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Wit and humor, more, perhaps, than any other qualities of style, are natural gifts. They cannot be acquired; but as their effectiveness is increased or diminished by the form in which they are expressed, attention to language and to all the rules of correct expression cannot fail to sweeten and smooth the channel through which humor flows, or to point the language in which wit coruscates. To be effective they must, like other qualities of style, be expressed in clear, chaste, and suitable language.
Among the kinds of composition in which wit and humor play a prominent part are :
I. Parody, in which some great or serious subject is degraded by being applied to something of a lighter or lower nature. The degradation is effected by the change of some of the words of the original; as, “To marry, or not to marry, that is the question."
2. Travesty, which consists in distorting or misinterpreting character or action by giving it a garb that disguises its real nature.
3. Mock-heroic, which treats mean or trivial things as if they were of vast importance. Pope's Rape of the Lock is a prominent example.
4. Burlesque, which amuses by representing a person as acting a part that is unsuited to his character, or by placing him in situations unbecoming his actual station in society. Great men may be represented as acting basely, or base men as acting nobly.
The Æsthetic Qualities of style are those which tend to make discourse gratifying to our sense of the beautiful. They embrace Melody, Harmony, Taste, and Beauty.
1. Melody, as we have already seen, consists in using those devices that make language pleasing to the ear. When spoken of a whole composition, it includes, in addition to the melody of which we have spoken in Lesson XXVII., a consideration of the general effect of minute melody on the writing taken as a whole.
The melody of the several sentences must blend harmoniously, and must be adapted to the subject.
2. Harmony has a variety of applications, all of which are important in composition.
a. It means, as previously stated, the adaptation of sound to sense.
b. Harmony requires that all the parts of a composition should correspond with one another.
(1) The language should be suitable to the subject, and be expressive of the feelings of the speaker.
(2) The scene should correspond with the actions that take place in it.
(3) The tone of feeling should be suited to the thoughts expressed.
(4) The different parts of a picture should correspond with one another. It will not do to have a frozen river running through a harvest-field.
See also what is said on page 135.
3. Taste in rhetoric means cultivated judgment, a refined sensibility to the effects of all the expedients of composition. A writer who possesses taste will avoid whatever is harsh and incongruous. He will have everything chaste and in keeping. His productions will not have excrescences on the one hand, or gaps on the other. Symmetry will be one of his first excellences. His diction will be choice and precise, but will be free from mannerism. He will not carry striking artifices to excess. Everything coarse or indelicate in figure or allusion will be avoided. Figures of speech, the adornment of language, will be used sparingly and gracefully; no tawdry finery will be worked in; no straining after effect will be indulged.
The word "taste" is applied also to composition. Discourse which is so written as to be pleasing to a person of refined literary sensibility is said to be in good taste.
The term “beauty” is, likewise, often used to indicate in a general way the possession of those qualities that gratify a cultured intellect and refined feelings.
THE LUDICROUS. DIRECTION.— Name the feature of the ludicrous that is prevalent in each of the following sentences. Analyze each feature, and show on what each depends.
1. He described a volcano as a mountain with a fireplace in it.
2. “It was probable," said the Indian king, as they viewed Westminster Abbey, “ that when this great work was begun, which must have been many hundred years ago, there was some religion among this people ; for they give it the name of a temple, and have a tradition that it was designed for men to pay their devotions in. And indeed there are several reasons which make us think that the natives of this country had formerly among them some sort of worship; for they set apart every seventh day as sacred: but upon my going into one of these holy houses on that day, I could not observe any circumstance of devotion in their behavior: there was indeed a nian in black who was mounted above the rest, and seemed to utter something with a great deal of vehemence; but as for those underneath him, instead of paying their worship to the Deity of the place, they were most of them bowing and courtesying to one another, and a considerable number of them were fast asleep."
3. All the time, Mr. Winkle, with his face and hands blue with the cold, had been forcing a gimlet into the soles of his feet, and putting his skates on with the points behind, and getting the straps into a very complicated and entangled state, with the assistance of Mr. Snodgrass, who knew rather less about skates than a Hindoo. 4.
His son was generally seen trooping like a colt at his mother's heels, equipped in a pair of his father's cast-off gallygaskins, which he had much ado to hold up with one hand, as a fine lady does her train in bad weather.
5. An absent-minded professor, in going out of the gate of his college, ran against a cow. In the confusion of the moment, he
raised his hat and exclaimed, “I beg your pardon, madam.” Soon after, he stumbled against a lady in the street. In sudden recollection of his former mishap, he called out, “Is that you again, you brute?”
6. Harrowgate is the most heaven-forgotten country under the sun. When I saw it, there were only nine mangy fir-trees there ; and even they all leaned away from it.
7. Cranmer could vindicate himself from the danger of being a heretic only by arguments which made him out to be a murderer.
8. It is the misfortune of your life, and originally the cause of every reproach and distress which has attended your government, that
you should never have been acquainted with the language of truth, until you heard it in the complaints of your people.
9. Two maxims of any great man at court are: always to keep his countenance, and never to keep his word.
10. “Every other chief of a party," says Carnot,“ has found apologists : one set of men exalts the Girondists, another set justifies Danton, a third deifies Robespierre; but Barère has remained without a defender. We venture to suggest a very simple solution of this phenomenon. All the other chiefs of parties had some good qualities; and Barère had none. The genius, courage, patriotism, and humanity of the Girondists statesmen more than atoned for what was culpable in their conduct, and should have protected them from the insult of being compared with such a man as Barère. Danton and Robespierre were indeed bad men; but in both of them some important parts of the mind remained sound. Danton was brave and resolute, fond of pleasure, of power, and of distinction ; with vehement passions, with lax principles, but with some kind and manly feelings; capable of great crimes, but capable also of friendship and of compassion. He, therefore, naturally finds admirers among persons of bold and sanguine dispositions. Robespierre was a vain, envious, and suspicious man, with a hard heart, weak nerves, and a gloomy temper. But we cannot with truth deny that he was disinterested, that his private life was correct, or that he was zealous for his own system
of politics and morals. He, therefore, naturally finds admirers among honest but moody and bitter democrats. If no class has taken the reputation of Barère under its patronage, the reason is plain : Barère had not a single virtue, nor even the semblance of one.”
11. Railroad travelling is a delightful improvement of human life. Man is become a bird; he can fly longer and quicker than a Solan goose. The mamma rushes sixty miles in two hours, to the aching fingers of her conjugating and declining grammar boy. The early Scotchman scratches himself in the morning mists of the North, and has his porridge in Piccadilly before the setting sun.
12. “Do you think I shall have justice done me?" said a culprit to his counsel, a shrewd Kentucky lawyer of the best class of that eloquent state. “I am a little afraid that you will not,” replied the other; “I see two men on the jury who are opposed to hanging."
13. Some one threw a head of cabbage at an Irish orator while he was making a speech. He paused a second, and said, “Gentlemen, I asked only for your ears; I don't care for your heads."
14. Two sons of the Green Isle, travelling, came in sight of a gibbet, or gallows, in a lonely field. One of them said to the other, “Where would you be, if that gallows had its due?” “Oh!” he replied, “I should be travelling alone."
15. Her face resembles a congress at the close of a general war, wherein all the members, even to her eyes, appear to have a different interest, and her nose and chin are the only parties likely to join issue.
16. Plato having defined man to be a biped without feathers, Diogenes plucked a rooster and carried it to Plato's school, with the remark, “ Here's Plato's man.”
17. Condé admired William III.; he also admired his lap-dog.
18. You are too severe on the widow. It is not that she paints so badly; but, when she has finished her face, she joins it on so badly with the neck, that she looks like a mended statue, in which the connoisseur may see at once that the head is modern and the trunk is antique.