No. 371 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

No. 371. Tuesday, May 6, 1712. Addison.

‘Jamne igitur laudas quod se sapientibus unus Ridebat?’

Juv.

I shall communicate to my Reader the following Letter for the Entertainment of this Day.

Sir,

You know very well that our Nation is more famous for that sort of Men who are called Whims and Humourists, than any other Country in the World; for which reason it is observed that our English Comedy excells that of all other Nations in the Novelty and Variety of its Characters.

Among those innumerable Setts of Whims which our Country produces, there are none whom I have regarded with more Curiosity than those who have invented any particular kind of Diversion for the Entertainment of themselves or their Friends. My Letter shall single out those who take delight in sorting a Company that has something of Burlesque and Ridicule in its Appearance. I shall make my self understood by the following Example. One of the Wits of the last Age, who was a Man of a good Estate [1], thought he never laid out his Money better than in a Jest. As he was one Year at the Bath, observing that in the great Confluence of fine People, there were several among them with long Chins, a part of the Visage by which he himself was very much distinguished, he invited to dinner half a Score of these remarkable Persons who had their Mouths in the Middle of their Faces. They had no sooner placed themselves about the Table, but they began to stare upon one another, not being able to imagine what had brought them together. Our English Proverb says,

Tis merry in the Hall,
When Beards wag all.

It proved so in the Assembly I am now speaking of, who seeing so many Peaks of Faces agitated with Eating, Drinking, and Discourse, and observing all the Chins that were present meeting together very often over the Center of the Table, every one grew sensible of the Jest, and came into it with so much Good-Humour, that they lived in strict Friendship and Alliance from that Day forward.

The same Gentleman some time after packed together a Set of Oglers, as he called them, consisting of such as had an unlucky Cast in their Eyes. His Diversion on this Occasion was to see the cross Bows, mistaken Signs, and wrong Connivances that passed amidst so many broken and refracted Rays of Sight.

The third Feast which this merry Gentleman exhibited was to the Stammerers, whom he got together in a sufficient Body to fill his Table. He had ordered one of his Servants, who was placed behind a Skreen, to write down their Table-Talk, which was very easie to be done without the help of Short-hand. It appears by the Notes which were taken, that tho’ their Conversation never fell, there were not above twenty Words spoken during the first Course; that upon serving up the second, one of the Company was a quarter of an Hour in telling them, that the Ducklins and [Asparagus [2]] were very good; and that another took up the same time in declaring himself of the same Opinion. This Jest did not, however, go off so well as the former; for one of the Guests being a brave Man, and fuller of Resentment than he knew how to express, went out of the Room, and sent the facetious Inviter a Challenge in Writing, which though it was afterwards dropp’d by the Interposition of Friends, put a Stop to these ludicrous Entertainments.

Now, Sir, I dare say you will agree with me, that as there is no Moral in these Jests, they ought to be discouraged, and looked upon rather as pieces of Unluckiness than Wit. However, as it is natural for one Man to refine upon the Thought of another, and impossible for any single Person, how great soever his Parts may be, to invent an Art, and bring it to its utmost Perfection; I shall here give you an account of an honest Gentleman of my Acquaintance who upon hearing the Character of the Wit above mentioned, has himself assumed it, and endeavoured to convert it to the Benefit of Mankind. He invited half a dozen of his Friends one day to Dinner, who were each of them famous for inserting several redundant Phrases in their Discourse, as d’y hear me, d’ye see, that is, and so Sir. Each of the Guests making frequent use of his particular Elegance, appeared so ridiculous to his Neighbour, that he could not but reflect upon himself as appearing equally ridiculous to the rest of the Company: By this means, before they had sat long together, every one talking with the greatest Circumspection, and carefully avoiding his favourite Expletive, the Conversation was cleared of its Redundancies, and had a greater Quantity of Sense, tho’ less of Sound in it.

The same well-meaning Gentleman took occasion, at another time, to bring together such of his Friends as were addicted to a foolish habitual Custom of Swearing. In order to shew the Absurdity of the Practice, he had recourse to the Invention above mentioned, having placed an Amanuensis in a private part of the Room. After the second Bottle, when Men open their Minds without Reserve, my honest Friend began to take notice of the many sonorous but unnecessary Words that had passed in his House since their sitting down at Table, and how much good Conversation they had lost by giving way to such superfluous Phrases. What a Tax, says he, would they have raised for the Poor, had we put the Laws in Execution upon one another? Every one of them took this gentle Reproof in good part: Upon which he told them, that knowing their Conversation would have no Secrets in it, he had ordered it to be taken down in Writing, and for the humour sake would read it to them, if they pleased. There were ten Sheets of it, which might have been reduced to two, had there not been those abominable Interpolations I have before mentioned. Upon the reading of it in cold Blood, it looked rather like a Conference of Fiends than of Men. In short, every one trembled at himself upon hearing calmly what he had pronounced amidst the Heat and Inadvertency of Discourse.

I shall only mention another Occasion wherein he made use of the same Invention to cure a different kind of Men, who are the Pests of all polite Conversation, and murder Time as much as either of the two former, though they do it more innocently; I mean that dull Generation of Story-tellers. My Friend got together about half a dozen of his Acquaintance, who were infected with this strange Malady. The first Day one of them sitting down, entered upon the Siege of Namur, which lasted till four a-clock, their time of parting. The second Day a North-Britain took possession of the Discourse, which it was impossible to get out of his Hands so long as the Company staid together. The third Day was engrossed after the same manner by a Story of the same length. They at last began to reflect upon this barbarous way of treating one another, and by this means awakened out of that Lethargy with which each of them had been seized for several Years.

As you have somewhere declared, that extraordinary and uncommon Characters of Mankind are the Game which you delight in, and as I look upon you to be the greatest Sportsman, or, if you please, the Nimrod among this Species of Writers, I thought this Discovery would not be unacceptable to you.

I am,

SIR, etc.

I.

[Footnote 1: George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, Drydens Zimri, and the author of the Rehearsal.]

[Footnote 2: [Sparrow-grass] and in first Reprint.]