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Give examples where the ridicule arises from absurd conceptions in the persons introduced. What is irony? Give an example. What is a parody? Give examples.



WIT is a quality of certain thoughts and expressions: the term is never applied to an action nor a passion, and as little to an external object. The term wit is appropriated to such thoughts and expressions as are ludicrous, and occasion some degree of surprise by their singularity. Wit, in a figurative sense, expresses a talent for inventing ludicrous thoughts or expressions: hence we say, a witty man, or a man of wit.

Wit is distinguished into two kinds: wit in the thought, and wit in the words or expression. Again, wit in the thought is of two kinds: ludicrous images, and ludicrous combinations of things that have little or no natural relation.

Wit in the thought may be defined "a junction of things by distant and fanciful relations, which surprise because they are unexpected." The following is a proper example:

We grant, although he had much wit,
He was very shy of using it,
As being loath to wear it out;
And therefore bore it not about,
Unless on holidays, or so,
As men their best apparel do.


Wit is of all the most elegant recreation: the image enters the mind with gaiety, and gives a sudden flash, which is extremely pleasant. Wit thereby gently elevates without straining, raises mirth without dissoluteness, and relaxes while it entertains.

I proceed to examples of wit in the thought; and first, of ludicrous images.

Falstaff, speaking of his taking Sir John Coleville of the Dale:

Here he is, and here I yield him; and I beseech your Grace, let it be book'd with the rest of this day's deeds; or I will have it in a particular ballad else, with mine own picture on the top of it, Coleville kissing my foot: to the which course if I be enforc'd, if you do not all show like gilt twopences to me; and I, in the clear sky of fame, o'ershine you as much as the full moon doth the cinders of the element, which show like pins' heads to her; believe not the word of the noble. Therefore let me have right, and let desert mount.


I knew, when seven justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an if; as, if you said so, then I said so; and they shook hands, and swore brothers. Your if is the only peace-maker; much virtue is in if. SHAKSPEARE.

The war hath introduced abundance of polysyllables, which will never be able to live many more campaigns. Speculations, operations, preliminaries, ambassadors, palisadoes, communication, circumvallation, battalions, as numerous as they are, if they attack us too frequently in our coffee-houses, we shall certainly put them to flight, and cut off the rear. TATLER, No. 230.

Speaking of Discord:

She never went abroad, but she brought home such a bundle of monstrous lies, as would have amazed any mortal, but such as knew her; of a whale that had swallowed a fleet of ships; of the lions being let out of the Tower to destroy the Protestant Religion; of the Pope's being seen in a brandy-shop at Wapping, &c.


Wit in the thought, or ludicrous combinations and oppositions, may be traced through various ramifications. And, first, fanciful causes assigned that have no natural relation to the effects produced:

The trenchant blade, Toledo trusty,
For want of fighting was grown rusty,
And ate into itself, for lack

Of somebody to hew and hack.
The peaceful scabbard where it dwelt,
The rancor of its edge had felt;
For of the lower end two handful
It had devoured, 'twas so manful;
And so much scorn'd to lurk in case
As if it durst not show its face.


Belinda. He has so pester'd me with flames and stuff-I think I sha'n't endure the sight of a fire this twelvemonth. OLD BACHELOR.-ACT II. Sc. 8.

Fanciful reasoning:

Falstaff. Embowell'd!—if thou embowel me to-day, I'll give you leave to powder me, and eat me too, to-morrow! 'Sblood, 'twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too. Counterfeit! I lie, I am no counterfeit; to die is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed. FIRST PART HENRY IV.-ACT V. Sc. 4.

Clown. And the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves, more than their even Christian. HAMLET.-ACT V. Sc. 1.

Pedro. Will you have me, Lady?

Beatrice. No, my Lord, unless I might have another for working-days. Your Grace is too costly to wear every day. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.-ACT II. Sc. 1.

In western climes there is a town,
To those that dwell therein well known;
Therefore there needs no more be said here,
We unto them refer our reader:

For brevity is very good

When w' are, or are not understood.


Ludicrous junction of small things with great, as of equal importance:

This day black omens threat the brightest fair
That e'er deserv'd a watchful spirit's care:
Some dire disaster, or by force, or slight;
But what, or where, the fates have wrapt in night:
Whether the nymph shall break Diana's law;
Or some frail china jar receive a flaw;
Or stain her honor, or her new brocade;
Forget her pray'rs, or miss a masquerade;
Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball;
Or whether heav'n has doom'd that Shock must fall.

One speaks the glory of the British queen,
And one describes a charming Indian screen.

Then flash'd the living lightning from her eyes,
And screams of horror rend th' affrighted skies.
Not louder shrieks to pitying heav'n are cast,
When husbands, or when lapdogs, breathe their last,
Or when rich china vessels, fall'n from high,
In glitt'ring dust and painted fragments lie!


Not youthful kings in battle seiz'd alive,
Not scornful virgins who their charms survive,
Not ardent lovers robb'd of all their bliss,
Not ancient ladies when refus'd a kiss,
Not tyrants fierce that unrepenting die,
Not Cynthia when her manteau 's pinn'd awry,
E'er felt such rage, resentment and despair,
As thou, sad virgin! for thy ravish'd hair.


We proceed now to what is verbal only, a play of words. This sort of wit depends, for the most part, upon choosing a word that hath different significations: by that artifice, tricks are played in language, and plain thoughts take a different appearance. Play is necessary for man, in order to refresh him after labor; and man loves play, even to a play of words: and it is happy for us, that words can be employed for our amusement. This amusement unbends the mind, and is relished by some at all times, and by all at some times.

This low species of wit has among all nations been a favorite entertainment, in a certain stage of their progress toward refinement of taste and manners, and has gradually gone into disrepute. As soon as a language is formed into a system, and the meaning of words is ascertained with tolerable accuracy, opportunity is afforded for expressions that, by the double meaning of some words, give a familiar thought the appearance of being new; and the penetration of the reader or hearer is gratified in detecting the true sense disguised under the double meaning. That this sort of wit was in England deemed a reputable amusement, during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I., is vouched by the works of Shakspeare, and even by the writings of grave divines. But it cannot have any long endur⚫ance; for as language ripens, and the meaning of words is more and more ascertained, words held to be synonymous, diminish daily; and when those that remain have been more than once employed, the pleasure vanisheth with the novelty.

The following examples are distributed into different classes.

A seeming resemblance from the double meaning of a word:

Beneath this stone my wife doth lie;
She's now at rest, and so am I.

Other seeming connexions from the same cause:

Will you employ your conqu'ring sword,
To break a fiddle, and your word?


To whom the knight with comely grace
Put off his hat to put his case.


Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take-and sometimes tea.

O'er their quietus where fat judges doze,
And lull their cough and conscience to repose.

Speaking of Prince Eugene:

This general is a great taker of snuff as well as of towns.

A seeming opposition from the same cause:

So like the chances are of love and war,
That they alone in this distinguish'd are;
In love the victors from the vanquish'd fly,
They fly that wound, and they pursue that die.

What new-found witchcraft was in thee,
With thine own cold to kindle me?
Strange art; like him that should devise
To make a burning-glass of ice.



Wit of this kind is unsuitable in a serious poem; as in the following line in Pope's Elegy to the memory of an unfortunate lady:

Cold is that breast which warm'd the world before.

This sort of writing is finely burlesqued by Swift:

Her hands, the softest ever felt,

Though cold would burn, though dry would melt.


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