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Tully, nor Quintilian, have given a just and adequate definition of ridicule. To say that it consists in raising our laughter at some turpitude, is a very insufficient account of the matter. Mr. Fielding, in his preface to his Joseph Andrews, has thrown some light upon the matter; but, as he places the source of it in affectation, he appears to me not to have taken a comprehensive survey of his subject. I apprehend the ridiculous may be formed where there is no affectation at the bottom, and his Parson Adams I take to be an instance of this assertion.
The best and most accurate definition I have ever met with of the Ridiculous, is in a note of Doctor Akenside's, to his excellent poem on the Pleasures of the Imagination. "That," says he, “which makes objects ridiculous is some ground of admiration or esteem, connected with other more general circumstances comparatively worthless or deformed; or it is some circumstances of turpitude or deformity, connected with what is, in general, excellent and beautiful; the inconsistent properties, existing either in the objects themselves or in the apprehension of the person to whom they relate, implying sentiment or design, and exciting no
acute or vehement emotion of the heart." The effect which the circumstances thus specified have upon us, he thus defines: "the sensation of ridicule is not a bare perception of the agreement or disagreement of ideas, but a passion or emotion of the mind consequential to that perception."
The emotions here intended are laughter and contempt; and these it is the business of comedy to excite, by making striking exhibitions of inconsistent circumstances, blended together in such a thwarting assemblage, that a gay contempt irresistibly shall take possession of us. To perform this in all objects which come before the comic muse, in men and manners, in all actions and passions, requires a very delicate hand; and it frequently is necessary to have an almost microscopic eye, to perceive the latent inconsistency in circumstances seemingly fair and praise-worthy. Prior has expressed this with his usual delicacy:
And though the error may be such
In producing portraits of mankind, it is not
enough to display foibles and oddities; a finę vein of ridicule must run through the whole, to urge the mind to frequent emotions of laughter; otherwise there will be danger of exhibiting disagreeable characters without affording the proper entertainment. I think Ben Jonson extremely apt to err in this point; his Morose, is a surly, ill-natured, absurd humorist, whom we can hardly laugh at, and he soon becomes very bad company. Many of Jonson's characters are of the same cast; while, in Shakspeare's Falstaff, the ridiculous ideas are placed in such an artful point of view, that our merriment can never be restrained, whenever Sir John appears. Congreve, in my opinion, had a great deal of the same talent; and, what I have somewhere seen objected to him, that many of his characters are obvious in human life, is, with me, a strong proof of his superior genius. An old bachelor, for instance, is very common; but he must pass through such an imagination as Congreve's to support several scenes in the drama with the most exquisite pleasantry: though the character was not new, yet his maragement of it has all the graces of novelty, and the situations in which we see him are all exquisitely ridiculous. Personages of this class,
unless artfully conducted, may, very soon, tire an audience, but in this excellent poet's hands nothing suffers a diminution. The same, I think, appears in his Sir Paul Plyant, in which character there is, perhaps, as much comic force as in any one piece on the stage. Sir John Vanburgh was also a perfect master of his art in this respect; and of this his Sir John Brute is a remarkable proof. The knight is constantly diverting us with an odd whimsical way of thinking, which at once serves to display his own foibles, and entertains his audience with a pleasantry, of which he seems all along totally unconscious himself.
It is therefore by placing the humours and foibles of human nature in a ridiculous light, that the true comic force is created. The author of the Pleasures of Imagination, whom I have already quoted, has judiciously explained each part of the definition cited above, and has finely traced the several sources from which true ridicule springs. Whoever chooses to consider the matter will find affectation to be but one spring, however diffusive the streams of it may be. To the poem itself I beg leave to refer my readers, and I shall dismiss this paper with observing, that the whole beauty of the