A Sense of the Ridiculous


I HAVE often wondered — being an outsider in such matters — how it is that poets of genuine imaginative powers ever allow themselves to drop into pure bathos. I have vainly tried to explain to myself how Bryant, for example, happened to make his Hunter of the West pause on the hillside and look back at — what do you suppose ?

“ The dwelling of his Genevieve!

The idea of a rough Western hunter having a wife named " Genevieve ” is, as our advocates of elevator-boy diction would say, a little too thin. What mood of mind could have led the author of Thanatopsis into such incongruity ? And where was his careful and sedate Muse when, in the poem called The Burial Place, he described flowers as being

“ the forms and hues
Of vegetable beauty ” ?

Though Tennyson in his more recent editions has excluded The Skipping Rope, what phenomenal lapse of poetic instinct was it that left it possible for him to write that silly lyric ? I hold that a sense of humor is an indispensable thing to the mental equipment of a serious poet. If Wordsworth had possessed this sense, he would have spared us many and many a page of puerility. If Matthew Arnold had had it, he never would have begun one of his fine sonnets with

“ That son of Italy who tried to blow.”

In the next line we get " the trump of sacred song,” but it is too late. The mischief is done. Giacopone di Todi, ere Dante came, attempted to blow the trump of sacred song, which is all very well; but in an Index of First Lines the incomplete statement is comical, and no poet with any levity in him whatever would have allowed so absurd a verse to stand. Arnold had wit of a certain kind, but no humor. The lack of it was a serious limitation to him, both as poet and essayist. The good and bad influence of Wordsworth is very evident in several of Arnold’s earlier poems. Wordsworth’s simplicity sowed a dreadful seed in English poetry. Flowers from this seed crop out here and there in most unexpected places. I have little doubt of his responsibility for the second line of this couplet in the late Aubrey De Vere’s tragedy, Mary Tudor, — a dramatic poem, in which there are scenes of undeniable dignity : —

“ She rises from the sea of her great trouble,
Like a pure infant glowing from the bath ” !

When I reach Browning, my theory touching the value of a perception of the ridiculous collapses. His keen eye in that direction is of no service to him ; for Browning, to whom nearly all things have been given, has a very strong sense of humor, but not the sense to use it as a safeguard, and he must often be vastly amused with himself. Surely he was unable to keep his countenance when, in the epilogue to his Parleyings with Certain People, he penned that remarkable line, —

“ The barrel of blasphemy broached once,
who bungs ? ”

Yes, he must have enjoyed it.

Whether this great poet occasionally laughs in his sleeve at a confiding public is a question commended to the smileless consideration of Browning Clubs at large.