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THE ENGLISH HUMOURISTS
of the EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
N treating of the English humourists of the past
age, it is of the men and of their lives, rather than
of their books, that I ask permission to speak to you; and in doing so, you are aware that I cannot hope to entertain you with a merely humourous or facetious story. Harlequin without his mask is known to present a very sober countenance, and was himself, the story goes, the melancholy patient whom the Doctor advised to go and see Harlequin a man full of cares and perplexities like the rest of us, whose Self must always be serious to him, under whatever mask or disguise or uniform he presents it to the public. And as all of you here must needs be grave when you think of your own past and present, you will not look to find, in the histories of those whose lives and feelings I am going to try and describe to you, a story that is otherwise than serious, and often very sad. If Humour only meant laughter, you would scarcely feel more interest about humourous writers than about the private life of poor Harlequin just mentioned, who possesses in common with these the power of making you laugh. But the
1 The anecdote is frequently told of our performer Rich.
men regarding whose lives and stories your kind presence here shows that you have curiosity and sympathy, appeal to a great number of our other faculties, besides our mere sense of ridicule. The humourous writer professes to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness - your scorn for untruth, pretension, , imposture -- your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the unhappy. To the best of his means and ability he comments on all the ordinary actions and passions of life almost. He takes upon himself to be the week-day preacher, so to speak. Accordingly, as he finds, and speaks, and feels the truth best, we regard him, esteem him — sometimes love him. And, as his business is to mark other people's lives and peculiarities, we moralise upon his life when he is gone and yesterday's preacher becomes the text for to-day's sermon.
Of English parents, and of a good English family of clergymen, Swift was born in Dublin in 1667, seven months after the death of his father, who had come to
1 He was from a younger branch of the Swifts of Yorkshire. His grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Swift, vicar of Goodrich, in Herefordshire, suffered for his loyalty in Charles I.'s time. That gentleman married Elizabeth Dryden, a member of the family of the poet. Sir Walter Scott gives, with his characteristic minuteness in such points, the exact relationship between these famous men. Swift was “the son of Dryden's second cousin.” Swift, too, was the enemy of Dryden's reputation. Witness the “Battle of the Books :" -“The difference was greatest among the horse,” says he of the moderns, “where every private trooper pretended to the command, from Tasso and Milton to Dryden and Withers.” And in “Poetry, a Rhapsody,” he advises the poetaster to
" Read all the Prefaces of Dryden,
To raise the volume's price a shilling." “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet,” was the phrase of Dryden to his kinsman, which remained alive in a memory tenacious of such matters.