« PreviousContinue »
are affected by the natural emotions of the mind expressed in the simplest language : in short, the happy art, that, in conversation and the intercourse of life, lays hold upon our affections, is but a just address to the engaging passions in the human breast. But this syren power, like beauty, is the gift of nature.
Soft pleasing speech and graceful outward show,
Pope's Hom. From the various combinations of the several endearing passions and lofty sentiments, arise the variety of pleasing characters that beautify human society.
There is a different source of pleasure in conversation from what I have spoken of, called wit; which diverts the world so much, that I cannot venture to omit it, although delicacy and a refined taste hesitate a little, and will not allow its value to be equal to its currency. Wit deals largely in allusion and whimsical similitudes; its countenance is always double, and it unites the true and the fantastic by a nice gradation of colouring that cannot be perceived. You observe that I am only speaking of the ready wit of conversation.
Wit is properly called in to support a conversation where the heart or affections are not concerned ; and its proper business is to relieve the mind from solitary inattention, where there is no room to move it by passion; the mind's eye, when disengaged, is diverted by being fixed upon a vapour, that dances, as it were, on the surface of the imagination, and continually alters its aspect : the motley image, whose comic side we had only time to survey, is too unimportant to be attentively considered, and luckily vanishes before we can view it on every side. Shallow folks expect that those who diverted them in conversation, and made bappy bon mots, ought to write well; and imagine that they themselves were made to laugh by the force of genius : but they are generally disappointed when they see the admired character descend upon paper. The truth is, the frivolous turn and habit of a comic companion, is almost diametrically opposite to true genius, whose na. tural exercise is deep and slow-paced reflection. You may as well expect that a man should, like Cæsar, form consistent schemes for subduing the world, and employ the principal part of his time in catching flies. I have often heard people express a surprise, that Swift and Addison, the two greatest masters of humour of the last age, were easily put out of countenance, as if pun, mimicry, or repartee, were the offspring of genius.
Whatever similitude may be between humour in writing, and humour in conversation, they are generally found to require different talents. Humour in writing is the offspring of reflection, and is by nice touches and labour brought to wear the negligent air of nature; whereas, wit in conversation is an enemy to reflection, and glows brightest when the imagination Alings off the thought the moment it arises, in its genuine new-born dress. Men a little elevated by liquor seem to have a peculiar facility at striking out the capricious and fantastic images that raise our mirth; in fact, what we generally admire in sallies of wit, is the nicety with which they touch upon the verge of folly, indiscretion, or malice, while at the same time they preserve thought, subtilty, and good humour; and what we laugh at is the motley ap. pearance, whose whimsical consistency we cannot account for.
People are pleased at wit for the same reason that they are fond of diversion of any kind, not for the worth of the thing, but because the mind is not able to bear an intense train of thinking; and yet the ceasing of thought is insufferable, or rather impossible. In such an uneasy dilemma, the unsteady excursions of wit give the mind its natural action, without fatigue, and relieve it delightfully, by employing the imagination without requiring any reflection. Those who have an eternal appetite for wit, like those who are ever in quest of diversion, betray a frivolous minute genius, incapable of thinking.
THE TRUE USE OF THE SENSES PERVERTED BY
FASHION. NOTHING bas been so often explained, and yet so little understood, as simplicity in writing ; and the reason of its remaining so much a mystery is, our own want of simplicity in manners. By our present mode of education, we are forcibly warped from the bias of nature, in mind as well as in body; we are taught to disguise, distort, and alter our sentiments, until our thinking faculty is diverted into an unnatural channel; and we not only relinquish and forget, but also become incapable of our original dispositions. We are totally changed into creatures of art and affectation ; our perception is abused, and our senses are perverted; our minds lose their nature, force, and flavonr; the imagination, sweated by artificial fire, produces nought but vapid and sickly bloom; the genius, instead of growing like a vigorous tree, that extends its branches on every side, buds, blossoms, and bears delicious fruit, resembles a lopped and stunted yew, tortured into some wretched form, projecting no shade or shelter, displaying no flower, diffusing no fragrance, and producing no fruit, and exhibiting nothing but a barren conceit for the amusement of the idle spectator.
Thus debauched from nature, how can we relish her genuine productions? As well might a man distinguish objects through the medium of a prism, that presents nothing but a variety of colours to the eye.
It has often been alleged, that the passions can never be wholly deposed, and that by appealing to these, a good writer will always be able to force himself into the hearts of his readers; but even the strongest passions are weakened, nay sometimes totally extinguished and destroyed, by mutual opposition, dissipation, and acquired insensibility. How often, at our theatres, has the tear of sympathy and burst of laughter been repressed by a malignant species of pride, refusing approbation to the author and actor, and renouncing society with the audience! I have seen a young creature possessed of the most delicate coniplexion, and exhibiting features that indicate sensibility, sit without the least emotion, and behold the most tender and pathetic scenes of Otway represented with all the energy of action; so happy had she been in her efforts to conquer the prejudices of nature. She had been trained up in the belief that nothing was more awkward, than to betray a sense of shame or sympathy; she seemed to think that a consent of passion with the vulgar would impair the dignity of her character; and that she herself ought to be the only object of approbation. But she did not consider that such approbation is seldom acquired by disdain ; and that want of feeling is a very bad recommendation to the human heart. For my own share, I never fail to take a survey of the female part of an audience, at every interesting incident of the drama. When I perceive the tear stealing down a lady's cheek, and the sudden sigh escape from her breast, I am attracted towards her by an irresistible emotion of tenderness and esteem ; her eyes shine with enchanting lustre, through the pearly moisture that surrounds them; my heart warms at the glow which humanity kindles on her cheek, and keeps time with the accelerated heavings of her spowy bosom; I at once love her benevolence, and revere her discernment. On the contrary, when I see a fine woman's face unaltered by the distress of the scene, with which I myself am affected, I resent her indifference as an insult on my own understanding; I suppose her heart to be savage, her disposition unsocial, her organs indelicate, and exclaim with the fox in the fable, O pulchrum caput, sed cerebrum non habet!