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ON THE TALKING OF NONSENSE.
HERE is no greater mistake in the world than the looking
upon every sort of nonsense as want of sense. Nonsense,
in the bad sense of the word, like certain suspicious ladies, is very fond of bestowing its own appellation, particularly upon what renders other persons agreeable. But nonsense, in the good sense of the word, is a very sensible thing in its season; and is only confounded with the other by people of a shallow gravity, who cannot afford to joke.
These gentlemen live upon credit, and would not have it inquired into. They are perpetual beggars of the question. They are grave, not because they think, or feel the contrast of mirth, for then they would feel the mirth itself; but because gravity is their safest mode of behaviour. They must keep their minds sitting still, because they are incapable of a motion that is not awkward. They are waxen images among the living;
the deception is undone if the others stir ; or hollow vessels covered up, which may be taken for full ones ; the collision of wit jars against them, and strikes but their hollow
In fact, the difference between nonsense not worth talking, and nonsense worth it, is simply this :—the former is the result of a want of ideas, the latter of a superabundance of them. This is remarkably exemplified by Swift's “Polite Conversation,” in which the dialogue, though intended to be a tissue of
the greatest nonsense in request with shallow merriment, is in reality full of ideas, and many of them very humorous; but then they are all commonplace, and have been said so often, that the thing uppermost in your mind is the inability of the speakers to utter a sentence of their own ;—they have no ideas at all. Many of the jokes and similes in that treatise are still the current coin of the shallow; though they are now pretty much confined to gossips of an inferior order, and the upper part of the lower classes.
On the other hand, the wildest rattling, as it is called, in which men of sense find entertainment, consists of nothing but a quick and original succession of ideas,-a finding, as it were, of something in nothing,-a rapid turning of the hearer's mind to some new face of thought and sparkling imagery. The man of shallow gravity, besides an uneasy half-consciousness that he has nothing of the sort about him, is too dull of perception to see the delicate links between one thought and another ; and he takes that for a mere chaos of laughing jargon, in which finer apprehensions perceive as much delightful association as men of musical taste do in the most tricksome harmonies and accompaniments of Mozart or Beethoven. Between such gravity and such mirth there is as much difference as between the driest and dreariest psalmody, and that exquisite laughing trio,-“E voi ridete," — which is sung in “Così fan tutte." A Quaker's coat and a garden are not more dissimilar ; nor a death-bell and the birds after a sunny shower.
It is on such occasions, indeed, that we enjoy the perfection of what is agreeable in humanity,—the harmony of mind and body,-intellect, and animal spirits. Accordingly, the greatest geniuses appear to have been proficients in this kind of nonsense, and to have delighted in dwelling upon it, and attributing it to their favourites. Virgil is no joker, but Homer is; and there is the same difference between their heroes, Æneas and Achilles, the latter of whom is also a player on the harp. Venus, the most delightful of the goddesses, is Philommeides, the
laughter-loving ;-an epithet, by the by, which might give a good hint to a number of very respectable ladies," who love their lords," but who are too apt to let ladies less respectable run away with them. Horace represents Pleasantry as fluttering about Venus in company with Cupid
"Quem Focus circumvolat, et Cupido ;" and these are followed by Youth, the enjoyer of animal spirits, and by Mercury, the god of Persuasion. There is the same difference between Tasso and Ariosto as between Virgil and Homer ; that is to say, the latter proves his greater genius by a completer and more various hold on the feelings, and has not only a fresher spirit of Nature about him, but a truer, because a happier; for the want of this enjoyment is at once a defect and a deterioration. It is more or less a disease of the blood; a falling off from the pure and uncontradicted blithesomeness of childhood ; a hampering of the mind with the altered nerves ; dust gathered in the watch, and perplexing our passing hours.
It may be thought a begging of the question to mention Anacreon, since he made an absolute business of mirth and enjoyment, and sat down systematically to laugh as well as to drink. But on that very account, perhaps, his case is still more in point; and Plato, one of the gravest, but not the shallowest, of philosophers, gave him the title of the Wise. The disciple of Socrates appears also to have been a great enjoyer of Aristophanes; and the divine Socrates himself was a wit and a joker.
But the divine Shakspeare—the man to whom we go for everything, and are sure to find it, grave, melancholy, or merry -what said he to this exquisite kind of nonsense? Perhaps next to his passion for detecting nature, and over-informing it with poetry, he took delight in pursuing a joke; and the lowest scenes of his in this way say more to men whose faculties are fresh about them, and who prefer enjoyment to criticism, than the most doting of commentators can find out. They are
instances of his animal spirits, of his sociality, of his passion for giving and receiving pleasure, of his enjoyment of something wiser than wisdom.
The greatest favourites of Shakspeare are made to resemble himself in this particular. Hamlet, Mercutio, Touchstone, Jaques, Richard the Third, and Falstaff, “inimitable Falstaff,” are all men of wit and humour, modified according to their different temperaments or circumstances; some from health and spirits, others from sociality, others from a contrast with their very melancholy. Indeed, melancholy itself, with the profoundest intellects, will rarely be found to be anything else than a sickly temperament, induced or otherwise, preying in its turn upon the disappointed expectation of pleasure ; upon the contradiction of hopes, which this world is not made to realise, though, let us never forget, it is made, as they themselves prove, to suggest. Some of Shakspeare's characters, as Mercutio and Benedick, are almost entirely made up of wit and animal spirits ; and delightful fellows they are, and ready, from their very taste, to perform the most serious and manly offices. Most of his women, too, have an abundance of natural vivacity. Desdemona herself is so pleasant of intercourse in every way, that, upon the principle of the respectable mistakes above mentioned, the Moor, when he grows jealous, is tempted to think it a proof of her want of honesty. But we must make Shakspeare speak for himself, or we shall not know how to be silent on this subject. What a description is that which he gives of a man of mirthof a mirth, too, which he has expressly stated to be within the limit of what is becoming! It is in “ Love's Labour's Lost :"
" A merrier man,
And younger hearings are quite ravished;
We have been led into these reflections, partly to introduce the conclusion of this article ; partly from being very fond of a joke ourselves, and so making our self-love as proud as possible ; and partly from having spent some most agreeable hours the other evening with a company, the members of which had all the right to be grave and disagreeable that rank and talent are supposed to confer, and yet, from the very best sense or forgetfulness of both, were as lively and entertaining to each other as boys. Not one of them, perhaps, but had his cares-one or two, of no ordinary description ; but what then? These are the moments, if we can take advantage of them, when sorrows are shared, even unconsciously; moments, when melancholy intermits her fever, and hope takes a leap into enjoyment; when the pilgrim of life, if he cannot lay aside his burden, forgets it in meeting his fellows about a fountain, and soothes his weariness and his resolution with the sparkling sight, and the noise of the freshness.
To come to our anticlimax, for such we are afraid it must be called after all this grave sentiment and mention of authorities. The following dialogue is the substance of a joke, never meant for its present place, that was started the other day upon a late publication. The name of the book it is not necessary to mention, especially as it was pronounced to be one of the driest that had appeared for years. We cannot answer for the sentences being put to their proper speakers. The friends whom we value most happen to be great hunters in this way; and the reader may look upon the thing as a specimen of a joke run down, or of the sort of nonsense above mentioned ; so that he will take due care how he professes not to relish it. We must also advertise him, that a proper quantity of giggling and laughter must be supposed to be interspersed, till towards the end it gradually becomes too great to go on with.
A. Did you ever see such a book ?