Alfred Guy Kingan L'Estrange.

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With an Introduction upon Ancient Humour.



Author of
"The Life of the Rev. William Harness,"
"From the Thames to the Tamar,"

In Two Volumes.

Vol. I.

Hurst and Blackett, Publishers,
13, Great Marlborough Street.
All rights reserved.



Subjective Character of the Ludicrous - The Subject little
Studied - Obstacles to the Investigation - Evanescence - Mental
Character of the Ludicrous - Distinction between
Humour and the Ludicrous 1




Pleasure in Humour - What is Laughter? - Sympathy - First
Phases - Gradual Development - Emotional Phase - Laughter
of Pleasure - Hostile Laughter - Is there any sense of the Ludicrous
in the Lower Animals? - Samson - David - Solomon - Proverbs - Fables 13



Birth of Humour - Personalities - Story of Hippocleides - Origin
of Comedy - Archilochus - Hipponax - Democritus,
the Laughing Philosopher - Aristophanes - Humour
of the Senses - Indelicacy - Enfeeblement of the Drama - Humorous
Games - Parasites, their Position and Jests - Philoxenus - Diogenes - Court
of Humour - Riddles - Silli 52



Roman Comedy - Plautus - Acerbity - Terence - Satire - Lucilius - Horace
- Humour of the Cæsar Family - Cicero - Augustus - Persius - Petronius
- Juvenal - Martial - Epigrammatist - Lucian - Apuleius - Julian
the Apostate - The Misopogon - Symposius' Enigmas - Macrobius - Hierocles
and Philagrius 99




Relapse of Civilization in the Middle Ages - Stagnation of
Mind - Scarcity of Books - Character of reviving Literature - Religious
Writings - Fantastic Legends - Influence
of the Crusades - Romances - Sir Bevis of Hamptoun - Prominence
of the Lower Animals - Allegories 161


Anglo-Saxon Humour - Rhyme - Satires against the Church - The
Brunellus - Walter Mapes - Goliardi - Piers the
Ploughman - Letters of Obscure Men - Erasmus - The
Praise of Folly - Skelton - The Ship of Fools - Doctour
Doubble Ale - The Sak full of Nuez - Church Ornamentation - Representations
of the Devil 179


Origin of Modern Comedy - Ecclesiastical Buffoonery - Jougleurs
and Minstrels - Court Fools - Monks' Stories - The
"Tournament of Tottenham" - Chaucer - Heywood - Roister
Doister - Gammer Gurton 211


Robert Greene - Friar Bacon's Demons - The "Looking
Glasse" - Nash and Harvey 231


Donne - Hall - Fuller 243


Shakespeare - Ben Jonson - Beaumont and Fletcher - The
Wise Men of Gotham 250


Jesters - Court of Queen Elizabeth - James I. - The
"Counterblasts to Tobacco" - Puritans - Charles II.
- Rochester - Buckingham - Dryden - Butler 271


Comic Drama of the Restoration - Etheridge - Wycherley 303


Tom Brown - His Prose Works - Poetry - Sir Richard
Blackmore - D'Urfey - Female Humorists - Carey 312


Vanbrugh - Colley Cibber - Farquhar 340


Congreve - Lord Dorset 355



Subjective Character of the Ludicrous - The Subject little
Studied - Obstacles to the Investigation - Evanescence - Mental Character
of the Ludicrous - Distinction between Humour and the Ludicrous.

The ludicrous is in its character so elusive and protean, and the field
over which it extends is so vast, that few have ever undertaken the task
of examining it systematically. Many philosophers and literary men have
made passing observations upon it, but most writers are content to set
it down as one of those things which cannot be understood, and care not
to study and grapple with a subject which promises small results in
return for considerable toil. Moreover, the inquiry does not seem
sufficiently important to warrant the expenditure of much time upon it,
and there has always been a great tendency among learned men to
underrate the emotional feelings of our nature. Thus it comes to pass
that a much larger amount of our labour has been expended upon inquiring
into physical and intellectual constitution than upon the inner workings
of our passions and sentiments, for our knowledge of which, though
affecting our daily conduct, we are mostly indebted to the
representations of poets and novelists. Beattie well observes that
nothing is below the attention of a philosopher which the Author of
Nature has been pleased to establish. Investigations of this kind would
not be unrewarded, nor devoid of a certain amount of interest; and I
think that in the present subject we can, by perseverance, penetrate a
little distance into an almost untrodden and apparently barren region,
and if we cannot reach the source from whence the bright waters spring,
can at least obtain some more accurate information about the surrounding

Notwithstanding all the obstructions and discouragements in the way of
this investigation a few great men have given it a certain amount of
attention. Aristotle informs us in his "Rhetoric" that he has dealt
fully with the subject in his Poetics, and although the treatise is
unfortunately lost, some annotations remain which show that it was of a
comprehensive character. Cicero and Quintilian in their instructions in
Oratory, made the study of humour a necessary part of the course, and
in modern days many ingenious definitions and descriptions of it are
found among the pages of general literature. Most philosophers have
touched the subject timidly and partially, unwilling to devote much time
to it, and have rather stated what they thought ought to be in
accordance with some pet theories of their own, than drawn deductions
from careful analysis. They generally only looked at one phase of the
ludicrous, at one kind of humour, and had not a sufficient number of
examples before them - probably from the difficulty of recalling slight
turns of thought in widely scattered subjects. Add to this, that many of
them - constantly immersed in study - would have had some little
difficulty in deciding what did and did not deserve the name of humour.
Most of their definitions are far too wide, and often in supporting a
theory they make remarks which tend to refute it. The imperfect
treatment, which the subject had received, led Dugald Stewart to observe
that it was far from being exhausted.

The two principal publications which have appeared on humour, are
Flögel's "Geschichte der Komischen Litteratur" (1786), and Léon Dumont's
"Les Causes du Rire." The former is voluminous, but scarcely touches on
philosophy, without which such a work can have but little coherence.
The latter shows considerable psychological knowledge, but is written to
support a somewhat narrow and incomplete view. Mr. Wright's excellent
book on "The Grotesque in Literature and Art," is, as the name suggests,
principally concerned with broad humour, and does not so much trace its
source as the effects it has produced upon mankind. Mr. Cowden Clark's
contributions on the subject to the "Gentleman's Magazine," are mostly
interesting from their biographical notices.

To analyse and classify all the vagaries of the human imagination which
may be comprehended under the denomination of humour, is no easy task,
and as it is multiform we may stray into devious paths in pursuing it.
But vast and various as the subject seems to be, there cannot be much
doubt that there are some laws which govern it, and that it can be
brought approximately under certain heads. It seems to be as generally
admitted that there are different kinds of humour as that some
observations possess none at all. Moreover, when remarks of a certain
kind are made, especially such as show confusion or exaggeration, we
often seem to detect some conditions of humour, and by a little change
are able to make something, which has more or less the character of a

There is in this investigation a very formidable "Dweller on the
Threshold." We contend with great disadvantages in any attempts to
examine our mental constitution. When we turn the mind in upon itself,
and make it our object, the very act of earnest reflection obscures the
idea, or destroys the emotion we desire to contemplate. This is
especially the case in the present instance. The ludicrous, when we
attempt to grasp it, shows off its gay and motley garb, and appears in
grave attire. It is only by abstracting our mind from the inquiry, and
throwing it into lighter considerations, that we can at all retain the
illusion. A clever sally appears brilliant when it breaks suddenly upon
the mental vision, but when it is brought forward for close examination
it loses half its lustre, and seems to melt into unsubstantial air.
Humour may be compared to a delicate scent, which we only perceive at
the first moment, or to evanescent beauty -

"For every touch that wooed its stay
Has brushed its brightest hues away."

This last simile is especially in point here, and the quotations in this
book will scarcely be found humorous, so long as they are regarded as
mere illustrations of the nature of humour.

We need not - taking these matters into consideration - feel much
surprised that some people say the ludicrous cannot be defined; as for
instance, Buckingham,

"True wit is everlasting like the sun,
Describing all men, but described by none;"

and Addison: - "It is much easier to decide what is not humorous than
what is, and very difficult to define it otherwise than Cowley has done,
by negatives" - the only meaning of which is that the subject is
surrounded with rather more than the usual difficulties attending moral
and psychological researches. Similar obstacles would be encountered in
answering the question, "What is poetry?" or "What is love?" We can only
say that even here there must be some surroundings by which we can
increase our knowledge.

Humour is the offspring of man - it comes forth like Minerva fully armed
from the brain. Our sense of the ludicrous is produced by our peculiar
mental constitution, and not by external objects, in which there is
nothing either absurd or serious. As when the action of our mind is
imperceptible - for instance, in hearing and seeing with our "bodily"
senses - we think what we notice is something in the external world,
although it is only so far dependent upon it that it could not exist
without some kind of outer influence, so the result of our not
recognising the amusing action of the mind in the ludicrous is that we
regard it as a quality resident in the persons and things we
contemplate.[1] But it does not belong to these things, and is totally
different from them in kind. Thus, the rose is formed of certain
combinations of earth, air, and water; yet none of these dull elements
possess the fragrance or beauty of the flower. These properties come
from some attractive and constructive power. Not only are there no types
or patterns in things of our emotions, but there are none even of our
sensations; heat and cold, red or blue, are such only for our
constitution. This truth is beautifully set forth by Addison in a
passage in which, as Dugald Stewart justly remarks, "We are at a loss
whether most to admire the author's depth and refinement of thought, or
the singular felicity of fancy displayed in its illustration." "Things,"
he observes, "would make but a poor appearance to the eye, if we saw
them only in their proper figures and motions. And what reason can we
assign for their exciting in us many of those ideas which are different
from anything that exists in the objects themselves (for such are light
and colours) were it not to add supernumerary ornaments to the universe,
and make it more agreeable to the imagination? We are everywhere
entertained with pleasing shows and apparitions. We discover imaginary
glories in the heavens and on the earth, and see some of this visionary
beauty poured out over the whole creation. But what a rough, unsightly
sketch of Nature should we be entertained with, did all her colouring
disappear, and the several distinctions of light and shade vanish! In
short, our souls are delightfully lost and bewildered in a pleasing
delusion, and we walk about like the enchanted hero of a romance, who
sees beautiful castles, woods, and meadows, and at the same time hears
the warbling of birds and the purling of streams; but upon the finishing
of some secret spell, the fantastic scene breaks up, and the
disconsolate knight finds himself on a barren heath, or in a solitary

I have introduced these considerations, because it is very difficult for
us to realize that what we behold is merely phenomenal, that

"Things are not what they seem;"

but that we are looking into the mirror of Nature at our own likeness.
When we speak of a ludicrous occurrence, we cannot avoid thinking that
the external events themselves contain something of that character.
Thus, the ludicrous has come in our ideas and language to be separated
from the sense in which alone it exists, and it is desirable that we
should clearly understand that the distinction is only logical and not

When the cause of our laughter - be it mind, matter, or imaginary
circumstance - is merely regarded as something incongruous and amusing,
we name it the ludicrous, and a man is called ludicrous as faulty or
contemptible. But when the cause of it is viewed as something more than
this, as coming from some conscious power or tendency within us - a
valuable gift and an element in our mental constitution - we call it
humour, a term applied only to human beings and their productions; and a
man is called humorous as worthy of commendation. Both are in truth
feelings - we might say one feeling - and although we can conceive humour
to exist apart from the ludicrous, and to be a power within us creating
it, there is a difficulty in following out the distinction. The
difference between them is in our regard.

As soon as in course of time it became plainly evident that gay
creations might emanate from man, and not only from the outer world, the
fact was marked by the formation of a distinctive name, and by degrees
several names - among which the most comprehensive in English is Humour.
This kind of gift became gradually known as more or less possessed by
all, and when the operations of the mind came to be recognised, we were
more enlightened on the subject, and acknowledged it to be a mental and
creative power. Such admissions would not be made by men in general
without some very strong evidence, and therefore a humorous man was not
merely one who had an internal sense of the ludicrous, but one who
employed it for the delectation of others. Hence, also, though there is
no consciousness of being amusing in the man who is ludicrous, there is
in one that is humorous. A wit must always be pleasant intentionally. A
man who in sober seriousness recounts something which makes us laugh is
not humorous, although his want of discrimination may not be sufficient
to make him ludicrous. Children are not regarded as humorous, for,
although they enjoy such simple humour as toys afford, they very seldom
notice what is merely ludicrous, and do not reproduce it in any way; and
the same may be said of many grown persons, who require to be fed as it
were, and although they can enjoy what is embellished by others, have no
original observation. Thus, although Herbert Mayo is substantially
correct in saying that "humour is the sentiment of the ludicrous," he
might have added that there is a difference between the two in our
knowledge of them. In the former, the creative mind is more marked, and,
a man though he laughs much, if he be dull in words is only considered
to have mirth, _i.e._, joyousness or a sense of the ludicrous, not
humour. The gift can only be brought prominently forward in speech or
writing, and thus humour comes to be often regarded as a kind of
ingredient or seasoning in a speech or book, if not actually synonymous
with certain sentences or expressions. Still we always confine the name
to human productions, as, for instance, gestures, sayings, writings,
pictures, and plays.

The recognition of the mental character of humour did not necessarily
imply any knowledge as to the authority, instability, or constancy of
the feeling - that could only be acquired by philosophical investigation.
Nor have we yet so far ascertained its character as to be able to form
humorous fancies upon any fixed principle. We are guided by some sense
of the ludicrous which we cannot analyse; or we introduce into new and
similar cases relationships in things which we have observed to be
amusing. Some forms are so general that they will produce a vast number
of jests, and we thus seem to have some insight into the influences that
awaken humour, but we see only approximately and superficially, and can
merely produce good results occasionally - rather by an accident than
with any certainty.




Pleasure in Humour - What is Laughter? - Sympathy - First Phases - Gradual
Development - Emotional Phase - Laughter of Pleasure - Hostile
Laughter - Is there any sense of the Ludicrous in the Lower
Animals? - Samson - David - Solomon - Proverbs - Fables.

Few of the blessings we enjoy are of greater value than the gift of
humour. The pleasure attendant upon it attracts us together, forms an
incentive, and gives a charm to social intercourse, and, unlike the
concentrating power of love, scatters bright rays in every direction.
That humour is generally associated with enjoyment might be concluded
from the fact that the genial and good-natured are generally the most
mirthful, and we all have so much personal experience of the
gratification it affords, that it seems superfluous to adduce any proofs
upon the subject. "Glad" is from the Greek word for laughter, and the
word "jocund" comes from a Latin term signifying "pleasant." But we can
trace the results of this connection in our daily observation. How comes
it to pass that many a man who is the life and soul of social
gatherings, and keeps his friends in delighted applause, sits, when
alone in his study, grave and sedate, and seldom, if ever, smiles in
reading or meditation? Is it not because humour is a source of pleasure?
We are not joyously disposed when alone, whereas in society we are ready
to give and receive whatever is bright and cheering.

The first question which now presents itself is what is laughter? and
our answer must be that it is a change of countenance accompanied by a
spasmodic intermittent sound - a modification of the voice - but that we
cannot trace its physical origin farther than to attribute it to some
effect produced upon the sympathetic nerve, or rather the system of
nerves termed respiratory. These communicate with every organ affected
in mirth, but the ultimate connection between mind and body is hidden
from our view.

In all laughter there is more or less pleasure, except in that of
hysteria, when by a sudden shock the course of Nature is reversed, and
excessive grief will produce the signs of joy, as extravagant delight
will sometimes exhibit those of sorrow. We should also exclude the
laughter caused by inhalation of gas, and that of maniacs, which arising
from some strange and unaccountable feeling is abnormal and imperfect,
and known by a hollow sound peculiar to itself. None of these kinds of
laughter are primary, they are but imperfect reflections of our usual
modes of expression, and, excepting such cases, we may agree that M.
Paffe is correct in observing that "Joy is an indispensable condition of
laughter." Dr. Darwin refers to the laughter of idiots to prove that it
may be occasioned by pleasure alone. Strangely enough, he quotes as an
instance in point the fact of an idiot boy having laughed at receiving a
black eye.

Proceeding onwards, we next come to inquire why the sense of humour is
expressed by voice and countenance, and does not merely afford a silent
and secret delight? The answer may be given, that one object, at least,
is to increase social communication and multiply pleasure. The
well-being of the animal world largely depends upon the power of each
member of it to communicate with others of the same species. They all do
so by sound and gesture, probably to a larger extent than we generally
imagine. A celebrated physician lately observed to me that "all animals
have some language." How far mere signs deserve so high a name may be
questioned. But man has great powers of intercourse, and it is much
owing to his superior faculties in this respect that he holds his place
so high above the rest of creation. Orators, who make it their study to
be impressive, give full importance to every kind of expression, and say
that a man should be able to make his meaning understood, even when his
voice is inaudible. It has been lately discovered that the mere movement
of the lips alone, without sound, is sufficient to convey
information.[2] Facial expression has been given us as a means of
assisting communication, and smiles and laughter have become the
distinctive manifestations of humour. Thus the electric spark passes
from one to another, and the flashing eye and wreathed lip lights up the
world. Profit also accrues - fear of being laughed at leads us to avoid
numerous small errors, and by laughing at others we are enabled to
detect shortcomings in ourselves.

Sympathetic laughter does not arise from any contemplation of ludicrous
circumstances, but is only a sort of reflection of the feelings of
others. There seems to be little intelligence in it, but something
almost physical, just as yawning is infectious, or as on seeing a person
wounded in a limb we instinctively shrink ourselves in the same part of
the body. Even a picture of a man laughing will have some effect upon
us, and so have those songs in which exuberant mirth is imitated. Thus
we often laugh without feeling just cause, as we often feel cause
without laughing. All exhibitions of emotion are infectious. We feel sad
at seeing a man in grief, although the source of his sorrow is unknown
to us; and we are inclined to be joyous when surrounded by the votaries
of mirth. Not unfrequently we find a number of persons laughing, when
the greater part of them have no idea what is the cause of the
merriment. Sometimes we cannot entirely resist the impulse, even when we
ourselves are the object of it, so much are we inclined to enter into
the feelings and views of those who surround us. In this, as well as in
many other cases, the sight and proximity of others exercise over us a
great influence, and sometimes almost a fascination.

To this sympathy we are largely indebted for the diffusion of high
spirits. It is pleasant to laugh and see others laughing, and thus the
one leads to the other. "Laugh and be fat," is a proverb, and it has
been well observed that "we like those who make us laugh," because they
give us pleasure. We may add that we like to see others joyous, because
we feel that we are surrounded by kindly natures. A gallant writer tells
us that he hopes to be rewarded for his labours in the field of
literature by "the sweetest of all sounds in nature - the laughter of
fair women." Macready, speaking of this influence, says:

"The words of Milman would have applied well to Mrs. Jordan, 'Oh, the
words laughed on her lips!' Mrs. Nesbitt, the charming actress of a late
day, had a fascinating power in the sweetly-ringing notes of her hearty
mirth; but Mrs. Jordan's laugh was so rich, so apparently irrepressible,
so deliciously self-enjoying, as to be at all times irresistible."

The agreeable influence of smiles is so well known that many are tempted

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Online LibraryAlfred Guy Kingan L'EstrangeHistory of English Humour, Vol. 1 (of 2) With an Introduction upon Ancient Humour → online text (page 1 of 21)