In the Archives: William Hazlitt, “On Wit and Humour” (1818)

Tracy Wuster

William Hazlitt wit and HumourFor this month’s installment of “In the Archives,” we are featuring “On Wit and Humour,” the printed version of a lecture by William Hazlitt, the influential essayist and critic of the nineteenth century.  Hazlitt’s essay was often cited in discussions of humor throughout the century by English and American scholars and humorists.

I have excerpted a few selections below.  For the whole essay, please see the version at the site of Maarten Maartensz, a Dutch philosopher and psychologist, who prepared a corrected version of the text.  His critiques of GoogleBooks and their preparations of texts raises relevant questions about the preparation and use of digital archives.

The first two paragraphs of the essay seem especially important:

On Wit and Humour.

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the
only animal that is struck with the difference between what
things are, and what they ought to be. We weep at what
thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters: we laugh at
what only disappoints our expectations in trifles. We shed tears
from sympathy with real and necessary distress; as we burst
into laughter from want of sympathy with that which is unrea-
sonable and unnecessary, the absurdity of which provokes our
spleen or mirth, rather than any serious reflections on it.

To explain the nature of laughter and tears, is to account for
the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded
of these two! It is a tragedy or a comedy — sad or merry, as it
happens. The crimes and misfortunes that are inseparable from
it, shock and wound the mind when they once seize upon it,
and when the pressure can no longer be borne, seek relief in
tears : the follies and absurdities that men commit, or the odd
accidents that befal them, afford us amusement from the very
rejection of these false claims upon our sympathy, and end in
laughter. If everything that went wrong, if every vanity or

– 2 –

weakness in another gave us a sensible pang, it would be hard
indeed : but as long as the disagreeableness of the consequences
of a sudden disaster is kept out of sight by the immediate oddity
of the circumstances, and the absurdity or unaccountableness
of a foolish action is the most striking thing in it, the ludicrous
prevails over the pathetic, and we receive pleasure instead of
pain from the farce of life which is played before us, and which
discomposes our gravity as often as it fails to move our anger or
our pity !

Hazlitt’s work seems to be especially influential in the popularity during the nineteenth century of the incongruity theory of humor.  In Humor, Simon Critchley traces the theory to Frances Hutcheson’s Reflections Upon Laughter, and Remarks Upon the Fable of the Bees. by Francis Hutcheson, … Carefully Corrected from 1750.  Consider this section from the essay:

To understand or define the ludicrous, we must first know
what the serious is. Now the serious is the habitual stress
which the mind lays upon the expectation of a given order of
events, following one another with a certain regularity and
weight of interest attached to them. When this stress is in-
creased beyond its usual pitch of intensity, so as to overstrain
the feelings by the violent opposition of good to bad, or of ob-
jects to our desires, it becomes the pathetic or tragical. The
ludicrous, or comic, is the unexpected loosening or relaxing this
stress below its usual pitch of intensity, by such an abrupt trans-
position of the order of our ideas, as taking the mind unawares,
throws it off its guard, startles it into a lively sense of pleasure,
and leaves no time nor inclination for painful reflections.

The essence of the laughable then is the incongruous, the
disconnecting one idea from another, or the jostling of one feel-
ing against another. The first and most obvious cause of laugh-
ter is to be found in the simple succession of events, as in the
sadden shifting of a disguise, or some unlooked-for accident,
without any absurdity of character or situation. The accidental
contradiction between our expectations and the event can hardly
be said, however, to amount to the ludicrous ; it is merely laugh-
able. The ludicrous is where there is the same contradiction
between the object and our expectations, heightened by some
deformity or inconvenience, that is, by its being contrary to
what is customary or desirable; as the ridiculous, which is the
highest degree of the laughable, is that which is contrary not
only to custom but to sense and reason, or is a voluntary depar-
ture from what we have a right to expect from those who are
conscious of absurdity and propriety in words, looks, and actions.

In the remainder of the essay, Hazlitt discusses the a series of common topics for essays on humor in the nineteenth century: the causes of laughter, the cases of Don Quixote and “Arabian Nights,” and the sources of comic humor–misunderstandings and the pursuit of pleasure:

Half the business and gaiety of comedy turns upon
this. Most of the adventures, difficulties, demurs, hair-breadth
‘scapes, disguises, deceptions, blunders, disappointments, successes,
excuses, all the dextrous manoeuvres, artful innuendoes, assigna-
tions, billets-doux, double entendres, sly allusions, and elegant
flattery, have an eye to this—to the obtaining of those “favours
secret, sweet, and precious,” in which love and pleasure consist,
and which when attained, and the equivoque is at an end, the
curtain drops, and the play is over.

That’s a hell of a sentence.  And a good point.  Referring to its title, the essay then goes on to discuss the difference between wit and humor, a key distinction of nineteenth century humor theory:

Humour is the describing the ludicrous as it is in itself; wit
is the exposing it, by comparing or contrasting it with something
else. Humour is, as it were, the growth of nature and acci-
dent; wit is the product of art and fancy. Humour, as it is
shown in books, is an imitation of the natural or acquired ab-
surdities of mankind, or of the ludicrous in accident, situation,
and character; wit is the illustrating and heightening the sense
of that absurdity by some sudden and unexpected likeness or op-
position of one thing to another, which sets off the quality we
laugh at or despise in a still more contemptible or striking point
of view.

But the essay gets interesting in its discussion of wit as a form of intentional ridicule that “fastens on the vulnerable points of a cause” and exposes the flaws of an argument.

Ridicule is necessarily built on
certain supposed facts, whether true or false, and on their incon-
sistency with certain acknowledged maxims, whether right or
wrong. It is, therefore, a fair test, if not a philosophical or
abstract truth, at least of what is truth according to public
opinion and common sense; for it can only expose to instanta-
neous contempt that which is condemned by public opinion,
and is hostile to the common sense of mankind. Or, to put it
differently, it is the test of the quantity of truth that there is in
our favourite prejudices. To show how nearly allied wit is
thought to be to truth, it is not unusual to say of any person—
“Such a one is a man of sense, for though he said nothing, he
laughed in the right place.”

And then later:

Wit is, in fact, a voluntary act of the mind, or
exercise of the invention, showing the absurd and ludicrous
consciously, whether in ourselves or another.

In addition to the distinction between wit and humor, with more attention to wit, Hazlitt warns of some of the dangers of both–again a common theme in discussions of humor:

Wit and humour (comparatively speaking, or taking the ex-
tremes to judge of the gradations by) appeal to our indolence,
our vanity, our weakness, and insensibility; serious and impas-
sioned poetry appeals to our strength, our magnanimity, our vir-
tue, and humanity. Anything is sufficient to heap contempt
upon an object; even the bare suggestion of a mischievous allu-
sion to what is improper, dissolves the whole charm, and puts
an end to our admiration of the sublime or beautiful.

Thankfully, the most serious poems are the ones made better by parody, which points to the essential strength and value of the original.  As with many, many essays on the subject of humor, this one might seem to drag on, and many examples have lost their impact with the passing of time and knowledge of their contexts.  Still, Hazlitt leaves off with one interesting discussing of the danger of laughing too much or too easily, which I think has merit:

I will only add, by way of general caution, that there is noth-
ing more ridiculous than laughter without a cause, nor anything
more troublesome than what are called laughing people. A
professed laugher is as contemptible and tiresome a character as
a professed wit: the one is always contriving something to laugh
at, the other is always laughing at nothing. An excess of levity
is as impertinent as an excess of gravity.

Thank you to Mr. Maartensz for the accessible version of the essay.  It is well worth perusing.

*But the essay was not really done with that last point, which came after a long paragraph that began “I shall conclude this imperfect and desultory sketch of wit and humor with…” a very long quote about how humor is so varied and versatile  that it is hard to define, an example of what I have called elsewhere the “definitional denial.”  So, after that paragraph and the fairly lengthy discussion of laughing too much, Hazlitt then goes on for four paragraphs on individual humorists he had not yet discussed, including something of his own Mount Rushmore (to continue ABE’s conceit from his post last week) of non-English humorists:

The four chief names for comic humour out of our own lan-
guage are Aristophanes and Lucian among the ancients, Molière
and Rabelais among the moderns.

by Simon Critchley
Lectures on the English Poets
by Hazlitt William Hazlitt
Literary Wit
by Bruce Michelson

7 responses

  1. Kudos to ‘Humor In America’ for featuring Hazlitt, whose journalism serves anyone interested in early 19th-century British life delightfully well. Any American of Hazlitt’s day, who thought himself well-read, followed Hazlitt in print as much as was possible.

  2. […] In the Archives: William Hazlitt, “On Wit and Humour” (1818) […]

  3. […] time I posted “In the Archives,” I posted William Hazlitt’s “On Wit and Humour” (1818).  In her 1893 book, Essays in Idlesness, the critic Agnes Repplier takes up many of the […]

  4. […] Byron,”–says William Hazlitt, in a very agreeable and suggestive volume of ‘Sketches and Essays,’ now first […]

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