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FESTIVALS, GAMES, AND AMUSEMENTS,
ANCIENT AND MODERN.
“Yet in the vulgar this weak humour's bred,
They'll sooner be with idle customs led,
When the adage tells us that a man is to be known by the company he keeps, it is only to affirm that his character is best developed in his amusements; for the society of familiar intercourse is a recreation founded upon congeniality of disposition. Our trades, professions, and serious pursuits are not always matter of choice ; nay, they are often prosecuted from duty or necessity against our own inclinations; and afford, therefore, no certain test of individual predilection. It is in our diversions, where we follow the spontaneous impulse of the mind, that its genuine qualities are revealed. It is here seen, as it were, en deshabille, in which state its real beauties and deformities can be much more accurately determined than when it is tricked out in the appropriate garb of station and profession, or disguised in any of the manifold varieties of conventional observance. Every man is an actor, who, if he wishes to ensure the successful performance of his part upon the great theatre of the world, must practise a certain degree of illusion. To ascertain the truth we must get behind the scenes, into the privacy of the performer's amusements and relaxations—a process by which we shall often discover the verity of the dictum that no man is a hero to his valet-de-chambre; and that exterior gravity, sanctimonious pretension, and even the su perficial qualities of wisdom may be assumed and worn by
triflers, libertines, and simpletons. A man may impose upon his spectators in the public business of life, so much of which is scenic and fictitious; but he cannot deceive either himself or others in his private pursuits. There is no hypocrisy in our pleasures : in these nature will always predominate ; and the relaxation in which we indulge will be generally found proportionate to the previous constraint that has warped us from our proper bias; just as the recoil of the unstrung bow will be commensurate with the tension from which it is released.
No censure is implied in this contrast, however extreme, so long as the diversions to which we betake ourselves are unobjectionable in their nature ; for the greatest minds are known to have stooped to simplicity, and even to childishness in their sports; as the lark, although it flies higher than any other bird, sinks to the lowly ground to repose itself and to build its nest. None but a pompous blockhead or solemn prig will pretend that he never relaxes, never indulges in pastime, never wastes his breath in idle waggery and merriment. Such gravity is of the very essence of imposture, where it does not spring, as is frequently the case, from a morbid austerity or morose ignorance. “Let us be wise now, for I see a fool coming," said Plato, when he was once joking with his disciples, and saw a churl of this stamp approaching them. Occasional playfulness, indeed, seems to be natural to all strong minds. “ The most grave and studious,” says Plutarch, “use feasts, and jests, and toys, as we do sauce to our meat.” Agesilaus, as everybody knows, amused himself and his children by riding on a stick; the great Scipio diverted himself with picking up shells on the seashore ; Socrates used to dance and sing by way of relaxation; the facetious Lucian and the grave Scaliger have both confessed the pleasure they found in singing, dancing, and music. Mæcenas, with his friends Virgil and Horace, delighted in sports and games. Shakspeare played on the bass-viol, which he accompanied with his voice; and the witty Swift amused himself with hunting and chasing his friends, the two Sheridans, through all the rooms of the deanery.
Man is the only animal that laughs, a faculty that would hardly have been bestowed upon him unless it were intended to be called into exercise. The fantastical and unnatural
severity that disclaims all merriment and relaxation is but a different and infinitely less pleasing mode of self-love, seeking a sullen gratification by affecting to despise the gratifications of others. There are individuals, no doubt, in whom such solemn strictness may be unaffected: to minds that are intrinsically grovelling and low-bent a certain stiffness and rigidity may be a relief, for an erect tension is the natural relaxation of those who have been long stooping. Such starched rigorists recall the well-known story the man in the pit of the Dublin theatre, who refused to sit down when all the others were seated, upon which a voice from the gallery cried out, “Ah! leave the poor creature alone; he's a tailor, and he's only resting himself.”
It need excite little surprise that the laborious, the learned, and the dignified are often not less frivolous in their diversions than the shallowest loungers and coxcombs. The latter may be termed professional triflers, who thus waste their hours because they cannot otherwise employ them; the former are amateur idlers, who have been such good economists of their time that they can well afford to throw some away, and who only relax in order to invigorate their minds. Hurdis had formed no erroneous view of human pursuits when he exclaimed,
We trifle all; and he who best deserves,
The more trivial our recreations the more accurately will they often reveal the qualities of the mind, as the lightest feather we can toss up will best determine the direction of the wind. If this be true of an individual, it will be equally applicable to a nation, whose familiar and domestic character we may much better ascertain from their sports, pastimes, and amusements, than from those more prominent and important features to which historians have usually restricted themselves in their delineations. Laws, institutions, empires, pass away and are forgotten; but the diversions of a people, being commonly interwoven with some immutable element of the general feeling, or perpetuated by circumstances of climate and locality, will frequently survive when every other national peculiarity has worn itself out and
fallen into oblivion. As the minds of children, modified by the forms of society, are pretty much the same in all countries and at all epochs, there will be found little variation in their ordinary pastimes—a remark equally applicable to those nations which, from their non-advancement in civilization, may be said to have still retained their childhood. Many of our school-games are known to have existed from the earliest antiquity; the diversions of the wild Arabs have remained immutable for many ages. Nor do the common people of any country easily abandon their most frivolous amusements, although in every other respect their character may have undergone a total change. Nothing can be more dissimilar than an ancient and a modern Roman; yet we see the porters and the market-people of the Eternal City seated on the ruins of her forgotten grandeur, and playing at the game of the morra,* exactly as they are recorded to have done in the days of the republic and of the emperors. Even in royal life we are enabled by occasional glimpses of history to trace an identity of amusement at very different periods. From the circumstance of his using his prisoner, the Roman emperor Valerian, as his footstool when he mounted his horse, we know that Sapor, the monarch of Persia, used to hunt with ounces or leopards trained to act as hounds, and carried out to the field in wooden cages ; a mode of sporting which, after the lapse of fifteen centuries, continues to be a favourite pastime with the native princes of India, who run down the antelope with the hunting leopard or cheeta.
Although toil and sorrow, the penalties of the fall, seem to have been entailed upon the bulk of mankind as their sole and melancholy inheritance, we read not of any canon that prohibits a temporary alleviation of their doom by means of sports, pastimes, and amusements. These indeed may be said to form a portion of our very nature; the constitution both of the human mind and body unfitting them for incessant occupation, and imperatively dictating occasional diversion as an indispensable
condition of their healthy exercise. To trace the variation in the nature of these respites from anxiety and drudgery, had we sufficient 'materials for closely following up the inquiry, would be to record
* Guessing at the number of fingers suddenly held up.