A Lecture On Heads
by Geo. Alex. Stevens
Previous Part     1  2
Home - Random Browse

By way of Epilogue, here are two wigs. [Takes two wigs.] This is called the full-buckled bob, and carries a consequentially along with it: it is worn by those people who frequent city feasts, and gorge themselves at a Lord-Mayor's-show dinner; and, with one of these wigs on, their double chins rested upon their breasts, and their shoulders up, they seem as if they had eaten themselves into a {98}state of indigestion, or else had bumpered themselves out of breath with bottled beer. [Puts on the wig.] "Waiter! bring me a ladleful of soup. You dog, don't take off that haunch of venison yet!—Bring me the lamb, a glass of currant jelly, and a clean plate. A hob-nob, sir." "With all my heart." "Two bumpers of Madeira!—Love, health, and ready rhino, to all the friends that you and I know."—On the contrary, these lank looks form the half-famished face. [Puts on the Methodist hair, and takes the tub.]

The floor of the world is filthy, the mud of Mammon eats up all your upper leathers, and we are all become sad soals. Brethren, (the word brethren comes from the tabernacle, because we {99}all breathe therein), if you are drowsy I'll rouse you, I'll beat a tattoo upon the parchment case of your conscience, and I'll whisk the devil like a whirligig among you. Now let me ask you a question seriously. Did you ever see any body eat any hasty-pudding? What faces they make when it scalds their mouths! Phoo, phoo, phoo! What faces will you all make when old Nick nicks you? Now unto a bowl of punch I compare matrimony; there's the sweet part of it, which is the honey-moon: then there's the largest part of it, that's the most insipid, that comes after, and that's the water; then there's the strong spirits, that's the husband; then there's the sour spirit, that's the wife. But you don't mind me, no more than a dead horse does a pair of spectacles; if you did, the sweet words which I utter would be like a treacle posset to your palates. Do you know how many taylors make a man?—Why nine. How many half a man?—Why four journeymen and an apprentice. So have you all been bound 'prentices to madam Faddle, the fashion-maker; ye have served your times out, and now you set up for yourselves. My bowels and my small guts groan for you; as the cat on the house-top is caterwauling, so from the top of my voice will I {100}be bawling. Put—put some money in the plate, then your abomination shall be scalded off like bristles from the hog's back, and ye shall be scalped of them all as easily as I pull off this periwig.

My attempt you have heard to succeed the projector, And I tremblingly wait your award of this lecture; No merits I plead, but what's fit for my station, And that is the merit of your approbation. And, since for mere mirth I exhibit this plan, Condemn, if you please—but excuse, if you can.



{101}The vice and folly which overspread human nature first created the satirist. We should not, therefore, attribute his severity to a malignity of disposition, but to an exquisite sense of propriety, an honest indignation of depravity, and a generous desire to reform the degenerated manners of his fellow-creatures. This has been the cause of Aristophanes censuring the pedantry and superstition of Socrates; Horace, Persius, Martial, and Juvenal, the luxury and profligacy of the Romans; Boileau and Moliere the levity and refinement of the French; Cervantes the romantic pride and madness of the Spanish; and Dorset, Gldharn, Swift, Addison, Churchill, Stevens, and Foote, the variety of vice, folly, and luxury, which we have imported from our extensive commerce and intercourse with other nations. We should, consequently, reverse the satirist and correct ourselves.

{102}We should not avoid him as the detecter, but as the friendly monitor. If he speaks severe truths, we should condemn our own conduct which gives him the power.

It has frequently been observed, that the satirist has proved more beneficial to the correction of a state than the divine or legislator. Indeed he seems to have been created with peculiar penetrative faculties, and integrity of disposition, and a happy genius to display the enormity of the features, while it corrects the corrupt exercise of our vices. The legislator may frame laws sufficiently wise and judicious, to check and control villany, without the power of impeding the progress of vice and folly, while they are kept within the limits of only injuring ourselves. For law has no power to punish us for the vices which debilitate our constitution, destroy our substance, or degrade our character.

Nor can religion entirely extirpate vice, no more than she can even control folly. Her two principles, alluring to virtue by promise of reward, and dissuading from vice by threats of punishment, extend their influence no farther than on those whose dispositions are susceptible of their impressions. So that we find numbers among {103}mankind whose conduct and opinions are beyond her power. The atheist, who disbelieves a future existence, is not likely to check the exercise of his favourite vicious habits for any hope of reward or dread of punishment; and the debauchee, who, though he may not deny the truth of her tenets, yet is too much absorbed in his pleasures, to listen to her precepts, or regard her examples. Besides, there are many so weak in their resolution as not to be capable of breaking the fetters of habit and prepossession, although they are, at the same time, sensible of their destructive consequences. It is, therefore, that nature has implanted in us a sense which tends to correct our disposition, where law and religion are seen to have no power. This sense is a desire of public estimation, which not only tends to give mankind perfection in every art and science, but also to render our personal character respectable. It is this susceptibility of shame and infamy which gives satire its efficiency.

Without this sense of ourselves, the scourge would lose its power of chastisement. We should receive the lashes without a sense of their pain; and without the sense of their pain we would never amend from this affliction. From the desire of {104}being approved and noticed, arises every effort which constitutes the variety of employments and excellencies the world possesses. It actuates the prince and the beggar, the peasant and the politician, the labourer and the scholar, the mechanic and the soldier, the player and the divine. In a word, there is not an individual in the community whose conduct is not influenced by its dictates. It is, therefore, not surprising that mankind should be so impressive to the power of satire, whose object is to describe their vices and follies, for the finger of public infamy to point at their deformities and delinquencies. Thus, where law cannot extend its awe and authority, satire wields the scourge of disgrace; and where religion cannot convince the atheist, attract the attention of the debauchee, or reform those who are subject to the power of habit and fashion, satire affords effectually her assistance. Satire reforms the drunkard, by exposing to the view of himself and the world the brutality of his actions and person when under the influence of intoxication. Satire reforms, likewise, the inordinate actions of those who are not awed by the belief of future reward and punishment, by exposing them to infamy during their present {105}existence. And those who are subject to the dominion of depraved habits satire awakens to a practice of reformation, from the poignant sense of being the derision and contempt of all their connexions; for there is no incentive so powerful to abandon pernicious customs as the sense of present and future disgrace. We may, therefore, conclude, that nothing tends so much to correct vice and folly as this species of public censure. Having thus made some observations on the general utility and necessity of satire, we shall proceed to examine which of its species is the most likely to be effective.

The most remarkable species of satire are, the narrative, dramatic, and picturesque; which have also their separate species peculiar to each. The narrative contains those that either reprove with a smile or a frown, by pourtraying the characteristics of an individual, or the general manners of a society, people, or nation; and are either described in verse or prose. The dramatic contains perfect resemblance, which is described by comedy; or caricature, which is described by farce. And the picturesque is what exercises the painter, engraver, and sculptor. In all these species the satirist may either divert by his humour, entertain by his wit, or torture by his severity. Each mode {106}has its advocates. But we think that the mode should be adapted to the nature of the vice or folly which demands correction. If the vice be of an atrocious nature, it certainly requires that the satire be severe. If it be of a nature that arises more from a weakness of mind than depravity of feeling, we think it should be chastised by the lively and pointed sarcasms of wit; and, if the failing be merely a folly, it should only be the subject of humorous ridicule. With respect to determining which species of satire is the most preferable, the narrative of Horace and Juvenal, the dramatic of Aristophanes and Foote, or the picturesque of Hogarth and Stevens; we can best form our opinion from comparing their different defects and excellencies. As the narrative is merely a description of manners, it is devoid of that imitation of passion and character which gives effect to the dramatic. But, as the language is more pointed, more energetic, and more elegant, it certainly must impress the reader more deeply. The dramatic, therefore, while it is calculated to affect more the spectator, is inferior to the narrative in the closet. The picturesque is more defective than either of the two former. It has only power to describe the action of an instant, and {107}this without the assistance of reflection, observation, and sentiment, which they derive from their verbal expression.

We may, consequently, perceive that each species has defects to which others are not liable, and excellencies which the others do not possess.

Thus it is evident that a species of satire, which could blend all the advantages of all the three, can only be that which is adequate to the idea of perfect satire. This kind of satire is the Lecture on Heads. We cannot, therefore, be surprised that it should have been the most popular exhibition of the age. The heads and their dresses composed the picturesque: the assumption of character and dialogue by the lecturer, composed the dramatic; and the lively description of manners, the judicious propriety and pertinence of observation, composed the narrative. Thus did the genius of its author invent a species of entertainment which possessed excellencies that counterbalanced the defects of all other satirists, produced from the age of Aristophanes, who flourished four hundred and seven years before the Christian era, until his own time.

Having thus enforced the utility of satire in general, and specified the defects and properties of {108}its particular kinds, we shall proceed to make a few observations on the peculiar merit of the Lecture on Heads. We have already seen that it possesses every quality of all other satires in itself: it only, therefore, remains to consider its wit, humour, character, and apparatus; which are its essensial properties. The wit of this Lecture is as various as the subjects which it satirises. Its brilliancy charms, its poignancy convicts while it chastises, and its pertinency always adorns the sentiment or observation it would illustrate. The variety of its species always entertains, but never satiates. Even puns please, from the aptness and pleasantry of their conceits. His wit is so predominant, that, if we may be allowed the expression, it is discovered in his silence. A most striking example of this is where he uses the rhetorical figure called the Aposiopesis, or suppression, in displaying the head of a prostitute: he introduces it with saying, "This is the head of a woman of the town, or a ———; but, whatever other title the lady may have, we are not entitled here to take notice of it." Nothing can be more delicate than this suppression: it displays a tenderness and liberality to the frailty of female nature, which does as much credit to his feelings as to his genius.

{109}We know not a more happy instance of giving expression to silence, or giving an idea without verbal assistance, than is contained in the above character.

The humour of this Lecture is grotesque, lively, and delicate; it varies its form with the character it ridicules. Nothing can surpass the humorous whimsicality of his situations and expressions; for they please as much from the fanciful manner in which he places the ridiculous to our view, as from the resemblance with which he so naturally describes the prototype. His description of a London Blood cannot fail to excite laughter in the features of the greatest cynic. The natural propensity which mankind has to laugh at mischief never was more happily gratified than from his describing this character pushing a blind horse into a china-shop. Had he chosen any other animal, the effect would not have been so great on his audience. If it had been an ass, it would have been attended with an idea of the obstinacy and the reluctance of this animal, which would have suggested its being too difficult; it would not, therefore, have excited, in any manner, the risible faculty. Had it been an ox, it would have {110}connected with it the idea of too much fury and devastation to entertain with the picture. But choosing a blind horse, who, from his loss of sight and natural docility, may be easily supposed to be led into such a situation; the mind adopts the credibility, and enjoys the whimsical and mischievous consequence, while it condemns the folly and puerility of the Blood who occasioned it. It is this peculiar faculty of choice of subjects, situation, and assemblage, which constitutes the excellence of a humorist, which Stevens possessed in a most eminent degree; for he displays it in almost every line of his Lecture. Indeed, in this art we know of none superior to him, except it be Shakespeare in some of his comedies, which are inimitable in every thing which relates to the vis comica. With respect to the characters of this Lecture, they are such as will be found to exist with human nature; except a few, who are described as the devotees to particular fashions; and such will always be found while vanity, luxury, and dissipation, exist in society. Therefore, from this universality of character, his Lecture will ever be worthy the perusal of every person who would wish to avoid being contemptible or ridiculous: for {111}there is no person but may be liable to some vice or folly, which he will find exposed by this masterly, pleasant, and original, satirist.

His characters compose every part of the community. The old and young, rich and poor, male and female, married and unmarried, and those of every learned and unlearned profession, are the subjects of his whimsical, yet judicious and pertinent, censure.

Having thus made some general remarks on the wit, humour, and character, of this Lecture, it only remains for us to say a few words on its apparatus. This was merely the picturesque part of the satire, which gave that effect to the tout ensemble, which it would not otherwise have produced as a representation. It was by this appendage that Mr. Stevens was enabled to afford entertainment for nearly three hours without a change of person, although he changed his appearance. The apparatus was not only an ornament, but a visible illustration of what would otherwise have been only mental. It was, therefore, indispensable as a stage exhibition; for, to entertain an audience, the sight must be exercised as well as the mind. It is necessary to prevent languor, which will always be the consequence where reflection is {112}more exerted than sensation. Thus, in every public exhibition, the senses of hearing and seeing should be gratified in every manner that is consistent with the nature of what is produced for the observation of the mind. But although this apparatus was necessary as a representation, it may be dispensed with as a closet satire: for, not being confined to read two or three hours, we can shut the book whenever it becomes uninteresting, which we cannot at a public lecture. We are then confined to one place and one object during its performance. It is this which renders every lecture, that is not accompanied by some apparatus, so tiresome to the auditor. We, therefore, read such lectures as are upon literary Subjects with more pleasure than we hear them delivered. But lectures on anatomy, experimental philosophy, astronomy, and every other that admits of apparatus, we hear and see with much more pleasure and improvement than when we read them. In regard to the Lecture on Heads, as the apparatus is not necessary to make the reader comprehend the force and meaning of the satire more than he can from the words themselves, we make no doubt but its perusal will afford such pleasure as to increase its estimation, if possible, {113}with the public. From a more close attention they will discover beauties of wit, humour, character, and imitation, that were not perceived during its representation: for the minds of an audience are very susceptible of being diverted from attending to what is represented before them.

The company whom they are with, or the attractions of others whom they see among an audience, frequently suspend the attention while it loses the greatest beauties of the performance. But, when we are reading a performance in our closet, whatever is capable of pleasing from its novelty, propriety, or excellence, is not liable to be lost from any obstruction or interference by other objects.

Consciousness, therefore, of the entertainment this Lecture will afford to the reader, as well as the auditor and spectator, is the chief inducement of submitting it thus, in its only original state, for his approbation.


Previous Part     1  2
Home - Random Browse