The Felicity of the Blunder

— Teachers will agree with me that reading students’ themes is weary work. Still, one is occasionally cheered by blunders amusing enough to compensate for the labor of plodding through reams of manuscripts. If a sufficient number of these were collected and classified, perhaps some light might be thrown on the way in which the mind appropriates new words, for many of them involve a misapprehension of the exact meaning of some unfamiliar term. Thus, the young men who wrote that “ Mrs. Browning was spiritual and atmospheric,” that “ Browning’s plays were very interesting and ought to be dramatized,” that “ Rossetti was characterized by pungent ideal sympathy,” and that “ Meredith was deep on the outside,” may have ideas, but they have an imperfectly assimilated vocabulary, Our earliest poet never received a more flattering appreciation than from the one who wrote, “Chaucer has absolutely no contemporaries.” Blunders resulting from misquotation are common. One man referred to Wordsworth’s ode as “ The Ode on Intimations of Immorality felt in Childhood,” and another spoke of Washington as “ First in war, next in peace, and last in the hearts of his country men.” But by far the greater number of “ bulls ” comes under the class in which ideas incongruous but apparently similar are brought into the same sentence as if they were of equal importance. If this were consciously done, we might call the result wit. “ The peasant was elevated by gunpowder to a level with the knight.” “ De Quincey’s mother was a stately woman, moving in the best society but with her feet on the Rock of Ages.” “ Rossetti wrote a number of sonnets and put them in his wife’s coffin ; they were called the ‘ House of Wife.’ ” “ Marion and his gorrillas pervaded the swamps of South Carolina, looking for vengeance.” “ Shelley lived in the clouds and was struck by lightning.” “ The Puritans did not come here to fish, but to worship God.” “ The early Germans had no word for what we term a carbuncle, but the pain experienced from stepping on one was so great that a forcible term had to be borrowed from the Latin.” “Shelley tried to penetrate the ruling principle of life, but it easily eluded him.” “ King Charles did not realize that anything important had taken place till he was executed.” “ Keats was born in London: it is a great thing to be born in London, but it is a greater thing to be born at all.”