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ON THE TALENT FOR HUMOUR, AND
PECULIARITIES OF THE
(Sir William Temple.)
ONE kind of poetry seems to have succeeded better with the moderns than with the antients, I mean that of the stage. In this the Italian, the Spanish, and the French have all had their different merits, and received their just applauses. Yet I am deceived, if our English has not by some force of a vein, natural perhaps to our coun: try, and which with us is called Humour, a word peculiar to our language too, and hard to be expressed in
any other; nor is it, that I koow of, found in any foreign writer, unless it be Moliere, and yet bis has too much of the farce to pass for the same with ours. Shakespeare was the first that opened this vein upon our stage which has run so freely and so pleasanily ever since. I have indeed often wondered to find it so little upon any others, being a subject so proper for thenı; siace humour is but a picture of particular life, as comedy is of general; and though it represents dispositions and customs less common, yet they are not less natural than those that are frequent among men; for if bumour itself be forced, it loses all the grace, which indeed has been the fault of some of our poets most celebrated in this kind.
It may seem a defect in the antient stage that the characters introdụced were so few and those so common; as a covetous old man, an amorous young witty wench; a crafty knave; a bragging soldier: the spectators inet nothing upon the stage but what they met in the streets, and at every turn. All the variety is drawn only from different and uncommon events: whereas if the characters are so too, the diversity and the pleasure must needs be the more.
But as of most general customs in a country, there is usually some ground, from the nature of the people or climate; so there may be amongst us, for this vein of our stage, and a greater variety of humour in the picture, because there is a greater variety in the life. This may proceed from the native plenty of our soil, the inequality of our climate, as well as the ease of our government, and the liberty of professing opinions and factions which perhaps our neighbours may
have about them but are forced to disguise, and thereby they may in time be extinguished.
Plenty begets wantonness and pride, wantonness is apt to invent, and pride scoros to imitate; liberty begets obstinacy, and obstinacy will not be constrained. Thus we have more originals, and more that
appear what they are; we have more humour, because every man follows his own and takes a pride to show it.
On the contrary where the people are generally poor, and forced to hard labour, their actions and their lives are all of a piece; where they serve a hard master they must follow his example as well as commands, and are forced upon imitation in small matters, as well as obedience in great; so that some nations look as if they were all cast in one mould, or cut out all by one pattern (at least the common people by one, and the gentlemen by another); seen all of a sort by their habits, their customs, and even their talk and conversation, as well as in the application and pursuit of their actions and their lives.
Besides all this there is another sort of variely among us, which arises from our climate and the dispositions it naturally produces. We are not only more unlike one another than any nation I know, but we are more unlike ourselves too at several times, and owe to our very air some ill qualities as well as many good. We may allow some distempers incident to our climate, since so much health, vigour, and length of life have been generally ascribed to it: for among the Greek
and Roman authors themselves, we shall find the Britons observed to live the lougest and the Egyptians the shortest of any nations that were known in those ages. Besides I think none will dispute the native courage of our men and the beauty of our women, which may be elsewhere as great in particulars; but no where so in general; they may be (what is said of diseases) as acute in other places, but with us they are epidemical. For my own part, who have conversed with men of other nations, and such as have been both in great employments and esteem, I can say very impartially that I have not observed among any so much true genius as among the English; no where more sharpness of wit, more pleasantness of humour, more range of fancy, more penetration of thought or depth of reflection among the better sort; no where more goodness of nature and of meaning, and of plainness of sense and life, than among the common soit of country people; nor more blunt courage and honesty than among our seamen.'
But with all this our country must be confessed to be what a great foreign physician called it, the region of spleen, which may arise a good deal from the great uncertainty and many sudden changes of our weather in all seasons of the year. And how much these affect the heads and hearts, especially of the finest tenpers, is hardly to be believed by men whose thoughts are pot turned to such speculations. This makes us unequal in our bumours, inconstant in our passions, uncertain in our end, and even in our desires. Besides our different opinions, in religion and the factions they have raised or animated for fifty years past, have had an ill effect upon our manners and customs, producing more avariee, ambition, clisguise, with their usual consequences, than were before in our constitution.
From all this it may happen, that there is no where more true zeal in the many different forms of devotion ; and yet no where more knavery under the shews and pretences. There are no where so many disputers on religion, so many reasoners upon government, so many refiners upon politics, so many curious inquisitives, so many pretenders to business and state employments, greater porers upon books and plodders after wealth; and yet no where more abandoned libertines, more refined luxurists, extravagant debauchees, conceited gallants, more dabblers in poetry as well as politics, in philosophy and in chymistry. I have had several servants far gone in divinity; others in poetry; have known in the families of some friends a keeper deep in the Rosicrucian principles, and a laundress firm in those of Epicurus.
What effect soever such a composition or medley of humours among us may have upon our lives or our goveroment, it must needs have