« PreviousContinue »
OF TWO DISPUTANTS, THE WARMEST IS GENE
RALLY IN THE WRONG.
Our experience would lead us to quite an opposite conclusion. Temper, indeed, is no test of truth; but warmth and earnestness are a proof of least of a man's own conviction of the rectitude of that which he maintains. Coolness is as often the result of an unprincipled indifference to truth or falsehood, as of a sober confidence in a man's own side in a dispute. Nothing is more insulting sometimes than the appearance of this philosophic temper. There is little Titubus, the stammering lawstationer in Lincoln's Inn-we have seldom known this shrewd little fellow engaged in an argument where we were not convinced he had the best of it, if his tongue would but fairly have seconded him. When he has been spluttering excellent broken sense for an hour together, writhing and labouring to be delivered of the point of disputethe very gist of the controversy knocking at his teeth, which like some obstinate iron-grating still obstructed its deliverance-his puny frame con. vulsed, and face reddening all over at an unfairness in the logic which he wanted articulation to expose, it has moved our gall to see a smooth portly fellow of an adversary, that cared not a button for the merits of the question, by merely laying his hand upon the head of the stationer, and desiring him to be calm (your tall disputants have always
the advantage), with a provoking sneer carry the argument clean from him in the opinion of all the by-standers, who have gone away clearly convinced that Titubus must have been in the wrong, because he was in a passion; and that Mr. meaning his opponent, is one of the fairest, and at the same time one of the most dispassionate arguers breathing
THAT VERBAL ALLUSIONS ARE NOT WIT, BE
CAUSE THEY WILL NOT BEAR A TRANS LATION.
The same might be said of the wittiest local allusions. A custom is sometimes as difficult to explain to a foreigner as a pun. What would become of a great part of the wit of the last age, if it were tried by this test? How would certain topics, as aldermanity, cuckoldry, have sounded to a Terentian auditory, though Terence himself had been alive to translate them? Senator urbanus, with Curruca to boot for a synonyme, would but faintly have done the business. Words, involving notions, are hard enough to render; it is too much to expect us to translate a sound, and give an elegant version to a jingle. The Virgilian har. mony is not translatable, but by substituting harmonious sounds in another language for it. To Latinise a pun, we must seek a pun in Latin, that will answer to it; as, to give an idea of the double
endings in Hudibras, we must have recourse to a similar practice in the old monkish doggrel. Dennis, the fiercest oppugner of puns in ancient or modern times, professes himself highly tickled with the “a stick” chiming to “ecclesiastic.” Yet what is this but a species of pun, a verbal consonance?
THAT THE WORST PUNS ARE THE BEST.
If by the worst be only meant the most farfetched and startling, we agree to it. A pun is not bound by the laws which limit nicer wit. It is a pistol let off at the ear ; not a feather to tickle the intellect. It is an antic which does not stand upon manners, but comes bounding into the presence, and does not show the less comic for being dragged in sometimes by the head and shoulders. What though it limp a little, or prove defective in . one leg—all the better. A pun may easily be too curious and artificial. Who has not at one time or other been at a party of professors (himself perhaps an old offender in that line), where, after ringing a round of the most ingenious conceits, every man contributing his shot, and some there the most expert shooters of the day; after making a poor word run the gauntlet till it is ready to drop ; after hunting and winding it through all the possible ambages of similar sounds; after squeezing, and hauling, and tugging at it, till the very milk of it will not yield a drop further,--suddenly
some obscure, unthought-of fellow in a corner, who was never 'prentice to the trade, whom the company for very pity passed over, as we do by a known poor man when a money-subscription is going round, no one calling upon him for his quota -has all at once come out with something so whimsical, yet so pertinent ; so brazen in its pretensions, yet so impossible to be denied ; so exquisitely good, and so deplorably bad, at the same time,-that it has proved a Robin Hood's shot ; any thing ulterior to that is despaired of; and the party breaks up, unanimously voting it to be the very worst (that is, best) pun of the evening. This species of wit is the better for not being perfect in all its parts. What it gains in completeness, it loses in naturalness. The more exactly it satisfies the critical, the less hold it has upon some other faculties. The puns which are most entertaining are those which will least bear an analysis. Of this kind is the following, recorded with a sort of stigma, in one of Swift's Miscellanies.
An Oxford scholar, meeting a porter who was carrying a hare through the streets, accosts him with this extraordinary question : “ Prithee, friend, is that thy own hare, or a wig?”
There is no excusing this, and no resisting it. A man might blur ten sides of paper in attempting a defence of it against a critic who should be laughter-proof. The quibble in itself is not considerable. It is only a new turn given, by a little false pronunciation, to a very common, though not very courteous inquiry. Put by one gentleman to another at a dinner-party, it would have been
vapid; to the mistress of the house, it would have shown much less wit than rudeness. We must take in the totality of time, place, and person ; the pert look of the inquiring scholar, the desponding looks of the puzzled porter ; the one stopping at leisure, the other hurrying on with his burthen ; the innocent though rather abrupt tendency of the first member of the question, with the utter and inextricable irrelevancy of the second ; the placema public street, not favourable to frivolous investigations; the affrontive quality of the primitive inquiry (the common question) invidiously transferred to the derivative (the new turn given to it) in the implied satire ; namely, that few of that tribe are expected to eat of the good things which they carry, they being in most countries considered rather as the temporary trustees than owners of such dainties, -which the fellow was beginning to understand ; but then the wig again comes in, and he can make nothing of it; all put together constitute a picture : Hogarth could have made it intelligible on canvas.
Yet nine out of ten critics will pronounce this a very bad pun, because of the defectiveness in the concluding member, which is its very beauty, and constitutes the surprise. The same persons shall cry up for admirable the cold quibble from Virgil about the broken Cremona'; because it is made out in all its parts, and leaves nothing to the imagination. We venture to call it cold ; because of thousands who have admired it, it would be diffi