HISTORY OF ENGLISH HUMOUR
With an Introduction upon Ancient Humour.
THE REV. A. G. L'ESTRANGE,
Author of "The Life of the Rev. William Harness," "From the Thames to the Tamar," Etc.
In Two Volumes.
London: Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, 13, Great Marlborough Street. 1878. All rights reserved.
CONTENTS OF THE FIRST VOLUME.
Subjective Character of the Ludicrous—The Subject little Studied—Obstacles to the Investigation—Evanescence—Mental Character of the Ludicrous—Distinction between Humour and the Ludicrous 1
ORIGIN OF HUMOUR.
Pleasure in Humour—What is Laughter?—Sympathy—First Phases—Gradual Development—Emotional Phase—Laughter of Pleasure—Hostile Laughter—Is there any sense of the Ludicrous in the Lower Animals?—Samson—David—Solomon—Proverbs—Fables 13
Birth of Humour—Personalities—Story of Hippocleides—Origin of Comedy—Archilochus—Hipponax—Democritus, the Laughing Philosopher—Aristophanes—Humour of the Senses—Indelicacy—Enfeeblement of the Drama—Humorous Games—Parasites, their Position and Jests—Philoxenus—Diogenes—Court of Humour—Riddles—Silli 52
Roman Comedy—Plautus—Acerbity—Terence—Satire—Lucilius—Horace —Humour of the Caesar Family—Cicero—Augustus—Persius—Petronius —Juvenal—Martial—Epigrammatist—Lucian—Apuleius—Julian the Apostate—The Misopogon—Symposius' Enigmas—Macrobius—Hierocles and Philagrius 99
Relapse of Civilization in the Middle Ages—Stagnation of Mind—Scarcity of Books—Character of reviving Literature—Religious Writings—Fantastic Legends—Influence of the Crusades—Romances—Sir Bevis of Hamptoun—Prominence of the Lower Animals—Allegories 161
Anglo-Saxon Humour—Rhyme—Satires against the Church—The Brunellus—Walter Mapes—Goliardi—Piers the Ploughman—Letters of Obscure Men—Erasmus—The Praise of Folly—Skelton—The Ship of Fools—Doctour Doubble Ale—The Sak full of Nuez—Church Ornamentation—Representations of the Devil 179
Origin of Modern Comedy—Ecclesiastical Buffoonery—Jougleurs and Minstrels—Court Fools—Monks' Stories—The "Tournament of Tottenham"—Chaucer—Heywood—Roister Doister—Gammer Gurton 211
Robert Greene—Friar Bacon's Demons—The "Looking Glasse"—Nash and Harvey 231
Shakespeare—Ben Jonson—Beaumont and Fletcher—The Wise Men of Gotham 250
Jesters—Court of Queen Elizabeth—James I.—The "Counterblasts to Tobacco"—Puritans—Charles II. —Rochester—Buckingham—Dryden—Butler 271
Comic Drama of the Restoration—Etheridge—Wycherley 303
Tom Brown—His Prose Works—Poetry—Sir Richard Blackmore—D'Urfey—Female Humorists—Carey 312
Vanbrugh—Colley Cibber—Farquhar 340
Congreve—Lord Dorset 355
HISTORY OF ENGLISH HUMOUR.
Subjective Character of the Ludicrous—The Subject little Studied—Obstacles to the Investigation—Evanescence—Mental Character of the Ludicrous—Distinction between Humour and the Ludicrous.
The ludicrous is in its character so elusive and protean, and the field over which it extends is so vast, that few have ever undertaken the task of examining it systematically. Many philosophers and literary men have made passing observations upon it, but most writers are content to set it down as one of those things which cannot be understood, and care not to study and grapple with a subject which promises small results in return for considerable toil. Moreover, the inquiry does not seem sufficiently important to warrant the expenditure of much time upon it, and there has always been a great tendency among learned men to underrate the emotional feelings of our nature. Thus it comes to pass that a much larger amount of our labour has been expended upon inquiring into physical and intellectual constitution than upon the inner workings of our passions and sentiments, for our knowledge of which, though affecting our daily conduct, we are mostly indebted to the representations of poets and novelists. Beattie well observes that nothing is below the attention of a philosopher which the Author of Nature has been pleased to establish. Investigations of this kind would not be unrewarded, nor devoid of a certain amount of interest; and I think that in the present subject we can, by perseverance, penetrate a little distance into an almost untrodden and apparently barren region, and if we cannot reach the source from whence the bright waters spring, can at least obtain some more accurate information about the surrounding country.
Notwithstanding all the obstructions and discouragements in the way of this investigation a few great men have given it a certain amount of attention. Aristotle informs us in his "Rhetoric" that he has dealt fully with the subject in his Poetics, and although the treatise is unfortunately lost, some annotations remain which show that it was of a comprehensive character. Cicero and Quintilian in their instructions in Oratory, made the study of humour a necessary part of the course, and in modern days many ingenious definitions and descriptions of it are found among the pages of general literature. Most philosophers have touched the subject timidly and partially, unwilling to devote much time to it, and have rather stated what they thought ought to be in accordance with some pet theories of their own, than drawn deductions from careful analysis. They generally only looked at one phase of the ludicrous, at one kind of humour, and had not a sufficient number of examples before them—probably from the difficulty of recalling slight turns of thought in widely scattered subjects. Add to this, that many of them—constantly immersed in study—would have had some little difficulty in deciding what did and did not deserve the name of humour. Most of their definitions are far too wide, and often in supporting a theory they make remarks which tend to refute it. The imperfect treatment, which the subject had received, led Dugald Stewart to observe that it was far from being exhausted.
The two principal publications which have appeared on humour, are Floegel's "Geschichte der Komischen Litteratur" (1786), and Leon Dumont's "Les Causes du Rire." The former is voluminous, but scarcely touches on philosophy, without which such a work can have but little coherence. The latter shows considerable psychological knowledge, but is written to support a somewhat narrow and incomplete view. Mr. Wright's excellent book on "The Grotesque in Literature and Art," is, as the name suggests, principally concerned with broad humour, and does not so much trace its source as the effects it has produced upon mankind. Mr. Cowden Clark's contributions on the subject to the "Gentleman's Magazine," are mostly interesting from their biographical notices.
To analyse and classify all the vagaries of the human imagination which may be comprehended under the denomination of humour, is no easy task, and as it is multiform we may stray into devious paths in pursuing it. But vast and various as the subject seems to be, there cannot be much doubt that there are some laws which govern it, and that it can be brought approximately under certain heads. It seems to be as generally admitted that there are different kinds of humour as that some observations possess none at all. Moreover, when remarks of a certain kind are made, especially such as show confusion or exaggeration, we often seem to detect some conditions of humour, and by a little change are able to make something, which has more or less the character of a jest.
There is in this investigation a very formidable "Dweller on the Threshold." We contend with great disadvantages in any attempts to examine our mental constitution. When we turn the mind in upon itself, and make it our object, the very act of earnest reflection obscures the idea, or destroys the emotion we desire to contemplate. This is especially the case in the present instance. The ludicrous, when we attempt to grasp it, shows off its gay and motley garb, and appears in grave attire. It is only by abstracting our mind from the inquiry, and throwing it into lighter considerations, that we can at all retain the illusion. A clever sally appears brilliant when it breaks suddenly upon the mental vision, but when it is brought forward for close examination it loses half its lustre, and seems to melt into unsubstantial air. Humour may be compared to a delicate scent, which we only perceive at the first moment, or to evanescent beauty—
"For every touch that wooed its stay Has brushed its brightest hues away."
This last simile is especially in point here, and the quotations in this book will scarcely be found humorous, so long as they are regarded as mere illustrations of the nature of humour.
We need not—taking these matters into consideration—feel much surprised that some people say the ludicrous cannot be defined; as for instance, Buckingham,
"True wit is everlasting like the sun, Describing all men, but described by none;"
and Addison:—"It is much easier to decide what is not humorous than what is, and very difficult to define it otherwise than Cowley has done, by negatives"—the only meaning of which is that the subject is surrounded with rather more than the usual difficulties attending moral and psychological researches. Similar obstacles would be encountered in answering the question, "What is poetry?" or "What is love?" We can only say that even here there must be some surroundings by which we can increase our knowledge.
Humour is the offspring of man—it comes forth like Minerva fully armed from the brain. Our sense of the ludicrous is produced by our peculiar mental constitution, and not by external objects, in which there is nothing either absurd or serious. As when the action of our mind is imperceptible—for instance, in hearing and seeing with our "bodily" senses—we think what we notice is something in the external world, although it is only so far dependent upon it that it could not exist without some kind of outer influence, so the result of our not recognising the amusing action of the mind in the ludicrous is that we regard it as a quality resident in the persons and things we contemplate. But it does not belong to these things, and is totally different from them in kind. Thus, the rose is formed of certain combinations of earth, air, and water; yet none of these dull elements possess the fragrance or beauty of the flower. These properties come from some attractive and constructive power. Not only are there no types or patterns in things of our emotions, but there are none even of our sensations; heat and cold, red or blue, are such only for our constitution. This truth is beautifully set forth by Addison in a passage in which, as Dugald Stewart justly remarks, "We are at a loss whether most to admire the author's depth and refinement of thought, or the singular felicity of fancy displayed in its illustration." "Things," he observes, "would make but a poor appearance to the eye, if we saw them only in their proper figures and motions. And what reason can we assign for their exciting in us many of those ideas which are different from anything that exists in the objects themselves (for such are light and colours) were it not to add supernumerary ornaments to the universe, and make it more agreeable to the imagination? We are everywhere entertained with pleasing shows and apparitions. We discover imaginary glories in the heavens and on the earth, and see some of this visionary beauty poured out over the whole creation. But what a rough, unsightly sketch of Nature should we be entertained with, did all her colouring disappear, and the several distinctions of light and shade vanish! In short, our souls are delightfully lost and bewildered in a pleasing delusion, and we walk about like the enchanted hero of a romance, who sees beautiful castles, woods, and meadows, and at the same time hears the warbling of birds and the purling of streams; but upon the finishing of some secret spell, the fantastic scene breaks up, and the disconsolate knight finds himself on a barren heath, or in a solitary desert."
I have introduced these considerations, because it is very difficult for us to realize that what we behold is merely phenomenal, that
"Things are not what they seem;"
but that we are looking into the mirror of Nature at our own likeness. When we speak of a ludicrous occurrence, we cannot avoid thinking that the external events themselves contain something of that character. Thus, the ludicrous has come in our ideas and language to be separated from the sense in which alone it exists, and it is desirable that we should clearly understand that the distinction is only logical and not real.
When the cause of our laughter—be it mind, matter, or imaginary circumstance—is merely regarded as something incongruous and amusing, we name it the ludicrous, and a man is called ludicrous as faulty or contemptible. But when the cause of it is viewed as something more than this, as coming from some conscious power or tendency within us—a valuable gift and an element in our mental constitution—we call it humour, a term applied only to human beings and their productions; and a man is called humorous as worthy of commendation. Both are in truth feelings—we might say one feeling—and although we can conceive humour to exist apart from the ludicrous, and to be a power within us creating it, there is a difficulty in following out the distinction. The difference between them is in our regard.
As soon as in course of time it became plainly evident that gay creations might emanate from man, and not only from the outer world, the fact was marked by the formation of a distinctive name, and by degrees several names—among which the most comprehensive in English is Humour. This kind of gift became gradually known as more or less possessed by all, and when the operations of the mind came to be recognised, we were more enlightened on the subject, and acknowledged it to be a mental and creative power. Such admissions would not be made by men in general without some very strong evidence, and therefore a humorous man was not merely one who had an internal sense of the ludicrous, but one who employed it for the delectation of others. Hence, also, though there is no consciousness of being amusing in the man who is ludicrous, there is in one that is humorous. A wit must always be pleasant intentionally. A man who in sober seriousness recounts something which makes us laugh is not humorous, although his want of discrimination may not be sufficient to make him ludicrous. Children are not regarded as humorous, for, although they enjoy such simple humour as toys afford, they very seldom notice what is merely ludicrous, and do not reproduce it in any way; and the same may be said of many grown persons, who require to be fed as it were, and although they can enjoy what is embellished by others, have no original observation. Thus, although Herbert Mayo is substantially correct in saying that "humour is the sentiment of the ludicrous," he might have added that there is a difference between the two in our knowledge of them. In the former, the creative mind is more marked, and, a man though he laughs much, if he be dull in words is only considered to have mirth, i.e., joyousness or a sense of the ludicrous, not humour. The gift can only be brought prominently forward in speech or writing, and thus humour comes to be often regarded as a kind of ingredient or seasoning in a speech or book, if not actually synonymous with certain sentences or expressions. Still we always confine the name to human productions, as, for instance, gestures, sayings, writings, pictures, and plays.
The recognition of the mental character of humour did not necessarily imply any knowledge as to the authority, instability, or constancy of the feeling—that could only be acquired by philosophical investigation. Nor have we yet so far ascertained its character as to be able to form humorous fancies upon any fixed principle. We are guided by some sense of the ludicrous which we cannot analyse; or we introduce into new and similar cases relationships in things which we have observed to be amusing. Some forms are so general that they will produce a vast number of jests, and we thus seem to have some insight into the influences that awaken humour, but we see only approximately and superficially, and can merely produce good results occasionally—rather by an accident than with any certainty.
ORIGIN OF HUMOUR.
Pleasure in Humour—What is Laughter?—Sympathy—First Phases—Gradual Development—Emotional Phase—Laughter of Pleasure—Hostile Laughter—Is there any sense of the Ludicrous in the Lower Animals?—Samson—David—Solomon—Proverbs—Fables.
Few of the blessings we enjoy are of greater value than the gift of humour. The pleasure attendant upon it attracts us together, forms an incentive, and gives a charm to social intercourse, and, unlike the concentrating power of love, scatters bright rays in every direction. That humour is generally associated with enjoyment might be concluded from the fact that the genial and good-natured are generally the most mirthful, and we all have so much personal experience of the gratification it affords, that it seems superfluous to adduce any proofs upon the subject. "Glad" is from the Greek word for laughter, and the word "jocund" comes from a Latin term signifying "pleasant." But we can trace the results of this connection in our daily observation. How comes it to pass that many a man who is the life and soul of social gatherings, and keeps his friends in delighted applause, sits, when alone in his study, grave and sedate, and seldom, if ever, smiles in reading or meditation? Is it not because humour is a source of pleasure? We are not joyously disposed when alone, whereas in society we are ready to give and receive whatever is bright and cheering.
The first question which now presents itself is what is laughter? and our answer must be that it is a change of countenance accompanied by a spasmodic intermittent sound—a modification of the voice—but that we cannot trace its physical origin farther than to attribute it to some effect produced upon the sympathetic nerve, or rather the system of nerves termed respiratory. These communicate with every organ affected in mirth, but the ultimate connection between mind and body is hidden from our view.
In all laughter there is more or less pleasure, except in that of hysteria, when by a sudden shock the course of Nature is reversed, and excessive grief will produce the signs of joy, as extravagant delight will sometimes exhibit those of sorrow. We should also exclude the laughter caused by inhalation of gas, and that of maniacs, which arising from some strange and unaccountable feeling is abnormal and imperfect, and known by a hollow sound peculiar to itself. None of these kinds of laughter are primary, they are but imperfect reflections of our usual modes of expression, and, excepting such cases, we may agree that M. Paffe is correct in observing that "Joy is an indispensable condition of laughter." Dr. Darwin refers to the laughter of idiots to prove that it may be occasioned by pleasure alone. Strangely enough, he quotes as an instance in point the fact of an idiot boy having laughed at receiving a black eye.
Proceeding onwards, we next come to inquire why the sense of humour is expressed by voice and countenance, and does not merely afford a silent and secret delight? The answer may be given, that one object, at least, is to increase social communication and multiply pleasure. The well-being of the animal world largely depends upon the power of each member of it to communicate with others of the same species. They all do so by sound and gesture, probably to a larger extent than we generally imagine. A celebrated physician lately observed to me that "all animals have some language." How far mere signs deserve so high a name may be questioned. But man has great powers of intercourse, and it is much owing to his superior faculties in this respect that he holds his place so high above the rest of creation. Orators, who make it their study to be impressive, give full importance to every kind of expression, and say that a man should be able to make his meaning understood, even when his voice is inaudible. It has been lately discovered that the mere movement of the lips alone, without sound, is sufficient to convey information. Facial expression has been given us as a means of assisting communication, and smiles and laughter have become the distinctive manifestations of humour. Thus the electric spark passes from one to another, and the flashing eye and wreathed lip lights up the world. Profit also accrues—fear of being laughed at leads us to avoid numerous small errors, and by laughing at others we are enabled to detect shortcomings in ourselves.
Sympathetic laughter does not arise from any contemplation of ludicrous circumstances, but is only a sort of reflection of the feelings of others. There seems to be little intelligence in it, but something almost physical, just as yawning is infectious, or as on seeing a person wounded in a limb we instinctively shrink ourselves in the same part of the body. Even a picture of a man laughing will have some effect upon us, and so have those songs in which exuberant mirth is imitated. Thus we often laugh without feeling just cause, as we often feel cause without laughing. All exhibitions of emotion are infectious. We feel sad at seeing a man in grief, although the source of his sorrow is unknown to us; and we are inclined to be joyous when surrounded by the votaries of mirth. Not unfrequently we find a number of persons laughing, when the greater part of them have no idea what is the cause of the merriment. Sometimes we cannot entirely resist the impulse, even when we ourselves are the object of it, so much are we inclined to enter into the feelings and views of those who surround us. In this, as well as in many other cases, the sight and proximity of others exercise over us a great influence, and sometimes almost a fascination.
To this sympathy we are largely indebted for the diffusion of high spirits. It is pleasant to laugh and see others laughing, and thus the one leads to the other. "Laugh and be fat," is a proverb, and it has been well observed that "we like those who make us laugh," because they give us pleasure. We may add that we like to see others joyous, because we feel that we are surrounded by kindly natures. A gallant writer tells us that he hopes to be rewarded for his labours in the field of literature by "the sweetest of all sounds in nature—the laughter of fair women." Macready, speaking of this influence, says:
"The words of Milman would have applied well to Mrs. Jordan, 'Oh, the words laughed on her lips!' Mrs. Nesbitt, the charming actress of a late day, had a fascinating power in the sweetly-ringing notes of her hearty mirth; but Mrs. Jordan's laugh was so rich, so apparently irrepressible, so deliciously self-enjoying, as to be at all times irresistible."
The agreeable influence of smiles is so well known that many are tempted to counterfeit them, and assume an expression in which the eye and lip are in unhappy conflict. On the other hand, painful thoughts are inimical to mirth. No sally of humour will brighten the countenance of a man who has lately suffered a severe loss, and even mental reflection will extinguish every sparkle. But the bed of sickness can often be better cheered by some gay efflorescence, some happy turn of thought, than by expressions of condolence. Galen says that AEsculapius wrote comic songs to promote circulation in his patients; and Hippocrates tells us that "a physician should have a certain ready humour, for austerity is repulsive both to well and ill." The late Sir Charles Clark recognised this so far that one of his patients told me that his visits were like a bottle of Champagne; and Sir John Byles observes, "Cheerfulness eminently conduces to health both of body and mind; it is one of the great physicians of nature.
"Il y a trois medecins qui ne se trompent pas, La gaite, le doux exercice, et le modeste repas.
Every hour redeemed from despondency and melancholy, and bathed in the sunshine of cheerfulness, is an hour of true life gained."
Our views with regard to the first appearance of laughter depend on whether we consider that man was gradually developed from the primeval oyster, or that he came into the world much in the same condition as that in which we find him now. If we adopt the former opinion, we must consider that no outward expressions of feeling originally existed; if the latter, that they were from the first almost as perfect as they are at present. But I think that we shall be on tolerably safe ground, and have the support of probability and history, if we say that, in his earliest condition, the mental endowments of man were of the very humblest description, but that he had always a tendency to progress and improve. This view obtains some little corroboration from the fact that the sounds animals utter in the early stages of their lives are not fully developed, and that the children of the poor are graver and more silent than those of the educated classes. But a certain predisposition to laughter there always was, for what animal has ever produced any but its own characteristic sound? Has not everyone its own natural mode of expression? Does not the dog show its pleasure by wagging its tail, and the cat by purring? We never find one animal adopting the vocal sounds of another—a bird never mews, and a cat never sings. Some men have been called cynics from their whelpish ill-temper, but none of them have ever adopted a real canine snarl, though it might express their feelings better than human language. Laughter, so far as we can judge, could not have been obtained by any mere mental exercise, nor would it have come from imitation, for it is only found in man, the yelping of a hyena being as different from it as the barking of a dog, or the cackling of a goose. We may, however, suppose that the first sounds uttered by man were demonstrative of pain or pleasure, marking a great primary distinction, which we make in common with all animals. But our next expression showed superior sensibility and organism: it denoted a very peculiar perception of the intermingling of pain and pleasure, a combination of opposite feelings not possessed by other animals, or not distinct enough in them to have a specific utterance. There might seem to be something almost physical in the sensation, as it can be excited by tickling, or the inhalation of gas. Similar results may be produced by other bodily causes. Homer speaks of the chiefs laughing after a sumptuous banquet, and of a man "laughing sweetly" when drunk. Bacon's term titillatio, would seem very appropriate in such cases. There was an idea, in olden times, that laughter emanated from a particular part of the body. Tasso, in "Jerusalem Delivered," describing the death of Ardonio, who was slain by a lance, says that it
"Pierced him through the vein Where laughter has her fountain and her seat, So that (a dreadful bane) He laughed for pain, and laughed himself to death."
This idea probably arose from observing the spasmodic power of laughter, which was greater formerly than now, and to the same origin we may attribute the stories of the fatal consequences it has, at times, produced; of Zeuxis, the painter, having expired in a fit brought on by contemplating a caricature he had made of an old woman, and of Franciscus Cosalinus, a learned logician, having thus broken a blood-vessel, which led to his dying of consumption. Wolfius relates "that a country bumpkin, called Brunsellius, by chance seeing a woman asleep at a sermon fall off her seat, was so taken that he laughed for three days, which weakened him so that he continued for a long time afterwards in an infirm state."
We must suppose that laughter has always existed in man, at least as long as he has been physically constituted as he is now, for it might always have been produced by tickling the papillae of the nerves, which are said to be more exposed in man than in other animals. When we have stated the possibility of this pleasurable sensation being awakened under such circumstances, we have, in fact, asserted that it was in course of time thus called into existence. But the enjoyment might have been limited to this low phase, for the mind might have been so vacant, so deficient in emotion and intelligence that the moral and intellectual conditions necessary for a higher kind of laughter might have been wanting. This seems to be the case among some savages at the present day, such as the New Zealanders and North American Indians. The earliest laughter did not arise from what we call the ludicrous, but from something apparently physical—such as touch—though it does not follow that it would never otherwise have existed at all, for, as the mind more fully developed itself, facial expressions would flow from superior and more numerous causes. Nor can we consider that what is properly called mirth was shown in this primitive physical laughter, which was such as may be supposed to have existed when darkness was on the face of the intellectual world. How great, and of what continuance, was this primeval stagnation must be for ever unknown to us, but it was not destined to prevail. Light gradually dawned upon the mental wastes, and they became productive of beauty and order. As greater sensibility developed itself, emotion began to be expressed; first, probably at an adult period of life, by the sounds belonging to the corresponding feelings in the bodily constitution. Tears and cries betoken mental as well as physical anguish, and laughter denoted a mixed pleasurable feeling either in mind or body. There is a remarkable instance of this transference from the senses to the emotional feelings in the case of what is called sardonic laughter, in which a similar contortion of countenance to that caused by the pungency of a Sardinian herb is considered to denote a certain moral acerbity. Here there is an analogy established between the senses and emotions in their outward manifestation, just as there is in language in the double meaning of such terms as bitter and sweet.
When we consider the fact that matter is that which gives, and mind that which receives impressions, or that our perceptions do not teach the nature of external things, but that of our own constitution, we shall admit that there is not such a fundamental difference between feelings derived from the sense of touch, and those coming through our other senses. But we must observe that there is a great practical difference between them, inasmuch as the one sense remains in its original primitive state, and is not cultivated as are the others. Physical laughter requires no previous experience, no exercise of judgment, and therefore has no connection with the intellectual powers of the mind. The lowest boor may laugh on being tickled, but a man must have intelligence to be amused by wit. The senses which are the least discriminating are the least productive of humour, little is derived from that of smell or of taste, though we may talk sometimes of an educated palate and an acquired taste. The finer organs of sight and hearing are the chief mediums of humour, but the sense of touch might by education be rendered exquisitely sensitive, and Dickens mentions the case of a girl he met in Switzerland who was blind, deaf, and dumb, but who was constantly laughing. Among infants, also, where very slight complication is required, the sense of humour can be excited by touch. Thus nurses will sing, "Brow brinky, eye winkey, nose noppy, cheek cherry, mouth merry," and greatly increase the little one's appreciation by, at the same time, touching the features named. Contact with other bodies occasions a sensation, and might, by degrees, awaken an emotion; and we might thus have such a sense of the ludicrous as that obtained through eye and ear, which is sometimes almost intuitive, and but slightly derived from reflection or experience. Of this kind is that aroused by the rapid changes of form and colour of the kaleidoscope, and those pantomimic representations which amuse the young and uneducated, and others who live mostly in the senses.
We have now arrived at the emotional phase of laughter, that in which emotion far exceeds intellectual action. At this stage, we have a kind of laughter which we may call that of pleasure, inasmuch as it is the first that deserves a distinct name. This laughter of pleasure required very little complication of thought, contained no unamiable feeling, and expressed the mildest sense of the ludicrous. At the same time, it did not flow from any mere constitutional joyousness, but only arose upon certain occasions, in consequence of some remarkable and unusual occurrence—such as the reception of glad tidings, or the sudden acquisition of some good fortune. This ancient laughter, now no longer existing, is alluded to in early writings.
Thus we read in Gen. xxi. 6, that Sarah, on the birth of Isaac, said "God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me," and in Ps. cxxvi., "When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing." And in Proverbs we find, "There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh," contrasting the expression of sorrow with that of pleasure. Passing into Greek literature, we find laughter constantly termed "sweet." In Iliad xxi, "Saturn smiled sweetly at seeing his daughter;" in xxiii. "The chiefs arose to throw the shield, and the Greeks laughed, i.e., with joy." In Odyssey, xx. 390, they prepare the banquet with laughter. Od. xxii., 542, Penelope laughs at Telemachus sneezing, when she is talking of Ulysses' return; she takes it for a good omen. And in the Homeric Hymns, which, although inferior in date to the old Bard, are still among the earliest specimens of literature, we find, in that to Mercury, that the god laughs on beholding a tortoise, "thinking that he will make a beautiful lyre out of its shell;" and a little further on, Apollo laughs at hearing the sound of the lyre. In the hymn to Aphrodite, the laughter-loving Venus laughed sweetly when she thought of men and mortals being intermarried. The fact that this and the preceding kinds of laughter were not necessarily regarded as intellectual, is evident from the ancient poets attributing them to vegetable and inorganic life. Considerable licence in personification must no doubt be conceded to those who went so far as to deify the elements, and to imagine a sort of soul in the universe, and no doubt language as well as feeling was not at the time strictly limited. But it must be remarked that, while they rarely attribute laughter to the lower animals, they also never ascribe any other sign of emotion, nor even that in its higher kinds, to insensate matter. In all these passages it is of a physical, or merely pleasurable description. In Iliad xiv. 362, speaking of the Grecian host, Homer says that "the gleam of their armour was reflected to heaven, and all the earth around laughed at the brazen refulgence."
In Hesiod's Theogony, v. 40, we read that when the Muses are singing "the palace of loud-thundering Jove laughs (with delight) at their lily voice;" and in the Hymn to Ceres we find Proserpine beholding a Narcissus, from the root of which a hundred heads sprang forth "and the whole heavens were scented with its fragrance, and the whole earth laughed and the briny wave of the sea." Theognis writes that Delos, when Apollo was born, "was filled with the ambrosial odour, and the huge earth laughed." The poets seemed scarcely to have advanced beyond such a bold similitude, and we may conclude that while they saw in laughter something above the powers of the brute creation, they did not consider that it necessarily expressed the smallest exercise of intellect.
This laughter of pleasure, which cheered the early centuries of the world, now no longer exists except perhaps in childhood. It belongs to simpler if not happier natures than our own. If a man were now to say that his friends laughed on hearing of some good fortune having come to him, we should suppose that they disbelieved it, or thought there was something ridiculous in the occurrence. In these less emotional ages, in which the manifestations of joy and sorrow are more subdued, it is mute, and has subsided into a smile. It is difficult to say when the change took place, but our finding smiles mentioned in Homer, though not in Scripture, might suggest their Greek origin, if they were at first merely a modification of the early laughter of pleasure, betokening little more than kindly or joyous emotions. Although not always now genial, the smile continues to be used for the symbol of pleasure, even in reference to inanimate Nature, as where Milton writes "Old Ocean smiled." The smile may have preceded laughter, as the bud comes before the blossom, but it may, on the other hand, have been a reduction of something more demonstrative.
We have still a kind of laughter approaching very nearly to that of pleasure, which contains little reflection, but cannot be regarded as simply physical. This description seems to be that alluded to in the Book of Ecclesiastes, "I said of laughter, it is mad, and of mirth, what good doeth it?" Of the same nature is that to which some excitable and joyous persons are constitutionally inclined. Their perpetual merriment seems to us childish and silly. Thus Steele observes to an hilarious friend, "Sir, you never laughed in your life," and farther on he remarks, "Some men laugh from mere benevolence."
The pleasure accompanying the perception of the ludicrous has been by some attributed to the exercise of certain muscles in the face, and by others to the acquisition of new ideas. But we may safely discard both theories, for the former derives the enjoyment from physical instead of mental sources, and the latter gives us credit for too great a delight in knowledge, even were it thus generally obtained. The enjoyment seems partly to arise from stimulation and activity of mind, excitement being generally agreeable, whereas inaction is monotonous and wearisome. But it seems also partly to be derived from sources which are, or appear to be, collateral. Thus, in the early laughter of pleasure, some solid advantage or gratification, present or future, was always in view, and from men being delighted at their own success, which must often have been obtained at the expense of others, it was an easy transition to rejoice at the failure of rivals. In those primitive times, when people felt themselves insecure, and one tribe was constantly at war with another, there was nothing that gave them so much joy as the misfortunes of their enemies. They exhibited their exultation by indulging in extravagant transports, in shouting, in singing and dancing, and when there appeared some strangeness or peculiarity, something sudden or unaccountable in such disasters, laughter broke forth of that rude and hostile character which we may occasionally still hear among the uneducated classes. It accorded with the age in which it prevailed—a period when men were highly emotional and passionate, while their intellectual powers were feeble and inactive.
The two early phases of the ludicrous—those of pleasure and of hostility—containing small complexity, and a large proportion of emotion, are to a certain extent felt by the lower animals. Dr. Darwin has observed an approximation to the laughter of pleasure in monkeys, but he does not connect it with intelligence, and would not, I believe, claim for them any sense of the ludicrous. I have, however, seen a dog, on suddenly meeting a friend, not only wag his tail, but curl up the corners of his lips, and show his teeth, as if delighted and amused. We may also have observed a very roguish expression sometimes in the face of a small dog when he is barking at a large one, just as a cat evidently finds some fun in tormenting and playing with a captured mouse. I have even heard of a monkey who, for his amusement, put a live cat into a pot of boiling water on the fire. These animals are those most nearly allied to man, but the perception of the ludicrous is not strong enough in them to occasion laughter. The opinion of Vives that animals do not laugh because the muscles of their countenances do not allow them, can scarcely be regarded as philosophical. Milton tells us that,
"Smiles from reason flow, To brutes denied;"
a statement which may be taken as generally correct, although we admit that there may be some approximation to smiling among the lower animals, and that it does not always necessarily proceed from reason.
The pleasure found in hostile laughter soon led to practical jokes. Although now discountenanced, they were anciently very common, and formed the first link between humour and the ludicrous. They were not imitative, and did not show any actual power to invent what was humorous, but a desire to amuse by doing something which might cause some ludicrous action or scene, just as people unable to speak would point to things they wish to designate. These early jokes had severer objects coupled with amusement, and were what we should call no joke at all. The first character in the records of antiquity that seems to have had anything quaint or droll about it is that of Samson. Standing out amid the confusion of legendary times, he gives us good specimens of the fierce and wild kind of merriment relished in ancient days; and was fond of making very sanguinary "sport for the Philistines." He was an exaggeration of a not very uncommon type of man, in which brute strength is joined to loose morals and whimsical fancy. People were more inclined to laugh at sufferings formerly, because they were not keenly sensitive to pain, and also had less feeling and consideration for others. That Samson found some malicious kind of pleasure and diversion in his reprisals on his enemies, and made their misfortunes minister to his amusement, is evident from the strange character of his exploits. "He caught three hundred foxes, and took fire-brands, and turned tail to tail, and put a fire-brand in the midst between two tails, and when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burnt up both the shocks and also the standing corn of the Philistines, with the vineyards and olives." On another occasion he allowed himself to be bound with cords, and thus apparently delivered powerless into the hands of his enemies; he then broke his bonds "like flax that was burnt with fire," and taking the jaw-bone of an ass, which he found, slew a thousand men with it. His account of this massacre shows that he regarded it in a humorous light: "With the jaw-bone of an ass heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass I have slain a thousand men." We might also refer to his carrying away the gates of Gaza to the top of a hill that is before Hebron, and to his duping Delilah about the seven green withes.
In the above instances it will be observed that destruction or disappointment of enemies was the primary, and amusement the secondary object. It must be admitted that all such jokes are of a very poor and severe description. They have not the undesigned coincidence of the ludicrous nor the fanciful invention of true humour. Samson was evidently regarded as a droll fellow in his day, but beyond his jokes the only venture of his on record is a riddle, which showed very little ingenuity, and can not be regarded as humorous now, even if it were so then.
It would, perhaps, be going too far to assert that no laughter of a better kind existed before the age at which we are now arrived; some minds are always in advance of their time, as others are behind it, but they are few. The only place in which there is any approach in early times to what may be called critical laughter is recorded where Abraham and Sarah were informed of the approaching birth of Isaac. Perhaps this laughter was mostly that of pleasure. Sarah denied that she laughed, and Abraham was not rebuked when guilty of the same levity.
With the exception of the above-mentioned riddle, and rough pranks of Samson, we have no trace of humour until after the commencement of the Monarchy. The reigns of David and Solomon seemed to have formed the brightest period in the literary history of the Jews. The sweet Psalmist of Israel was partly the pioneer to deeper thought, partly the representative of the age in which he lived. It is the charm of his poetry that it is very rich and recondite—a mine of gold, which the farther it is worked, the more precious its yield becomes. But it everywhere bears the stamp of passion and religious ardour, and does not bespeak the critical incisiveness of a highly civilised age. Argumentative acumen would have been as much below the poetic mind of David in one respect as it was above it in another, and while his rapturous language of admiration and faith seems above the range of human genius; his bitter denunciations of his enemies remind us of his date, and the circumstances by which he was surrounded. Such immaturity would be sufficient to account for the non-existence of humour. It may be urged that David had no tendency in that direction. His thoughts were turned towards the sublime, and his religious character, his royal estate, and the vicissitudes of his early life, all inclined him to serious reflection. But we do not find that David was invariably grave and solemn. He indulged in laughter at the misfortunes of his adversaries, as we may conclude from a passage in Psalm lii, 6. "God shall likewise destroy thee for ever; he shall take thee away and pluck thee out of thy dwelling-place, and root thee out of the land of the living. Selah. The righteous also shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him."
He also considered that, in turn, his enemies would deride him, if he were unsuccessful. Psalm xxii, 7—"All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip and shake the head, saying, 'He trusted in the Lord.'"
He evidently thought there was nothing wrong in such laughter, for he even considers it compatible with Divine attributes, Psalm ii, 4, "He that sitteth in Heaven shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision;" and Psalm xxxvii, 13, "The Lord shall laugh at him, for he seeth that his day is coming."
Nothing can make it more certain than such expressions that the prophets interpreted the intimations they received from above by clothing them with their own mundane similitudes.
On the other hand, although David laughed at his enemies, he never seems to have done so at anything else. He frequently mentions fools, but always with detestation. To him the term did not convey any idea of frivolity or eccentricity, but of crime and wickedness. All these considerations tend to convince us that we can see in the writings of David a fairly good reflection of the mirth common in his day. Add to this that there is no trace in any contemporary work of an attempt beyond the emotional phases of the ludicrous, and we do not at this time read of any performance of Jewish plays, or of any kind of amusing representations.
A more advanced, but less faithful age is represented by another man. The soldier-king passed away to make room for one educated under milder influences. He inherited not the piety or warlike virtues of his father, but turned the same greatness of mind into a more luxurious and learned channel. In his writings we find little that approaches the sublime, but much that implies analytical depth and complexity of thought. His tone bespeaks a settled and civilized period favourable to art and philosophy, in which subtlety was appreciated, while the old feelings of acerbity had become greatly softened.
In the intellectual and moral state at this date, there were many conditions favourable to the development of humour. But we do not find it yet actually existing, although we must suppose that a mind capable of forming proverbs could not have been entirely insensible to it. We may define a proverb to be a moral statement, instructive in object, and epigrammatically expressed. It is always somewhat controversial, and when it approaches a truism scarcely deserves the name.
A great many of Solomon's proverbs may be regarded in two lights, and I think a comparison between some of them will show that he was aware of the fact, and if so he could scarcely have avoided feeling some sense of the ludicrous, and even of having a slight idea of humour in its higher phases. I shall allude in illustration of this to a proverb often quoted ironically at the present day. "In the multitude of counsellors there is wisdom," and which we have combated and answered by a common domestic adage.
Again Solomon is rather hard upon the failings of the ladies, "The contentions of a wife," he says, "are a continual dropping." "It is better to dwell in the corner of a housetop than with a brawling woman in a wide house." "It is better to dwell in the wilderness than with a contentious and angry woman." The meaning of all these sayings must be that women are of a very irritable and vexatious character. But did Solomon really believe in the strong terms he used towards them. We should say not to judge by his life, for he had "seven hundred wives, and three hundred concubines;" and although he says that, "as a jewel of gold in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman that is without discretion"—a very strong comparison—we may be sure that he had a great many of these despicable creatures domiciled in his own palace.
Solomon's strictures with regard to money may also be regarded as of somewhat uncertain value:—"How much better is it to get wisdom than gold," sounds very well, although Solomon must have known that many men would prefer the latter, and history seems to say that he was not averse from it himself. "He that is despised and hath a servant is better than he that honoureth himself, and lacketh bread," shows at least some appreciation of the usefulness of wealth. Ecclesiastes makes a more decided statement. "Money answereth all things." I should imagine Solomon was as much alive to the two sides of the question, as was the Greek who on being asked scoffingly "why philosophers followed rich men, but rich men never followed philosophers," replied, "Because philosophers know what they want, but rich men do not."
In one place Solomon shows his consciousness that his proverbs may be viewed as true or false. He gives two opposite propositions—"Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him," and, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit." Shortly afterwards, he observes, as if the idea of perverting and turning proverbs was in his mind, "The legs of a lame man are not equal, so is a parable in the mouth of fools."
There was another form besides that of Proverbs, in which during earlier ages moral and political teachings were expressed. One of the first comparisons man learned to draw was that between himself and the lower animals; and the separation between reason and instinct would not appear to be at first so clearly defined as it is at present. Before the growth of cities, and the increased intercourse and accumulated experience resulting from their formation, the mental development of man was so small as not to offer any very strong contrast to the sagacity of other animals. The greatest men of ancient times were merely nomad chiefs living on the wild pasture plains, often tending their own flocks, and, no doubt, like the Arabs of the present day, making companions of their camels and horses. By the rivers and in the jungles, they often encountered beasts of prey, became familiar with their habits, and formed a higher opinion of their intelligence than we generally hold. At that time, when strength was more esteemed than intellectual gifts, there was sometimes a tendency to consider them as rather above than below the human race. The lion, the eagle, and the stag possessed qualities to which it was man's highest ambition to aspire, and, in some cases, he even went so far as to worship them. In the ancient civilisation of Egypt we find the most numerous traces of this culture and feeling—gods, kings, rulers, and disembodied spirits being represented entirely or partially under the forms of what we call the lower animals. The strange allegorical figures found at Nineveh may also be considered illustrations in point. There was evidently no caricature intended in these representations, and it is worthy of notice that such as are grotesque are not earlier than Roman times.
It is unnecessary to recapitulate the beautiful comparisons of this character which are profusely scattered through Holy Writ, but we should especially notice the blessing given by Jacob to his sons on his death-bed; in which we seem almost to discover the first origin of heraldry. Another remarkable comparison is that of Nathan, aptly made, and likely to sink with weight into the heart of the Shepherd-King. The same respect for animals survived in the time of the earliest Greek writers.
Homer in his solemn epic has numerous instances of it:—Hector in "Iliad" xi, 297, is setting the Trojans on "like dogs at a wild boar or lion." In xi, 557, Ajax retreating slowly from the Trojans is compared to an ass who has gone to feed in a field, and whom the boys find great difficulty in driving out, "though they belabour him well with cudgels." Agamemnon is compared to a bull, Sarpedon and Patroclus in deadly combat to two vultures, and Diomed and Ulysses pursue Dolon as two fleet hounds chase a hare. All these were evidently intended to be most poetical, if not elevating similes; their dignity would have been lost could they possibly have been regarded as humorous.
Simonides of Amorgos in the seventh century B.C., is remarkable for this kind of illustration. After some lamentations about human life, he observes that nothing is better than a good wife, or worse than a bad one, and he proceeds to compare women to various animals. He is also evidently very serious over the subject, and regards it as no joke at all. Perhaps there was also something to be said on the other side, for he remarks that a gadding wife cannot be cured, even if you "knock out her teeth with a stone." He likens them to pigs and polecats, horses and apes; and only praises the descendant of the bee. In a passage undoubtedly of early date, and attributed to Xenophanes, the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy, (540-500) the writer enumerates the various ways, in which other animals are superior to man. "If by the will of God there were an equality and community in life, so that the herald of the Olympian games should not only call men to the contest, but also bid all animals to come, no man would carry off a prize; for in the long race the horse would be the best; the hare would win the short race; the deer would be best in the double race. No man's fleetness would count for anything, and no one since Hercules would seem to have been stronger than the elephant or lion; the bull would carry off the crown in striking, and the ass in kicking, and history would record that an ass conquered men in wrestling and boxing."
But the light in which the lower animals were regarded, produced other fanciful combinations. Not only were men given the attributes of animals, but animals were endowed with the gifts peculiar to man. All things were then possible. Standing as he seemed in the centre of a plain of indefinite or interminable extent, how could any man limit the productions or vagaries of Nature, even if he possessed far more than the narrow experience of those days? Moreover, the boundary lines were vague between the natural and supernatural, and the latter was supposed to be constantly interposing in the ordinary affairs of life. Among other beliefs then prevalent, was one in the existence of a kind of half nature, such as that in Centaurs, dragons, and griffins. In the Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions lately deciphered, we read, of one Heabani, a semi-bovine hermit, supposed to have lived 2,200 B.C. Thus the accounts in Scripture of the serpent accosting Eve, and of Balaam arguing with his ass, would not have seemed so remarkable then as they do to us. In an Egyptian novel—the oldest extant, cir. 1,400 B.C.—a cow tells Bata that his elder brother is standing before him with his dagger ready to kill him. He understood, we are told, the language of animals, and was afterwards transformed into a bull. Greek tradition as recorded by Plato, Xenophon, Babrius, and others, speaks of an early golden age in which men and animals held colloquies together "as in our fables;" whence we should conclude this much—that there was a time when poets very commonly introduced them as holding conversations, and when philosophers illustrated their doctrines from the animal world.
The fable, we are told, was "an invention of ancient Assyrian men in the days of Ninus and Belus," and in confirmation of its Eastern origin, we may observe that the apologues of Lokman are of Indian derivation. He is supposed, by Arabian writers, to have been either a nephew of Abraham or Job, or a counsellor of David or Solomon.
The first specimen we have of an ordinary fable, i.e., of one in which the interlocutors are lower animals, is found in Hesiod, who is placed about a century after Homer. It runs thus:—
"Now I will tell the kings a fable, which they will understand of themselves. Thus spake the hawk to the nightingale, whom he was carrying in his talons high in air, 'Foolish creature! why dost thou cry out? One much stronger than thou hath seized thee, though thou art a songster. I can tear thee to pieces, or let thee go at my pleasure.'"
But fables do not come fully under our view until they are connected with the name of AEsop, who is said to have introduced them into Greece. In general his fables pretend to nothing more than an illustration of proverbial wisdom, but in some cases they proceed a step farther, and show the losses and disappointments which result from a neglect of prudent considerations. It cannot be denied that there is something fanciful and amusing in these fables, still there is not much in them to excite laughter—they are not sufficiently direct or pungent for that. The losses or disappointments mentioned, or implied, give a certain exercise to the feelings of opposition in the human breast, and if they are supposed to be such as could not easily have been foreseen, we should regard the narratives as humorous. But this is scarcely the case; the mishaps arise simply and directly from the situations, and are related with a view to the inculcation of truth, rather than the exhibition of error. Hence the basis is different from that in genuine humour, and the complication is small. Still the object evidently was to allure men into the paths of wisdom through the pleasure grounds of imagination.
Addison has justly observed that fables were the first kind of humour. As the days of Athenian civilization advanced, their light chaff was thought more of than their solid matter. Two hundred years of progress in man caused the animals to be truly considered "lower," natural distinctions were better appreciated, and there seemed to be something absurd in the idea of their thinking or talking. Hence AEsop's fables are spoken of by Aristophanes as something laughable, and the fabulist came to be regarded as a humorist. This feeling gained ground so much afterwards that Lucian makes AEsop act the part of a buffoon in "The Isles of the Blessed." Such views no doubt influenced the traditions with regard to the condition and characteristics of their composer. There was the more field for this, inasmuch as even the fables were only handed down orally. Some biographer, formerly supposed to have been Planudes the monk, seems to have fertilized with his own inventive genius many tales which had themselves no better foundation than the conjectures derived from the tone and nature of the fables. AEsop was represented as droll, as a sort of wit, and by a development of the connection in the mind between humour and the ludicrous, they gave him an infirm body, hesitating speech, and servile condition. Improving the story, they said his figure frightened the servants of the merchant who bought him. At the same time many clever tricks and speeches were attributed to him. What we really glean from such stories is, that animal fables soon came to be regarded as humorous. It is probable that some fabulist of the name of AEsop at one time existed, but we know nothing with certainty about his life, and many of the fables attributed to him were perhaps of older date.
The advance in the direction of humour, which was manifested in AEsop's fictions, was also found in the opulent Ionian Sybaris. This city, situated on the lovely Bay of Tarentum, was now at the height of its fame, the acknowledged centre of Greek luxury and civilization. A reflection of oriental splendour seems to have been cast upon it, and we read of all kinds of extravagant and curious arrangements for the indulgence of ease and indolence. Amid all this luxury and leisure, fancy was not unemployed. We find that, like the former leaders of fashion in this country, they kept a goodly train of monkeys, and anticipated our circus performances by teaching their horses to dance on their hind legs, an advance above practical joking and below pictorial caricature. Moreover, intellectual entertainment was required at their sumptuous feasts, and genius was tasked to find something light and racy, maxims of deep significance interwoven with gay and fanciful creations. There was not sufficient subtlety about these inventions to entitle them to the name of humour in our modern sense of the word; much complication was not then required, nor much laughter expected. The "fables" of Sybaris seem to have been of a similarly philosophical cast to those of AEsop. The following specimen is given in the Vespae, 1427.
"A man of Sybaris fell from a chariot, and, as it happened, had his head broken—for he was not well acquainted with driving—and a friend who stood by, said, 'Let every man practise the craft, which he understands.'"
We observe that these fables are not carried on through the assistance of our four-footed friends. At Sybaris, conversation between men and the lower animals had begun to appear not only absurd, but to be improved upon and made with the evident intention of being humorous. Hence, inanimate things were sometimes made to speak, and in succeeding fictions birds and beasts were given such special characteristics and requirements of men as could least have belonged to them. As an example of this, we may refer to the Batrachomyomachia—a production called Homeric but proved by the very length of its name to belong to a later date. It is ascribed by Plutarch to Pigres, the brother of the Halicarnassian Queen, Artemisia, contemporary with the Persian War. This poem, which is a parody on Homer, reminds us, in its microscopic representation of human affairs, of the travels of Gulliver in Lilliput. A frog offers to give a mouse a ride across the water on his back. Unfortunately, a water-snake lifts up its head when they are in the middle passage, and the frog diving to avoid the danger, the mouse is drowned. From this trifling cause there arises a mighty war between the frogs and the mice. The contest is carried on in true Homeric style; the mice-warriors are armed with bean-pods for greaves, lamp-bosses for shields, nutshells for helmets, and long needles for spears. The frogs have leaves of willow on their legs, cabbage leaves for shields, cockle-shells for helmets, and bulrushes for spears. Their names are suggestive, as in a modern pantomime. Among the mice we have Crumb-stealer, Cheese-scooper, and Lick-dish; among the frogs, Puff-cheeks, Loud-croaker, Muddyman, Lovemarsh, &c.
Birth of Humour—Personalities—Story of Hippocleides—Origin of Comedy—Archilochus—Hipponax—Democritus, the Laughing Philosopher—Aristophanes—Humour of the Senses—Indelicacy—Enfeeblement of the Drama—Humorous Games—Parasites, their Position and Jests—Philoxenus—Diogenes—Court of Humour—Riddles—Silli.
There is every reason to suppose that a very considerable period elapsed before any progress was made in advance of the ludicrous, but at length by those who appreciated it strongly, and saw it in things in which it did not appear to others, humorous devices were invented from a growing desire to multiply the occasions for enjoyment. Observation and our power of imitation provided the means, and men of humour employed themselves in reproducing some ludicrous situations; and thus, instead of things derided being as previously wholly separate from those who derided them, a man could laugh, and yet be the cause of laughter to others. This discovery was soon improved upon, and by aid of imagination and memory, as opportunities offered, certain connections and appearances were represented under a great variety of forms. As the mind enlarged, the exciting causes of laughter were not mainly physical or emotional, but assumed a higher and more rational character.
At the period at which we have now arrived, we find humour dawning through various channels. We have traced approximations towards it in proverbs and fables, and, in a coarse form, in practical jokes; and as from historical evidences we are ready to admit that civilization had an Eastern origin, so we shall feel little difficulty in assigning Greece as the birthplace of humour. A greater activity of mind now begins to prevail, reflection has gradually given distinctness to emotion, and the ludicrous is not only recognised as a source of pleasure, but intentionally represented in literature.
Before the time of AEsop, though not perhaps of his fables, Homer related a few laughable occurrences of so simple a character as to require little ingenuity. In this respect he is not much better than a man who recounts some absurd incident he has witnessed without adding sufficient to it to show that he has a humorous imagination. His mirth, except when merely that of pleasure, is of the old hostile character. In Iliad, xi, 378, Paris, having hit Diomed, from behind a pillar with an arrow in the foot, springs forth from his concealment and laughs at him, saying he wished he had killed him. In Iliad, xxi, 407, where the gods descend into the battle, Minerva laughs at Mars when she has struck him with a huge stone so that he fell, his hair was draggled in the dust, and his armour clanged around him. In the Odyssey, Ulysses speaks of his heart laughing within him after he had put out Polyphemus' eye with a burning stick without being discovered. And in Book xviii, Ulysses strikes Irus under the ear and breaks his head, so that blood pours from his mouth, and he falls gnashing and struggling on the ground, at which, we are told, the suitors "die with laughter."
From this hostile phase the transition was easy to ridiculing personal defects, and so Homer tells us that when the gods at their banquet saw Vulcan, who was acting as butler, "stumping about on his lame leg," they fell into "unextinguishable laughter."
Thersites is described as "squint-eyed, lame-legged, with bent shoulders pinched over his chest, a pointed head, and very little hair on it." Homer may merely have intended to represent the reviler of kings as odious and despicable, but there seems to be some humour intended. Ridicule of personal defects must always be of an inferior kind, being a matter of sight, and of small complexity. As the first advance of the ludicrous was from the hostile to the personal, so the beginning of humour seems to have been the representation of personal defects.
In accordance with this, we find that the only mention of laughter made by Simonides of Amorgos is where he says that some women may be compared to apes, and then gives a very rude description of their persons. This subservience to the eye can also be observed in the appreciation of monkeys and dancing horses, already mentioned, the latter forming a humorous exhibition, as the animals were trained with a view to amuse. We have marks of the same optical tendencies in the appreciation of antics and contortions of the body, either as representing personal deformity, or as a kind of puzzling and disorderly action. A little contemporary story related by Herodotus shows that these pantomimic performances were now becoming fashionable in Athens. Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, was even at this date so much in favour of competitive examinations, that he determined to give his daughter to the most proficient and accomplished man. On the appointed day the suitors came to the examination from every quarter, for the fair Agariste was heiress to great possessions. Among them was one Hippocleides, an Athenian, who proved himself far superior to all the rest in music and dissertation. Afterwards, when the trial was over, desiring to indulge his feelings of triumph and show his skill, he called for a piper, and then for a table, upon which he danced, finishing up by standing on his head and kicking his legs about. Cleisthenes, who was apparently one of the "old school," and did not appreciate the manners and customs of young Athens, was much offended by this undignified performance of his would-be son-in-law, and when he at last saw him standing on his head, could no longer contain himself, but cried out, "Son of Tisander, thou hast danced away thy marriage." To which the other replied with characteristic unconcern: "It's all the same to Hippocleides,"—an expression which became proverbial. In this story we see the new conception of humour, though of a rude kind, coming into collision with the old philosophic contests of ingenuity, which it was destined to survive if not to supersede.
We have another curious instance about this date of an earnest-minded man being above the humour of the day, (which, no doubt, consisted principally of gesticulation), and he was probably voted an unsociable, old-fashioned fellow. Anacharsis, the great Scythian philosopher, when jesters were introduced into his company maintained his gravity, but when afterwards a monkey was brought in, he burst into a fit of laughter, and said, "Now this is laughable by Nature; the other by Art." That amusement should be thus excited by natural objects denotes a very eccentric or primitive perception of the ludicrous, seldom now found among mature persons, but it is such as Diodorus, quoting no doubt from earlier histories, attributed to Osiris—"to whom," he says, "when in Ethiopia, they brought Satyrs, (who have hair on their backs,) for he was fond of what was laughable."
But a further development of humour was in progress. As people were at that time easily induced to regard sufferings as ludicrous, the idea suggested itself of creating mirth by administering punishment, or by indulging in threats and gross aspersions. A very slight amount of invention or complexity was here necessary. The origin of the comic drama furnishes an illustration of this. It commenced in the harvest homes of Greece and Sicily—in the festivals of the grape-gatherers at the completion of the vintage. They paraded the villages, crowned with vine-leaves, carrying poles and branches, and smeared with the juice of grapes. Their aim was to provoke general merriment by dancing, singing, and grotesque attitudes, and by giving rein to their coarse and pugnacious propensities. Spectators and passers by were assailed with invectives, pelted with missiles, and treated to all that hostile humour which is associated with practical joking. So vile was their language and conduct that "comedy" came to signify abuse and vilification. As the taste for music and rhythm became general in that sunny clime, even these rioters adopted a kind of verse, by which rustic genius could give additional point to scurrility. Thus arose the Iambic measure used at the festivals of Ceres and Bacchus, and afterwards fabled to have been invented by Iambe, the daughter of the King of Eleusis. Hence, also, came the jesting used in celebrating the rites of Ceres in Sicily, and the custom for people to post themselves on the bridge leading to Eleusis in Attica, and to banter and abuse those going to the festivals. The story of Iambe only marks the rural origin of the metre, and its connection with Ceres, the Goddess of Harvest. Eleusis was her chosen abode, and next in her favour was Paros; and here we accordingly find the first improvement made upon these uncouth and virulent effusions. About the commencement of the 7th century, Archilochus, a native of this place, harnessed his ribaldries better, and put them into a "light horse gallop." He raised the Iambic style and metre so as to obtain the unenviable notoriety of having been the first to dip his pen in viper's gall. Good cause had he for his complaints, for a young lady's father, one Lycambes, refused to give him his daughter's hand. There was apparently some difficulty about the marriage gifts—the poet having nothing to give but himself. Rejected, he took to writing defamatory verses on Lycambes and his daughters, and composed them with so much skill and point that the whole family hanged themselves. Allusions, which led to such a catastrophe, could not now be regarded as pleasantries; but at that time he obtained a high reputation, and perhaps the suicide of the wretched Lycambes was considered the best joke of all. The fragments which remain to us of Archilochus' productions seem melancholy enough, and the only place where he speaks of laughter is where he calls Charilaus "a thing to be laughed at,"—an expression which would seem to point to some personal deformity—we are told, however, by later writers, that he was a glutton. In another remaining passage Archilochus says that "he is not fond of a tall general walking with his legs apart, with his hair carefully arranged, and his chin well shaven;" where we still detect the same kind of caricature, and in default of any adequate specimen of his "gall," we may perhaps be excused for borrowing an illustration from Alcaeus, who lived slightly later; and who, speaking of his political opponent Pittacus, calls him a "bloated paunch-belly," and a "filthy splay-footed, crack-footed, night fellow."
Archilochus lived in the fable age, and the most perfect of the small fragments remaining of his works are of that allegorical description. But he may be regarded as a representative of the dull and bitter humour of his time—a large proportion of which, as in his writings, and those of Simonides and Hesiod, was ungallantly directed against the "girls of the period."
But Archilochus' humour, though rude and simple, opened a new mine of wealth, and if it was not at first very rich, it was enough to indicate the golden treasure beneath. Sonorous narratives about heroes and demi-gods were to be gradually supplanted by the bright contrasts of real life. Archilochus' ingenuity had introduced light metres suited for flippant and pointed allusions. The conceit was generally approved, and though the new form could not exactly be called humorous, it occurred to Hipponax, in the next century, that he could make it so by a slight alteration. Perhaps this "Father of Parody" intended to mimic Archilochus; at any rate, by means of a change in termination, he manufactured "limping" Iambics. We must suppose that he produced something better than this, but look in vain into his lines for any instances of real pungency. He was a sort of Greek Samson, his best jokes seem to have been connected with great strength, and to judge from what remains of his works, we should conclude that he was more justly famous for "tossing an oil cruise" than for producing anything which we should call humour. But, were we asked whether in that age his sayings would have been amusing, we may reply in the affirmative; they certainly had severity, for his figure having been caricatured by the sculptors of Chios, Bupalus and Anthermus, he repaid them so well in their own coin, that they also duly hanged themselves. It must be admitted that the fact of the same kind of death having been chosen by them, and by the objects of Archilochus' derision, does not increase greatly the credibility of the stories.
We now come to consider what we may call a serious source of humour. Already we have noticed the tendency in ancient times to exercises of ingenuity in answering hard questions. These led to deeper thought, to the aphoristic wisdom of the seven wise men, and the speculations of those who were in due time to raise laughter at the follies of mankind.
This introduces the era of the philosophers—a remarkable class of men, who grew up in the mercurial atmosphere of Greece. One of the most distinguished of them was Democritus, born 460 B.C. He came of noble descent, and belonged to so wealthy a family of Abdera that his father was able to entertain Xerxes on his return to Asia. The King left some Chaldean Magi to instruct his son, who, early in life, evinced a great desire for the acquisition of knowledge, and after studying under Leucippus, travelled to Egypt, Persia, and Babylon. He almost seemed a compound of two different characters, uniting the intellectual energy of the sage with the social feelings of a man of the world. Living in ease and opulence, he was not inclined to be censorious or morose; having mingled much in society, he was not very emotional or sympathetic; not tempted to think life a melancholy scene of suffering, but callous enough to find amusement in the ills he could not prevent. He regarded man, generally, as a curious study, as remarkable for not exercising the intellect with which he was endowed—not so much from censurable causes as from some obliquity in mental vision. Not that he regarded him as unaccountable—a fool in the ordinary acceptation of the word, is always a responsible being, and not synonymous with an idiot.
The humour of this laughing sage, grounded upon deep philosophy, was so little understood in his day that none were able to join in his merriment, nor did he expect that they should be; if he was humorous to himself, he was not so, and did not aim at being so, to others. On the contrary, he was thought to be mad, and Hippocrates was directed to inquire into his disorder, but the learned physician returned answer that not he, but his opponents were deranged. Whether this story be a fabrication or not, we may regard it as a testimony that wise men saw much truth in his philosophy. Montaigne, in his Essay on Democritus and Heraclitus, gives his preference to the former, "Because," he observes, "men are more to be laughed at than hated," showing that he regarded him as imputing folly to men rather than vice.
Even Socrates, whom we are accustomed to regard as the most earnest of philosophers was by no means a melancholy man. Fully aware of the influence exercised by humour, he often put his teachings into an indirect form, and he seems to have first thus generally attracted attention. He introduced what is called irony—the using expressions which literally mean exactly the opposite to what is intended. A man may be either praised or blamed in this way, but Socrates' intention was always sarcastic. He put questions to men, as if merely desiring some information they could easily give him, while he knew that his inquiries could not be answered, without overthrowing the theories of those he addressed. Thus, he gave instruction whilst he seemed to solicit it. In various other ways he enlivened and recommended his doctrines by humorous illustration. It is said that he even went to the theatre to see himself caricatured, laughed as heartily as any, and stood up to show the audience how correctly his ill-favoured countenance had been reproduced. This story may be questioned, and it has been observed that he was not insensible to ridicule, for he said shortly before his death that no one would deride him any longer. We are told that he spent some of his last days in versifying the fables of AEsop.
We now return from theoretical to practical life, from the philosophers to the public. Nothing exhibits more forcibly the variable character of humour than that, while philosophers in their "thinking shops" were laughing at the follies of the world, the populace in the theatre were shaking their sides at the absurdities of sages. Ordinary men did not appreciate abstract views, nor understand abstruse philosophic humour, indeed it died out almost as soon as it appeared, and was only contemporary with a certain epoch in the mental history of Greece. Every popular man is to a great extent a reflection of the age in which he lives, "a boat borne up by a billow;" and what, in this respect is true generally, is especially so with regard to the humorist, who seeks a present reward, and must be in unison with the characters of those he has to amuse. He depends much on hitting the current fancies of men by small and subtle allusions, and he must have a natural perception of fitness, of the direction in which he must go, and the limits he must not transgress. The literature of an epoch exhibits the taste of the readers, as well as that of the authors.
We shall thus be prepared to find that the mind of Aristophanes, although his views were aristocratic, harmonized in tone with that of the people, and that his humour bears the stamp of the ancient era in which he lived. The illustrations from the animal world in which he constantly indulges remind us of the conceits of old times, when marvellous stories were as much admired as the monstrous figures upon the Persian tapestry. Would any man at the present day produce comedies with such names as "The Wasps," "The Frogs," and "The Birds." But we here meet with our feathered and four-footed companions at every corner. The building of the bird's city is a good illustration of this. Thirty thousand cranes brought stones for the foundations from Libya, and ten thousand storks made bricks, the ducks with aprons on carried the bricks, and the swallows flew with trowels behind them like little boys, and with mortar in their beaks.
We also notice in Aristophanes a simple and rude form of the ludicrous, scarcely to be called humour, much in favour with his immediate predecessors. I refer to throwing fruits and sweatmeats among the audience. Trygaeus (Vintner), celebrating a joyous country festival in honour of the return of peace and plenty, takes occasion to throw barley among the spectators. In another place Dicaepolis, also upon pacific deeds intent, establishes a public treat, and calls out, "Let some one bring in figs for the little pigs. How they squeak! will they eat them? (throws some) Bless me! how they do munch them! from what place do they come? I should say from Eaton."
In this scrambling fun there would be good and bad fortune, and much laughter would be occasioned, but mostly of an emotional character. Some of the jokes of Hegemon, who first introduced dramatic parody, were of a similar description, but more unpleasant. On one occasion he came into the theatre with his robe full of stones, and began to throw them into the orchestra, saying, "These are stones, and let those who will throw them." Aristophanes makes great use of that humour which is dependent upon awakening hostile and combative feelings. Personal violence and threats are with him common stage devices. We have here as much "fist sauce," and shaking of sticks, and as many pommellings, boxings of ears, and threats of assault and battery as in any modern harlequinade.
Next in order, we come to consider some of the many instances in Aristophanes of what may be called optical humour—that in which the point principally depends upon the eye. Thus he makes Hercules say he cannot restrain his laughter on seeing Bacchus wearing a lion's skin over a saffron robe. A Megarian reduced to extremities, determines to sell his little daughters as pigs, and disguises them accordingly. In the Thesmophoriazusae, there is a shaving scene, in which the man performed upon has his face cut, and runs away, "looking ridiculous with only one side of his face shaven." In another play where the ladies have stolen the gentlemen's clothes, the latter come on the stage in the most ludicrous attire, wearing saffron-coloured robes, kerchiefs, and Persian slippers. In another, the chorus is composed of men representing wasps, with waists pinched in, bodies striped with black and yellow, and long stings behind. The piece ends with three boys disguised as crabs, dancing a furious breakdown, while the chorus encourages them with, "Come now, let us all make room for them, that they may twirl themselves about. Come, oh famous offsprings of your briny father!—skip along the sandy shore of the barren sea, ye brothers of shrimps. Twirl, whirl round your foot swiftly, and fling up your heels in the air like Phrynicus, until the spectators shout aloud! Spin like a top, pass along in circle, punch yourself in the stomach, and fling your leg to the sky, for the King himself, who rules the sea, approaches, delighted with his children!"
The greater the optical element in humour, the lower and more simple it becomes, the complexity being more that of the senses than of intellect. It may be said there is always some appeal to both, but not in any equal proportions, and there is manifestly a great difference between the humour of a plough-boy grinning through a horse-collar, and of a sage observing that "when the poor man makes the rich a present, he is unkind to him." Caricature drawings produce little effect upon educated people, unless assisted by a description on which the humour largely depends. We can see in a picture that a man has a grotesque figure, or is made to represent some other animal; by gesticulation we can understand when a person is angry or pleased, or hungry or thirsty; but what we gain merely through the senses is not so very far superior to that which is obtained by savages or even the lower animals, except where there has been special education.
Next to optical humour may be placed acoustic—that of sound—another inferior kind. The ear gives less information than the eye. In music there is not so much conveyed to the mind as in painting, and although it may be lively, it cannot in itself be humorous. We cannot judge of the range of hearing by the vast store of information brought by words written or spoken, because these are conventional signs, and have no optical or acoustic connection with the thing signified. We can understand this when we listen to a foreign language.
Hipponax seems to have been the first man who introduced acoustic humour by the abrupt variation in his metre. Exclamations and strange sounds were found very effective on the stage, and were now frequently introduced, especially emanating from slaves to amuse the audience. Aristophanes commences the knights with a howling duet between two slaves who have been flogged,
"Oh, oh—Oh, oh—Oh, oh—Oh, oh—"
In another play, there is a constant chorus of frogs croaking from the infernal marshes.
"Brekekekex, coax, coax, brekekekex, coax, coax."
In "The Birds," the songsters of the woods are frequently heard trilling their lays. As they were only befeathered men, this must have been a somewhat comic performance. The king of birds, transformed from Tereus, King of Thrace, twitters in the following style.
"Epopopopopopopopopopoi! io! io! come, come, come, come, come. Tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio! trioto, trioto, totobrix! Torotorotorotorolix! Ciccabau, ciccabau! Torotorotorotorotililix."
Rapidity of utterance was also aimed at in some parts of the choruses, and sometimes very long words had to be pronounced without pause—such as green-grocery-market-woman, and garlic-bread-selling-hostesses. At the end of the Ecclesiazusae, there is a word of twenty-seven syllables—a receipt for a mixture—as multifarious in its contents as a Yorkshire pie.