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CHARITY AND HUMOR.
SEVERAL charitable ladies of this city, to some of whom I am under great personal obligation, having thought that a lecture of mine would advance a benevolent end which they had in view, I have preferred, in place of delivering a discourse, which many of my
hearers no doubt know already, upon a subject merely literary or biographical, to put together a few thoughts, which may
as a supplement to the former lectures, if you like, and which have this, at least, in common with the kind purpose
which assembles you here, that they rise out of the same occasion, and treat of charity.
Besides contributing to our stock of happiness, to our harmless laughter and amusement, to our scorn for falsehood and pretension, to our righteous hatred of hypocrisy, to our education in the perception of truth, our love of honesty, our knowledge of life, and shrewd guidance through the world, have not our humorous writers, our gay and kind week-day preachers, done much in support of that holy cause which has assembled you in this place, and which you are all abetting?—the cause of love and charity; the cause of the poor, the weak, and the unhappy; the sweet mission of love and tenderness, and peace and good-will toward men. That same theme which is urged upon you by the eloquence and example of good men to whom you are delighted listeners on sabbath days is taught in his way, and according to his power, by the humorous writer, the commentator on every-day life and
And as you are here assembled for a charitable purpose, giving your contributions at the door to benefit deserving people who need them without, I like to hope and think that the men of our calling have done something in aid of the cause of charity, and have helped with kind words and kind thoughts, at least, to confer happiness and to do good.
If the humorous writers claim to be week-day preachers, have they conferred any benefit by their sermons ? Are people happier, better, better disposed to their neighbors, more inclined to do works of kindness, to love, forbear, forgive, pity, after reading in Addison, in Steele, in Fielding, in Goldsmith, in Hood, in Dickens? I hope and believe so, and fancy, that, in writing, they are also acting charitably ; contributing, with the means which Heaven supplies them, to forward the end which brings you, too, together. A love of the human species is a very vague and indefinite kind of virtue, sitting very easily on
a man, not confining his actions at all, shining in print, or exploding in paragraphis; after which efforts of benevolence, the philanthropist is
sometimes said to go home, and be no better than his neighbors. Tartuffe and Joseph Surface, Stiggins and Chalband, who are always preaching fine sentiments, and are no more virtuous than hundreds of those whom they denounce and whom they cheat, are fair objects of mistrast and satire; but their hypocrisy (the homage, according to the old saying, which vice pays to virtue) has this of good in it,
that its fruits are good. A man may preach good morals, though he may be himself but a lax practitioner: a Pharisee may put pieces of gold into the charity-plate out of mere hypocrisy and ostentation; but the bird man's gold feeds the widow and fatherless as well as the good man's. The butcher and baker must needs look, not to motives, but to money, in return for their wares. I am not going to hint that we of the literary calling resemble Monsieur Tartuffe or Monsieur Stiggins; though there may be such men in our body, as there are in all.
A literary man of the humoristic turn is pretty sure to be of a philanthropic nature; to have a great sensibility; to be easily moved to pain or pleasure; keenly to appreciate the varieties of temper of people round about him, and sympathize in their laughter, love, amusement, tears. Such a man is philanthropic, man-loving, by nature, as another is irascible or red-haired or six feet high. And so I would arrogate no particular merit to literary men for the possession of this faculty of doing good, which some of them enjoy. It costs a gentleman no sacrifice to be benevolent on paper; and the luxury of indulging in the most beautiful and brilliant sentiments never makes any man a penny the poorer.
A literary man is no better than another, as far as my experience goes; and a man writing a book, no better nor no worse than one who keeps accounts in a ledger, or follows any other occupation. Let us, however, give him credit for the good, at least, which he is the means of doing, as we give credit to a man with a million for the hundred which he puts into the plate at a charity-sermon. He never misses them: he has made them in a moment, by a lucky speculation; and parts with them, knowing that he has an almost endless balance at his bank, whence he can call for more. But, in esteeming the benefaction, we are grateful to the benefactor too, somewhat. And so of men of genius, richly endowed, and lavish in parting with their mind's wealth: we may view them at least kindly and favorably, and be thankful for the bounty of which Providence has made them the dispensers.
I have said myself somewhere, I do not know with what correctness (for definitions never are complete), that humor is wit and love : I am sure, at any rate, that the best humor is that which contains most humanity, — that which is flavored throughout with tenderness and kindness. This love does not demand con
stant utterance or actual expression; as a good father, in conversation with his children or wife, is not perpetually embracing them, or making protestations of his love; as a lover in the society of his mistress is not, at least as far as I am led to believe, for ever squeezing her hand, or sighing in her ear, “ My soul's darling, I adore you !” He shows his love by his conduct, by his fidelity, by his watchful desire to make the beloved person happy. It lightens from his eyes when she appears, though he may not speak it; it fills his heart when she is present or absent; influences all his words and actions; suffuses his whole being. It sets the father cheerily to work through the long day; supports him through the tedious labor of the weary absence or journey; and sends him happy home again, yearning towards the wife and children. This kind of love is not a spasm, but a life. It fondles and caresses at due seasons, no doubt; but the fond heart is always beating fondly and truly, though the wife is not sitting hand in hand with him, or the children hugging at his knee. And so with a loving humor. I think it is a genial writer's habit of being; it is the kind, gentle spirit's way of looking out on the world, that sweet friendliness which fills his heart and his style. You recognize it, even though there may not be a single point of wit or a single pathetic touch in the page, though you may not be called upon to salute his genius by a laugh or a tear. That collision of ideas which provokes the one or the other must be occasional. They must be like papa's embraces, which I spoke of anon, who only delivers them now and then, and can not be expected to go on kissing the children all night. And so the writer's jokes and sentiment, his ebullitions of feeling, his outbreaks of high spirits, must not be too frequent. One tires of a page of which every sentence sparkles with points; of a sentimentalist who is always pumping the tears from his eyes or your own. One suspects the genuineness of the tear, the naturalness of the humor: these ought to be true and manly in a man, as every thing else in his life should be manly and true; and he loses his dignity by laughing or weeping out of place, or too often.
When the Rev. Laurence Sterne begins to sentimentalize over the carriage in Monsieur Dessein's courtyard, and pretends to squeeze a tear out of a rickety old shandrydan; when, presently, he encounters the dead donkey on his road to Paris, and snivels over that asinine corpse, - I say, “Away, you drivelling quack! do not palm off these grimaces of grief upon simple folks who know no better, and cry, misled by your hypocrisy." Tears are sacred. The tributes of kind hearts to misfortune, the mites which gentle souls drop into the collections made for God's poor and unhappy, are not to be tricked out of them by a whimpering hypocrite
handing round a begging-box for your compassion, and asking your pity for a lie.
When that same man tells me of Lefévre's illness and Uncle Toby's charity, of the noble at Rennes coming home and reclaiming his sword, I thank him for the generous emotion, which, springing genuinely from his own heart, has caused mine to admire benevolence, and sympathize with honor, and to feel love and kindness and pity.
If I do not love Swift (as, thank God! I do not, however immensely I
may admire him), it is because I revolt from the man who placards himself as a professional hater of his own kind; because he chisels his savage indignation on his tombstone, as if to perpetuate his protest against being born of our race, — the suffering, the weak, the erring, the wicked, if you will, but still the friendly, the loving children of God our Father: it is because, as I read through Swift's dark volumes, I never find the aspect of Nature seems to delight him, the smiles of children to please him, the sight of wedded love to soothe him. I do not remember, in any line of his writing, a passing allusion to a natural scene of beauty. When he speaks about the families of his comrades and brother-clergymen, it is to assail them with gibes and scorn, and to laugh at them brutally for being fathers and for being poor. He does mention in the journal to Stella a sick child, to be sure, a child of Lady Masham, that was ill of the small-pox; but then it is to confound the brat for being ill, and the mother for attending to it when she should have been busy about a court intrigue in which the dean was deeply engaged. And he alludes to a suitor of Stella's, and a match she might have made, and would have made, very likely, with an honorable and faithful and attached man, Tisdall, who loved her; and of whom Swift speaks, in a letter to this lady, in language so foul, that you would not bear to hear it. In treating of the good the humorists have done, of the love and kindness they have taught and left behind them, it is not of this one I dare speak. Heaven help the lonely misanthrope! be kind to that multitude of sins, with so little charity to cover them.
Of Mr. Congreve's contributions to the English stock of benevolence, I do not speak; for, of any moral legacy to posterity, I doubt whether that brilliant man ever thought at all. He had some money, as I have told; every shilling of which he left to his friend the Duchess of Marlborough, a lady of great fortune and the highest fashion. He gave the gold of his brains to persons of fortune and fashion too. There is no more feeling in his comedies than in as many books of Euclid. He no more pretends to teach love for the poor, and good-will for the unfortunate, than a dancing-master does : he teaches pirouettes and flic-flacs, and how to bow to a lady,
and to walk a minuet. In his private life, Congreve was immensely liked, more so than any man of his age, almost, — and, to have been so liked, must have been kind and good-natured. His good nature bore him through extreme bodily ills and pain with uncommon cheerfulness and courage. Being so gay, so bright, so popular, such a grand seigneur, be sure he was kind to those about him, generous to his dependants, serviceable to his friends. Society does not like a man so long as it liked Congreve, unless he is likable; it finds out a quack very soon; it scorns a poltroon or a curmudgeon. We may be certain that this man was brave, good-tempered, and liberal. So, very likely, is Monsieur Pirouette, of whom we spoke : he cuts his capers, he grins, bows, and dances to his fiddle. In private, he may
have a hundred virtues; in public, he teaches dancing. His business is cotillons, not ethics.
As much may be said of those charming and lazy epicureans, Gay and Prior, - sweet lyric singers, comrades of Anacreon, and disciples of love and the bottle. “Is there any moral shut within the bosom of a rose ? ” sings our great Tennyson. Does a nightingale preach from a bough, or the lark from his cloud ? Not knowingly; yet we may be grateful, and love larks and roses, and the flower-crowned minstrels too, who laugh and who sing.
Of Addison's contributions to the charity of the world, I have spoken before in trying to depict that noble figure, and say now, as then, that we should thank him as one of the greatest benefactors of that vast and immeasurably spreading family which speaks our common tongue. Wherever it is spoken, there is no man that does not feel and understand and use the noble English word “gentleman.” And there is no man that teaches us to be gentlemen better than Joseph Addison, -- gentle in our bearing through life; gentle and courteous to our neighbors ; gentle in dealing with his follies and weaknesses ; gentle in treating his opposition; deferential to the old ; kindly to the poor, and those below us in degree (for people above us and below us we must find, in whatever hemisphere we dwell, whether kings or presidents govern us): and in no republic or monarchy that I know of is a citizen exempt from the tax of befriending poverty and weakness, of respecting age, and of honoring his father and mother. It has just been whispered to me,
- I have not been three months in the country, and, of course, can not venture to express an opinion of my own, — that, in regard to paying this latter tax of respect and honor to age, some very few of the republican youths are occasionally a little remiss. I have heard of young sons of freedom publishing their Declaration of Independence before they could well spell it, and cutting the connection