« ПредишнаНапред »
the delectation of their friends. It is remarkable that people are never tired of repeating humorous sayings, though they are soon wearied of hearing a repetition of them by others. A man who cannot endure to hear a joke three times, will keep telling the same one over and over all his life, and but for this, fewer good stories would survive. The pleasure derived from humour, while it lasts, is greater than that from sentiment or wisdom; hence we repeat it more in daily converse than poetry or proverbs, and the constant reproduction of it until it is reduced to a mere phantom, causes its influence to appear more transient than it is.'
And hence, although humour is generally "feeting as the flowers,” some of the jests, which pass with us as new, are more than two thousand years old. Porson said that he could trace back all the “ Joe Millers” to a Greek origin. The domestic cat—the cause of many of our household calamities—was in full activity in the days of Aristophanes. Then, as now, mourners had recourse to the friendly onion; and if Pythagoreans had never dreamed of a donkey becoming a man, they had often known a man to become a donkey. If they were not able to skin a flint, they knew well what was meant by “skinning a flayed dog,"
and “shearing an ass.” These and similar sayings, being of a simple character, may have been due to the same thought occurring to different minds, and this may be the case even where there is more point; thus, “an ass laden with gold will get into the strongest fortress," has been attributed to Frederick the Great and to Napoleon, and may have been due to both. The saying “ Treat a friend as though he would one day become an enemy,” has been attributed to Lord Chesterfield, to Publius Syrus, and even to Bias, one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece. Many may exclaim, “ Perish those who have said our good things before us !"
But where the saying is very remarkable, or depends on some peculiar circumstances, we may conclude that there is one original, and that upon this pivot a number of different names and characters have been made to revolve. It has been ascribed to or appropriated by many. We have read of two eminent comic writers in classical times dying of laughter at seeing an ass eat figs. Here it is most probable that there was some standing joke upon this subject, or that some instance of the kind occurred, and so this strange death came to be attributed to several individuals. The saying,
“On two days is a wife enjoyable,
That of her bridal and her burial,” attributed to Palladas in the fifth century A.D., was really due to Hipponax in the fifth century B.C.
There is a story that Lord Stair was so like Louis XIV. that, when he went to the French Court, the King asked him whether his mother was ever in France, and that he replied “No, your Majesty, but my father was.” This is in reality a Roman story, and the answer was made to Augustus by a young man from the country.
Sydney Smith's reply when it was proposed to pave the approach to St. Paul's with blocks of wood, “The canons have only to put their heads together and it will be done,” was not original ; Rochester had made a similar remark to Charles II. when he noticed a construction near Shoreditch : and the story of the man who complained that the chicken brought up for his dinner had only one leg, and was told to go and look into the roost-house, is to be found in an old Turkish jest-book of the fifteenth century. When Byron said of Southey's poems that “they would be read when Homer and Virgil were forgotten—but not till then,” he was no doubt repeating what Porson said of Sir Richard Blackmore's. “Most literary stories," observes Mr. Willmott,“ seem to be shadows, brighter or fainter, of others told before.
Sterne-His Versatility-Dramatic Form-Indelicacy
Sentiment and Geniality-Letters to his Wife-Extracts from his Sermous—Dr. Johnson.
C TERNE exceeded Smollett* in indelicacy
D as much as in humorous talent. He calls him Smelfungus, because he had written a fastidious book of travels. But he profited by his works, and the character of Uncle Toby reminds us considerably of Commodore Trunnion. But Sterne is more immediately associated in our minds with Swift, for both were clergymen, and both Irishmen by birth, though neither by parentage. Sterne's great-grandfather had been Archbishop of York, and his mother heiress of Sir Roger Jacques, of Elvington in Yorkshire. Through family interest Sterne became a Prebendary of York, and obtained two livings; at one of which he spent his time in quiet obscurity until his fortyseventh year, when the production of “ Tristram Shandy” made him famous. He did not long
* Smollett, of whom we shall speak in the next chapter, published before Sterne, though a younger man.
enjoy his laurels, dying nine years afterwards in 1768.
In both Sterne and Swift, as well as Congreve, we see the fertile erratic fancy of Ireland improved by the labour and reflection of England. Sterne's humour was inferior to Swift's, narrower and smaller ; it was a sparkling wine, but light-bodied, and often bad in colour. His pleasantry had no depth or general bearing. He appealed to the senses, referred entirely to some particular and trivial coincidence, and often put amatory weaknesses under contribution to give it force. The current of his thoughts glided naturally and imperceptibly into poetry and humour, but his subject matter was not intellectual, though he sometimes showed fine emotional feeling.
Under the head of acoustic humour we may place that abruptness of style which he managed so adroitly, and that dramatic punctuation, which he may be said to have invented, and of which no one ever else made so much use. No doubt he was an accomplished speaker; and we know that he had a good ear for music.
There is something in Sterne which reminds us of a conjurer exhibiting tricks on the stage ; in one place indeed, he speaks of his cap and bells, and no doubt many would have thought