THE influence of healthy Wit and Humour is a benign one, if it comes to us at times, and kindly makes us forget sad thoughts and cankering cares; makes the oldest feel young and fresh, and turns the wrinkles of our sorrow into ripples of laughter.
There have been great and wise men who have so felt the sins and sorrows of their kind as an individual
burthen—Dante, for example, whose lips were seldom seen to smile—and so they have walked our world very sadly, with no eye for the "gayest, happiest attitude of things," no heart to rejoice in it.
But not all great and good men have been mirthless. Shakspeare, who mirrored our whole humanity, did not leave the laugh out of its reflected face.
He tells us "your merry heart goes all the day," and he knew how much the merry heart may have to carry.
"We may well be refreshed," says Jeremy Taylor, "by a clean and brisk discourse, as by the air of Campanian wines, and our
faces and our heads may well be anointed and look pleasant with wit, as with the
fat of the Balsam tree." One man will be struck with the difference between things as they are, and as they ought to be, or might be.
It fills his spirit with sadness. Another cannot help laughing at many of their incongruities.
But the man who can laugh as well as weep is most a man. The greatest humorists have often been also the most serious seers, and men of most earnest heart.
Hence their humour passes into pathos at their will. And all those who have manifested the finest perfection of spiritual health have enjoyed the merry sunshine of life, and wrought their work with a spirit of blithe bravery.
Humour has a much earlier origin than Wit, as we moderns interpret that word.
Humour begins with the practical joke. It is supposed that the first perception of humour among savages must have occurred to the conquerors when they were
torturing and slowly murdering their captured enemies, whose writhings and grimaces furnished them with fun that was fine, if the humour was coarse.
The humour of the court fools and jesters consisted mostly of the practical joke.
It is the same with the humour of boys. Humour not only has an earlier beginning than Wit, but it has also a far wider range.
It will reach the uneducated as well as the educated; and among the former may often be found very unctuous humorists.
In the earlier history of nations and literatures, when life is strong and thought is unperplexed, we get writers full enough in force, and direct enough in expression, to touch nature at most points.
Hence the earlier great writers reach the depths of tragedy, and the breadths of humour.
In their times they see the full play of strong passions; the outward actions in which life expresses itself, when it lives up to its limits; and all those striking contrasts of life, those broad lights and bold shadows of character
which, as they cross and recross in the world's web, make rare and splendid patterns for the tragic poet and humorist.
By-and-bye we find less embodied strength in the outer life, and more subtlety and refinement of the inner life. Our writers cannot reach the boundaries of the master minds, and so are compelled to work more and more within the wide limits, circle within circle, and, the more limited the circle, the more they still try to be innermost, and make up in fineness of point and subtlety of touch for what they have lost in larger sweep, broader handling, and simpler strength.
This, we think, is the literary tendency that leads, among other things, to our modern wit, instead of the old English humour.
It would have been perfectly impossible for the wit of Punch to have been produced in any other time than ours, or in any other place and societary conditions, than those of London.
No past time could have given us Thomas
Hood, who may here stand for "Wit;" and the present time has lost the secret of
old Chaucer's humour.
We cannot pretend to "split the difference" betwixt Wit and Humour.
It would demand the most piercing keenness and delicate discrimination, to analyse the workings of the mind, and allot the relative portions contributed by the various powers in producing wit or humour, and to subtly and amply show their differences.
We can only here broadly state a few distinctions.
Wit deals more with thoughts, and Humour with outward things.
Wit only reaches characteristics, and therefore it finds more food in a later time and more complex state of society.
Humour deals with character. The more robust and striking the character, the better for
humour: hence the earlier times, being more fruitful in peculiar character, are most
fruitful in humour. Wit is more artificial, and a thing of culture; humour
lies nearer to nature. Wit is oftenest shown in the quality of the thought; humour by the nature of the action.
With wit, two opposite and combustible qualities of thought are brought into contact, and they explode in the ludicrous.
Humour shows us two opposite personal characters which mingle, and dissimilitude is dovetailed in the laughable.
Wit may get the two persons, as in the instance of Butler's Hudibras, but it fails to make the most of them; it deals with the two
characters in thought. It is for the great humorist, like Shakspere or Cervantes, to show us the two opposite characters in action.
Wit, in its way of working, is akin to Fancy. The
greatest wits in poetry are as remarkable for their facility of fancy.
But Humour is allied to the greatness and oneness of Imagination.
Wit, like Fancy, is a mosaic-worker. It loves sudden contrasts and striking combinations; it will make the slightest link of analogy sufficient to hold together its images and ornaments.
It will leap from point to point, like the squirrel from bough to bough, bending them down for its purpose.
Humour, like Imagination, pours itself out, strong and splendid as flowing gold, with oneness and continuity.
Wit twinkles and corruscates, gleams and glances about the subject.
Humour lightens right to the heart of the matter at once, without byplay.
Wit will show you the live sparks rushing red-rustling from the chimney, and prettily
dancing away in the dark, a "moment bright, then gone for ever." But Humour shall give you a pleasanter peep through the lighted window, and show you the fire glowing and
ruddy—the smiling heart of home—shining in the dear faces of those you love, who are waiting to overflow in one warm embracing wave of love the moment the door is opened for your coming.
Wit tenses, tickles, and titilates. But Humour floods you to the brim with measureful content.
Wit sends you a sharp, sudden, electric shock, that leaves you tingling from without.
Humour operates from within with its slow and prolonged excitation of your risible soul.
Wit gives you a quick, bright nod, and is off. "What's going on?" said a bore to Douglas Jerrold.
"I am," said he. That is just what Wit does. You must be sharp, too, in taking the hit, or you army find yourself in a similar situation to the poor fly that turns about after its head is off to find it out.
One of Wit's greatest elements of success is surprise. Indeed, sometimes when your surprise is over, you find nothing else; you have been cheated upon false pretences.
Not so with Humour. He is in no hurry. He is for "keeping it up."
He don't move in straight lines, but flows in circles. He carries you irresistibly along with him.
With Wit you are on the "qui vive;" with Humour you grow glorious.
If brevity be the soul of wit, the soul of humour is longevity. Wit loves to dress neatly, and is very fastidious as to a proper fit.
It will inform you that Robert Boyle was the "father of chemistry, and brother to the Earl of Cork."
Humour is not particular respecting its clothes, so long as they are large enough.
It don't care about making ends meet so precisely. It will tell you a tale about seeing bees as big as bulldogs, and yet their hives were only of the usual size; and if you ask how they managed to get in and out, "Oh," says Humour, "let them look to that."
Wit dwarfs its subject to a Lilliputian size, and holds it up for laughter because of its littleness.
Humour makes as much of its subject as possible. It revels in exaggeration; it reigns in Brobdignag.
Wit is thinner; it has a subtler spark of light in its eye, and a less carnal gush of jollity in its laugh.
It is, as we often say, very dry. But Humour rejoices in ample physical health; it has a strong ruddy nature, a glow and glory of sensuous life, a
playful overflow of animal spirits. As the word indicates, Humour has more
moisture of the bodily temperament. Its words drop fatness, its face oozes with unctuousness, its eyes swim with dews of mirth.
As stout people often make the best dancers and swimmers, so Humour relies on size.
It must have "body," like good old wine. We may get Wit in the person of poor, thin, diaphanous Hood, and irritable, little, pale Pope; but for
Humour we require the splendid physique of Shakepere, the ruddy health of Chaucer, the
aplomb of Rabelais, or the portly nature of Christopher North.
Humour has more common human feeling than Wit; it is wealthiest, wisest, kindliest.
Lord Dudley, the eccentric, said pleasantly to Sydney Smith, "You have been laughing at me constantly, Sydney, for the last seven years, and yet, in all that time, you have never said a
single thing to me that I wished unsaid."
After all our attempts to define the differences between wit and humour in the abstract, there yet remain a hundred differences in kind and in character, both
individual and national Chaucer's humour is the bright overflow of a merry heart's sunshine.
The wit of Hood is often the flash of a sad heart's sunshine. That smile on the fond, fatherly face of the old English poet is like sunlight sleeping there.
And into what genial humour and bright wisdom it wakes! His humour is broad as all out of doors; liberal and kind as the summer light. Hood's wit is often the heat-lightning that
frolics about the gathering gloom of a coming night. Betwixt these two representatives of humour and wit, who stand nearly five centuries apart, there lies a wide world of wit and humour, running through all the grades of difference; from the bitterness of Swift, to the sweetness of
Goldsmith; the diamond-like point of Pope, to the sublime grotesque of Burns; the pungency of Thackeray, to the ringing mirth of Sydney Smith's working-day
humour—Humour stripped to the shirt-sleeves, and toiling away at its purpose with the jollity of Mark Tapley; from the quaint, shy, and sly humour of
Lamb,—who in his own nature seemed to unite the two opposites necessary to humour and wit, and to make them one at will, with the oddest twist in the
world,—to the caustic wit of Jerrold, "steeped in the very brine of conceit, and sparkling like salt in fire."
Shakspere himself might supply us with illustrations through all this range, if necessary; for he includes both Chaucer and Hood, and fills those five centuries between.
Then there are many differences betwixt the wit and humour of different nations.
German humour generally goes ponderously upon all fours. French esprit is intangible to the English mind. Irish humour is often so natural that its accidents look intentional.
The Scotch have been said not to understand a joke. Undoubtedly they have not the Cockney quickness necessary to catch some kinds
of word-wit. But where will you find richer, pawkier humour?
Take, for example, that book of Dean Ramsay's, on Scottish life and character, which keeps overflowing from one edition into another, because its humour is uncontainable, uncontrollable.
The most obvious characteristic of American humour is its power of "pitching it strong," and drawing the long bow.
It is the humour of exaggeration. This consists of fattening up a joke until it is rotund and rubicund, unctuous, and irresistible as Falstaff himself, who was created by Shakspere, and fed fat, so as to become for all time the very impersonation of Humour in a state of corpulence.
That place in the geography of United States called "Down East" has been most prolific in the monstrosities of mirth.
Only there would a tree'd coon have cried to the marksman with his gun pointed, "Don't fire, Colonel, I'll come down."
Only in that region do they travel at such speed that the iron rails get hot enough to serve the carriages with heat instead of hot-water bottles, and sometimes so hot, that on looking back you see the irons writhing about like live snakes trying to wriggle off to the water to cool themselves.
Only there do they travel so fast that the signal-whistle is of no use for their engines, because, on one occasion at least, the train was in, and smashed in a collision, long before the sound of the whistle got there!
Only there can a blow be struck so "slick" as to take an animal's ear off with such ease, that the animal does not know he is one ear short until he puts his forefoot up to scratch it.
Only there, surely, are the thieves so cute that they drew a walnut log right out of its bark, and left five sleepy watchers all nodding as they sat astride a tunnel of walnut-wood rind.
North Carolina, we suppose, cannot be "Down East," else some of the stories that "Skit" tells in his "Fisher's River Scenes and Characters" have the old family features as like as two peas.
Charles Lamb's idea of the worst possible inconvenience of being in a world of total darkness was, that, after making a pun, you would have to put out your hand and grope over the listener's face, to feel if he was enjoying it.
It would require a broad grin to be felt. Some of these stories are of the sort to produce a broad grin which might be felt in total darkness.
One is of a man named "Oliver Stanley," who was taken prisoner by wild "Injins."
After some consideration, they put him into an empty oil barrel, and headed him up, leaving the bung-hole open, that he might be longer in dying.
They were of the savage kind of humorists before-mentioned, but did not require to see the victim's grimaces; belonging to modern times, they
could chuckle over the joke "subjectively." The prisoner relates a portion of his
"I detarmined to git out'n that, ur bust the trace; and so I jist pounded away with my fist, till I beat it nairly into a jelly, at the eend ev the bar'l; but it were no go.
Then I butted a spell with my noggin', but I had no purchase like old rams have when they butt; for, you know, they back ever so fur when they take a tilt.
So I caved in, made my last will and testerment, and vartually gin up the
ghost. It wur a mighty serious time with me for sure. While I were lying thar,
balancin' accounts with tother world, and afore I had all my figgers made out to see how things 'ud stand, I hearn suthin' scrambulatin' in the leaves, and snortin' uvery whip-stitch, like he smelt
suthin' he didn't adzactly like. I lay as still as a salamander, and thought, maybe there's a chance for Stanley yit.
So the crittur, whatever it mout be, kep' moseyin' round the bar'l.
Last he come to the bung-hole, put his nose in, smelt mighty pertic'ler, and gin a monstrous loud snort.
I holt what little breath I had, to keep the crittur from smellin the intarnuls ov the
bar'l. I soon seen it was a bar—the big king bar of the woods, who
had lived thar from time immortal. Thinks I, old feller, look out; old Oliver ain't dade yit.
Jist then he put his big black paw in jist as far as he could, and scrabbled about to make some 'scovery.
The fust thought I had was to nab at his paw, as 'a drowndin' man will ketch at a straw;' but I soon seen that wouldn't do, fur, you see, he couldn't then travel.
So I jist waited a spell, with great flutterbation of mind. His next move was to put his tail in at the bung-hole uv the bar'1 to test its innards.
I seen that were my time to make my Jack; so I seized holt, and shouted at the top or my voice,
On, Stanley, on!'
And the bar he put, and I knowed tail holt were better than no bolt; and so on we went,
bar'l and all, the bar at full speed. Now my hope were that the bar would
jump over some presserpiss, break the bar'l all to shiverations, and liberate me from my nasty, stinkin', ily prison.
And, sure 'nuff, the bar at full speed leaped over a catterack fifty foot
high. Down we went together in a pile, cowhollop, on a big rock, bustin' the
bar'l and nairly shockin' my gizzard out'n me. I let go my tail holt
—-had no more use fur it—and away went the bar like a whirlygust uv woodpeckers were arter it.
I've nuther seen nur hearn from that bar since, but he has my best wishes for his present and future welfare."
A good deal of our old friend Sam Slick's mother-wit may be fathered "Down East."
He is a great master of the humour of exaggeration; a brobdignagian of brag, more successful in splitting sides than in splitting hairs.
What the shepherd in the Noctes calls "bamming," that is Samuel's great glory.
He is rich in his own proverbial philosophy, and peculiar quaint character.
Half Yankee, half Englishman, but all himself, as he would say, "he's all thar."
Without any poetry, he can be sufficiently rich and droll. We said that humour began with the practical joke.
This is the beginning of much of Sam Slick's humour. We find by his latest book that, in his own way, he is delightful and incorrigible as ever.
Here is a sample from the "Season Ticket." Mr Peabody, an unmitigated Down-Easter, is describing the quality of some land in British North America, and he gives a forcible illustration of the natural richness of the soil:
"I took a handful of guano, that ere elixir of vegetation, and I sowed a few cucumber seeds in it.
Well, Sir, I was considerable tired when I had done it, and so I just took a stretch for it under a great pine-tree, and took a nap.
Stranger! as true as I am talking to you this here blessed minute, when I woke up, I was bound as tight as a sheep going to market on a butcher's cart, and tied fast to the tree.
I thought I should never get out o' that scrape, the cucumber vines had so grown and twisted round and round me and my legs while I was asleep!
Fortunately, one arm was free; so I got out my jack-knife, opened it with my
teeth, and cut myself out, and of for Victoria again, hot-foot. When I came into the town, says our Captain to me, 'Peabody, what in natur' is that ere great yaller thing that's a stickin' out of your pocket?'
Nothin', sais I, lookin' as mazed as a puppy nine days old, when he first opens his eyes, and takes his first stare.
Well, I put in my hand to feel; and I pulled out a great big ripe cucumber, a foot long, that had ripened and gone to seed there."
Sam Slick does not, however, try to make people grin, till they get the lockjaw, merely for the pleasure of seeing them a
"fixed up." Nor does he open their eyes to the widest, to show them nothing.
His great object has been to wake up the Britishers to a true sense of the value of those great possessions of ours in North America.
He has given us many a poke in the ribs, and hearty thump on the back, by way of enlightening us in matters of great importance, which we have ignorantly neglected.
His exaggerations have often given weight to the blows which he has struck as with Thor's sledge-hammer.
Mentioning Thor's hammer reminds us, also, that this humour of exaggeration, this vociferant laugh from "Down East,'' is a far new-world echo of the old Norse humour.
There really seems to be nothing new under the sun. In the Negro melodies imported from America we recognise the familiar tones that hint at an old-world pre-existence.
Many Americans would be surprised to find that even their favourite word
"slick," which is considered a Yankee "institution," is a good old English word.
They may discover it in the Second Book of Chapman's translation of Homer's
Iliad. And this broad and boundless Yankee humour, which overflows in illimitable exaggerations, will be found to have its original springs in the broad humour of the blythe old Norsemen.
Race, says Emerson, works immortally to keep its own. And this humour, having once got into the
Anglo-Saxon blood, keeps flashing out in many unexpected ways and places.
As one type of an idea which runs and reappears again and again through all this kind of humour, take that story told of Thor and his companions on one of their expeditions to
Utgard. One night, when weary, they look round and see a house wide open, and so they enter.
The house has one large hall and a little closet. In the morning they
find this house is only the glove of a giant. The door was the glove-wrist, the little closet was the place for the thumb.
Now, this type of an idea, as we call it, has been printed from a thousand times for humorous purposes.
Sailors and soldiers, in telling their wonderful stories, still use it with as much effect as ever.
We shall give one more illustration of our meaning from the "Norse Tales," translated with such tender beauty, and robust vigour, by Mr Dasent.
In this story, the stretching of it, the piling of it up, the going in for it, and resolute thoroughness, are altogether "Down East" in character and keeping.
"Once on a time there was a king who had a daughter, and she was such a dreadful story-teller, that the like of her was not to be
found far or near. So the king gave out, that if any one could tell such a string of lies as would get her to say 'That's a story,' he
should have her to wife, and half the kingdom besides. Well, many came, as you may fancy, to try their luck; for every one would have been very glad to have the princess, to say nothing of the kingdom.
But they all cut a sorry figure; for the princess was so given to story-telling, that all their lies went in at one ear and out of the other.
Among the rest came three brothers to try their luck, and the two elder went first; but they fared no better than those who had gone before them.
Last of all, the third, Boots, set off, and found the princess in the farmyard.
"'Good morning,' he said, and thank you for nothing.'
"'Good morning,' said she, 'and the same to you.' Then she went
"'You haven't such a fine farmyard as ours, I'll be bound; for when two shepherds stand one at each end of it, and blow their ram's
horns, the one can't hear the other!'
"'Haven't we, though?' answered Boots. 'Ours is far bigger; for when a cow begins to go with calf at one end of it, she don't get to
the other before her time is come.'
"'I dare say,' said the princess. 'Well, but you haven't such a big ox, after all, as ours yonder; for when two men sit one on each
horn, they can't touch each other with a twenty-foot rule.'
"'Stuff!' said Boots; 'is that all? Why, we have an ox who is so big, that when two men sit one on each horn, and each blows his
great mountain-trumpet, they can't hear one another.'
"'I dare say,' said the princess; ' but you haven't so much milk as we, I'll be bound; for we milk our kine into great pails, and carry
them indoors, and empty them into great tubs, and so we make great, great cheeses!'
"'Oh! you do, do you?' said Boots. 'Well, we milk ours into great tubs, and then we put them into carts and drive them indoors, and then we turn them out into great brewing-vats; and so we make cheeses as big as houses.
We had, too, a dun mare to tread the cheese well together, when it was making; but once she tumbled down into the cheese, and we lost her; and after we had eaten at this cheese seven years, we came upon a great dun mare, alive and kicking.
Well, once after that, I was going to drive this mare to the mill, and her backbone snapped in two.
But I wasn't put out, not I; for I took a spruce sapling, and put it into her for a backbone, and she had no other backbone all the while we had her.
But the sapling took root, and grew up into such a tall tree, that I climbed right up to heaven by it; and when
I got there, I saw the Virgin Mary sitting and spinning the foam of the sea into pig's-bristle
ropes; but just then the spruce fir broke short off, and I couldn't get down again; and so the Virgin Mary let me down by one of the ropes; and down I
slipped straight into a fox's hole; and who should sit there but my mother and your father cobbling shoes! and just as I stepped in, my mother gave your father such a box on the ear, it made his whiskers curl.'
"'That's a story!' said the princess; "my father never did any such thing in all his born days!'
"So Boots got the princess to wife, and half the kingdom besides."
This extract will not only serve to show the kinship between Norse and Yankee humour, it also shows how such astounding
audacity may reach its success through a knowledge of human nature's weak points.
There is no doubt but what Boots might have gone on lying for ever, in the abstract, without producing the desired effect on the princess.
He slyly throws her off guard by that suggestion of royalty cobbling shoes.
Her Majesty is touched. That does it. This kind of audacity is a large element in humour, especially if we get
some small and weaker body, with a fine audacity of self-assertiveness, that we can patronize in its contest with a much larger opponent.
A little fable of Emerson's is a case in point. Moreover, we again see the two opposite personal characters here mingling in the laughable, which we specified as necessary for the production of humour.
"The Mountain and the Squirrel
Had a quarrel;
And the Mountain called the Squirrel 'Little Prig.'
You are doubtless very big;
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together,
To make up a year
And a sphere.
And I think it no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I'm not so large as you,
You are not so small as I!
And not half so spry.
I'll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track;
Talents differ; all is wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut."
It is not always that humour asks our sympathy for the weaker vessel.
It often delights in the triumph of the strongest, and makes us enjoy it in spite of ourselves. Therefore we are inclined to make the most of a chance like this.
In the first place, what right had the great big Mountain to call the Squirrel a "Prig?"
He commits himself and forfeits all our sympathy at the beginning.
After that, size goes for nothing in his favour; it only serves to heighten our sense of the ludicrous.
Bun replied—as the celebrated Manager did to Mr Punch—His frisky philosophy
corruscates with humour. There is the proper twinkle in his eye; the archest of turns in the curling tail.
His faith in himself is enough to move a mountain.
"If I'm not so large as you,
You are not so small as I."
That puts things in a different light to what the Mountain has been accustomed to.
As some one said to Sydney Smith, "You have such a way of putting things."
Then, while the Mountain ponders slowly in silence, there follows that clenching
"And not half so spry."
And before the total unanswerability of that is half seen through, Bun walks over the old fellow, and scratches his head for him
with a grave satiric grace—
"I'll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track."
The conclusion is absolutely annihilating to all gross size and
"If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut."
We do not propose to include Washington Irving's works in this sketch of American humour.
They were appraised, and have taken their place, long ago. They possess humour of the genial Addisonian kind, an airy grace, and fine-old-English-gentlemanliness, which will always delight. But America has produced four other genuine and genial humorists in Hawthorne, Mrs Stowe, Holmes, and Lowell. These have given to American literature a better right of challenging a comparison with other literatures, in the department of humour, than perhaps in any other.
The humour of Hawthorne is a singular flower to find on American soil.
As Lowell sings of him—
"There is Hawthorne, with genius so shrinking and rare,
That you hardly at first see the strength that is there:
A frame so robust, with a nature so sweet,
So earnest, so graceful, so solid, so fleet,
Is worth a descent from Olympus to meet.
'Tis as if a rough oak, that for ages had stood,
With his gnarled, bony branches, like ribs of the wood,
Should bloom, after cycles of struggle and scathe,
With a single auemone trembly and rathe."
He is a humorist for the fastidious few, not for the multitude.
As a satirist, his weapon does not make great gaping flesh-wounds; it is too ethereal in temper.
Nor does he mockingly offer the sponge dipped in gall and vinegar.
He is a kindly, smiling satirist. But his smile often goes deeper than loud laughter.
He is one of the tenderest-hearted men that ever made humour more piquant with the pungency of satire.
There is a side of sombre shadow to his nature which sets forth the bright felicities of subtle insight with a more shining richness.
He has a weird imagination, which at will can visit the border-land of flesh and spirit, whence breathe the creeping airs that thrill with fearful fascination.
His mirth is grave with sweet thoughts; the very poetry of humour is to be found in his pages, with an aroma fine as the sweet-briar's fragrance.
How rare and delicate is his satire, may be seen in the "Celestial Railroad" of the
"Mosses from an Old Manse." A modern application of "Pilgrim's Progress," showing how we have
altered all that now-a-days. Where the little wicket-gate once stood, is a station-house.
No more need to carry the burthen like poor Christian: that goes in the luggage-van.
The Slough of Despond is bridged over. Instead of the antique roll of parchment given by Evangelist, you procure a much more convenient small square ticket.
The old feud and dispute between Prince Beelzebub and the keeper of the wicket-gate have been amicably
arranged on the principle of mutual compromise. The Hill
Difficulty has been tunnelled through, and the materials dug out of it have served to fill up the Valley of Humiliation.
And, most delightful and satisfactory transformation of all, Apollyon, Christian's old enemy, instead of meeting poor pilgrims mortal conflict, is now liberally and laudably engaged to drive the engine.
The only drawbacks to this new and improved safe and speedy passage to the Celestial City is, that somehow few ever get
beyond Vanity Fair; and those that do, sink down in death's deadly cold river, with no shining ones to help them from the other side.
The deepest humour and pathos will often be found in twin relationship.
They are the two sides of the same mental coin. There is a humour that touches us into tears; and great grief will have its gaiety of expression.
Sir Thomas More and Sir Walter Raleigh on the scaffold will make their cheerful jest.
We know that Cowper wrote his Johnny Gilpin when in one of his melancholy moods.
So, often, with the rarest humour, you are reading or listening with an eager delight and expectancy of laughter, and, while the last smile has not yet done rippling over the face, it seems as though the humorist had by mistake struck the wrong chord; the tears are in the eyes at a touch like that long thrilling note of the nightingale's which comes piercing through the midst of her merry ecstasy, with such a heart-cry of
yearning pathos, you are saddened in a moment; although the sadness is a richer pleasure than the mirth.
Thackeray at times produces this effect very artfully. Only, when he has produced it, he seems to mock at your changed mood, as though he should say, "You were laughing just now; pray proceed; don't let me interrupt your merriment."
Mrs Stowe, in a simpler way, has reached to this depth of humour where it passes into pathos.
Nowhere more remarkably than in that scene in "Dred," with "Tiff" and his dying mistress, where the faithful old fellow sits at the bed-side with the big pair of spectacles on his large up-turned nose, the red handkerchief pinned round his shoulders; he busily darning a stocking, rocking a cradle with one foot, singing to himself, and
talking to a little one, all at one time.
"I shall give up," moans the poor dying woman. "Bress de Lord, no, Missis," says the cheery old soul, taking all the fault on himself, as though he were the cause of her hopelessness. ''We'll be all right agin in a few days.
Work has been kinder pressin' lately; and chil'n's clothes an't quite so 'spectable; but den I's doin' heaps o' mendin'.
See dat ar," said he, holding up a slip of red flannel, resplendent with a black patch; "dat ar
hole wont go no furder; and it does well enough for Teddy to wear, rollin' round de do', and such like times, to save de better-most,"—honest fellow, he carefully ignores the fact that the child has no bettermost,—"and de way I's put de yarn in dese yar stockins' an't slow.
Den I's laid out to take a stitch in Teddy's shoes; and dat ar hole in de kiverlet, dat ar'll be stopped afore mornin'.
O, let me alone, he! he! he!—ye didn't keep Tiff for nothin', Missis, ho! ho! ho!" and the black face became unctuous with the oil of gladness as Tiff proceeded with his work of consolation.
There are few comic creations more touching than this ugly, faithful, self-sacrificing dear old Tiff, left as father and mother to the poor children.
Tenderly as a hen he gathers them under his old wings of shelter, and nurses and protects them.
Mindful of the old dignity, and anxious for the family honour, he tells Miss Fanny to order him round well
"afore folks." "Let folks hear ye; 'cause what's de use of havin' a
Nigger, and nobody knowin'it?" "Keep a good look-out how Miss Nina walks, and how she holds her pocket-handkerchief, and, when she sits down, she gives a little flirt to her clothes, so dey all sit round her like ruffles.
Dese yer little ways ladies have." With what a blithe-some, never-failing
cheerfulness, he meets and conquers all difficulties! He has eyes that will make a bright side to things with their own shining.
When his old rickety vehicle breaks down on a journey, it has "broke in a strordinary good place this time."
The bag of corn bursts; and as "dat ar de last bag we's got," why, he is ready to burst also with laughter at the "curosity."
His fire goes out as soon as lighted; upon which he exults thus—"Bress de Lord!
got all de wood left, anyway." Great wisdom often smiles through his humour.
Here we have him philosophizing in a contemplative attitude:
"I thought de Lord made room in every beast's head for some sense; but 'pears like hens an't got de leastest grain.
Puts me out seein' them crawing and crawing on one leg, 'cause dey an't sense enough to know where to sit down with tother.
Dey never has no idea what dey goin' to do, I believe; but den dar folks dat's just like 'em, dat de Lord
has gin brains to, and dey wont use 'em. Dey's always settin' round,
but dey never lays no eggs—so hens an't de worst critturs after all."
Most touching is old Tiff's solicitude about getting the children into Canaan, fighting his way through the thorniest paths of this
world—inquiring of everything and everybody the shortest way to Canaan.
He's bound to that place, and the "chil'en" must be with old Tiff; couldn't do without him
nohow. He hears the solemn sound of the pines at night, as they keep "whisper, whisper, never tellin' anybody what dey wants to know."
I's studdin' on lately is, how to get dese yer chil'en to Canaan; and I hars fus with one ear, and den with t'oder, but 'pears like a'nt clar 'bout it, yet.
Dere's a heap about 'most everything else, and it's all very good; but
'pears like an't clar arter all about dat ar. Dey says, 'Come to Christ; ' and I says, 'Whar is He, any how?
'Bress you, I want to come! Dey talks 'bout going in de gate, and knocking at de do', and 'bout marching on de road, and 'bout fighting and being soldiers of do cross; and de Lord knows, now,
I'd be glad to get de chil'en through any gate; and I could take 'em on my back and travel all day, if dere was any road; and if dere was a do', bress me if dey wouldn't hear old Tiff a rappin'!
I 'epects de Lord would have fur to open it—would so. But, arter all, when de preaching a done, dere
don't 'pear to be nothing to it. Dere an't no gate, dere an't no do', nor no way; and dere an't no fighting, 'cept when Ben
Dakin and Jim Stokes get jawing about der dogs; and everybody comes back eating der dinner quite comf'table, and 'pears like dere want no such thing dey's been preaching 'bout.
Dat ar troubles me—does so—'cause I wants for to get dese yer chil'en in de kingdom, some way or other."
Tiff does not consider that he has got hold of much religion, nor can he read much in the Bible; he is "mazin' slow at dat ar; but den
I'se larned all de best words—like Christ, and Lord, and God, and dem ar."
"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin," says the poet; and poor old, black, ungainly
Tiff has a hundred such touches.
It is noticeable that Mrs Stowe's richest and most affecting humour should be Negro humour.
Is this intentional—her wilier way of pleading their cause? or is it a confession that the dark people have lighter hearts and merrier natures, in spite of slavery, than her Yankee white friends have, with all their freedom?
We consider her power of differenciating the Negro character, by means of the individual humour, to be one of her most remarkable gifts as a novelist.
The humour of "Candace," in the "Minister's Wooing," is very different from that of Tiff, and sufficient, of itself, to outline the character.
Hers has a more "keeking" shrewdness. That is an immortalizing observation of
hers—"Dogs knows a heap more than they likes to tell." Of course, their difficulty is to get a publisher.
'Tis not often that such an interpreter as Burns comes to read their look; although many of us must have felt that they often needed one.
This, again, is very keen—"Some folks say," said Candace, "that dreaming about white horses is a certain sign.
Jinny Styles is very strong about that. Now, she came down one
morning crying, 'cause she had been dreaming about white horses, and she was sure she should hear some friend was dead.
And sure enough a man came in that day, and told her that her son was drowned out in the harbour.
And Jinny said, 'There, she was sure that sign never would fail.' But then, ye see, that night he came home.
Jinny wasn't really disappointed; but she always insisted he was as good as drowned any way, 'cause he sank three
The speciality of old Hundred's humour, again, is different, as Topsy is from Tiff.
He has been making all sorts of excuses to his mistress to prevent the horses going out.
"'Now, an't you ashamed of yourself, you mean old Nigger?' said Aunt Rose, the wife of Old Hundred, who had been listening to the conversation, 'talking about de creek, and de mud, and de
critturs, and lor knows what all, when we all know its nothing but your laziness?'
"'Well,' said Old Hundred, 'and what would come o' the critturs if I wasn't lazy, I want to know?
Laziness! it's the bery best thing for the critturs, can be. Where'd dem hosses a been now, if I had been one of your highfelutin' sort, always drivin' round?
Who wants to see hosses all skin and bone? Lord! if I had been like some o' de coachmen, de buzzards would have had
de pickin' of dem critturs long ago.'
"'I rally believe that you've told dem dar lies till you begin to believe
'em yourself,' said Rose. 'Tellin' our dear, sweet young lady about your bein' up with Peter all night, when de Lord knows you laid here snorin', fit to tar de roof off.'
"'Well, must say something! Folks must be 'spectful to de ladies.
Course I couldn't tell her I wouldn't take de critturs out; so I just trets out house.
Ah, lots o' dem 'scuses I heeps. I tell you, now, 'senses is excellent things!
Why, 'scuses is like dis yer grease dat keeps de wheels from screaking.
Lord bless you, de whole world turns on 'scuses. Whar de world be, if everybody was such fools to tell de raal reason for everything they are gwine for to do, or an't gwine for to
Oliver Wendell Holmes has been long known in this country as the author of some poems, written in stately classic verse, abounding in happy thoughts, and bright bird-peeps of fancy, such as this, for
"The punchbowl's sounding depths were stirred,
Its silver cherubs smiling as they heard."
And this first glint of
"The spendtbrift Crocus, bursting through the mould,
Naked and shivering, with his cup of gold.''
He is also known as the writer of many pieces which wear a serious look until they break out into a laugh at the end, perhaps in the last line, as with those on "Lending a Punch Bowl"—a
cunning way of the writer's; just as the knot is tied in the whip-cord at the end of the lash, to enhance the smack.
But neither of these kinds of verse prepared us for anything so good, so
sustained, so national, and yet so akin to our finest humorists, as is the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table;" a very delightful
book—a handy book for the breakfast table. A book to conjure up a cozy winter picture of a ruddy fire, and singing kettle, soft hearth-rug, warm slippers, and easy chair; a musical chime of cups and saucers, fragrance of tea and toast within, and those flowers of frost fading on the windows without, as though old Winter just looked in, but his cold breath was melted, and so he passed by.
A book to possess two copies of; one to be read and marked, thumbed and dog-eared; and one to stand up in its pride of place with the rest on the shelves, all ranged in shining rows, as dear old friends, and not merely as
nodding acquaintances. Not at all like that ponderous and overbearing autocrat, Dr Johnson, is our Yankee friend.
He has more of Goldsmith's sweetness and loveability. He is as true a lover of elegance and high-bred grace, dainty fancies and all pleasurable things, as was Leigh Hunt; he has more worldly sense
without the moral languor; but there is the same boy-heart, beating in a manly breast, beneath the poet's singing robe. For he
is a poet as well as a humorist. Indeed, although this book is written in prose, it is
full of poetry, with the "beaded bubbles" of humour dancing up through the true hippocrene, and a winking at the brim "with a winning
look of invitation shining in their merry eyes.
The humour and the poetry of the book do not lie in tangible nuggets for extraction, but they are there; they pervade it from beginning to end.
We cannot spoon out the sparkles of sunshine as they shimmer on the wavelets of water; but they are there, moving in all their golden life, and evanescent grace.
Holmes may not be so recognisably national as Lowell; his prominent characteristics are riot so exceptionably Yankee; the traits are not so peculiar as those delineated in the
Biglow Papers. But he is national. One of the most hopeful literary signs of this book is its quiet nationality.
The writer has made no straining and gasping efforts after that which is striking and peculiar; which has always been the bane of youth, whether in nations or individuals.
He has been content to take the common, home-spun, everyday humanity that he found ready to
hand—people who do congregate around the breakfast table of an
American boarding-house; and out of this material he has wrought with a vivid touch and truth of portraiture, and won the most legitimate triumph of a genuine book.
We presume it to be a pleasant fiction of the author's that Americans ever talk at all at such a time.
But, perhaps, the Autocrat's example may be of service, and ultimately a chatty meal may take the place of a most
voracious silence. If so, that may conduce to a jucier, ruddier, plumper humanity than exists in the States at present.
Holmes has the pleasantest possible way of saying things that many people don't like to hear.
His tonics are bitter and bland. He does not spare the various foibles and vices of his country-men and women.
But it is done so good-naturedly, or with a sly puff of diamond-dust in the eyes of the victims, who don't see the joke which is so apparent to us.
As good old Isaac Walton advises respecting the worm, he impales them tenderly, as though he loved them.
As we said, we can't spoon out the sparkles. It is more difficult to catch a smile than a tear.
But we shall try to extract a few samples:—
"The company agreed that the last illustration was of superior excellence, or, in the phrase used by them, 'Fustrate.'
I acknowledged the compliment, but rebuked the expression. 'Fustrate,' 'prime,' 'a handsome garment,' 'agent in a flowered vest'—all such expressions are final.
They blast the lineage of him or her who utters them, for generations up and down."
"Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris."
"Give me the luxuries of life, and I will dispense with its necessaries."
"Talk about conceit as much as you like, it is to human character what salt is to the ocean; it keeps it sweet, and renders it endurable.
Say rather, it is like the natural unguent of the sea fowl's plumage, which enables him to shed the rain that falls on him, and the wave in
which he dips."
"Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked.
A weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself.
Stupidity often saves a man from going mad. Any decent person ought to go mad, if he really holds such and such opinions.
It is very much to his discredit in every point of view, if he does not.
I am very much ashamed of some people for retaining their reason, when they know perfectly well that if they were not the most stupid or the most selfish of human beings, they would become
non-compotes at once."
"What a comfort a dull but kindly person is, to be sure, at times! A ground-glass shade
over a gas-lamp does not bring more solace to our dazzled eye than such a one to our minds.
There are men of esprit who are excessively exhausting to some people.
They are the talkers that have what may be called the jerky minds.
They say bright things on all possible subjects, but their zigzags rack you to death.
After a jolting half-hour with these jerky companions, talking with a dull friend affords great relief.
It is like taking the cat in your lap after holding a squirrel."
"'Don't you know how hard it is for some people to get out of a room after their visit is over?'
We rather think we do. They want to be off, but they don't know how to manage it.
One would think they had been built in your room, and were waiting to be launched.
I have contrived a sort of ceremonial inclined plane for such visitors, which, being lubricated with certain smooth phrases, I back them down, metaphorically speaking, stern-foremost, into their native element of
Lucky dog! to have his upon such an invention! Sad dog! not to have communicated it!
We are not so sure that the "Professor" is equal to the "Autocrat," but are not as familiar with him yet.
If the first be a book of the class in which we place it, it could not be repeated with the same success.
The first "sprightly runnings" always have an aroma that comes no more.
It is very readable, however, and full of good things. Some of the old boarders reappear in these pages.
The "young man called John," individualized with homely humour, is one of these.
With all his external roughness, this "young man John" has a refinement of feeling; such, we think, as seldom troubles
the feed,—said the young man John,—it's the old woman's looks when a fellah lays it in too strong.
The feed's well enough. After geese have got tough, 'n' turkeys have got strong, 'n' lamb's got old, 'n'
veal's pretty nigh beef, 'n' sparragrass's growin' tall 'n' slim 'n' scattery about the head, 'n' green peas are gettin' so big
'n' hard they'd be dangerous if you fired 'em out of a revolver, we get hold of all them delicacies of the season.
But it's too much like feedin' on live folks and devourin' widdah's substance, to lay yourself out in the eatin' way, when a fellah's as hungry as the
chap that said a turkey was too much for one 'n' not enough for two.
I can't help lookin' at the old woman. Corned-beef days she's tolerable calm.
Roastin'-days she worries some, 'n' keeps a sharp eye on the chap that carves.
But when there's anything in the poultry line, it seems to hurt her feelins so to see the knife goin' into the breast, and joints comin' to pieces, that there's no comfort in eatin.'
When I cut up an old fowl and help the boarders, I always feel as if I ought to say, Won't you have a slice of Widdah?—instead of chicken."
The greatest of all American humorists is James Russell Lowell; and greatest of all American books of humour is the "Biglow Papers."
If Holmes can match the Queen Anne men in their genial way, with a pleasant tincture of Montaigne, Lowell reminds us more of the lusty strength and boundless humour of that great Elizabethan literature.
Not that he imitates them, or follows in their footsteps; for if there be an American book that might have existed as an indigenous growth, independently of an European literature, we feel that book to be the "Biglow Papers."
The author might have been one of the men who met and made merry at the "Mermaid," because of his thoroughly
original genius, his mountain-mirth, his glorious fulness of life, his pith and power.
The humour of the "Biglow Papers" is "audible, and full of vent," racy in hilarious
hyperbole, and it has that infusion of poetry necessary to the richest and deepest humour.
The book is a national birth, and it possesses that element of nationality which has been the most enduring part of all the best and greatest births in literature and art.
In the instance of all the greatest poets and painters, they are the most enduring and universal who have drawn most on the national life.
The life of art, poetry, humour, must be found at home or nowhere.
And the crowning quality of Lowell's book is, that it was found at home.
It could not have been written in any other country than America. The setting is admirable, and most provocative to the sense of humour.
Good old Parson Wilbur—half Puritan, half Vicar of Wakefield, mixed in
America—with his pleasant verbosity, his smiling superiority, supplies a capital background to the broad and
homely humour, the novel and startling views, the quaint rustic expression of his talented young parishioner.
We know how it enhances the effect in art when the means chosen are of the simplest kind.
We know also how much more galling satire may be when it comes from those we have looked down upon as illiterate.
This is the great success—and sting in it—of Hosea Biglow's humour.
Here is an uneducated Yankee provincial, smelling of the soil, speaking in a local dialect, pitching
into humbugs, literary and political, with the most amazing confidence; striking blows with his sinewy strength and gaunt arms like the passing sails of a windmill.
He does not fight as a cultivated gentleman, with revolver and bowie knife even, but lays it on in vulgar fistic fashion, stripped to the naked nature, with such vigour that the humbugs are
"nowhere" before they know where. The result is indeed most laughable!
At the time when the Biglow Papers were written, the Northern States of America by no means stood in that free and fighting attitude against slavery which they have since attained.
Thus Hosea satirises them:—
"Aint it cute to see a Yankee
Take sech everlastin' pains
All to get the devil's thankee,
Helpin' on 'em weld their chains?
We begin to think its natur
To take sarse an' not be riled;
Who'd expect to see a tater
All on eend at bein' biled?"
Hosea went dead against popular feeling on the subject of the Mexican war.
On seeing a recruiting sergeant he grows glorious in his riotous way of poking
"Jest go home and ax our Nancy
Wether I'd be sech a goose
Ez to jine ye,—guess she'd fancy
The etarnal bung wuz loose?
She wants me for home consumption;
Let alone the hay's to mow,—
Ef you're arter folks o' gumption,
You've a darned long row to hoe."
We honour the heroic courage of the man who, when it was dangerous to do so, gave brave utterance to many unpalatable
truths. To quote his own words,—
"We honour the man
who is willing to sink
Half his present repute for the freedom to think.
And, when he has thought, be his cause strong or weak,
Will risk t'other half for the freedom to speak:
Caring nought for what vengeance the mob has in store,
Let that mob be the upper ten thousand or lower."
And this is just what Lowell has done.
But we must return to our friend Hosea, who will tell us, among other things, "What Mr Robinson thinks."
"Parson Wilbur sez
he never heerd in his life
Thet th' Apostles rigged out in their swallow-tail costs,
An' marched round in front of a drum and a life,
To git some on 'em office, and some on 'em votes:
But John P.
Sez they didn't know everythin' down in Judee."
Hosea's report of the remarks made by Increase
D. O'Phace, Esq. (i.e., Dough-face), at an extrumpery caucus, contains some sly hits at the stump orators who appeal to the mob for their suffrages.
As for example:—
"A marciful Providence fashioned us holler
O' purpose that we might our principles swaller."
"I'm willin' a man should go tollable strong
Agin wrong in the abstract, fer thet kind o' wrong
Is ollers unpop'lar an' never gits pitied,
Because its a crime no one never committed:
But we musn't be hard on particklar sins,
Coz then we'll be kickin' the people's own shins."
The broadest grins, and most uproarious laughter, will be provoked by the amusing letters of "Birdofredum Sawin,"—a lazy, cheerful rascal who enlists, thinking to make his fortune in the Mexican war.
He describes the difference between his expectations and the reality he has found since he "wuz fool enuff to goe a trottin' inter Miss Chiff arter a drum and a fife" as Hosea
glory,—but, in spite o' all my tryin' to git callous,
I feel a kind o' in a cart, aridin' to the gallus.
But when it comes to bein' killed,—I tell ye I felt streaked
The fust time ever I found out wy baggonets wuz peaked."
In another letter he describes the result of "goin'
whar glory waits ye" in his own particular case. He has lost one leg.
Still there is comfort in the thought that the liquor won't get into the new wooden one; so it will save drink, and he will always have one a sober peg:"—
"I've lost one eye, but thet's a loss its easy to supply
Out o' the glory thet I've gut, for thet is all my eye;
And one is big enough, I guess, by diligently usin' it,
To see all I shall ever git by way o' pay fer losin' it."
"Ware's my left hand? O darn it, yes, I recollect wat's come on it;
I haint no left arm but my right, an' thet's gut jest a thumb on it."
However, dilapidated as he is, and good for nothing else, he thinks he may do as candidate for the Presidency.
And certainly he shows great knowledge of American human nature in his instructions for issuing an address, and tact in cavassing:—
"Ef wile you're lectionearin' round, some curus chaps should beg
To know my views o' state affairs, jest answer wooden leg!
Ef they aint satisfied with thet, an' kin' o' pry an' doubt,
An' ax fer suthin' deffynit, jest say one eye put out!
Then you can call me ' Timbertoes'—thet's wut the people likes;
Suthin' combinin' morril truth, with phrases sech ez strikes.
Its a good tangible idee, a suthin' to embody
Thet valooable class of men who look thro' brandy toddy."
He's all right on the slavery question, as he once found by special experience that niggers are not fit to be trusted.
We regret not being able to give it, for it is one of the best things in the book, but are anxious to quote this charming little poem, which is
perfect as a Dutch interior, and has a richer human glow:—
"Zekle crep up, quite unbeknown,
An' peeked in thru the winder,
An' there sot Huldy all alone,
'ith no one nigh to hender.
Agin' the chimbly crooknecks hung,
An' in amongst 'em rusted
The ole queen's arm that gran'ther Young
Fetched back frum Concord busted.
The wannut logs shot sparkles out
Towards the pootiest, bless her!
An' leetle fires danced all about
The chiney on the dresser.
The very room, coz she waz in,
Looked warm from floor to ceilin',
An' she looked full ez rosy agin
Ez the apples she wuz peelin'.
She heerd a foot and knowed it, tu,
Araspin' on the scraper,—
All ways to once her feelins flew
Like sparks in burnt-up paper.
He kin' o' l'itered on the mat,
Some doubtfle o' the seckle;
His heart kep' goin' pitypat,
But hern went pity Zekle."
We learn from the Parson that he was "not backward to recognise in the verses a certain wild, puckery, acidulous flavour, not wholly unpleasing, nor unwholesome to palates cloyed with the
sugariness of tamed and cultivated fruit." And we find a delicious bit of simple worldly-wisdom in the dear old fellow's way of ushering them into the world.
As it is the custom to attach "Notices of the Press" to the second edition of a work, he conceived it would be of more service to prepare such notices and print them with the first edition; for, as he very justly remarks,
"to delay attaching the bobs until the second attempt at flying the kite, would indicate but a slender experience in that useful art."
We could have wished that a portrait of "Hosea Biglow" had been attached to the book, but, as it is not, this graphic etching by his father is of all the more interest.
It is a remarkable glimpse of his remarkable son's remarkable mode of composing his poetry.
"Hosea he com home considerabal riled, and arter I'd gone to bed I hearn Him a thrashin round like a short-tailed Bull in
fli-time. The old Woman ses she to me ses she, Zekle, ses she, our Hosea's gut the chollery or suthin anuther, ses she, dont you Bee skeered, ses
I, he's oney amakin pottery, ses I, he's ollers on hand at that ere busynes like Da &
martin, and sure enuf, cum mornin, Hosy he cum down stares full drizzle, hare on eend and cote tales
flyin, and sot right of to go reed his varses to Parson Wilbur, bineby he cum back and sed the parson
wuz drefle tickled with 'em as I hoop you will Be, and sed they wuz True grit."
It is too bad, we think, that while there have been so many editions of Longfellow's works in this country there has never been a collected edition of
Lowell's Poems. We thank the author of "Tom Brown's School Days" for his hearty
preface to the "Biglow Papers," and hope that the success of this volume will lead to his editing a perfect collection of
Having cursorily passed through various phases of American humour, we are not about to make comparisons which might be
differently "odorous" on different sides of the Atlantic. The Americans themselves are all too fond of measuring stature with European prototypes.
We consider their literature to have passed through a most interesting condition, and to be doing quite as well as might have been expected.
If its rootage in our literature was so much in its favour, there are also disadvantages when we come to estimate results.
It has now gone through the initiative phases, we take it, and is very fertile in promise for the future.
Homers, Dantes, and Shaksperes, the greatest poets and humorists, cannot be
fairly expected in the first century of a literature. The beauty and grandeur of external nature alone will never inspire the highest and deepest writings; but human life, with its manifold experiences its glooms and glories, sorrows and rejoicings, pains, pleasures, and aspirations.
Nothing but a future full of promise can compensate American writers or the lack of that rich humanized soil of the past which belongs to us! Down into this soil the tree of our national life grasps with its thousand fibry fingers of rootage; and from this soil, made of the dust of our noble dead, it draws up a
sap of strength, and lifts it up toward heaven in the leaves and blossoms with which it still laughs out exultantly atop.
As Holmes tells us—
"One half our soil has walked the rest,
In Poets, Heroes, Martyrs, Sages."
With us every foot of ground grows food for
Imagination, and is hallowed by memorable associations; it has been ploughed and harrowed by some struggle for national life and liberty; ennobled by long toiling; and watered by sweat, and tears, and blood.
We have streams that run singing their lyrical melodies; mountains that lift up their great epics of freedom; valleys full of traditionary tales; mossy moors over which the
wind wails o' nights like a sighing memory of "old unhappy things and battles long ago;" and pastoral dales over
which there broods a refreshing mist of legendary breathings. In a soil like this, we may look for poetry to strike its deepest roots, humour to flower with its lustiest luxuriance, and generous humilities to spring from such a proud possession.
But America has no such humanized soil of the historic past, which has for ages been enriched by the ripe droppings of a fertile national life, that fall and quicken the present, to bring forth new fruit in season.
There is a noticeable leanness in American life, a "cuteness" of manners, that tell plainly enough of this lack in the kindlier nurture.
It wants the fatness and the flavour of the old-world humanities. Their literature is bearing fruit; but there has not been time for the vintage to ripen down a
the cellar, and acquire the mellow spirit that sits i' the centre, and the surrounding crust of richness that comes with maturity, which are to be met with in some of the old-world wines.
So much may be set off to the want of a past. Then follow the adverse influences of the present, some of which are peculiarly hurtful in the States.
We are acquainted with educated Americans who are glad to come to England whenever they can, just
to realize all the meaning we find in "Home:" all the rich heritage
that we have in our "Freedom;" and to live a little unconscious life, where the evil eye of publicity cannot penetrate.
Life with them has not sufficient privacy, and is wanting in that repose which is necessary for the richer deposits of mind to settle in.
How can the grapes ripen for the vintage if you pluck away the large green-sheltering
leaves that shield the fruit, with their dewy coolness, from too much sun?
More sanctity of the inner life is what American literature needs.
The healing springs will be found to rise in solitude, and secret haunts.
That restless, outward-hurrying, feverish, political life, is greatly
against the quiet operation of the creative mind which needs a still resting-place, and long, lonely broodings, to bring forth its offspring
of "glorious great intent." The political life leads to the development of aggressive force, instead of that assimilative force requisite to feed a noble literature.
It makes a thousand appeals to self-consciousness; this brings a train of adverse influences in a sensitiveness which is always thinking the world's eyes are on it; a defiance of opinion which it fears, and a self-love which
is most illiberal to others. A love of privacy has been one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the English nature.
Out of all the proud and loving thoughts that fill our minds at the name of Shakspere, there is none more endearing than that which reminds us of his true English love of the old place where he was born and bred, and of his desire to get back there, and own his house and bit of land amid the scenes of his boyhood.
Though his domestic ties had been none of the nearest, and some of his home-memories were far from flattering, yet his heart was there; and back to it he went, from all the allurements and triumphs of his London life, to have his wish and die.
The bane of American life and literature is the love of publicity. With small national capital as stock in trade, the individual wealth requires all the more hiving and hoarding.
Long, slow ripening is necessary, instead of a sudden and continual rushing into print, for this inevitably
fritters away the power of growth.
However, these unhelpful and hindering conditions that we have adverted to are mainly the result of surrounding circumstances, or such as belong naturally to the youth of a nation.
They will be conquered in time. Life must precede literature; and a noble, unconscious life will produce a great and fruitful literature.
In that aspect of which we have been speaking, as well as in others which speak for themselves, our American
brethren are certainly not poor. They have our hearty thanks for what they have already accomplished, and our best wishes for the future.