1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Humour
HUMOUR (Latin humor), a word of many meanings and of strange fortune in their evolution. It began by meaning simply “liquid.” It passed through the stage of being a term of art used by the old physicians—whom we should now call physiologists—and by degrees has come to be generally understood to signify a certain “habit of the mind,” shown in speech, in literature and in action, or a quality in things and events observed by the human intelligence. The word reached its full development by slow degrees. When Dr Johnson compiled his dictionary, he gave nine definitions of, or equivalents for, “humour.” They may be conveniently quoted: “(1) Moisture. (2) The different kinds of moisture in man’s body, reckoned by the old physicians to be phlegm, blood, choler and melancholy, which as they predominate are supposed to determine the temper of mind. (3) General turn or temper of mind. (4) Present disposition. (5) Grotesque imagery, jocularity, merriment. (6) Tendency to disease, morbid disposition. (7) Petulance, peevishness. (8) A trick, a practice. (9) Caprice, whim, predominant inclination.” The list was not quite complete, even in Dr Johnson’s own time. Humour was then, as it is now, the name of the semi-fluid parts of the eye. Yet no dictionary-maker has been more successful than Johnson in giving the literary and conversational meaning of an English word, or the main lines of its history. It is therefore instructive to note that in no one of his nine clauses does humour bear the meaning it has for Thackeray or for George Meredith. “General turn or temper of mind” is at the best too vague, and has moreover another application. His list of equivalents only carries the history of the word up to the beginning of the last stage of its growth.
The limited original sense of liquid, moisture, mere wet, in which “humour” is used in Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible, continued to attach to it until the 17th century. Thus Shakespeare, in the first scene of the second act of Julius Caesar, makes Portia say to her husband:—
“Is Brutus sick? and is it physical
In the same scene Decius employs the word in the wide metaphorical sense in which it was used, and abused, then and afterwards. “Let me work,” he says, referring to Caesar—
“For I can give his humour the true bent,
Here we have “the general turn or temper of mind,” which can be flattered, or otherwise directed to “present disposition.” We have travelled far from mere fluid, and have been led on the road by the old physiologists. We are not concerned with their science, but it is necessary to see what they mean by “primary humours,” and “second or third concoctions,” if we are to understand how it was that a name for liquid could come to mean “general turn” or “present disposition,” or “whim” or “jocularity.” Part I., Section 1, Member 2, Subsection 2, of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy will supply all that is necessary for literary purposes. “A humour is a liquid or fluent part of the body comprehended in it, and is either born with us, or is adventitious and acquisite.” The first four primary humours are—“Blood, a hot, sweet, tempered, red humour, prepared in the meseraic veins, and made of the most temperate parts of the chylus (chyle) in the liver, whose office it is to nourish the whole body, to give it strength and colour, being dispersed through every part of it. And from it spirits are first begotten in the heart, which afterwards in the arteries are communicated to the other parts. Pituita or phlegm is a cold and moist humour, begotten of the colder parts of the chylus (or white juice coming out of the meat digested in the stomach) in the liver. His office is to nourish and moisten the members of the body,” &c. “Choler is hot and dry, begotten of the hotter parts of the chylus, and gathered to the gall. It helps the natural heat and senses. Melancholy, cold and dry, thick, black and sour, begotten of the more feculent part of nourishment, and purged from the spleen, is a bridle to the other two hot humours, blood and choler, preserving them in the blood, and nourishing the bones.” Mention must also be made of serum, and of “those excrementitious humours of the third concoction, sweat and tears.” An exact balance of the four primary humours makes the justly constituted man, and allows for the undisturbed production of the “concoctions”—or processes of digestion and assimilation. Literature seized upon these terms and definitions. Sometimes it applied them gravely in the moral and intellectual sphere. Thus the Jesuit Bouhours, a French critic of the 17th century, in his Entretiens d’Ariste et d’Eugène, says that in the formation of a bel esprit, “La bile donne le brillant et la pénétration, la mélancolie donne le bon sens et la solidité; le sang donne l’agrément et la délicatesse.” It was, in fact, taken for granted that the character and intellect of men were produced by—were, so to speak, concoctions dependent on—the “humours.” In the fallen state of mankind it rarely happens that an exact balance is maintained. One or other humour predominates, and thus we have the long-established doctrine of the existence of the sanguine, the phlegmatic, the choleric, or the melancholy temperaments. Things being so, nothing was more natural than the passage of these terms of art into common speech, and their application in a metaphorical sense, when once they had been adopted by the literary class. The process is admirably described by Asper in the introduction to Ben Jonson’s play—Every Man out of his Humour:—
“Why humour, as it is ‘ens,’ we thus define it,
A humour in this sense is a “ruling passion,” and has done excellent service to English authors of “comedies of humours,” to the Spanish authors of comedias de figuron, and to the French followers of Molière. Nor is the metaphor racked out of its fair proportions if we suppose that there may be a temporary, or even an “adventitious and acquisite” “predominance of a humour,” and that “deliveries of a man’s self” to passing passion, or to imitation, are also “humours,” though not primary, but only second or third concoctions. By a natural extension, therefore, “humours” might come to mean oddities, tricks, practices, mere whims, and the aping of some model admired for the time being. “But,” as Falstaff has told us, “it was always yet the trick of our English, if they have a good thing, to make it too common.” The word “humour” was a good thing, but the Elizabethans certainly made it too common. It became a hack epithet of all work, to be used with no more discretion, though with less imbecile iteration, than the modern “awful.” Shakespeare laughed at the folly, and pinned it for ever to the ridiculous company of Corporal Nym—“I like not the humour of lying. He hath wronged me in some humours. I should have borne the humoured letter to her . . . I love not the humour of bread and cheese; and there’s the humour of it.” The humour of Jonson was that he tried to clear the air of thistledown by stamping on it. Asper ends in denunciation:—
“But that a rook by wearing a pied feather,
The abuse of the word was the peculiar practice of England. The use of it was not confined wholly to English writers. The Spaniards of the 16th and 17th centuries knew humores in the same sense, and still employ the word as a name for caprices, whims and vapours. Humorada was, and is, the correct Spanish for a festive saying or writing of epigrammatic form. Martial’s immortal reply to the critic who admired only dead poets—
Ignoscas petimus Vacerra: tanti
is a model humorada. It would be a difficult and would certainly be a lengthy task to exhaust all the applications given to so elastic a word. We still continue to use it in widely different senses. “Good humour” or “bad humour” are simply good temper or bad temper. There is a slight archaic flavour about the phrases “grim humour,” “the humour they were in,” in the sense of suspicious, or angry or careless mood, which were favourites with Carlyle, but though somewhat antiquated they are not affected, or very unusual. With the proviso that the exceptions must always be excepted, we may say that for a long time “humour” came to connote comic matter less refined than the matter of wit. It had about it a smack of the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, and of the unyoked “humour” of the society in which Prince Henry was content to imitate the sun—
“Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
The presence of a base contagious cloud is painfully felt in the so-called humorous literature of England till the 18th century. The reader who does not sometimes wonder whether humour in the mouths of English writers of that period did not stand for maniacal tricks, horse-play, and the foul names of foul things, material and moral, must be very determined to prove himself a whole-hearted admirer of the ancient literature. Addison, who did much to clean it of mere nastiness, gives an excellent example of the base use of the word in his day. In Number 371 of the Spectator he introduces an example of the “sort of men called Whims and Humourists.” It is the delight of this person to play practical jokes on his guests. He is proud when “he has packed together a set of oglers” who had “an unlucky cast in the eye,” or has filled his table with stammerers. The humorist, in fact, was a mere practical joker, who was very properly answered by a challenge from a military gentleman of peppery temper. Indeed, the pump and a horse-whip would appear to have been the only effective forms of criticism on the prevalent humour and humours of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. But the pump and the horse-whip were themselves humours. Carlo Buffone in Jonson’s play is put “out of his humour” by the counter humour of Signor Puntarvolo, who knocks him down and gags him with candle wax. The brutal pranks of Fanny Burney’s Captain Mirvan, who belongs to the earlier part of the 18th century, were meant for humour, and were accepted as such. Examples might easily be multiplied. A briefer and also a more convincing method of demonstration is to take the deliberate judgment of a great authority. No writer of the 18th century possessed a finer sense of humour in the noble meaning than Goldsmith. What did he understand the word to mean? Not what he himself wrote when he created Dr Primrose. We have his express testimony in the 9th chapter of The Present State of Polite Learning. Goldsmith complains that “the critic, by demanding an impossibility from the comic poet, has, in effect, banished true comedy from the stage.” This he has done by banning “low” subjects, and by proscribing “the comic or satirical muse from every walk but high life, which, though abounding in fools as well as the humbler station, is by no means so fruitful in absurdity. . . . . Absurdity is the poet’s game, and good breeding is the nice concealment of absurdity. The truth is, the critic generally mistakes ‘humour’ for ‘wit,’ which is a very different excellence; wit raises human nature above its level; humour acts a contrary part, and equally depresses it. To expect exalted humour is a in terms. . . . The poet, therefore, must place the object he would have the subject of humour in a state of inferiority; in other words, the subject of humour must be low.”
That no doubt may remain in his reader’s mind, Goldsmith gives an example of true humour. It is nothing more or less than the absurdity and incongruity obvious in a man who, though “wanting a nose,” is extremely curious in the choice of his snuffbox. We applaud “the humour of it,” for “we here see him guilty of an absurdity of which we imagine it impossible for ourselves to be guilty, and therefore applaud our own good sense on the comparison.”
Nothing could be more true as an account of what the Elizabethans, the Restoration, the Queen Anne men, and the 18th century meant by “humour.” Nothing could be more false as an example of what we mean by the humour of Falstaff or of The Vicar of Wakefield.
When we pass from Goldsmith to Hazlitt—one of the greatest names in English criticism—we find that “humour” has grown in meaning, without quite reaching its full development. In the introduction to his Lectures on the English Comic Writers he attempts a classification of the comic spirit into wit and humour. “Humour,” he says, “is the describing the ludicrous as it is in itself; wit is the exposing it, by comparing or contrasting it with something else. Humour is, as it were, the growth of nature and accident; wit is the product of art and fancy. Humour, as it is shown in books, is an imitation of the natural or acquired absurdities of mankind, or of the ludicrous in accident, situation and character; wit is the illustrating and heightening the sense of that absurdity by some sudden and unexpected likeness or opposition of one thing to another, which sets off the quality we laugh at or despise in a still more contemptible or striking point of view.” Hazlitt’s definition will, indeed, not stand analysis. The element of comparison is surely as necessary for humour as for wit. Yet his classification is valuable as illustrating the growth of the meaning of the word. Observe that Hazlitt has transferred to wit that power of pleasing as by a flattering sense of our own superiority which Goldsmith attributed to humour. He had not thought, and had not heard, that sympathy is necessary to complete humour. He cannot have thought it needful, for if he had he would hardly have said of the Arabian Nights that they are “an inexhaustible mine of comic humour and invention,” “which from the manners of the East, which they describe, carry the principle of callous indifference in the jest as far as it can go.” He might, and probably would, have dismissed Goldsmith’s illustration as “low” in every conceivable sense. He would not have added, as we should to-day, that humour does not lie in laughter, according to the definition of Hobbes, in a “sudden glory,” in a guffaw of self-conceited triumph over the follies and deficiencies of others. If there is any place for humour in Goldsmith’s sordid example, it must be made by pity, and shown by a deft introduction of the de te fabula dear to Thackeray, by a reminder that the world is full of people, who, though wanting noses, are extremely curious in their choice of snuff-boxes, and that the more each of us thinks himself above the weakness the more likely he is to fall into it.
The critical value of Hazlitt’s examination of the differences between wit and humour lies in this, that he ignores the doctrine that the quality of humour lies in the thing or the action and not in the mind of the observer. The examples quoted above, to which any one with a moderate share of reading in English literature could add with ease, show that humour was first held to lie in the trick, the whim, the act, or the event and clash of incidents. It might even be a mere flavour, as when men spoke of the salt humour of sea-sand. Even when it stood for the “general turn or temper of mind” it was a form of the ruling passion which inspires men’s actions and words. It was used in that sense by Decius when he spoke of the humour of Caesar, which is a liability to be led by one who can play on his weakness—
“for he loves to hear
It is plain that this is not what Hazlitt meant, or we now mean, by the humour displayed in “describing the ludicrous as it is shown in itself.” Nor did he, any more than we do, suppose with Goldsmith that a “low” quality of actions and persons is inseparable from humour. It had become for Hazlitt what Addison called cheerfulness, “a habit of the mind” as distinguished from mirth, which is “an act.” If in Addison’s sentences the place of cheerfulness is taken by humour, and that of mirth by wit, we have a very fair description of the two. “I have always preferred cheerfulness to mirth. The latter I consider as an act, the former as a habit of the mind. Mirth is short and transient, cheerfulness is fixed and permanent.” Humour is the fixed and permanent appreciation of the ludicrous, of which wit may be the short and transient expression.
If now we pass to an attempt to define “humour,” the temptation to take refuge in the use of an evasion employed by Dr Johnson is very strong. When Boswell asked him, “Then, Sir, what is poetry?” the doctor answered, “Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is, but it is not easy to tell what it is.” But George Meredith has come to our assistance in two passages of his Essay on Comedy and the uses of the Comic Spirit. “If you laugh all round him (to wit, the ridiculous person), tumble him, roll him about, deal him a smack, and drop a tear on him, own his likeness to you, and yours to your neighbour, spare him as little as you shun, pity him as much as you expose, it is spirit of Humour that is moving you.... The humourist of mean order is a refreshing laugher, giving tone to the feelings, and sometimes allowing the feelings to be too much for him. But the humourist, if high, has an embrace of contrasts beyond the scope of the comic poet.” The third sentence is required to complete the first. The tumbling and rolling, the smacks and the exposure, may be out of place where there is humour of the most humorous quality. Who could associate them with Sir Walter Scott’s characters of Bradwardine or Monkbarns? Bradwardine, one feels, would have stopped them as he did the ill-timed jests of Sir Hew Halbert, “who was so unthinking as to deride my family name.” Monkbarns was a man of peace who loved the company of Sir Priest better than that of Sir Knight. But there is that in him which cows mere ridicule, be it ever so genial. He cared not who knew so much of his valour, and by that very avowal of his preference took his position sturdily in the face of the world. But Meredith has given its due prominence to the quality which, for us, distinguishes humour from pure wit and the harder forms of jocularity. It is the sympathy, the appreciation, the love, which include the follies of Don Quixote, the prosaic absurdities of Sancho Panza, the oddities of Bradwardine, Dr Primrose or Monkbarns, and the jovial animalism of Falstaff, in “an embrace of contrasts beyond the scope of the comic poets.”
It is needless to insist that humour of this order is far older than the very modern application of the name. It is assuredly present in Horace. Chaucer, who knew the word only as meaning “liquid,” has left a masterpiece of humour in his prologue to the Canterbury Pilgrims. We look for the finest examples in Shakespeare. And if it is old, it is also more universal than is always allowed. National, or at least racial, partiality, has led to the unfortunate judgment that humour is a virtue of the northern peoples. Yet Rabelais came from Touraine, and if the creator of Panurge has not humour, who has? The Italians may say that umore in the English sense is unknown to them. They mean the word, not the thing, for it is in Ariosto. To claim the quality for Cervantes would indeed be to push at an open door. The humour of the Germans has been rarely indeed of so high an order as his. It has been found wherever humanity has been combined with a keen appreciation of the ludicrous. The appreciation may exist without the humanity. When Rivarol met the Chevalier Florian with a manuscript sticking out of his pocket, and said, “How rash you are! if you were not known you would be robbed,” he was making use of the comic spirit, but he was not humorous. When Rivarol himself, a man of dubious claim to nobility, was holding forth on the rights of the nobles, and calling them “our rights,” one of the company smiled. “Do you find anything singular in what I say?” asked he. “It is the plural which I find singular,” was the answer. There is certainly something humorous in the neat overthrow of an insolent wit by a rival insolence, but the humour is in the spectator, not in the answer. The spirit of humour as described by George Meredith cannot be so briefly shown as in the rapid flash of the Frenchmen’s wit. It lingers and expatiates, as in Dr Johnson’s appreciation of Bet Flint. “Oh, a fine character, Madam! She was habitually a slut and a drunkard, and occasionally a thief and a harlot. And for heaven’s sake how came you to know her? Why, Madam, she figured in the literary world too! Bet Flint wrote her own life, and called herself Cassandra, and it was in verse; it began:—
‘When nature first ordained my birth
“So Bet brought her verses to me to correct; but I gave her half-a-crown, and she liked it as well. Bet had a fine spirit; she advertised for a husband, but she had no success, for she told me no man aspired to her. Then she hired very handsome lodgings and a footboy, and she got a harpsichord, but Bet could not play; however, she put herself in fine attitudes and drummed. And pray what became of her, Sir? Why, Madam, she stole a quilt from the man of the house, and he had her taken up; but Bet Flint had a spirit not to be subdued, so when she found herself obliged to go to gaol, she ordered a sedan chair, and bid her footboy walk before her. However, the footboy proved refractory, for he was ashamed, though his mistress was not. And did she ever get out of gaol, Sir? Yes, Madam, when she came to her trial, the judge acquitted her. ‘So now,’ she said to me, ‘the quilt is my own, and now I’ll make a petticoat of it.’ Oh! I loved Bet Flint.”
The subject is low enough to please Goldsmith. The humour may be of that mean order which has only a refreshing laugh, and gives tone to the feelings, but it is the pure spirit of humour.
We need not labour to demonstrate that a kindly appreciation of the ludicrous may find expression in art as well as in literature. But humour in art tends so inevitably to become caricature, which can be genial as well as ferocious, that the reader must be referred to the article on Caricature for an account of its manifestations in that field. (D. H.)