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CHAPTER V. RIDICULE:
I have said that humor is good-natured and winning. This is always true, though the winning of one reader may be at the expense of some other. Humor used to win one at the expense of another is called satire and sarcasm. The simplest form of using satire and sarcasm is in direct ridicule.
Ridicule, satire, and sarcasm are suitable for use against an open enemy, such as a political opponent, against a public nuisance which ought to be suppressed, or in behalf of higher ideals and standards. The one thing that makes this style of little effect is anger or morbid intensity. While some thing or some one is attacked, perhaps with ferocity, results are to be obtained by winning the reader. So it comes about that winning, good-natured humor is an essential element in really successful ridicule. If intense or morbid hatred or temper is allowed to dominate, the reader is repulsed and made distrustful, and turns away without being affected in the desired way at all.
The following, which opens a little known essay of Edgar Allan Poe's, is one of the most perfect examples of simple ridicule in the English language. We may have our doubts as to whether Poe was justified in using such withering satire on poor Mr. Channing; but we cannot help feeling that the workmanship is just what it ought to be when ridicule is employed in a proper cause. Perhaps the boosting of books into public regard by the use of great names is a proper and sufficient subject for attack by ridicule.
WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING.
By Edgar Allan Poe.
In speaking of Mr. William Ellery Channing, who has just published a very neat little volume of poems, we feel the necessity of employing the indefinite rather than the definite article. He is a, and by no means the, William Ellery Channing. He is only the son* of the great essayist deceased… It may be said in his favor that nobody ever heard of him. Like an honest woman, he has always succeeded in keeping himself from being made the subject of gossip. His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes to be such. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all.
They are not precisely English―nor will we insult a great nation by calling them Kickapoo; perhaps they are Channingese. We may convey some general idea of them by two foreign terms not in common use―the Italian pavoneggiarsi, “to strut like a peacock,” and the German word for “sky-rocketing,” Schwarmerei. They are more preposterous, in a word, than any poems except those of the author of “Sam Patch;” for we presume we are right (are we not?) in taking it for granted that the author of “Sam Patch” is the very worst of all the wretched poets that ever existed upon the earth.
In spite, however, of the customary phrase of a man's “making a fool of himself,” we doubt if any one was ever a fool of his own free will and accord. A poet, therefore, should not always be taken too strictly to task. He should be treated with leniency, and even when damned, should be damned with respect. Nobility of descent, too, should be allowed its privileges not more in social life than in letters. The son of a great author cannot be handled too tenderly by the critical Jack Ketch. Mr. Channing must be hung, that's true. He must be hung in terrorem ——and for this there is no help under the sun; but then we shall do him all manner of justice, and observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord, as Spaniards hang their grandees of the blue blood, their nobles of the sangre azul.
*Really the nephew.
To be serious, then, as we always wish to be, if possible, Mr. Channing (whom we suppose to be a very young man, since we are precluded from supposing him a very old one), appears to have been inoculated at the same moment with virus from Tennyson and from Carlyle, etc.
The three paragraphs which we have quoted illustrate three different methods of using ridicule. The first is the simple one of contemptuous epithets——“calling names,” as we put it in colloquial parlance. So long as it is good-humored and the writer does not show personal malice, it is a good way; but the reader soon tires of it. A sense of fairness prevents him from listening to mere calling of names very long. So in the second paragraph Poe changes his method to one more subtile: he pretends to apologize and find excuses, virtually saying to the reader, “Oh, I'm going to be perfectly fair,” while at the same time the excuses are so absurd that the effect is ridicule of a still more intense and biting type. In the third paragraph Poe seems to answer the reader's mental comment to the effect that “you are merely amusing us by your clever wit” by asserting that he means to be extremely serious. He then proceeds about his business with a most solemn face, which is as amusing in literature as it is in comic representations on the stage.
In practising upon this type of writing one must select a subject that he feels to be decidedly in need of suppression. Perhaps the most impersonal and easy subject to select for practice is a popular novel in which one can see absurdities, or certain ridiculous departments in the newspapers, such as the personal-advice column. Taking such a subject, adapt Poe's language to it with as little change as possible.
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Cody, Sherwin, 2007. The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/19719/pg19719-images.html
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