On the Idea of Comedy and of the Uses of the Comic Spirit
by George Meredith
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I do not know that the fly in amber is of any particular use, but the Comic idea enclosed in a comedy makes it more generally perceptible and portable, and that is an advantage. There is a benefit to men in taking the lessons of Comedy in congregations, for it enlivens the wits; and to writers it is beneficial, for they must have a clear scheme, and even if they have no idea to present, they must prove that they have made the public sit to them before the sitting to see the picture. And writing for the stage would be a corrective of a too-incrusted scholarly style, into which some great ones fall at times. It keeps minor writers to a definite plan, and to English. Many of them now swelling a plethoric market, in the composition of novels, in pun-manufactories and in journalism; attached to the machinery forcing perishable matter on a public that swallows voraciously and groans; might, with encouragement, be attending to the study of art in literature. Our critics appear to be fascinated by the quaintness of our public, as the world is when our beast-garden has a new importation of magnitude, and the creatures appetite is reverently consulted. They stipulate for a writer's popularity before they will do much more than take the position of umpires to record his failure or success. Now the pig supplies the most popular of dishes, but it is not accounted the most honoured of animals, unless it be by the cottager. Our public might surely be led to try other, perhaps finer, meat. It has good taste in song. It might be taught as justly, on the whole, and the sooner when the cottager's view of the feast shall cease to be the humble one of our literary critics, to extend this capacity for delicate choosing in the direction of the matter arousing laughter.


{1} A lecture delivered at the London Institution, February 1st, 1877.

{2} Realism in the writing is carried to such a pitch in THE OLD BACHELOR, that husband and wife use imbecile connubial epithets to one another.

{3} Tallemant des Reaux, in his rough portrait of the Duke, shows the foundation of the character of Alceste.

{4} See Tom Jones, book viii. chapter I, for Fielding's opinion of our Comedy. But he puts it simply; not as an exercise in the quasi-philosophical bathetic.

{5} Femmes Savantes:

BELISE: Veux-tu toute la vie offenser la grammaire?

MARTINE: Qui parle d'offenser grand'mere ni grand-pere?'

The pun is delivered in all sincerity, from the mouth of a rustic.

{6} Maskwell seems to have been carved on the model of Iago, as by the hand of an enterprising urchin. He apostrophizes his 'invention' repeatedly. 'Thanks, my invention.' He hits on an invention, to say: 'Was it my brain or Providence? no matter which.' It is no matter which, but it was not his brain.

{7} Imaginary Conversations: Alfieri and the Jew Salomon.

{8} Terence did not please the rough old conservative Romans; they liked Plautus better, and the recurring mention of the vetus poeta in his prologues, who plagued him with the crusty critical view of his productions, has in the end a comic effect on the reader.

{9} The exclamation of Lady Booby, when Joseph defends himself: 'YOUR VIRTUE! I shall never survive it!' etc., is another instance.—Joseph Andrews. Also that of Miss Mathews in her narrative to Booth: 'But such are the friendships of women.'—Amelia.


A wise man will not squander his laughter if he can help it A woman is hurt if you do not confide to her your plans A generous enemy is a friend on the wrong side A very doubtful benefit A great oration may be a sedative A male devotee is within an inch of a miracle Above Nature, I tell him, or, we shall be very much below Adversary at once offensive and helpless provokes brutality All are friends who sit at table All flattery is at somebody's expense Americans forgivingly remember, without mentioning As becomes them, they do not look ahead As in all great oratory! The key of it is the pathos Back from the altar to discover that she has chained herself Be what you seem, my little one Be philosophical, but accept your personal dues Bed was a rock of refuge and fortified defence But I leave it to you Can believe a woman to be any age when her cheeks are tinted Causes him to be popularly weighed Charges of cynicism are common against all satirists Civil tongue and rosy smiles sweeten even sour wine Cupid clipped of wing is a destructive parasite Dangerous things are uttered after the third glass Distinguished by his not allowing himself to be provoked Distrust us, and it is a declaration of war Eccentric behaviour in trifles Everywhere the badge of subjection is a poor stomach Excess of a merit is a capital offence in morality Excited, glad of catastrophe if it but killed monotony Face betokening the perpetual smack of lemon Fourth of the Georges Generally he noticed nothing Gentleman in a good state of preservation Good jokes are not always good policy Gratitude never was a woman's gift Happiness in love is a match between ecstasy and compliance Here and there a plain good soul to whom he was affectionate His idea of marriage is, the taking of the woman into custody Holy images, and other miraculous objects are sold I who respect the state of marriage by refusing I make a point of never recommending my own house I like him, I like him, of course, but I want to breathe I am a discordant instrument I do not readily vibrate If I do not speak of payment Imparting the usual chorus of yesses to his own mind In every difficulty, patience is a life-belt Indulged in their privilege of thinking what they liked Infants are said to have their ideas, and why not young ladies? Intellectual contempt of easy dupes Invite indecision to exhaust their scruples Is not one month of brightness as much as we can ask for? It was harder to be near and not close It is well to learn manners without having them imposed on us Knew my friend to be one of the most absent-minded of men Lend him your own generosity Love and war have been compared—Both require strategy Loving in this land: they all go mad, straight off Men love to boast of things nobody else has seen Men overweeningly in love with their creations Modest are the most easily intoxicated when they sip at vanity Must be the moralist in the satirist if satire is to strike Nature is not of necessity always roaring Naughtily Australian and kangarooly Never reckon on womankind for a wise act No flattery for me at the expense of my sisters Not a page of his books reveals malevolence or a sneer Not in love—She was only not unwilling to be in love Nothing desirable will you have which is not coveted Only to be described in the tongue of auctioneers Peace, I do pray, for the husband-haunted wife Period of his life a man becomes too voraciously constant Petty concessions are signs of weakness to the unsatisfied Pitiful conceit in men Primitive appetite for noise Rapture of obliviousness Rejoicing they have in their common agreement Respected the vegetable yet more than he esteemed the flower Rich and poor 's all right, if I'm rich and you're poor Self-incense Self-worship, which is often self-distrust She seems honest, and that is the most we can hope of girls She sought, by looking hard, to understand it better She might turn out good, if well guarded for a time She began to feel that this was life in earnest She dealt in the flashes which connect ideas Sign that the evil had reached from pricks to pokes So are great deeds judged when the danger's past (as easy) Soft slumber of a strength never yet called forth Spare me that word "female" as long as you live Statesman who stooped to conquer fact through fiction Sunning itself in the glass of Envy Suspects all young men and most young women Suspicion was her best witness Sweet treasure before which lies a dragon sleeping Telling her anything, she makes half a face in anticipation That which fine cookery does for the cementing of couples The intricate, which she takes for the infinite The social world he looked at did not show him heroes The alternative is, a garter and the bedpost The exhaustion ensuing we named tranquillity The mildness of assured dictatorship Their idol pitched before them on the floor They miss their pleasure in pursuing it This mania of young people for pleasure, eternal pleasure Tossed him from repulsion to incredulity, and so back Two principal roads by which poor sinners come to a conscience Utterance of generous and patriotic cries is not sufficient We grew accustomed to periods of Irish fever We like well whatso we have done good work for We trust them or we crush them Weak reeds who are easily vanquished and never overcome Weak stomach is certainly more carnally virtuous than a full one Were I chained, For liberty I would sell liberty When we see our veterans tottering to their fall When you have done laughing with her, you can laugh at her Wins everywhere back a reflection of its own kindliness Wits, which are ordinarily less productive than land Woman descending from her ideal to the gross reality of man Your devotion craves an enormous exchange


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