Essay Wit and Humour

There may have been times and nations where conversation was regarded as so serious and important an engine of education, that sound argument, brilliant illustration, and ample information, took the highest place as qualities of talk. Perhaps they do in some cases now, as, for example, everybody who knows him will concede to Mr. Gladstone the palm as a very charming man in society by reason of these qualities. But among hard-working and somewhat fatigued people, who have been pursuing information of various kinds in all their working hours, conversation must be of the nature of relaxation; it must be amusing first, instructive afterwards, and so it is that nowadays no qualities, however valuable, rank so high in popular estimation 82for social purposes, as wit and humour.

I will not ascend to a philosophical analysis of these terms, or attempt to answer the obscure and difficult question: What is it that makes us laugh, and why we seem to have in this somewhat trivial point a special feature distinguishing us from all the lower animals? They may have the faculty of reason; they seem entirely devoid of the faculty of ridicule. Nay, even in the scale of civilisation, it is remarkable that the savage and the ignorant laugh less and understand less of this great fund of enjoyment than civilised people. There are also, of course, national differences. The English boor seldom laughs, and then at very coarse fun; the Italian or the Irishman often, and very innocently; the modern Greek, though highly intelligent and keen, very seldom, apparently from want of taste for the ridiculous.

83As regards the distinction between wit and humour, all I need here insist upon is that the former consists in quick flashes, in prompt repartee, in quaint comparison; while the latter is sustained; it is a comic way of looking at serious things, a flavouring of narrative, a perception of a ludicrous vein in human life and character. Both these are now esteemed very highly, perhaps beyond their value, in society, but they are so specially natural gifts, and are so impossible to attain by practice, that they cannot be enjoined as conditions to which every talker must conform; they can only be described, and their force or weakness illustrated.

  • 29. There is nothing that requires to appearspontaneous more stringently than either of these qualities, and yet we read of great wits, like Sheridan, who carefully prepared their sallies, and even suborned some one to lead up to them. The effect of knowing this is to detract greatly from 84the enjoyment of the company, and still more from the reputation of the speaker. Most of us would say, that however brilliant in writing comedies, Sheridan must have been distinctly wanting in that gift of spontaneous and ready wit which flashes out at the least provocation, and is mere intellectual playfulness, like the playfulness of a young and happy animal.

So strongly do we feel this in Irish society, where wit is less uncommon than elsewhere, and where it is no less highly prized, that a kind of social religion warns us not to study it beforehand, and any one suspected of coming out with prepared smart things is received by the company with ridicule. Yet for all that, it cannot possibly be denied that as most of the brilliant things which a man uses in any conversation must be at second hand—to invent such things one after another at the moment being beyond the power of human genius—they must depend 85upon a good memory, and this may best be aided by having things written down, which would else escape and be lost.

We should therefore conclude that every man who goes into society, and has an inclination for that kind of conversation, ought to keep some record of the happy trifles he hears upon various occasions. But it seems, at least in Ireland, as if the repugnance to doing this amounted to a conclusive argument against it. It is assumed that as surely as a man has such a store, which he looks up beforehand, so surely will he force the conversation towards his points, or bring them in when irrelevant; and an irrelevant joke is hardly a real joke. I have known, indeed, of a college Don having a note-book of wit in his pocket, and peeping at it under the table to refresh his memory. This was regarded as far the best joke about him, and the laughter before he spoke was always greater than 86when he had sped his shaft. In actual society it has never occurred to me to meet any one who has sustained a reputation for wit in this way. We think that if the suggestion of the current conversation is not strong enough to bring up a smart point naturally, and without effort, it is better that it should be forgotten or unsaid. Let me add the significant fact, that in spite of endless attempts, no printed collection of jokes has ever attained even a decent position in literature.[8]

If wit be the quick flash, the electric spark, the play of summer lightning which warms the colour of conversation, 87humour is the sustained side of the ridiculous, the comic way of looking at things and people, which may be manifested either in comment upon the statements made by others or in narrating one’s own experiences. Of course in receiving and commenting upon what is being said, no preparation is possible. It depends altogether upon a mental attitude, which looks out with a smile upon the world, and exposes the ridiculous side of human life not more by irony of comment than by mock approval of social vices, mock indignation at social virtues, seriousness when false comedy is being produced, raillery when false tragedy is being paraded with insincerity or empty bombast. In these and a hundred other ways humour receives and criticises what other people say in a company; and if it be coupled with kindliness of heart and with tact, may be regarded as the very highest of conversational virtues.

88Analogous to this is the display of humour, not in receiving but in producing ideas in company. The humourist is the only good and effective story-teller; for if he is to monopolise a conversation, and require others to listen to him, it must be by presenting human life under a fresh and piquant aspect—in fact, as a little comedy. Thus the lifelike portrayal of any kind of foible—pomposity, obsequiousness, conceit, hypocrisy, nay even of provincial accent or ungrammatical language—ensures a pleased and therefore agreeable audience, and opens the way for easy and sympathetic intercourse. It is perhaps not too much to say that in any society where conventionality becomes a threatening power, humour is our great safeguard from this kind of vulgarity. Let me point as an illustration of this to the social sketches in Punch, which for years back have been the truest mirror of the vulgarities of English society. The humorous 89exhibition of these foibles is the most effective way we know of bringing them before the public mind, and of warning people that here is a judge whose censure is really to be feared. We may also learn from the success of this extraordinary paper how much more valuable and more respected prepared humour is than prepared wit. The jokes in the text pass by unheeded, while the sketches of character are thought deserving of a permanent place in our literature.

  • 31. I need hardly add that the abuse of these great natural gifts is not only possible, but frequent, and in both it arises from the same mental defects—conceit and selfishness. A man who can say a good thing or make a person appear ridiculous may be so proud of his power that he exercises it at the cost of good taste and even of real humanity. The great wit is often cruel, and even glories in wounding to the quick the sensibilities of others. If 90he can carry some of the company with him he has a wicked enjoyment in making one of the rest a butt or target for his shafts, and so destroying all wholesome conversation. He may leave in the minds of his society an admiration of his talent, but often a serious dislike of his character. With such feelings abroad he will injure conversation far more than he promotes it. People may consent to go into his company to hear him talk, but will avoid talking in his presence.

The excesses of the humourist are perhaps rather those of a complacent selfishness, which does not hesitate to monopolise the company with long stories in which all do not feel an interest. But humour is its own antidote; and if a man have the true vein in him he will also have the tact to feel when he is tedious, and when his fun is out of harmony with his hearers. For these reasons it is not only a higher but a safer gift than wit for the purposes of conversation; 91the pity of it is that so few possess it, and that there is hardly any use in trying to attain it by education. No doubt the constant society of an elder or superior who looks at things in this way may stimulate it in the young, but with the danger of making them sarcastic and satirical, which are grave faults, and which are the distortion of humour to ill-natured and unsocial purposes, so that even in this view of the matter education in humour may turn out a very mischievous failure.

On the whole we must set ourselves to carry on society and to make good conversation without any large help from these brilliant but dangerous gifts. Occasional flashes will occur to ordinary people, and sometimes the very circumstances themselves will create a situation so humorous that it requires no genius to bring it home to the company. But beyond the necessary cautions above indicated, 92we cannot bring it into any systematic doctrine of social intercourse.


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