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Wit is a Saxon word, and originally signified Wisdom—a witte was a wise man, and the Saxon Parliament was called the Wittenagemot. We may suppose that wisdom did not then so much imply learning as natural sagacity, and came to refer to such ingenious attempts as those in the Exeter Book.' Here would be a basis for the later meaning, especially if some of the old saws came to be regarded as ludicrous, but for a long time afterwards wit signified talent, whether humorous or otherwise, and as late as Elizabeth the “wits” were often used as synonymous with judgment. Steele, introducing Pope's “ Messiah ” in the Spectator, says that it is written by a friend of his “ who is not ashamed to employ his wit in the praise of of his Maker.” Addison introduced the word genius, and the other was relegated to humorous conceits—a change no doubt facilitated by the short and monosyllabic form and sound. The word facetus seems to have undergone the same transition in Latin, for Horace speaks of Virgil having possessed the facetum in poetry.
Humour may be dry—may consist of subtle inuendoes of a somewhat uncertain character not devoid of pleasantry, perhaps, but indistinctly felt, and not calculated to raise laughter. This has led some to observe that in contradistinction to it—“Wit is sharply defined like a crystal.”
So Mr. Dallas writes, “ Wit is of the known and definite; humour is of the unknown and indefinable. Wit is the unexpected exhibition of some clearly defined contrast or disproportion ; humour the unexpected indication of a vague discordance, in which the sense or the perception of ignorance is prominent.” “Wit is the comedy of knowledge, humour of ignorance.” But we must observe in opposition to this view that humour may be too clearly defined, as in puns or caricatures, it may be broad-but who ever heard of broad wit. The retort often made by those who have been severely hit, “You're very witty,” or “You think you're very witty,” could not be expressed by, “You're very humorous,” which would have neither irony nor point, not implying any pretension. Nothing that smells of the lamp, or refers much to particular experience, or second-hand information, deserves the name of wit, and although it may be recorded in writing, it generally implies impromptu speech. There seems to be a kind of inspiration in it, and we are inclined to regard it, like any other great advantage, as a natural gift. “If you have real wit,” says Lord Chesterfield, “it will grow spontaneously, and you need not aim at it, for in that case the rule of the gospel is reversed and it will prove, Seek, and ye shall not find.'”
Thus, we speak of a man's mother wit, i.e. innate, but we do not call a story witty, as much in it is due to circumstances, and does not necessarily flow from talent. To speak of a woman as “of great wit and beanty” is to pay a high compliment to her mental as well as personal charms.
As wit must be always intellectual it must be in words, and hence as well as because it must imply impromptu talent, the comic situations of a farce or pantomime are not witty. When Poole represents Paul Pry as peeping through a gimlet hole, as attacked with a red hot poker, or blown out of a closet full of fireworks, and where Douglas Jerrold on the Bridge of Ludgate makes the innkeeper tells Charles II., in his disguise, all the bad stories he has heard about his Majesty, we merely see the humour, unless we are so far abstracted as to regard the scene as ludicrous. In the same way a conversation between foolish men on the stage may be amusing, but cannot be witty. An old stanza tells us" True wit is like the brilliant stone
Dug from the Indian mine.
To cut as well as shine.” Bacon observes that those who make others afraid of their wit had need be afraid of others' memory. And Sterne says that there is as great
a difference between the memory of jester and jestee as between the purse of the mortgager and mortgagee. Humour is fully as unamiaable as wit, but the latter has obtained the worse character simply because it is the more salient of the two. There is always a jealous and ill-natured side to human nature which gives a semblance of truth to Rochefoucauld's saying that we are not altogether grieved at the misfortunes even of our friends; and wit often, from its point and the element of truth it possesses, has been used to add a sting and adhesiveness to malevolent attacks. Writers therefore often remind us to be sparing and circumspect in the use of wit, as if it were necessarily, instead of accidentally offensive.
As an instance of the danger of wit, I may mention a case in which two celebrated divines, one of the “high” church, and the other of the “ broad church school, had been attacking and confuting one another in rival reviews. They met accidentally at an evening party, and the high churchman, who was a well-known wit, could not forbear exclaiming, as he grasped the other's hand, “ The Augurs have met face to face"
—an observation which, if it implied anything, must have meant that they were both hypocrites.
Those who consider humour objectionable, have no idea of the variety of circumstances
under which our emotions may be excited. A man may smile at his own misfortunes after they are over-sometimes our laughter seems scarcely directed against anyone, and in the most profane and indelicate humour there is often nothing personal.
Occasionally it is too general to wound, being aimed at nations, as in my old friend's saying, “The French do not know what they want, and will never be satisfied until they get it,” or it may strike at the great mass of mankind, as when one of the same dissatisfied nation calls marriage “a tiresome book with a very fine preface.” There is nothing unamiable in Goldsmith's reflection upon the rustic simplicity of the villagers, when he says of the schoolmaster
And still the wonder grew,
Again, we may ask, what person can be possibly injured by most of the humorous stories in which our Transatlantic cousins delight, such as that an American, describing a severe winter said, “Why I had a cow on my farm up the Hudson river, and she got in among the ice, and was carried down three miles before we could get her out again. And what do you suppose has been the consequence ? why, she has milked nothing but ice-cream ever since.”