An Essay on Comedy
George Meredith

This etext was prepared from the 1897 Archibald Constable and Company
edition by David Price, email


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Ego limis specto sic per flabellum clanculum.' -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIRABEL: A fool, and your brother, Witwoud?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, after an interview:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

{5} Femmes Savantes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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