Humour And Analysis
( Originally Published 1912 )
AS a writer on any subject is apt to have a partial mind, I desire to clear myself at once from all prejudice by offering to my judicial readers the assurance of my profound conviction that a sense of humour is a hindrance to practical success in life, but of course they will notice the qualified form of my statement. To have an eye for the recurring comedy of things, so that no absurdity of speech or incident escapes, is a joy to the individual, sustaining him wonderfully amid the labours and stupidities of life, and very likely it is also a joy to his friends, who have learned from him to use the wholesome medicine of laughter. But if you come to one's daily calling and make the two exceptions of literature and caricature in Art, who has not suffered through the affliction of humour? If the humorist, and I am not now speaking of a merely jocose person, but of one who has a real palate for comedy, happens to be a clergyman, then he runs the greatest risk in his association with good people, for with a few exceptions, which are only tolerated and apologised for, this class will say things in all seriousness which such a man will not be able to resist, and one brief break-down may ruin his character for life. He will be afraid to at-tend a religious meeting, lest some worthy speaker, having raised his audience to the highest pitch of pious expectation, should topple over into an anti-climax; and funerals will be to him a double trial, because comedy lies so near to tragedy. It gets upon this poor man's nerves when a neighbour whom he has seen coming along the street, round-faced and chirpy, enters the room with an expression of dolorous woe, shakes hands with the undertaker instead of the chief mourner, and is heard to remark with much unction and a sigh which stirs the atmosphere, " There today and here tomorrow, much missed." One unhappy clergyman still blushes with shame as he recalls an incident of his early days when, in a northern city, he was sent to take a funeral service in the kitchen of a workingman's house. They sat round him, eight Scots artisans, each in his Sunday blacks, with his pipe projecting from his waistcoat pocket, and his hat below his chair, looking with awful, immovable countenance into the eternities. It seemed irreverent to speak to any one of the graven images, but the poor minister required to know something about the man who had died, and so he ventured to ask the figure next him in a whisper what the deceased had been? Whereupon the figure answered with a loud, clear voice, " I dinna ken myself, for I jest came here wi' a friend," and then, addressing a still more awful figure opposite, and in a still more aggressive tone, " Jeems, what was the corpse to a trade? " After which the trembling minister wished he had left the mat-ter alone.
Will a medical man be acceptable to that large class of patients who love to speak of their ailments and have nothing wrong with them, if they discover that he is laughing at them, and especially if he allows himself the relief of sarcasm? Is it not better for his income, if not for his science, that he should be able to listen with a murmur of sympathy to old ladies of both sexes describing their symptoms, and prescribe the most harmless of mixtures with an owl-like countenance, beseeching them not to lose heart, even in such desperate circumstances, and departing with the assurance that he is at their service night and day, and must be sent for instantly if the coloured water gives no relief? They say two Roman Augurs could not look at one another without laughing, but how much more ought to be pitied the consultant and the general practitioner who meet over the case of a hypochondriac?
I challenge any one to mention a politician of our time who, on the whole, has not lost, rather than gained, through humour; and I fancy no man should be more afraid of this tricky gift than a leader of the democracy. Had Mr. Gladstone possessed the faintest sense of the ridiculous amid the multitude of his rich and brilliant talents, he had not been able to address a crowd from the window of his railway carriage, and receive a gift of a plaid, or a walking-stick, or, if my memory does not fail me, a case of marmalade, until his outraged fellow-passengers, anxious to make connections, insisted the train should go on, and it departed to the accompaniment of the statesman's eloquent peroration. But it was just because Mr. Gladstone could do such things, and was always in the most deadly
HUMOUR: AN ANALYSIS 49
earnest, that the people trusted him and hung upon his words. Nothing was so dangerous a snare to Lord Beaconsfield as his abounding and delightful humour, for it lodged in the minds of the English people a suspicion which never departed, that that brilliant man, who had been so farseeing in his ideas and anticipations of the trend of events, was little else than a charlatan and a scorner; and I fancy that Lord Salisbury's most devoted followers would have been glad if some of his mordant jests had never passed beyond his study. Is there not another most accomplished and attractive personality in politics who has forfeited the chance of supreme authority, partly no doubt by a pronounced individualism, but partly also by a graceful lightness of touch and allusion which are not judged consistent with that fierce sincerity which has been the strength of his party? Toleration is never without a flavour of humour, but humour is an absolute disability to fanaticism. With this genial sense of humanity no man can be a fanatic, and in a recent book on French crime it is frequently mentioned that the principal miscreants were intense persons with no humour, so that in this branch of life, quite as much as in politics, the humorous person is severely handicapped. One feels as if his money and his life were safe in the hands of a person who can enjoy an honest jest, but this may only prove that the per-son is lacking in that determination and enterprise which are conditions of practical success in a strenuous modern community.
So far as a layman in such affairs can judge, humour is alien to the business mind, and would forfeit any character for stability. The looker-on, who, of course, may be a very foolish person, is amazed at the substantial success of dull men and the respect in which they are held, and he is equally amazed at the suspicion with which bright men, whose conversation sparkles and enlivens, are regarded and the slight esteem in which they are held. The former may be wooden to the last point of exasperation, but his neighbours pronounce him to be solid, and thrust him into director-ships, chairmanships, the magistracy and Parliament, and after a long course of solidity and success, with increasing woodenness, he will likely reach the House of Lords. But the other man, with whom you spent so pleas-ant an evening, and who is as much at home among books as " a stable-boy among horses," is apt to be judged light metal — a person who may know his Shakespeare, but could not be trusted with things of value like money. There are times when one loses heart and al-most concludes that the condition of tangible success in English life is to be well-built, giving a pledge to fortune in a moderate stoutness, to have a solemn expression of face, suggesting the possession of more wisdom than is likely to have been given to any single person, to be able to hold one's tongue till some in-cautious talker has afforded an idea, and to have the gift of oracular commonplace. If to such rare talents can be added an impressive clearance of the throat, there are few positions in Church or State, short of the highest, to which their owner may not climb. My advice, therefore, to younger men, if indeed I am expected to give advice to anybody, is to congratulate themselves that by the will of Providence they have been cleansed from this dangerous quality, or, if this be not their fortunate case, to hide the possession of humour behind a mask of sustained impenetrable common sense.
Having made this explanation, to protect both my subject and myself, I come to the analysis of humour and would remind you of its immense variety. It was, I think, George Eliot who said that nothing was a more serious cause of diversion than incompatibility in humour, and this observation may also remind us that we ought to be most catholic in our judgment of humour. It is fair to argue that the complexion of humour in different countries can be referred, like many other things, to the climate, and it were unfair to expect the same quality from a Scot, brought up under the grey skies and keen east wind and austere buildings of Edinburgh, as from a Frenchman, nurtured amid the brightness and gaiety of Paris, where the spirit of France is at its keenest if not its strongest. If one desired to pluck the finest flower of humour the rare and delicate orchid of this garden I mean wit, he must go to France and French letters. In the French novelists and journalists, but especially in the essayists, whether he desire its more caustic form in Pascal, or prefer it lighter and more cynical in Rochefoucauld, one learns how swift and subtle, how finished and penetrating is the spirit of wit. Matthew Arnold, perhaps through his devotion to French literature, and Mr. Birrell through his native genius, proved that wit has not been unknown in the English essays, that fine form of literature whose decay always means the decay of culture; and Charles Lamb was often so happy in his wit (it came more nearly sometimes to the English fun), and knew how dangerous it was to have a humorous reputation, that he used to say, " Hush! look solemn. A fool is coming."
But it may be frankly admitted that wit is not acclimatised in England, and that its flavour is not often tasted in English literature; for instance, the following conversation would hardly have been possible in London. Two men were driving along a Boulevard of Paris in an open carriage: one, the host, a successful and sensible person, and the other light and clever; and the conversation of the millionaire grew so ponderous that the other could endure it no longer. He laid his hand upon his host's arm and with the other pointed to a man standing under a tree and just within the furthest range of human vision. The man was yawning, not with the restraint of polite society, but with the open enjoyment of our canine friends. " Look!" said the bright man, in his despair, " and I pray you silence. We are already overheard." This seems to my poor judgment so perfect an instance of wit that I do not supplement it from literature, though I do not offer it for indiscriminate use. It is indeed a story which divides the sheep from the goats, and you must take care to whom you tell it. Once, in magnifying the esprit of the French, I offered this to a lady at dinner as an illustration, and she promptly replied, " If that be all you can say for French wit, I do not see much in it." I was desolated not to have had the approval of her taste, and ventured to ask wherein my poor story had failed. " Well, for one thing," this excellent lady, full of common sense and good works, replied, " How could the man hear at that distance?" Then, as Matthew Arnold said about Benjamin Franklin, one knew the limits of triumphant common sense, and as I had been taught in the days of long ago never to put any lady to confusion, it only remained to confess that I had never thought of that, and to thank her for her correction. But I was fully aware that she would only be the more firmly convinced that the French people and myself were condemned in one abyss of stupidity.
If, however, wit be one of the few unconsidered trifles which the English people have not picked up in their world mission of civilisation, we may congratulate ourselves upon the loss, for no humour is more futile and more dangerous for practical purposes. Wit is the inhabitant of clubs and literary salons; it is the child of cloistered culture, not of the stirring market-place. Pity the candidate for public suffrages who should employ this tricky weapon. Suppose he give his best point the keen edge of wit, it will doubtless touch a handful in the crowd, and they will flash back a quick response to him, but the other ninety-nine per cent. who have felt nothing will conclude there is a conspiracy between him and a few superior people to insult them and shut them out, and they will regard the speaker with silent resentment, as one who has spoken in cypher to a few. You need not expect any man's vote or any man's favour if you have innocently suggested that he is a fool and beneath your notice. And I dare to say that nothing is more unpopular, as nothing is more undemocratic, than wit, which is the aristocracy of humour. The most democratic form of humour, and by that I mean the form which affects the largest number of people in the shortest space of time and carries them the farthest distance, is the characteristic humour of England which we call by the old-fashioned name of fun. Fun has no marked intellectual quality, and makes no demand upon the hearer save that he be not cynical or misanthropical. It is a sense of the obvious comedy of life, its glaring contrasts, its patent absurdities, its ridiculous mistakes, its mirth-provoking situations. It is the humour of the public schools, of the railway carriage, of the market-place, and of the playroom. It is like the air-bells which dance upon the surface of the water and relieve the blackness beneath. With a touch of fun a speaker can win his audience to his side, a master can sweeten his relations with his workmen, a clever person who could make good fun might even stop a riot; and where there is fun a father and his sons are bound to get on together. Fun has lent a certain geniality and jolliness to English life, and it has saved public life from that rancorous bitterness which, as Mr. Bodley points out in his admirable France, disfigures French politics. Had there been more honest and wholesome fun in the North, Scottish life, both in the home and in the Church, would not have been so grave and controversial. This popular humour in its play on words has its best exponents in Sydney Smith and Tom Hood. When one recalls how Smith told the little girl that she might as well pat the roof of St. Paul's Cathedral in order to please the Dean and Chapter as stroke the shell of a tortoise in order to please it, and how Hood was given a wine-glass of ink instead of his black draught, and promptly offered to swallow a piece of blotting-paper as an antidote, one is simply selecting at random from the bag two specimens of good English fooling. The Pickwick Papers afford a very carnival of rollicking humour in incident, and with their plea for charity have done more than a multitude of sermons to cheer and sweeten English life. Whatever may be said by superior persons who always apologise for laughing, it is a good thing that the people should be moved from time to time to pure and kindly laughter, and when a mob laughs after the English fashion the police may be withdrawn, and when a nation takes to laughing at folly, then folly, whether intellectual or moral, has lost half its danger. In Art one has pleasure in citing our admirable Punch, which through a long career has sustained an honourable tradition of purity and dignity, and I dare to say we ought to be thankful for the service our caricaturists have rendered to the amenities both of public and private life. Our English humour may be simple, as a Frenchman or an American allows himself to suggest, but it has its own advantage. If one compares Punch with the daring illustrated papers of Paris, he will have a fresh appreciation of purity, and be thankful that what we laugh at in England can be laid upon our family table. And if he compares Mr. Punch with the exceedingly clever caricaturists of America, he will have a new idea of English good-nature, and be thankful for artists who still believe in the romance of marriage and the beauty of simple emotions. No one, for instance, can examine the work of Dana Gibson, the American " black and white " artist, without being impressed both by its intellectual subtlety and by its artistic finish. But he must also be depressed by the constant suggestion of the weakness, the sordidness, the hypocrisy, and the hopelessness of human society. French and American caricatures tend to lower one's temperature, but English caricature in its master hands tends to raise one's heart, and to inspire one with faith in his fellow-creatures. English humour may prick delusions, but it spares us our dreams; it may play round a wilful peculiarity, it never jeers at an irreparable calamity; it may exhibit the foibles of humanity, it has a tear ready for its sorrows. It is the humour of a people which has not yet lost faith in God and man, which is not yet convinced that the law of life is a nervous scramble for gold; it is a humour which can give a hard blow, but always with the fist and never with a stiletto, and forgets he fight the moment it is over. Long may it flourish in English life and English homes, a check on absurdity of every kind, a cure for melancholy, an incentive to humanity.
The Duke of Wellington was a good John Bull in all his ways, and had his hours when he enjoyed a bit of fun and found it not unuseful. Louis Philippe introduced one of the Marshals of the Peninsular War to our Iron Duke. They had met before but not in Courts, and the Marshal, with a keen recollection of his experiences at the hands of the Duke, forgot the perfect manners of his people and his own generosity. He refused, it is said, to shake hands with his former opponent, and even allowed himself to turn his back and to walk towards the door. The King apologised profusely to the Duke for the Marshal's discourtesy, but the Duke only laughed with a big, hearty English laugh, and, looking at the - Marshal's retreating figure with keen delight, said to His Majesty, " Forgive him, Sire. I taught him that lesson! "
When one passes from England to Ireland, he finds himself in a country which has bred a humour of its own — a -plant which cannot be grown in any other soil, and whose very origin cannot be traced. Nothing can be found on the face of the earth so captivating and irresistible, so unexpected and unreason-able, as Irish drollery. It seems as if Nature, in creating that charming people, had invested them with all kinds of bewitching qualities, and then had been pleased, by way of a merry jest and that the world might not grow too solemn, to have inverted the Irish intellect so that it stands upon its head and not upon its feet, which, of course, is the cause of bulls and all the other quips and cranks of the Irish spirit. If any one is still young enough to stand upon his head in his familiar room, he will get a view of the place perfectly novel and surprising, different from anything he could have seen when standing on his feet, and the account he will give of that room will startle every person by its originality. In like fashion it has been given to the Irish mind to have an outlook on life absolutely its own, to go into Wonderland with Alice, and to live in a topsy-turvy world where in truth, to quote an older classic, " the dish runs off with the spoon, and the cow jumps over the moon." If the just and honourable, but perhaps also over-sensible and somewhat phlegmatic persons, who have in recent times had charge of Irish affairs, and have been trying to unravel the tangled skein, had appreciated the tricky sprite which inhabits the Irish mind, and had made a little more allowance for people who are not moved by argument and the multiplication table, but are touched by sentiment and romance as well as vastly tickled by the absurdity of things, they might have achieved greater success, and done more good to a chivalrous, unworldly, quick-witted, and warm-hearted people.
Lever, beloved by schoolboys in past days and by many other people, admirably represents in fiction this gay, incalculable, irresponsible humour (who has not rejoiced in Micky Free?), and he is also supported by many a short story teller, such as the author of Father Tom and the Pope, which appeared in Maga in the days when the Blackwood circle was the admiration of the land. Some pessimists fear that the excessive devotion of the Irish people to politics in recent days, who are as delightfully illogical there as in other departments, has had a depressing effect upon their minds, and that we need no longer expect the springs of Irish humour to make green the wilderness. But this is taking too dark a view of affairs. The Irish priest and the Irish resident magistrate, and sometimes even the tourist in Ireland, is still refreshed from time to time, and goes on his way rejoicing. It is not so long ago that an Irish peasant dreamt he was visiting the late Queen Victoria, and was asked by the Queen what he would like to drink. When he expressed the humble wish for a glass of the liquor associated with the name of Jamieson, and when the Queen, still full of hospitality, wanted to know whether he would take it hot or cold, he was foolish enough to prefer it hot. As the kettle was not boiling, Her Majesty in the dream hastened to make up the fire with her own hands, while her thirsty and loyal Irish subject waited anxiously. Alas ! when the water came to the boil, the noise of the steam awoke him. " Holy St. Patrick!" he said, with infinite regret, " I'll take it cold next time." So far as I know, the Irishman is still living who was sent by his master with a present of a live hare to a neighbour. The hare escaped and the servant made no effort to pursue it, but that was not for the reason which would have affected a Scotsman, that he could not have caught it, but for another reason which could only have occurred to the Irish mind, but to that mind was absolutely satisfactory : " Ye may run and run and run, ye deludhering baste, but it's no use, for ye haven't got the address."
Various pleasant tales have been going round about that genial Irish Judge who died a few years ago, and whose death diminishes the gaiety of at least one nation, but I have not seen it mentioned how he explained the working of a new Act which lowered the qualification for Grand Jurymen. " I will tell you," he said, in his charming brogue, " what happened at the first Assize I took afterwards. I gave my usual charge to the Grand Jury, and I said, `Gentlemen, you will be pleased to take your accustomed place in the Court,' and I give you my word for it, ten of them went instantly into the dock." Nor am I sure any one has placed on record a play on words which it were an insult to call a " pun," and which crosses the border of the brightest wit. A man was tried for an agrarian murder and witnesses swore that they had seen him commit it, and there was, in fact, no doubt of his guilt; but the jury promptly brought him in "Not Guilty." Whereupon the counsel for the prosecution asked the judge whether such a verdict could be law. " I am not prepared," said the judge, " to call it law, but I am sure it is jurisprudence." And it is only an Irish Member of Parliament who could congratulate an honourable baronet, who had bored the House with an interminable harangue, upon three things. First, " upon speaking so long without stop-ping "; second, " upon speaking so long with-out saying anything "; and thirdly, " upon sitting down on his own hat without his head being in it."
It is natural to cross from Ireland to America, but it is not easy to estimate the humour of our kinsmen, because, although we know what it has been, we are not sure what it is going to be. If environment gives the complexion to thought, then one understands why the American jests should be on a large scale, ranging from Artemus Ward, who did so much to delight us all and died in early manhood, to Mark Twain, who lived to complete a task of the highest honour. But it is a question whether the permanent humour of that bright people, whose brain as much as their atmosphere seems charged with electricity, will not approximate in the end to the Sal Atticum of France, as their women's talk and dresses remind one of Paris. Any one who reads Life, I mean the American Punch, can recall a dozen instances of wit as finished, as caustic and, r regret to say, sometimes as profane as any in French modern letters. It seems as if American humour were between the tides with the old school of the Bigelow Papers and the Innocents Abroad closing its happy career and the new school hardly yet in evidence. American humour at least illustrates one characteristic of this hustling mod-ern time; it is suggestive rather than exhaustive, and never can be anticipated. Our fathers not only endured but welcomed stories the end of which they could see from the beginning; they honoured every intermediate station with a preparatory laugh, and when the train finally entered the terminus fell almost into an apoplexy, and then, when they had recovered, were willing, and almost expected that the train should be taken out and make another entry, or perhaps two, and in every case it would be received with fresh approbation. This obvious jocosity is now in-tolerable; the modern demands brevity and surprise, that stories should, in fact, be constructed with a certain amount of art. The modern indeed believes that while Nature in the shape of an incident belongs to all, its artistic representation in the shape of a picture is copyright, and that if a man has worked on a story without which it is indeed not worth hearing, he ought to be protected in his rights. An old scholar whom I know holds that there are only ten stories, and have only been ten in human history, and that they can all be found as protoplasm in the Greek comedians, and that all the other stories are only evolutions, skilful cross-breedings or adaptations to environment. Nothing, at any rate, is more interesting from a technical point of view than to see how a master in the craft will clothe the barest skeleton of fact with flesh and blood, or how, to vary the situation, he will take an old house that has fallen into disrepair, and, by throwing out a window here and a wing there, by refacing and re-painting and very often, in the case of old stories, attending carefully to the sanitation (which was very bad in some stories of the past), will astonish us with a new house. The Americans are masters in the art of construction, and provided you are not in the secret it would be a very shrewd person who could tell where the story is to land him.
As, for instance, a lawyer is briefed to de-fend a man charged with murder and discovers that his client's case is almost hopeless. Anxious to do his best, however, he interviews a genial Irishman who follows the calling of a professional juryman, and pledges him to be on duty when this case is tried. " And re-member," said the lawyer, " whatever the other jurymen want, you bring in a verdict of manslaughter." Next day the evidence is even worse than could have been imagined, and the jury are so long in coming back the lawyer is afraid that justice has miscarried. But at last they return with the arranged verdict of manslaughter. When the lawyer called in the evening to recompense his ally, he asked him what in the world had kept the jury so long. " I never was shut up with eleven such obstinate men in my life" (a very ancient jest, mark you, introduced merely as a foil) —" I never was shut up with eleven such obstinate men in my life. They were going to bring in the prisoner ' Not Guilty.' "
Before identifying the humour of the Scot, which is a province by itself with a clearly-marked frontier, it must be remembered that there are two distinct races within the nation of Scotland, and that although they have come under the conformity of one land and largely of one creed, yet the Scots Highlander and the Scots Lowlander are quite opposite types; they share neither their virtues nor their vices. The Lowlander, the man of Fifeshire or of Ayrshire, is self-controlled, far-seeing, per-severing, industrious, with a genius for the accumulation of money. He fulfils the conditions of success in the modern world, and like " jingling Geordie " in the Fortunes of Nigel, who was the pioneer of his race in successful emigration, he gathers money wherever he goes, and would make a fortune on a desert island. But our Highlander is impulsive, imaginative, gallant to a fault, and regardless of consequences, pure in life, courteous in manner, chivalrous in ideals. He was at home in the world which is dying, and made the best of raiders and fighting soldiers, as he was the most loyal of clansmen and the child of lost causes, dwelling amid his mountains and by the side of sea lochs in a country of mists and weird, lonely moors, dominated for centuries by a severe and unbending creed. Fun and wit were impossible for him, and yet under his sombre countenance struggled something of the ineradicable humour of the Celt. His humour, so far as it can be defined, is a kind of solemn and long drawn-out waggery which he tastes without a smile, and of which one would suppose that he is sometimes unconscious.
" Who had this place last year?" asked a shooting tenant of his keeper.
" Well," said Donald, " I'm not denying that he wass an Englishman, and he wass a good man, oh yes, and went to kirk and shot fery well. But he wass narrow, fery narrow."
" Narrow," said the tenant in amazement, for the charge was generally the other way about. " What was he narrow, in? "
" Well," said Donald, " I will be telling you, and it wass this way. The twelfth wass a fery good day and we had fifty-two brace, but it wass warm, oh yes, fery warm, and when we came back to the lodge the gentle-man will say to me, ' It iss warm,' and I will not be contradicting him. Then he will be saying, ' You will be thirsty, Donald,' and I will not be contradicting him. Then he will take out his flask and be speaking about a dram, and I will not be contradicting him but will just say, ' Toots, toots.' And then when the glass wass half full I will say, just for politeness, ' Stop,' and he stopped. Oh yes, a fery narrow man!" In fact, as Donald suggested, a mere literalist, held in the bondage of the letter and without the liberty of the spirit.
Another tenant was making arrangements for the coming winter before he went South, and told the keeper to get the woman who had looked after the lodge the previous winter to take charge of it again.
" You will be meaning Janet Cameron, but I am not advising you to have Janet this year. Oh, no! it will maybe be better not to have Janet this winter."
" Why, what was wrong with her?" and then, with that painful suspicion of the Highlander which greatly hurts his feelings, " Did she drink? "
" Janet," replied Donald with severity, "iss not the woman to be tasting. Oh, no ! she iss a good-living woman, Janet, and has the true doctrine, but I will not be saying that you should have her."
" I see. So you and she, I suppose, quarrel? "
" It iss not this man who will be quarrelling with Janet Cameron, who iss his wife's cousin four times removed, and a fery good woman, though she be a Cameron."
" Well, ask her to take the lodge, and offer her the same wages as last year, and a little more, if that will please her, and tell me what she says."
" It iss not for wages Janet Cameron will work; oh, no! that iss not the kind of woman Janet iss, and it iss no use asking her, for she will not come."
"Well," said the Englishman, getting nettled, " do as you are bid and give her the chance, at any rate, and tell me what she says."
" No, sir, it will be wasting my time going, and I will not be asking her." Then, after a pause, " Ye would maybe not be knowin' that Janet iss dead? "
Does any one say with impatience, why did he not tell that at once? If you can answer that question you can lay bare the secret of the Celtic mind, which is the most complex thing in psychology. An Englishman's idea of conversation is a straight line, the shortest distance between two points, but a Celt's idea is a circle, a roundabout way of reaching the same place. He has so long been stalking deer, and other people, that the habit has passed into his mind, and conversation becomes a prolonged stalk in which he is considering the wind and the colour of the hill-sides, and avails himself of every bush, and then comes suddenly upon his prey. His mind is so subtle that he dislikes statements of downright brutality and prefers to suggest rather than assert, and the following is surely a guarded delicacy of suggestion :
" Why, Hamish," said the Laird to a young fellow whom he met on the road, " what are you doing here? Have you left the situation I got for you? "
" It is a great sorrow, sir, to this man, but I could not be staying in that place, and so I have just come back, and maybe I will be getting something else to do."
" Look here, I don't understand this," said the Laird. " Was the work too heavy, or did they not pay you enough wages? Tell me what ailed you at the place."
" I would be ashamed to complain of work, and there was nothing wrong with the wages; but it was just this way, and though I'm making no complaint, maybe you will be under-standing. There was a sheep died on the hill of its own accord, and the master had it salted and we ate that sheep. By-and-by there was a cow died suddenly, and we did not know what was wrong with her, but the master had that cow salted and we ate her. And then the master's mother took ill, and we were feeling very anxious, for we will not be forgetting the sheep and the cow. And the master's mother died, and I left."
Upon the English habit of a straight question and a straight answer in the briefest form of words, you can get no information in the Highlands. If, for instance, you desired to know whether the minister of a parish were a man of high character and good preaching gift, you would have to introduce your inquiry after a long conversation on things in general, and then to mix it up with a multitude of detail, and when the other man had replied the words he used would in themselves be quite useless for quotation, but you would have found out his mind. One of our most distinguished Highland ministers, who under-stood his race through and through, desired to know whether a certain candidate for a parish had approved himself to the people and was likely to be appointed. He called upon one of the religious worthies of the district, being perfectly certain that if he found out his private opinion he would know the position. Duncan knew quite well why the minister had come, and the minister knew that Duncan knew, but they talked on the weather and the crop, and the last heresy case, and the spread of false doctrine in the Lowlands, for half-an-hour. After that they came as it were by accident on the name of the candidate, and Duncan simply covered him with praise. The minister knew that that counted for nothing. A little later the minister said to Dun-can, " I would like to have your mind about that young man "— his mind, you notice, being very different from his speech. Then Duncan delivered himself as follows :
"Yesterday I wass sitting on the bank of the river, and I wass meditating, when a little boy came and began to fish. He wass a pretty boy, and I am judging wass fery well brought up. He talked fery nicely to me, and had the good manners. He had a fery nice little rod in his hand, and he did not fling his line badly. It wass fery pleasant to watch him. But it wass a great peety that he had forgot to put a hook on the end of the line, for I did not notice that he caught many fish, but he wass a fery nice boy, and I liked him fery much. And it iss a great mercy that we are getting good weather for the harvest, for we are not worthy of such goodness, with all our sins and backslidings."
Then the minister knew that that candidate would not get the parish, but Duncan was en-titled to say that he had never mentioned the candidate's name, or said a single word against him.
It may seem, perhaps, that the range of humour in its various kinds is exhausted, and that no distinctive form is left for Scotland; in which case it would be the first time that Scotland has not had her share in the division of spoil. As a matter of fact, there is one humour that has not been touched, which may not be the brightest, nor the subtlest, nor the kindliest, but which is the strongest and most telling of all. It is that humour which came to a height in Old Testament Scripture, when a Hebrew prophet set himself down to the elaborate, merciless, unanswerable mockery of idolatry. When he describes the idolater, re-solving to add a new god to the furniture of his house, and anxious, like an economical man, that this new piece of furniture should be an heirloom to his children, choosing a tree that will not rot, making a contract with a clever artisan in the god-making trades, and then dropping in to see the progress of his work, watching the wood measured off, the workmen resting after their labour on the hard material, the finishing of the thing, and then the inaugural feast when he worships the god that has been made out of a log, and cooks the feast with the shavings which are over, so that one part of the tree gives him his god and the other his dinner. It is a humour which scorches like flaming fire and bites like vitriol. And to this humour the Scot has been heir in modern literature and life. The Satires of Horace and even of Juvenal pale before the unlicensed ridicule of Sir David Lindsay of the Mount before the Reformation, and one cannot mention a history seasoned with such contemptuous mockery as Knox's famous History of the Reformation in Scotland. Burns's Holy Willie and Carlyle's Latter-day Pamphlets show how permanent and how virile is this spirit of hot indignation and sombre sarcasm in the genius of the Scots people.
It has been difficult for a Scot to forgive the good-natured and superficial English humorist who not only denied to the Northern folk any sense of humour, but enshrined his charge in a too memorable surgical illustration ; but the Scot is much comforted with the reflection that if he has not always arisen to the play of simple jocosity or the jingle of a pun, this has only been that he preferred humour of a severer and intellectual kind. The Scots are a serious people, with an admirable gravity of mind and a keen literary con-science, and their nature does not allow them to take humour so lightly and irresponsibly as their Southern neighbours. If a jest calls at an English door, and especially if he be dressed with an obvious simplicity, then it receives a ready welcome, and if the walls of the house be also extremely Southern the people next door will know their neighbour has been amused, and next day the worthy man will be introducing his jest in public conveyances, and even impressing it upon friends with his thumb. It is impossible not to admire this childlike simplicity of nature, this willingness to be amused on easy terms, but it is not the blame of the Scot that his brain is somewhat more complicated and that his demands are more exacting. When a jest calls at a Scot's door, he is inclined to look out at the upper window and to inquire if it be a jest at all; but if he is finally convinced that it is no pre-tender, which may not be for four-and-twenty hours of careful examination, none will give the visitor more hearty welcome. Even then he may not laugh, but may indeed look more serious than before; but surely, if there be a sorrow too deep for tears, there may be a humour too high for laughter, and in the very earnestness of the Scot's face under the enjoyment of a joke you have a proof of the sincerity of his tribute to humour.
If fun be a sense of the delightful comedy of things, irony, the humour of the Scots, is a sense of the underlying tragedy of things, of the contradictions and mysteries of life, which have in them a sad absurdity. It is the sport of the immortals. From this irony he never quite escapes, and his humour therefore can never have the gay abandonment and rollicking exuberance of Southern people, but will always be somewhat austere and restrained, and move in the shadow rather than in the light. The helplessness of men in the hands of Almighty and inscrutable powers is always present to the Scots mind and is a check upon gaiety. If in a thoughtless moment you congratulate a Scots mother upon her child with some freedom of speech, saying, " What a bonnie bairn that is," the anxious mother will instantly reply, " Her face is well enough if her heart was right, but for ony sake be quiet, for there's no sayin' what may happen. I never saw a height without a howe." There is a phrase common on Scots tongues which illuminates the background of the Scots mind, and is not intended to be profane, because it is felt to be true. Any extravagance of speech or any permissible satisfaction with success is called a tempting of providence. The idea is that if we walk humbly and quietly the unseen powers will leave us alone, poor creatures of a day, but if we lift our little heads and make a noise, the inclination to strike us down will be irresistible.
No man comes off so well at a wedding as an Englishman, but none is so ill at ease at a funeral, while a Scotsman has no freedom at a marriage, since he does not know how the matter may end, but he carries himself as to the manner born, with an admirable dignity and gravity, at a funeral. If it be not a paradox to say it, he delights in funerals and counts them one of the luxuries of life, for our piquant sensations may be got from sorrow as readily as from joy. Upon the ceremonies and the regulations of funerals he is an authority, and is both very learned and very sensitive. -
" Peter," says one mourner to his neighbour at the tail of a walking funeral, " div ye see Jamie Thompson walking in the front, side by side wi' the chief mourner, and him no a drop o' blood to the corpse?"
" Fine I see him, a forward, upsettin', ambeetious body; he would be inside the hearse if he could,"— the most awful and therefore most enviable position for a sober-minded Scot.
According, therefore, to the Scots idea, it is more profitable to go to a funeral than to a wedding, and anything that would detract from the chastened satisfaction of such an occasion is deeply resented. And the following conversation between a dying wife and her husband would only be possible in Scotland:
" I've been a guid wife to you, John, a' thae years."
" I'm no denyin', Jean, ye hev'na been a waster. I'll admit ye hae been economical, and verra attentive to the calves and hens."
" Yell no refuse me, then, my last request? "
" I will'na, Jean, if it's reasonable, but will hear it first."
" Well, my mither has taken a terrible notion o' gaein' to the funeral, and I canna get her off it. Noo, John, will ye promise to hev her wi' ye in the first coach? "
" Oh! wooman, ask somethin' else. I canna do that."
" But, John, I'll never ask onything else o' ye. Ye micht pit up wi' her, juist for my sake."
" Weel, Jean, if you put it that way, I suppose I maun agree; but I tell you plainly, ye've spoiled the pleasure of the day for me."
It is recorded in an ancient history that there was once a heresy trial, when men were going to be sentenced unto death for denying the orthodox doctrine of the Mass — well-living men, but, no doubt, heretics. Before sentence was passed one of the prisoners, who had been wearied with many questions, thought that he might in turn ask one of the judges a question. " My Lord Bishop," he said, " how many wives have you? " As his Lordship should not have had one even, it was a very searching question, and his Lordship was not prepared with an answer, nor were the other judges anxious to be questioned on their domestic affairs.
There went up from the crowd, it is told, a " sair lauch," as they thought of the bitter mockery of the situation, that such judges should be condemning harmless men, free-born Scots also, mark you, to death for differing on a mystery no one could understand; at the moral and logical contradiction of it all the spectators sent up their laugh to Heaven. Not the genial, happy laugh of an English crowd tickled by a bit of simple fun from judge or bar, but the fierce raillery of men insulted in reason and outraged in con-science. The men who laughed were not to be trifled with, and their Lordships judged it best to let the prisoners go, that day at least, for when the Scots mob, the most resolute and dangerous to be found anywhere, begins to laugh, it is time for tyrants to hide themselves behind iron doors and the swords of armed men, and even then neither they nor their strongholds might be safe, for this laugh is stronger than steel.
There is therefore no humour so dry and stringent, with such a bite upon the palate, as that of Scotland, and if there be any bit of it more grim than this, I should like to hear it. An unhappy Scot was condemned to death, after a careful trial, for the murder of his wife under circumstances of considerable provocation, and the verdict was no doubt a just one. There is something good, however, in every man if you walk around him long enough to find it, and his counsel was so much interested in his client that he visited him in the condemned cell.
" There is no hope, Robertson, of a reprieve," said the advocate frankly, " and you know you don't deserve it; but if there is any-thing else I can do for you, just tell me."
" Well," said Robertson, " I count it very friendly to give me a cry like this, and if ye could get me one thing, I would feel easier on the occasion " which was a rather felicitous name for the coming function. " Could ye get me ma Sabbath blacks? for I would like to wear them."
" Well," said the advocate, " I daresay I could. But what in the world, Robertson, do you want to wear your Sabbath clothes for on the occasion? "
" I thought maybe you would see that for yourself, sir. Just as a mark of respect for the deceased."
But I should not wish to part with Scots humour in such a sombre atmosphere as that of my last illustration, and the following is lighter, though still touched beneath the surface with the sense of the awfulness of life.
Among all the ministers of the Scots Kirk perhaps the most characteristic of the last generation was Dr. Norman Macleod, the chap-lain of Queen Victoria and the friend of every person in Scotland. Working-men turned to look at him as he went down the street, saying one to another, " There goes Norman. He's looking well the day." And when the people strip off a man's title and call him among themselves by his Christian name, then his place is in the people's heart.
One day the minister of the next parish to that of Dr. Macleod was sent for to see a working-man who was dangerously ill. After he had visited him in his bedroom, he came into the kitchen to have some conversation with the man's wife.
" Your husband is very low. I hope he may be spared. I am afraid it's typhus fever."
" Aye, aye," the wife replied, with mournful pride. " It's no ordinary trouble."
" I didn't know your husband's face, and I didn't want to ask him questions. Do you attend St. Luke's Church? "
" Na, na," with a fine flavour of contempt both for St. Luke's and its minister; " we gang to Norman's."
" Well, that's all right; you couldn't go to a better. But why did you send for me? "
"Losh bless ye, sir! div ye think that we wad risk Norman wi' typhus fever? "
Whether humour be grim or gay, there are certain conditions by which it ought to be bound in the judgment of all right-thinking folk. It must not be profane, tearing down with a clown's hand the veil which hides the holiest of all in human life, and turning life's great mystery into a petty comedy. It must not be unclean, bringing the blush to the cheek of modesty, or offending the taste of self-respecting people. It must not be cruel, putting the simple to confusion or wounding those who, through their disabilities, suffer enough already. It must be used to brighten the day and make us forget the tedium of the journey; to give us a better understanding of life and its infinite varieties; gentle to chasten innocent foolishness and sharply to rebuke wilful evil-doing. Humour must also be kept in its own place and not be allowed to rob life of its seriousness or speech of its dignity; and we may all lay to heart the story with which George Eliot concludes her timely es-say on " Debasing the Moral Currency ":
" The Tirynthians, according to an ancient story reported by Athenaeus, becoming conscious that their trick of laughter at everything and nothing was making them unfit for the conduct of serious affairs, appealed to the Delphic oracle for some means of cure. The god prescribed a peculiar form of sacrifice, which would be effective if they could carry it through without laughing. They did their best, but the flimsy joke of a boy upset their unaccustomed gravity, and in this way the oracle taught them that even the gods could not prescribe a quick cure for a long vitiation, or give power and dignity to a people who, in a crisis of the public well-being, were at the mercy of a poor jest."