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the expedition to suppress the Barbary corsairs, particularly in the bombard. ment of Tripoli, in 1804, and for the gallantry displayed by her officers and men during the War of 1812.
Irony. In the well-known “ Verses on his own Death" Swift humorously asserts that
Arbuthnot is no more my friend,
Refined it first, and showed its use. This, even as a bit of humorous exaggeration, is an absurd claim. That the great Dean was one of the mightiest masters of irony in the English language may be granted. But irony (elpuveia, " dissembling”) was a well-known figure in Greek literature, and was handled with marvellous dexterity by Aristophanes, by Plato, and by Socrates. It was so pervading an element in the latter's discourse that even his contemporaries spoke of it as his “customary irony,” and in more modern times Socratic and ironic have come to be almost convertible terms:
Most socratick Lady!
Ben JONSON : New Inn. Nay, a still more ancient instance is found in the Old Testament, in Elijah's ridicule of the prophets of Baal (1. Kings xviii. 27), when in answer to his challenge they clamor to their god to send fire from heaven upon the altar : “ And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.” Even if the Dean confined his boast to the English language he would find it difficult of vindication. Nowhere in Swift is there irony more admirably sustained than in Antony's speech over the corpse of Cæsar, deriving as it does additional intensity from contrast with his impassioned soliloquy in the preceding scene, which reveals the world of fury that Antony is really suppressing when he reiterates that Brutus is an honorable man.
As good a definition of irony as any is that by E. P. Whipple. Irony, he says, is a kind of saturnine, sardonic wit, having the self-possession, complexity, and continuity of humor, without its geniality. It is “an insult conveyed in the form of a compliment; insinuating the most galling satire under the phraseology of panegyric; placing its victim naked on a bed of briers and thistles thinly covered with rose-leaves ; adorning his brow with a crown of gold, which burns into his brain; teasing and fretting, and riddling him through and through, with incessant discharges of hot shot from a masked battery ; laying bare the most sensitive and shrinking nerves of his mind, and then blandly touching them with ice, or smilingly pricking them with needles." It is with special reference to the irony of Swift that Whipple pens this characterization, and he deems that the most exquisite piece of irony in modern literature, and at the same time the most terrible satire on the misgovernment of Ireland, is Swift's pamphlet entitled “A Modest Proposal to the Public for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from being a Burden to their Country, and for making them Beneficial to the Public.” It was published in 1729, when people were starving in hundreds from the famine and the dead were left unburied before their doors. And what was Swift's plan? It was to turn the children into food. “I have been assured,” he says, "by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ; and I make no doubt it will equally serve as a ragout.” He argues out the propo
sition with the calm deliberation of a statistician, or of a projector suggesting the importation of food from abroad. “A child," he continues, “will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish.” The expense of fattening a child for the table will not be great, not above two shillings per annum, “rags included,” and he believes "no gentleman will repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child." This would leave the mother eight shillings net profit. Further, the fesh of young lads and maidens not exceeding fourteen or under twelve might be found an admirable substitute for venison on squires' tables. He considers and answers with mock arguments all objections that might be raised to the scheme “ as a little bordering on cruelty," and is careful to add that he has no personal motive, as his own children are all past the age when he could make a profit of them.” The purport of this tract has been strangely misunderstood. It has been denounced as ghastly, cold-blooded, callous, cynical. Even Thackeray, himself a master of irony, cites it as an evidence of the Dean's hatred for children. These critics are as much in error as the French author who, taking the Proposal seriously, drew therefrom a frightful picture of the extremities to which the Irish people had been reduced.
In truth, the calm exterior is but a thin veil, through which the scorn and indignation of the writer shoot with blistering and blighting force. He does not wear his heart on his sleeve. This does not prove that he is heartless. On the contrary, it shows that his heart is in the right place.
Another most effective example of Swift's peculiar manner is his “Argument against Abolishing Christianity.” The title in full is itself an admirable bit of calm sarcasm : “An Argument to prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England may, as things now stand, be attended with some inconveniences, and perhaps not produce those many good effects proposed thereby." He starts out with a semblance of hesitation and timidity, as of one who feels that he is arraying himself against the general consensus of intelligent opinion. He hastens to guard against misinterpretation. Of course he is not defending real Christianity: that would be proper for none but an uncivilized age. His aim is only to show the practical uses of the conventional fiction that now prevails. Leave the people a god to revile, or they might be tempted “to reflect upon the ministry." He acknowledges that it seems ridiculous that a set of men should be suffered, much less hired, to bawl one day in seven against the constant practices of all men alive during the other six. But he points out that more than one-half the pleasure of enjoyment lies in the fact of a thing being forbidden. Doubtless it costs a good deal to maintain ten thousand parsons and a score of bishops; doubtless, too, their revenues would suffice to maintain, as ornaments to the court and town, at least a couple of hundred young gentlemen of wit, pleasure, and free-thinking, enemies to priestcraft, narrow principles, pedantry, and prejudices. But, after all, parsons have their uses. Their diet is moderate enough to let them breed a healthy progeny, without which the nation would in an age or two become one great hospital, for the lives led by men of pleasure only entail rottenness and politeness on their posterity. And after the present refined way of living it is not certain that more than one hundred young gentlemen of fashion could be kept on the parsons' revenues. The offer of such scanty support might even offend their dignity. As for the argument that one day in seven is lost by the practice of Christianity, this is mere cavil. Sunday serves excellently for a dose of physic; the wits need not change the course of their lives; the churches are fitted for all the purposes of assignation, or offer conveniences and incitements to sleep. But supposing the parsons to go, and the churches, what would become of the free-thinkers, the wits, the strong reasoners, the men of profound learning? How would they be able to shine or distinguish themselves? Who would ever have suspected Asgil for a wit, or Toland for a philosopher, if the inexhaustible stock of Christianity had not been at hand to provide them with material? For had a hundred such pens as these been employed on the side of religion they would have immediately sunk into silence and oblivion.
Defoe's “ Shortest Way with the Dissenters," which was written in 1702, has been sometimes held to be the literary predecessor of these tracts of Swift. But Defoe had none of the coruscating wit which illuminates the productions of Swift and makes their meaning intelligible to all save the dullards. It has been said that the “Modest Proposal" was taken seriously by a Frenchman. On the other hand, the “Shortest Way with the Dissenters” imposed on almost all England. It was really a burlesque on the intolerance of the High-Church element in the Tory party. Defoe assumed the character of a bigoted “High-flyer,” and proposed, with apparent seriousness, that “whoever was found at a conventicle should be banished the nation, and the preacher hanged.” So well was the character maintained that a Fellow of Cambridge College wrote to his bookseller, “I received yours, and with it that pamphlet which makes so much noise, called 'The Shortest Way with the Dissenters,' for which I thank you. I join with that author in all he says, and have such a value for the book, that, next to the Holy Bible and the Sacred Comments, I take it for the most valuable piece I have. I pray God put it into her Majesty's heart to put what is there proposed into execution." Not only were Churchmen imposed upon, but Dissenters also. Defoe had to write a serious protestation that it was all a joke, and that he meant to expose only the non-juring faction among the Tories by putting their secret wishes into English. "'Tis hard,” he complains," that this should not be perceived by all the town; so that not one man can see it, either Churchman or Dissenter.” This was just before his surrender to the Tory government, which, furious at discovering the trick that had been put upon it, sentenced him to the pillory.
Defoe was not the only person who found irony a two-edged sword. The sense of humor is no universal birthright. Even in America the blood of the thick-witted middle-class English sometimes asserts itself above the lighter and clearer fluid which comes to us from Gaul and Gael. When “ The Newcomes" was in course of publication, a passage in one of the chapters alluding to “Mr. Washington" was so far misunderstood by the dullards here that the fact was referred to by the New York correspondent of the l'imes. Whereupon Thackeray addressed the following letter to that journal :
SIR,-Allow me a word of explanation in answer to a strange charge which has been brought against me in the United States, and which your New York correspondent has made public in this country.
In the first number of a periodical story which I am now publishing appears a sentence in which I should have never thought of finding any harm until it has been discovered by some critics over the water. The fatal words are these :
" When pig-tails grew on the backs of the British gentry, and their wives wore cushions on their heads, over which they tied their own hair and disguised it with powder and pomatum ; when ministers went in their stars and orders to the House of Commons, and the orators of the opposition attacked nightly the noble lord in the blue riband; when Mr. Washington was heading the American cause with a courage, it must be confessed, worthy of a better cause,there came to London, out of a northern country, Mr, etc."
This paragraph has been interpreted in America as an insult to Washington and the whole Union; and from the sadness and gravity with which your correspondent quotes certain of my words, it is evident he, too, thinks they have an insolent and malicious meaning.
Having published the American critic's comment, permit the author of a faulty sentence to say what he did mean, and to add the obvious moral of the apologue which has been so oddly construed. I am speaking of a young apprentice coming to London between the years 1770 and '80, and want to depict a few figures of the last century. (The illustrated head-letter of the chapter was intended to represent Hogarth's " Industrious Apprentice.") I fancy the old society,
with its hoops and powder-Barré and Fox thundering at Lord North asleep on the Treasury bench-the news-readers at the coffee-room talking over the paper, and owning that this Mr. Washington who was leading the rebels was a very courageous soldier, and worthy of a better cause than fighting against King George. The images are at least natural, and pretty consecutive. 1776—the people of London in '76--the Lords and House of Commons in '76Lord North-Washington--what the people thought about Washington,--I am thinking about
76. Where in the name of common sense is the insult to 1853? The satire, if satire there be. applies to us at home, who called Washington Mr. Washington; as we called Frederick the Great “the Protestant Hero," or Napoleon “the Corsican Tyrant" or " General Bonaparte." Need I say that our officers were instructed (until they were taught better manners) to call Washington "Mr. Washington" ? and that the Americans were called rebels during the whole of that contest? Rebels !-of course they were rebels; and I should like to know what native American would not have been a rebel in that cause?
As irony is dangerous, and has hurt the feelings of kind friends whom I would not wish to offend, let me say, in perfect faith and gravity, that I think the cause for which Washington fought entirely just and right, and the champion the very noblest, purest, bravest, best, of God's men.
I am, sir, your very faithful servant,
W. M. THACKERAY. ATHENÆUM, Nov. 22.
But if irony is sometimes inconvenient, it also has its advantages. Heine has pointed them out in a memorable passage, all the more quotable because, while dealing of irony, it exemplifies what it glosses. Heine represents himself as holding a dialogue at Munich with a Berlin philister who denied that Munich had any claim to the title of “a new Athens" or contained the first grain of Attic salt.
“That," he cried, tolerably loudly, “is only to be found in Berlin. There, and there only, is wit and irony. Here they have good white beer,--but no irony."
"No,- we haven't got irony," cried Nannerl, the pretty, well-formed waiting-maid, who at this instant sprang past us, “but you can have any other sort of beer.”
It grieved me to the heart that Nannerl should take irony to be any sort of beer, were it even the best brew of Stettin, and, to prevent her from falling in future into such errors. I began to teach her after the following wise : “ Pretty Narnerl, irony is not beer, but an invention of the Berlin people,-the wisest folks in the world, who were awfully vexed because they came too late into the world to invent gunpowder, and therefore undertook to find out something which would answer as well, Once upon a time, my dear, when a man had said or done something stupid, how could the matter be helped ? That which was done could not be undone, and people said that the man was an ass. That was disagreeable. In Berlin, where the people are shrewdest, and where the most stupid things happen, the people soort found out the inconvenience. The government took hold of the matter vigorously,--only the greater blunders were allowed to be printed, the lesser were simply suffered in conversation, only professors and high officials could say stupid things in public, lesser people could only make asses of themselves in private; but all of these regulations were of no avail.-suppressed stupidities availed themselves of extraordinary opportunities to come to light; those below were protected by those above, and the emergency was terrible, until some one discovered a reactionary means, whereby every piece of stupidity could change its nature, and even be metamorphosed into wisdom. The process is altogether simple and easy, and consists simply in a man's declaring that the stupid word or deed of which he has been guilty was meant ironically. So, my dear girl, all things get along in this world,-stupidity becomes irony, toadyism which has missed its aim becomes satire, natural coarseness is changed to artistic raillery, real madness is humor, ignorance, real wit, and thou thyself art finally the Aspasia of the modern Athens.”
I would have said more, but pretty Nannerl, whom I had up to this point held fast by the apron-string, broke away loose by main force, as the entire band of assembled guests began to roar for "a beer! a beer!" in stormy chorus. But the Berliner himself looked like irony incarnate as he remarked the enthusiasm with which the foaming glasses were welcomed, and, after pointing to a group of beer-drinkers who toasted their hop-nectar and disputed as to its excellence, he said, smiling, “Those are your Athenians !"
In Heine the irony is paramount over everything. You can never be sure of his mood. You can never take his word at its apparent meaning. There is a tear behind every laugh, a laugh behind every tear. His earnestness has a substratum of mockery, there is an awful depth of pathos behind his levity. When he gushes out into lyric ecstasy there is a tremble of humor on his lips, his eyes dance while he describes his own sufferings, he interrupts his finest poetry with a wild laugh at his reader's emotion and his own. He gazes into
the North Sea from the ship's bulwarks, and his fancy paints a lovely city under the waves, with quaint mediæval figures going hither and thither, a highly-colored, gorgeous, holiday scene, and in a corner he be holds the ideal maiden of his dreams, he holds out his arms to her, and then, just in time, the captain lays holds of his heels with a loud cry of,
Why, doctor, what the devil ails you? Or he cries out in his agony,–
What avails it to me that enthusiastic youths and maidens crown my marble bust with laurel, when the withered hands of an aged nurse are pressing Spanish flies behind my ears? What avails it to me that all the roses of Shiraz glow and waft incense for me? Alas, Shiraz is two thousand miles from the Rue d'Amsterdam, where, in the dreary solitude of my sick-room, I get no scent unless it be the perfume of warmed-over poultices. Alas, the irony of heaven weighs heavily upon me! The great author of the universe, the Aristophanes of Heaven, wished to show me, the little earthly so-called German Aristophanes, how my wittiest sarcasms are only pitiful attempts in comparison with his, and how miserably I am beneath him in humor, in colossal irony.
George Eliot has wisely said that the paradoxical irreverence with which Heine professes his theoretical reverence is pathological, the diseased exhibition of a predominant tendency urged into anomalous action by the pressure of pain and mental privation, as the delirium of wit starved of its proper nourishment. But “it is not for us to condemn,” she adds, “who have never had the same burden laid on us; it is not for pygmies at their ease to criticise the writhings of the Titan chained to the rock.” There are humor and poetry, lit up by a flashing and glancing irony, in Heine's famous dictum, “The Englishman loves liberty like his lawful wife, the Frenchman loves her like his mistress, the German loves her like his old grandmother. And yet, after all, no one can ever tell how things may turn out. The grumpy English. man, in an ill temper with his wife, is capable of some day putting a rope round her neck and taking her to be sold at Smithfield. The inconstant Frenchman may become unfaithful to his adored mistress, and be seen flutter. ing about the Palais Royal after another. But the German will never quite abandon his old grandmother; he will always keep for her a nook by the chimney-corner, where she can tell her fairy-stories to the listening children.”
Heine has asserted his kinship with Byron. There is, indeed, a strong affinity between his humor and that of Don Juan and of Beppo. The cyni. cism, the mockery of others and of self, the hatred of hypocrisy and cant, dwell alike in both. Examples are easy to cull :
So for a good old-gentlemanly vice
Don Juan, Canto i., Stanza 216.
Ibid., Canto ii., Stanza 34.
Ibid., Canto iii., Stanza 41.
Ibid., Canto v., Stanza 49. Here we have the same startling transitions, the tricksy malice, the wild laugh full in the face of an admiring reader, that Heine so delights in.
Irony of Fate, or Sarcasm of Destiny, two familiar phrases embody. ing the truth which may be found expressed or implied in the literature of most countries as the result of the common observation and experience of mankind. History and the daily life of all of us teem with examples of objects long and impatiently pursued attained at last with indifference or dis.