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CHAPTER XII: Ridicule - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, vol. 1 
Elements of Criticism, Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). 2 vols. Vol. 1.
Part of: Elements of Criticism, 2 vols.
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To define ridicule, has puzzled and vexed every critic. The definition given by Aristotle is obscure and imperfect.* Cicero handles it at great length;† but without giving any satisfaction: he wanders in the dark, and misses the distinction between risible and ridiculous. Quintilian is sensible of the distinction,‡ but has not attempted to explain it. Luckily this subject lies no longer in obscurity: a risible object produceth an emotion of laughter merely:§ a ridiculous object is improper as well as risible; and produceth a mixt emotion, which is vented by a laugh of derision or scorn.∥
Having therefore happily unravelled the knotty part, I proceed to other particulars.
Burlesque, tho’ a great engine of ridicule, is not confined to that subject; for it is clearly dis-<367>tinguishable into burlesque that excites laughter merely, and burlesque that provokes derision or ridicule. A grave subject in which there is no impropriety, may be brought down by a certain colouring so as to be risible; which is the case of Virgil Travestie;¶ and also the case of the Secchia Rapita:* the authors laugh first, in order to make their readers laugh. The Lutrin is a burlesque poem of the other sort, laying hold of a low and trifling incident, to expose the luxury, indolence, and contentious spirit of a set of monks. Boileau the author gives a ridiculous air to the subject, by dressing it in the heroic style, and affecting to consider it as of the utmost dignity and importance. In acomposition of this kind, no image professedly ludicrous ought to find quarter, because such images destroy the contrast; and accordingly the author shows always the grave face, and never once betrays a smile.
Though the burlesque that aims at ridicule, produces its effect by elevating the style far above the subject, yet it has limits beyond which the elevation ought not to be carried: the poet, consulting the imagination of his readers, ought to confine himself to such images as are lively, and readily apprehended: a strained elevation, soaring above an ordinary reach of fancy, makes not a pleasant impression: the reader, fatigued with being al-<368>ways upon the stretch, is soon disgusted; and if he persevere, becomes thoughtless and indifferent. Further, a fiction gives no pleasure unless it be painted in colours so lively as to produce some perception of reality; which never can be done effectually where the images are formed with labour or difficulty. For these reasons, I cannot avoid condemning the Batrachomuomachia, said to be the composition of Homer: it is beyond the power of imagination to form a clear and lively image of frogs and mice, acting with the dignity of the highest of our species; nor can we form a conception of the reality of such an action, in any manner so distinct as to interest our affections even in the slightest degree.
The Rape of the Lock1 is of a character clearly distinguishable from those now mentioned: it is not properly a burlesque performance, but what may rather be termed an heroi-comical poem: it treats a gay and familiar subject with pleasantry, and with a moderate degree of dignity: the author puts not on a mask like Boileau, nor processes to make us laugh like Tassoni. The Rape of the Lock is a genteel species of writing, less strained than those mentioned: and is pleasant or ludicrous without having ridicule for its chief aim; giving way however to ridicule where it arises naturally from a particular character, such as that of Sir Plume. Addison’s Spectator upon the exercise of<369> the fan* is extremely gay and ludicrous, resembling in its subject the Rape of the Lock.
Humour belongs to the present chapter, because it is connected with ridicule. Congreve defines humour2 to be “a singular and unavoidable manner of doing or saying any thing, peculiar and natural to one man only, by which his speech and actions are distinguished from those of other men.” Were this definition just, a majestic and commanding air, which is a singular property, is humour; as also a natural flow of correct and commanding eloquence, which is no less singular. Nothing just or proper is denominated humour; nor any singularity of character, words, or actions, that is valued or respected. When we attend to the character of an humorist, we find that it arises from circumstances both risible and improper, and therefore that it lessens the man in our esteem, and makes him in some measure ridiculous.
Humour in writing is very different from humour in character. When an author insists upon ludicrous subjects with a professed purpose to make his readers laugh, he may be styled a ludicrous writer; but is scarce intitled to be styled a writer of humour. This quality belongs to an author, who, affecting to be grave and serious, paints his objects in such colours as to provoke mirth and laughter. A writer that is really an hu-<370>morist in character, does this without design: if not, he must affect the character in order to succeed. Swift and Fontaine3 were humorists in character, and their writings are full of humour. Addison was not an humorist in character; and yet in his prose-writings a most delicate and refined humour prevails. Arbuthnot4 exceeds them all in drollery and humorous painting; which shows a great genius, because, if I am not misinformed, he had nothing of that peculiarity in his character.
There remains to show by examples, the manner of treating subjects, so as to give them a ridiculous appearance.
Il ne dit jamais, je vous donne, mais, je vous prete le bon jour.
I know him to be valiant.
I was told that by one that knows him better than you.
Marry, he told me so himself; and he said, he car’d not who knew it.
Henry V. Shakespear.
He never broke any man’s head but his own, and that was against a post when he was drunk.
Sententious Mirabell! pr’ythee don’t look<371> with that violent and inflexible wise face, like Solomon at the dividing of the child in an old tapestry hanging.
Way of the World.
A true critic in the perusal of a book, is like a dog at a feast, whose thoughts and stomach are wholly set upon what the guests fling away, and consequently is apt to snarl most when there are the fewest bones.
Tale of a Tub.7
In the following instances, the ridicule arises from absurd conceptions in the persons introduced.
Te souvient-il, vicomte, de cette demi-lune, que nous emportâmes sur les ennemis au siege d’Arras?
Que veux tu dire avec ta demi-lune? c’étoit bien une lune tout entiere.
Moliere les Precieuses Ridicules, sc. 11.8
I came yonder at Eaton to marry Mrs. Anne Page; and she’s a great lubberly boy.
Upon my life then you took the wrong.
What need you tell me that? I think so when I took a boy for a girl: if I had been marry’d to him, for all he was in woman’s apparel, I would not have had him.
Merry Wives of Windsor.9
Your blessing, Sir.
You’ve had it already, Sir: I think I sent it you to-day in a bill for four thousand pound; a great deal of money, Brother Foresight.<372>
Ay indeed, Sir Sampson, a great deal of money for a young man; I wonder what can he do with it.
Love for Love, act 2. sc. 7.
I nauseate walking; ’tis a country-diversion; I lothe the country, and every thing that relates to it.
Indeed! hah! look ye, look ye, you do? nay, ’tis like you may—here are choice of pastimes here in town, as plays and the like; that must be confess’d indeed.
Ah l’etourdie! I hate the town too.
Dear heart, that’s much—hah! that you should hate ’em both! hah! ’tis like you may; there are some can’t relish the town, and others can’t away with the country—’tis like you may be one of these, Cousine.
Way of the World, act 4. sc. 4.
I assure you, Sir Paul, I laugh at no body’s jests but my own, or a lady’s: I assure you, Sir Paul.
How? how, my Lord? what, affront my wit! Let me perish, do I never say any thing worthy to be laugh’d at?
O foy, don’t misapprehend me, I don’t say so, for I often smile at your conceptions. But there is nothing more unbecoming a man of quality, than to laugh; ’tis such a vulgar expression of the passion! every body can laugh. Then especially to laugh at the jest of an inferior person, or when any body else of the same quality does not laugh with one; ridicu-<373>lous! To be pleas’d with what pleases the crowd! Now, when I laugh I always laugh alone.
Double Dealer, act. 1. sc. 4.
So sharp-sighted is pride in blemishes, and so willing to be gratified, that it takes up with the very slightest improprieties; such as a blunder by a foreigner in speaking our language, especially if the blunder can bear a sense that reflects on the speaker:
The young man is an honest man.
What shall de honest man do in my closet! dere is no honest man dat shall come in my closet.
Merry Wives of Windsor.10
Love-speeches are finely ridiculed in the following passage.
Irony turns things into ridicule in a peculiar manner; it consists in laughing at a man under disguise of appearing to praise or speak well of him. Swift affords us many illustrious examples of that species of ridicule. Take the following.
By these methods, in a few weeks, there starts up many a writer, capable of managing the profoundest and most universal subjects. For what though his head be empty, provided his common-place book be full! And if you will bate him but the circumstances of method, and style, and grammar, and invention; allow him but the common privileges of transcribing from<375> others, and digressing from himself, as often as he shall see occasion; he will desire no more ingredients towards fitting up a treatise that shall make a very comely figure on a bookseller’s shelf, there to be preserved neat and clean, for a long eternity, adorned with the heraldry of its title, fairly inscribed on a label; never to be thumbed or greased by students, nor bound to everlasting chains of darkness in a library; but when the fullness of time is come, shall happily undergo the trial of purgatory, in order to ascend the sky.*
I cannot but congratulate our age on this peculiar felicity, that though we have made indeed great progress in all other branches of luxury, we are not yet debauch’d with any high relish in poetry, but are in this one taste less nice than our ancestors.
If the Reverend clergy shewed more concern than others, I charitably impute it to their great charge of souls; and what confirmed me in this opinion was, that the degrees of apprehension and terror could be distinguished to be greater or less, according to their ranks and degrees in the church.†
A parody must be distinguished from every species of ridicule: it enlivens a gay subject by imitating some important incident that is serious: it<376> is ludicrous, and may be risible; but ridicule is not a necessary ingredient. Take the following examples, the first of which refers to an expression of Moses.
The next is in imitation of Achilles’s oath in Homer:
The following imitates the history of Agamemnon’s sceptre in Homer.
Tho’ ridicule, as observed above, is no necessary ingredient in a parody, yet there is no opposition between them: ridicule may be successfully employ’d in a parody: and a parody may be employ’d to promote ridicule; witness the following example with respect to the latter, in which the goddess of Dullness is addressed upon the subject of modern education:
The interposition of the gods in the manner of Homer and Virgil, ought to be confined to ludicrous subjects, which are much enlivened by such interposition handled in the form of a parody; witness the cave of Spleen, Rape of the Lock, canto 4.; the goddess of Discord, Lutrin, canto 1.; and the goddess of Indolence, canto 2.
Those who have a talent for ridicule, which is<378> seldom united with a taste for delicate and refined beauties, are quick-sighted in improprieties; and these they eagerly grasp, in order to gratify their favourite propensity. Persons galled are provoked to maintain, that ridicule is improper for grave subjects. Subjects really grave are by no means fit for ridicule: but then it is urged against them, that when it is called in question whether a certain subject be really grave, ridicule is the only means of determining the controversy. Hence a celebrated question, Whether ridicule be or be not a test of truth? I give this question a place here, because it tends to illustrate the nature of ridicule.
The question stated in accurate terms is, Whether the sense of ridicule be the proper test for distinguishing ridiculous objects, from what are not so. Taking it for granted, that ridicule is not a subject of reasoning, but of sense or taste,* I proceed thus. No person doubts but that our sense of beauty is the true test of what is beautiful; and our sense of grandeur, of what is great or sublime. Is it more doubtful whether our sense of ridicule be the true test of what is ridiculous? It is not only the true test, but indeed the only test; for this subject comes not, more than beauty or grandeur, under the province of reason. If any subject, by the influence of fashion or custom, have acquired<379> a degree of veneration to which naturally it is not intitled, what are the proper means for wiping off the artificial colouring, and displaying the subject in its true light? A man of true taste sees the subject without disguise: but if he hesitate, let him apply the test of ridicule, which separates it from its artificial connections, and exposes it naked with all its native improprieties.
But it is urged, that the gravest and most serious matters may be set in a ridiculous light. Hardly so; for where an object is neither risible nor improper, it lies not open in any quarter to an attack from ridicule. But supposing the fact, I foresee not any harmful consequence. By the same sort of reasoning, a talent for wit ought to be condemned, because it may be employ’d to burlesque a great or lofty subject. Such irregular use made of a talent for wit or ridicule, cannot long impose upon mankind: it cannot stand the test of correct and delicate taste; and truth will at last prevail even with the vulgar. To condemn a talent for ridicule because it may be perverted to wrong purposes, is not a little ridiculous: could one forbear to smile, if a talent for reasoning were condemned because it also may be perverted? and yet the conclusion in the latter case, would be not less just than in the former: perhaps more just; for no talent is more frequently perverted than that of reason.<380>
We had best leave nature to her own operations: the most valuable talents may be abused, and so may that of ridicule: let us bring it under proper culture if we can, without endeavouring to pluck it up by the root. Were we destitute of this test of truth, I know not what might be the consequences: I see not what rule would be left us to prevent splendid trifles passing for matters of importance, show and form for substance, and superstition or enthusiasm for pure religion.<381>
[* ]Poet. cap. 5. [Poetics 1.iv.]
[† ]L.2. De oratore. [De Oratore II.54–71, 83.]
[‡ ]Ideoque anceps ejus rei ratio est, quod a derisu non procul abest risus. Lib. 6. cap. 3. § 1. [VI.3.7: “Consequently, the cause of laughter is uncertain, since laughter is never far removed from derision” (referring to De Oratore II.58.236).]
[§ ]See chap. 7.
[∥ ]See chap. 10.
[¶ ]Scarron. [Paul Scarron (1610–60), La Vergile travesty en vers burlesque (1648–53): French poet and dramatist, first husband of Mme de Maintenon (who married Louis XIV in 1685). His burlesque poems and other works were frequently translated into English from the 1690s.]
[* ]Tassoni. [Alessandro Tassoni (1565–1635), La Secchia rapita, 1624.]
[1. ]Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, 1712.
[* ]No. 102.
[2. ]Concerning Humour in Comedy, 1695.
[3. ]Jean de la Fontaine (1621–95): French poet and satirist; his Fables appeared between 1668 and 1694. Jonathan Swift (1667–1745): cousin of Dryden, dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin, satirist, and author of numerous political works relating to Ireland and to church affairs.
[4. ]John Arbuthnot (1667–1735): physician to Queen Anne, author and pamphleteer, and friend of Swift. His History of John Bull appeared in 1712.
[5. ]“He never says ‘I give you good day,’ but always ‘Allow me to bid you good day.’” Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, otherwise known as Molière (1622–73): French comic dramatist, who satirized contemporary society.
[6. ]Act 3, sc. 7; act 3, sc. 2.
[7. ]Jonathan Swift: A Tale of a Tub, 1704.
[8. ] [Mascarille]
(“Half-moon” is a form of military fortification; a “full moon,” if not regarded as impossible, would be a tower, and defeat the object of the defensive design.)
[9. ]Act 5, sc. 5.
[10. ]Act 1, sc. 4.
[11. ]Samuel Butler (1612–80): poet and satirist, who received a stipend and pension from Charles II. Hudibras, 1663, 1664, 1678.
[* ]Tale of a Tub, sect. 7.
[† ]A true and faithful narrative of what passed in London during the general consternation of all ranks and degrees of mankind. [John Arbuthnot.]
[* ]Aen. 1. 1. At Venus obscuro, &c.
[* ]See chap. 10. compared with chap. 7.