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ON THE HUMOUR AND COMIC PAINTING OF
That the moderns are superior to the ancients in the production of wit and humour, is a position which has been generally and successfully maintained. The more extended and diversified knowledge of modern Europe, its political institutions as springing from the feudal system, its gallantry and deference towards the fair sex, it's religious liberty and contrasted manners, have mutually contributed to this effect. When again it is asserted that England has almost exclusively monopolized the praise of humour, and that the very term is peculiar to this island, it will, perhaps, be found that prejudice and partiality have had too ample a share in the formation of the opinion.
Although the word itself be not found in any other European language save our own, who will deny that the quality it implies is not copiously and richly discoverable in the comedies of Moliere and the Quixote of Cervantes? Had it been affirmed that Great Britain was infinitely more fertile in authors of this class than her neighbours of the continent, the observation had been susceptible of satisfactory proof. The freedom of her constitution, and the consequent variety and independence of individual character, have acquired for her this distinguished honour. While France and Spain boast but of one or two eminent authors in this department, Britain points with exultation to a host of equal merit; to the justly celebrated names of Chaucer, Shakspeare, Butler, Swift, Addison, Arbuthnot, Fielding, Smollet, &c. writers whose knowledge of human life, and whose powers of ridicule and humour, have never been surpassed.
From this phalanx of genius it has become my province to select the name of Addison for peculiar consideration, and under this branch of my labours to offer a few observations on the predominant feature of his literary character,-his
.. This, as exhibited in his periodical works, is of a texture peculiarly pleasing and delicate, yet possessing lineaments which decidedly stamp it with an air of originality. While the humour of Swift and Pope is keen, bitter, and sarcastic, and but too often tinctured with malignity and spleen, a bland insinuating gaiety, and the cheerfulness of innocence and virtue, illumine with perpetual lustre the comic paintings of Addison. To correct the follies and vices of mankind, he has not thought it necessary to lay bare with stern severity their frailties, a practice which too generally hardens the offender; but has so mingled his reproof with the smiles of good nature, with the pleasantries of ludicrous association, and the sketchings of a sportive imagination, that the very objects of his censure and ridicule, whilst they felt the delineation to be just, acknowledged the skill of the artist, and joined in the general laugh.
“Addison,” remarks Dr. Young, comparing his method of reform with that of Pope and Swift, “ prescribed a wholesome and pleasant regimen, which was universally relished, and did much good; Pope preferred a purgative of satire, which, though wholesome, was too painful in its operation. Swift insisted on a large dose of ipecacuanha, which, though readily swallowed, from the fame of the physician, yet, if the patient had any delicacy of taste, he threw up the remedy instead of the disease.”
Notwithstanding the peculiarities which individualize and distinguish the Humour of Addison, some difference of opinion has arisen among critics of acknowledged celebrity, with regard to its nature and resources. The view which Dr. Johnson has taken of this characteristic excellence of our author has been much applauded.
“His humour,” he observes, “is so happily diffused as to give the grace of novelty to domestic scenes and daily occurrences. He never outsteps the modesty of nature, nor raises merriment or wonder by the violation of truth. His figures neither divert by distortion, nor amuse by aggravation. He copies life with so much fidelity, that he can hardly be said to invent; yet his exhibitions have an air so much original, that it is difficult to suppose them not merely the product of the imagination *."
On this encomium of our learned Biographer, Dr. Beattie has bestowed lavish commendation.
“Dr. Johnson,” he remarks, “here characterises the humour of Addison, with singular acuteness of thought and felicity of expression, Many writers seem to think that humour consists in violent and preternatural exaggeration; as there are, no doubt, many frequenters of the theatre, who find no want of comic power in the actor, who has a sufficient variety of wry
faces * Johnson's Lives, vol. ii. p. 139.
and antic gestures; and many admirers of farce and fun, with whom bombast and big words would pass for exquisite ridicule. But wry faces are made with little effort; caricatures may be sketched by a very unskilful hand; and he who has no command of natural expression may easily put together gigantic figures and rumbling syllables. It is only a Garrick who can do justice to Benedict and Ranger; but any candle-snuffer might personate Pistol and Bombardinian. Addison's humour resembles his style. Every phrase in the one, and circumstance in the other, appears so artless and so obvious, that a person who had never made the trial would be apt to think nothing more easy than to feign a story of Sir ROGER DE COVERLEY, or compose a vision like that of Mirza. But the art and the difficulty of both are such as Horace had in his mind when he said,
Ut sibi quivis
The opinion of Dr. Johnson, however, has not been assented to in the same unqualified manner
* De Arte Poetica. Vide Beattie's Notes on the Life of Addison,