Ridicule of both kinds is ordinarily considered far more easy to illustrate than to define. The difficulty of the definition arises from the uncertain and irregular quality of the thing to be described.
Wit, indeed, from its very nature is exempt from requiring any express example to illustrate what is meant by it, as if genuine it is quite certain always to be perceived at once ; and, indeed, its being so perceived is the best test of its genuineness; without this it is fireless and lifeless. Grandeur, beauty, and in some cases even pathos, on the other hand, may not be seen until pointed out. They ordinarily, indeed, lie hid and placid, like the lakes among the mountains, and are only discovered by the wandering explorer after the picturesque. Wit, on the other hand, is like the lightning which flashes through the heavens, accompanied by the terrific roll of thunder, so that it is impossible not to be aware of its presence, or to mistake it for anything else.
As a general proposition, it may be laid down that whatever composition, either in painting, poetry, sculpture, eloquence, acting, or in any other of the arts, tends directly to promote mirth, whether intentionally or not, affords an illustration of the ridiculous.
The works of Hogarth serve as the fairest examples of wit of both kinds in the art of painting; to which may be added the numerous efforts of our clever and sprightly caricaturists, whatever may be the object or the subject of their satire, and whether wit or humour be the sentiment excited.
Rembrandt is occasionally humorous, sometimes intentionally, as may be seen in several of his etchings ; and in certain cases without design, which happens whenever he descends from the sublime or the pathetic,the path is but short,to the ridiculous. In some of Holbein’s compositions there is also rich humour, particularly in his illustrations to Erasmus’s ` Stultitiae Laits.
Sculpture is in no respect inadapted for the representation of the ridiculous, except that its material is too costly to be employed in trivial subjects. This art consequently affords fewer instances of the satirical or the comic than does painting, which is probably mainly owing to the expensive nature of the material not admitting of works of a light or trifling nature being executed in marble. There are, nevertheless, some efficient examples of the ridiculous in sculptural representation, of which the famous statue by Praxiteles of the `Dancing Fawn’ may serve as an illustration ; the appearance of this figure at once irresistibly exciting in the mind those vivid emotions of mirth, and other feelings allied to that sentiment, which productions in this style, by whatever of the arts, are directly calculated to call forth.
In the case of sculpture, however, it will probably be found that most of the instances of the grotesque which may be seen here, arise from an unintentional degeneracy of the sublime into the ludicrous, and which generally occurs in subjects of a grave or serious character. Wit, however, should never be unwonted, but should always rise at the spontaneous will of the person originating it.
The numerous instances of wit in poetry, preclude the necessity of referring to it for examples. Every reader of Shakspeare, which includes indeed every reader of anything, is familiar with them. Horace and Hudibras may also be cited as each containing a mine of illustration here. Perhaps, how-ever, the most complete and most efficient exhibition of wit, more especially as regards the elements which compose it, and their conjunctive co-operation, is afforded not by any particular quotation of a sentence from Shakspeare, but by an entire piece ; as for instance, the conversation between Hotspur and Falstaff in the fifth act of Henry IV. So also in comic scenes, it is not so much an individual action that constitutes the ridiculous, as the combination of them, and their relation one to the other.
Milton sometimes descends to the grotesque, and that in the midst of his sublimest descriptions; as, for instance, in his ac-count of the war in heaven and the defeat of the rebel angels.* And even in the sacred Scriptures, an exquisite vein of satire is exhibited by Elijah, in his appeal to the priests of Baal to awaken their false gods, and to rouse them to the performance of their duty towards their deluded worshippers. Moreover, in some of Christ’s denunciations of the inconsistencies of the Scribes and Pharisees, considerable satirical power is put forth.
Eloquence is obviously adapted for efforts of this nature, and indeed prose compositions must necessarily be equally qualified for this purpose with poetry.
The examples of productions of this kind are too numerous and too familiar to all to require quotation here.
Architecture, like sculpture, is chiefly employed in designs of a grave and important character, and is on that account but little resorted to for the purpose of exciting comic ideas, for which however it may be fully adapted. Buildings, especially those of a publie nature, which from their magnitude and their pretensions lay claim to grandeur and dignity, when their style of construction is such that, from a disregard of all the principles of architecture and of taste, they present only an unsightly and incongruous pile, disfiguring instead of adorning the landscape, might be adduced to prove that the ridiculous is to a large extent attainable in architecture as well as in the other arts.
In dramatic acting comedy is far more capable of perfect attainment, than is tragedy. For one great and eminent tragic performer, we have probably fifty as good actors of comedy. Humour is much easier to counterfeit than deep feeling, as are sallies of mirth than bursts of passion.
In costume, the representation of the ridiculous is generally effected in aid of some comic scene or pageant; the ordinary dress being exchanged for certain fantastic robes of great variety and incongruity, which are directly opposite in character both to each other, and to the ordinary style of the costume in use.
Gardening is, however, seldom if ever intentionally resorted to to produce comic scenes; although like sculpture and architecture, from the eccentric whim of the disposer of it, it may, and perhaps not unfrequently does, unwontedly degenerate into the ridiculous. Some of the older designs in this art, where studied uniformity is made to disfigure and distort every natural object, and the trees are cut into fantastic forms, both of men and animals, are extensively and directly calculated to excite the most vivid emotions of mirth, and may consequently be fairly appealed to as illustrations of this sentiment in the art of gardening.
In music the ridiculous is easily and directly attainable, and this art is highly successful in exciting ideas of a light and mirthful character. Such are the tunes composed for songs of this description, giving full force and effect to their meaning; as also those adapted to certain dances.