mind; and the mind accepts them because they are clear
interpretations of certain chapters of the Book lying open before us all.
Between these two stand Shakespeare and Cervantes, with the richer laugh
of heart and mind in one; with much of the Aristophanic robustness,
something of Moliere's delicacy.

* * * * *

The laughter heard in circles not pervaded by the Comic idea, will sound
harsh and soulless, like versified prose, if you step into them with a
sense of the distinction.  You will fancy you have changed your
habitation to a planet remoter from the sun.  You may be among powerful
brains too.  You will not find poets--or but a stray one,
over-worshipped.  You will find learned men undoubtedly, professors,
reputed philosophers, and illustrious dilettanti.  They have in them,
perhaps, every element composing light, except the Comic.  They read
verse, they discourse of art; but their eminent faculties are not under
that vigilant sense of a collective supervision, spiritual and present,
which we have taken note of.  They build a temple of arrogance; they
speak much in the voice of oracles; their hilarity, if it does not dip in
grossness, is usually a form of pugnacity.

Insufficiency of sight in the eye looking outward has deprived them of
the eye that should look inward.  They have never weighed themselves in
the delicate balance of the Comic idea so as to obtain a suspicion of the
rights and dues of the world; and they have, in consequence, an irritable
personality.  A very learned English professor crushed an argument in a
political discussion, by asking his adversary angrily: 'Are you aware,
sir, that I am a philologer?'

The practice of polite society will help in training them, and the
professor on a sofa with beautiful ladies on each side of him, may become
their pupil and a scholar in manners without knowing it: he is at least a
fair and pleasing spectacle to the Comic Muse.  But the society named
polite is volatile in its adorations, and to-morrow will be petting a
bronzed soldier, or a black African, or a prince, or a spiritualist:
ideas cannot take root in its ever-shifting soil.  It is besides addicted
in self-defence to gabble exclusively of the affairs of its rapidly
revolving world, as children on a whirligoround bestow their attention on
the wooden horse or cradle ahead of them, to escape from giddiness and
preserve a notion of identity.  The professor is better out of a circle
that often confounds by lionizing, sometimes annoys by abandoning, and
always confuses.  The school that teaches gently what peril there is lest
a cultivated head should still be coxcomb's, and the collisions which may
befall high-soaring minds, empty or full, is more to be recommended than
the sphere of incessant motion supplying it with material.

Lands where the Comic spirit is obscure overhead are rank with raw crops
of matter.  The traveller accustomed to smooth highways and people not
covered with burrs and prickles is amazed, amid so much that is fair and
cherishable, to come upon such curious barbarism.  An Englishman paid a
visit of admiration to a professor in the Land of Culture, and was
introduced by him to another distinguished professor, to whom he took so
cordially as to walk out with him alone one afternoon.  The first
professor, an erudite entirely worthy of the sentiment of scholarly
esteem prompting the visit, behaved (if we exclude the dagger) with the
vindictive jealousy of an injured Spanish beauty.  After a short prelude
of gloom and obscure explosions, he discharged upon his faithless admirer
the bolts of passionate logic familiar to the ears of flighty
caballeros:--'Either I am a fit object of your admiration, or I am not.
Of these things one--either you are competent to judge, in which case I
stand condemned by you; or you are incompetent, and therefore
impertinent, and you may betake yourself to your country again,
hypocrite!'  The admirer was for persuading the wounded scholar that it
is given to us to be able to admire two professors at a time.  He was
driven forth.

Perhaps this might have occurred in any country, and a comedy of The
Pedant, discovering the greedy humanity within the dusty scholar, would
not bring it home to one in particular.  I am mindful that it was in
Germany, when I observe that the Germans have gone through no comic
training to warn them of the sly, wise emanation eyeing them from aloft,
nor much of satirical.  Heinrich Heine has not been enough to cause them
to smart and meditate.  Nationally, as well as individually, when they
are excited they are in danger of the grotesque, as when, for instance,
they decline to listen to evidence, and raise a national outcry because
one of German blood has been convicted of crime in a foreign country.
They are acute critics, yet they still wield clubs in controversy.
Compare them in this respect with the people schooled in La Bruyere, La
Fontaine, Moliere; with the people who have the figures of a Trissotin
and a Vadius before them for a comic warning of the personal vanities of
the caressed professor.  It is more than difference of race.  It is the
difference of traditions, temper, and style, which comes of schooling.

The French controversialist is a polished swordsman, to be dreaded in his
graces and courtesies.  The German is Orson, or the mob, or a marching
army, in defence of a good case or a bad--a big or a little.  His irony
is a missile of terrific tonnage: sarcasm he emits like a blast from a
dragon's mouth.  He must and will be Titan.  He stamps his foe underfoot,
and is astonished that the creature is not dead, but stinging; for, in
truth, the Titan is contending, by comparison, with a god.

When the Germans lie on their arms, looking across the Alsatian frontier
at the crowds of Frenchmen rushing to applaud L'ami Fritz at the Theatre
Francais, looking and considering the meaning of that applause, which is
grimly comic in its political response to the domestic moral of the
play--when the Germans watch and are silent, their force of character
tells.  They are kings in music, we may say princes in poetry, good
speculators in philosophy, and our leaders in scholarship.  That so
gifted a race, possessed moreover of the stern good sense which collects
the waters of laughter to make the wells, should show at a disadvantage,
I hold for a proof, instructive to us, that the discipline of the comic
spirit is needful to their growth.  We see what they can reach to in that
great figure of modern manhood, Goethe.  They are a growing people; they
are conversable as well; and when their men, as in France, and at
intervals at Berlin tea-tables, consent to talk on equal terms with their
women, and to listen to them, their growth will be accelerated and be
shapelier.  Comedy, or in any form the Comic spirit, will then come to
them to cut some figures out of the block, show them the mirror, enliven
and irradiate the social intelligence.

Modern French comedy is commendable for the directness of the study of
actual life, as far as that, which is but the early step in such a
scholarship, can be of service in composing and colouring the picture.  A
consequence of this crude, though well-meant, realism is the collision of
the writers in their scenes and incidents, and in their characters.  The
Muse of most of them is an _Aventuriere_.  She is clever, and a certain
diversion exists in the united scheme for confounding her.  The object of
this person is to reinstate herself in the decorous world; and either,
having accomplished this purpose through deceit, she has a _nostalgie de
la boue_, that eventually casts her back into it, or she is exposed in
her course of deception when she is about to gain her end.  A very good,
innocent young man is her victim, or a very astute, goodish young man
obstructs her path.  This latter is enabled to be the champion of the
decorous world by knowing the indecorous well.  He has assisted in the
progress of Aventurieres downward; he will not help them to ascend.  The
world is with him; and certainly it is not much of an ascension they
aspire to; but what sort of a figure is he?  The triumph of a candid
realism is to show him no hero.  You are to admire him (for it must be
supposed that realism pretends to waken some admiration) as a credibly
living young man; no better, only a little firmer and shrewder, than the
rest.  If, however, you think at all, after the curtain has fallen, you
are likely to think that the Aventurieres have a case to plead against
him.  True, and the author has not said anything to the contrary; he has
but painted from the life; he leaves his audience to the reflections of
unphilosophic minds upon life, from the specimen he has presented in the
bright and narrow circle of a spy-glass.

I do not know that the fly in amber is of any particular use, but the
Comic idea enclosed in a comedy makes it more generally perceptible and
portable, and that is an advantage.  There is a benefit to men in taking
the lessons of Comedy in congregations, for it enlivens the wits; and to
writers it is beneficial, for they must have a clear scheme, and even if
they have no idea to present, they must prove that they have made the
public sit to them before the sitting to see the picture.  And writing
for the stage would be a corrective of a too-incrusted scholarly style,
into which some great ones fall at times.  It keeps minor writers to a
definite plan, and to English.  Many of them now swelling a plethoric
market, in the composition of novels, in pun-manufactories and in
journalism; attached to the machinery forcing perishable matter on a
public that swallows voraciously and groans; might, with encouragement,
be attending to the study of art in literature.  Our critics appear to be
fascinated by the quaintness of our public, as the world is when our
beast-garden has a new importation of magnitude, and the creatures
appetite is reverently consulted.  They stipulate for a writer's
popularity before they will do much more than take the position of
umpires to record his failure or success.  Now the pig supplies the most
popular of dishes, but it is not accounted the most honoured of animals,
unless it be by the cottager.  Our public might surely be led to try
other, perhaps finer, meat.  It has good taste in song.  It might be
taught as justly, on the whole, and the sooner when the cottager's view
of the feast shall cease to be the humble one of our literary critics, to
extend this capacity for delicate choosing in the direction of the matter
arousing laughter.



FOOTNOTES


{1}  A lecture delivered at the London Institution, February 1st, 1877.

{2}  Realism in the writing is carried to such a pitch in THE OLD
BACHELOR, that husband and wife use imbecile connubial epithets to one
another.

{3}  Tallemant des Reaux, in his rough portrait of the Duke, shows the
foundation of the character of Alceste.

{4}  See Tom Jones, book viii. chapter I, for Fielding's opinion of our
Comedy.  But he puts it simply; not as an exercise in the
quasi-philosophical bathetic.

{5}  Femmes Savantes:

BELISE: Veux-tu toute la vie offenser la grammaire?

MARTINE: Qui parle d'offenser grand'mere ni grand-pere?'

The pun is delivered in all sincerity, from the mouth of a rustic.

{6}  Maskwell seems to have been carved on the model of Iago, as by the
hand of an enterprising urchin.  He apostrophizes his 'invention'
repeatedly.  'Thanks, my invention.'  He hits on an invention, to say:
'Was it my brain or Providence? no matter which.'  It is no matter which,
but it was not his brain.

{7}  Imaginary Conversations: Alfieri and the Jew Salomon.

{8}  Terence did not please the rough old conservative Romans; they liked
Plautus better, and the recurring mention of the _vetus poeta_ in his
prologues, who plagued him with the crusty critical view of his
productions, has in the end a comic effect on the reader.

{9}  The exclamation of Lady Booby, when Joseph defends himself: '_Your
virtue_!  I shall never survive it!' etc., is another instance.--Joseph
Andrews.  Also that of Miss Mathews in her narrative to Booth: 'But such
are the friendships of women.'--Amelia.





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