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of powerful and intrepid minds produced memorable changes, in religion, in politics, and philosophy. They shewed, to a keen observer of the passions, the secret movements, which directed the splendid scenes beheld with astonishment by Europe. They exhibited statesmen and heroes drowning their country in blood, for the favours of a mistress, or a quarrel at a ball; and veiling under the shew of patriotism, or religious zeal, the meanest and most criminal motives. While he was tempted to imitate their productions, the dormant reputation of most of these authors seemed to invite him to a secret treasure of learning, wit, and ridicule. To the facility of these acquisitions, we probably owe much of the gaiety of Sterne. His imagination, untamed by labour, and unsated by a long acquaintance with literary folly, dwelt with enthusiasm on the grotesque pictures of manners and opinions, displayed in his favourite authors. It may even be suspected, that by this influence he was drawn aside from his natural þias to the pathetic; for in the serious
of his works, he seems to have depended on his own force, and to have found in his own mind whatever he wished to produce; but in the ludicrous, he is generally a copyist, and sometimes follows his original so closely, that he forgets the changes of manners, which give an appearance of extravagance to what was once correct ridicule.
It is more necessary to preserve a strict attention to manners, in works of this sort, because the ludicrous, by its nature, tends to exaggeration. The passion of laughter, the strongest effect of ludicrous impressions, seems to be produced by the intensity, or more properly, the excess of pleasurable ideas; circum præcordia ludere, is the proper character of this class of emotions. Thus, a certain degree of fulness improves the figure, but if it be encreased to excessive fatness, it becomes risible. So in the qualities of the mind, modesty is agreeable--extreme bashfulness is ridiculous : we are amused with vivacity, we laugh at levity. If we observe the conversation of a professed jester, it will appear that his
great secret consists in exaggeration. This is also the art of caricaturists: add but a trifling degree of length or breadth to the features of an agreeable face, and they become ludicrous. In like manner, unbolster Falstaff, and his wit will affecț us less, the nearer he approaches to the size of a reasonable man.
I may add, that in idiots, and persons of weak understanding, laughter is a common expression of surprise or pleasure; and Young has observed,
That fools are ever on the laughing side, All these remarks prove, that we do not reason with the accuracy which some authors suppose, concerning the turpitude, or incongruity of the ideas presented to us, before we give way to mirth. If their theory were just, a malicious critic might prove from their effects, the incongruity of their own discussions.
There is little difficulty in accounting for the number and excellence of the ludicrous writers, who appeared during the sixteenth century, and who notonly resemble each other in their manner, but employ similar turns of thought, and by often relating the same anecdotes, shew that they drew their materials from a common store.
The Amadis, and other similar romances, had amused the short intervals of repose, which the pursuits of love and arms afforded, previous to the reign of Francis 1. That prince, equally the patron of letters and of dissoluteness, formed a court, which required works more calculated to inflame the imagination: a libertine scholarship became the tone of polite conversation, which was too faithfully copied by the fashionable wits, Even Brantome thinks it necessary to treat his readers with quotations, though mangled so barbarously, that he seems to have caught them by his ear alone. Neither the offensive details of this author, nor the satirical touches of D’Aubigné, could persuade us of the extreme corruption of manners in those times, if a witness, whose veracity cannot be questioned, had not left his testimony of its enormity, in a work dedicated to Cardinal Mazarine, and destined
to the instruction of Louis XIV. 66 There never was (says Perefixe, in speaking of the court of Henry 1) a court more vicious, or more corrupted. Impiety, atheism, magic, the most horrible impurities, the blackest treachery and perfidy, poisoning and assassination prevailed in it to the highest degree.” *
Rabelais, who shewed the way to the rest, may be considered as forming the link between the writers of romance and those of simple merriment. Great part of his book is thrown into the form of a burlesque romance; but, from the want of models, or of taste, he found no other method of softening his narrative, than the introduction of buffoonery. Some of his successors preferred the form of conversations, characteristically supported; a fashion introduced under the countenance of Henry 111. who, in the midst of his vices and his dangers, still felt the attractions of literature. He instituted a meeting, which was held twice a-week in his closet, where a question was debated by the most learned men whom he
mai See note I.