Wit and humor in the English Romantic Period




Hilton, Loyd Harold

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When I first decided to write a work on wit and humor in the English Romantic Period, I was a little apprehensive that some of my chapters might turn out like the one entitled 'Concerning Owls,' in Horrebou's History of Ireland. It states tersely: 'There are in Ireland no owls of any kind whatever.' Fortunately, however, on getting further into the matter I was able to find a great deal of humor in the period, much more than I had realized, and more, I am persuaded, than is generally suspected. Usually when I have mentioned my subject and intention to some colleague, the reaction has been characterized by a raised eyebrow and a slightly condescending smile. I have found that the tendency to overlook the importance, or even the existence, of humor in the Romantic Period extends to many of the generally accepted surveys and histories of English literature. Not that the absence of humor is pointedly observed--usually it isn't thought necessary to do so. Generally, if the subject crops up at all, it is in some mention of Wordsworth's 'notorious' lack of humor, and perhaps also of Shelley's similar failing; then a brief reference is made to Byron's satirical and Lamb's whimsical wit--Burns not usually being considered in the same chapter--and the commentator passes on to the better known characteristics of the period. The impression is thus left, without having been actually stated, that the age was mainly humorless. One of the chief purposes of this work will be to emphasize that the Romantic Age, like all ages, was a complex one, and to show that, while it may not have been quite so rich in wit and humor as some periods have been, it nevertheless deserves a better fate than to be summarily checked off and filed away as humorless. Not all the critics and literary historians have been obtuse on the points just mentioned, of course. For example, Emile Legouis has a perceptive though understandably brief comment on the matter in his Short History of English Literature. Also, Frederick Pierce has a good chapter on the satire, parody, and burlesque of the period in his book, Currents and Eddies in the English Romantic Generation (New Haven, 1918). His treatment, however, is limited primarily to the humor of ridicule, and the discussion, though fairly comprehensive in treating that aspect, might nevertheless have been more fully illustrated by examples. The general histories of English humor--rather than of literature--also treat the period sketchily, as does J. B. Priestley in English Humour (London, 1930), or, like Louis Cazamian in The Development of English Humor (Durham, N.C., 1952), deal primarily with the earlier periods of English laughter, from the time of Beowulf to the Renaissance. One, The History of English Humour (London, 1877), by Rev. A. G. L'Estrange, although admittedly a bit out-of-date, is a treasure of absurdity in its own right, being often funnier than the humor which the author is discussing. More will be said of this work, and of the others, in the course of this dissertation. Because of the richness and complexity of the subject, I could not, of course, deal exhaustively with it. Nevertheless, I feel that I have treated the humor of this period more extensively than has yet been done in a single work. Individual studies of the laughter of Burns, Lamb, and Byron have already been done, in large numbers and excellent well. Without at all trying to compete with such works I have rather cited them in support of my case for the age. Regarding the humor of some of the other Romantics, particularly that of Coleridge and Keats, not enough has yet been said, and I have tried to say part of what is needful.