Wit, Humour & Irony in Addison’s Essays

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      Addison’s essays are said by many critics to have nothing very great about them except for a charming wit, humor and vivacity. These qualities, however, are not quite negligible. Addison’s essays show a fine sense of humor. Now, what is humor? Humor may be defined as “the kindly, amused contemplation of the incongruities of life, and the expression thereof in literature.’’ The term speaks of all that is comical, funny, ludicrous, or diverting. It may include exaggeration and ridicule, but the best form of humor is the one which is mild and humane. Addison is one of the best humorists in English literature. But his humor is the type that produces smiles rather than laughter. He “checks his smile before it has broadened into laughter,” as Virginia Woolf remarks.

True Humor which Defies Analysis

      Addison’s humor is not the variety that he himself calls false. In one of his essays, he says that false wit and humor is produced from falsehood and nonsense, whereas true wit and humor comes out of truth and good sense. False humor causes frenzied laughter of which Addison is rather disapproving. He dislikes sarcasm and sneering which, he says, are not connected with true humor. Addison’s humor evokes smiles and not frenzied laughter. But, at the same time, there is something indefinable about his humor. There is something which defies all analysis. We agree with Macaulay who says:

“But what shall we say of Addison’s humor, of his sense of the ludicrous, of his power of awakening that sense in others, and for drawing mirth from incidents which occur every day, and of little peculiarities of temper and manner, such as he found in every man? We feel the charm; we give ourselves up to it; but we strive in vain to analyze it.”

Humor which is Refined and Urbane and Delicate

      Addison is never bitter or sneering in his humor. He is urbane, responsible and civilized in his humor. He is tolerant and gentlemanly. He does not indulge in farce and boisterous fun. He is never rough or corrosive. His humor is mild, warm and gentle. Comparing the humor of Addison with Swift’s and Voltaire’s, Macaulay says: “What chiefly distinguishes Addison from Swift, from Voltaire, from almost all the other great masters of ridicule, is the grace, the nobleness, the moral purity, which we find in his merriment. Severity gradually hardening and darkening into misanthropy characterizes the works of Swift......Voltaire venerated nothing. Nothing great, nothing amiable, no moral duty, no doctrine of natural or revealed religion, has ever been associated by Addison with any degraded idea. His humanity is without a parallel in literary history......No kind of power is more formidable than the power of making men ridiculous; and that power Addison possessed in boundless measure of Addison it may be confidently affirmed that he has blackened no man’s character may, that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find in all the volumes he has left to us, a single taunt, which can be called ungenerous or unkind.”

Pure Humour

      It has been remarked by all the critics of Addison that his essays possess very little of pure humor, i.e., humor intended merely to provoke laughter or humor aimed completely at fun and entertainment. This is indeed true. Addison’s humor had a serious purpose behind it. Yet there are, here and there, scattered among his essays instances which may qualify for pure humor. There is an anecdote in The Scope Of Satire about the man with two wives who pull out all the hair from his head because one does not like white hair and the other dislikes black hair. Some of the eccentricities of Sir Roger could be said to fall in this category. There is an instance of pure humor in the letter sent by Will Honeycomb to Spectator when the latter has stayed for a long time in countryside. He says that if Spectator did not return soon they would all conclude that he had fallen in love with one of the dairy maids on Sir Roger’s estate.

Humor with Purpose

      But most of Addison’s humor is purposive, humor with a serious aim. He said that his aim in writing the essays was to banish vice and folly and ignorance from the shores of Great Britain. He wanted to do so through laughter. Thus his humor was meant to be corrective. It was meant to be enjoyed by his readers who would readily laugh away their own folly by seeing it portrayed in a humorous (but general) manner. He had to enliven morality with wit and temper wit with morality. He was frankly didactic and more concerned with social reform than pure entertainment. He wanted to instruct the readers. What he says in the essay, On Ridicule, is relevant to the understanding of his own kind of humor:

“If the talent of ridicule were employed to laugh men out of vice and folly, it might be of some use to the world: but instead of this, we find that is generally made use of to laugh men out of virtue and good sense by attacking everything that is solemn and serious, decent and praiseworthy in human life.”

      His own humor was the type that aimed at laughing the men out of vice and folly. He says: “I would not willingly laugh but in order to instruct.”

Humor in the Form of Satire

      Humor in Addison was corrective. It was alloyed with a moral and reformative aim. As such it had to become satiric. He aimed to laugh mankind out of vice and folly. He recognized the efficacy of ridicule as a corrective method. Satire is, more or less, the attempt to correct through ridicule. Addison’s humor, with its corrective purpose, behind it, became satiric. Yet the moral purpose does not weigh down heavily on his writings. The humor is fresh and vivacious. And, as has been often remarked, his humor was a humane one—not cynical or misanthropic. What is more, his humorous satire is never directed at individuals but at types, at general manners and behavior.

Comic Irony

      Humor was, it has been seen, a part of his satire. This humor often takes the form of irony, the supreme weapon in the hands of a satirist. In fact, as Courthope says, irony is the very essence of Addison’s humor. This irony is called gentle precisely because it has been veiled by humor. It could have been bitter and particular and formidable, but Addison’s urbanity and instinctive humanity made him resort to humorous and general irony. He is ironic by pretending to sympathize with the views of his victim and through this pretended sympathy reveal the folly of those very views. He achieves an ironic effect by describing a non-serious object in a most serious manner. This grave irony is revealed in the essays, Fans and Female Orators It is these sly touches of irony in the portraiture of Sir Roger that lend so much charm to the essays. Irony is accompanied by a sense of fun, the typical example of this being the essay Fans. Addison’s irony is good-natured irony, and it is always informed by suave humor. His irony and humor is further directed towards general types and never towards individuals.

Objects of his Humour: General, not Particular

      He tells the readers in the essay, The Scope of Satire, that he would not ridicule personalities, i.e., he would not make fun of individuals but only ridicule general types. He never made fun of virtue or goodness or of any object normally held to be sacred or solemn. He ridiculed classes of people and never particular persons. He desired to attack the vice without hurting the person. He made fun of certain follies and foibles which infested the society of the age. He attacked different classes and sections of this society in general. He satirizes the vanity of the landed gentry who preferred their younger sons to starve rather than let them earn a livelihood by trade. He makes fun of the country squires through the imaginary character of Sir Roger. He desires to reform the contemporary tastes in drama and stage through ridicule of the contemporary theatre. The feminine fashions and tastes also come into the sphere of his ridicule. But everywhere he is general and no where is reference made to any particular person. He avoids personal satire, and hence humor at the cost of individual’s character. He is sophisticated and urbane in his humor against all the objects of satire.

      The objects which he deals with fall into, roughly, four categories. These are, firstly, critical papers which include a satirical essay on the stage and theatre and opera. Secondly, we have the essays which deal with manners and behavior. Thirdly, there are the essays which have come to be termed the de Coverley papers. Fourthly, there are the purely didactic essays. The first three categories alone concern us here because the fourth category, namely the didactic essays Are totally devoid of humor of any sort. The other three classes of essays are quite remarkable for the urbane humor, so typical of Addison.

The Stage Essays

      The humor in the essay, Nicolini and the Lions, comes out of the ironic treatment. Here Addison ridicules the current fashion in Italian opera by giving a serious description of it. It is amusing to read about the ‘hero’ and the ‘lions’ having a smoke together behind the stage. The comparison of this friendship to two lawyers outside the court is funny. The lawyers might have been fighting hard against each other in the court but are friendly outside it: Addison describes the various lions who had fought Signor Nicolini on the stage. It is irony at its most humorous. Stage Realism too has an amusing anecdote about using real sparrows on stage. There is also the comparison of the manner in which bird music is produced for the scenes with the trick played by Sir Martin Marall on his mistress. It is again amusing. In the essay, The Trunk Maker, the reader is amused to know that there is a man who signals the audience to clap at certain points of the stage production.

Humor Regarding the Manners and Behaviour

      The essays dealing with the social manners and behavior also offer an abundance of humor. In this category come the several essays which Addison wrote about and for the female of the species. In these essays, he deals humorously with the foibles and weaknesses of the female sex—their addiction to their appearance and dress and toilet which they considered the most important functions of their lives. We laugh at his descriptions of these females. We are amused at the description of the female orators who are able to change the circumstances of the same story every time they tell it! The essay, Fans, is a most humorous presentation of a fashion which was prevalent in his days. There is a climax of fun towards the end of this essay where the different kinds of flutters of the fan are described. In Female Orators, we are told that females are able to talk for hours upon nothing—a rather humorous and ironic remark.

      In other essays, too, Addison ridicules the current fashions and lack of taste. He also attacks certain human types. The essay, Valetudinarians is most amusing in its description of the type of person who is obsessed with rules and principles of health. Exaggeration helps to make the essay, A Grinning Match humorous. In this essay, we are told about a competition in grinning and why a Frenchman, Jacobite and a plowman are rejected from this competition. The satire is very effective because of its humor. There is a comic irony in the essays, Coffee-House Politicians and Coffee-House Opinion. In these two essays, the ridicule is for those gossip who frequent the coffee houses and pretend to have a great deal of knowledge.

The de Coverley Essays

      Humor is at its most effective in the de Coverley papers. Here we meet the humor of character. Sir Roger is a very good old knight but he is also a very eccentric man. The humor comes out of his odd behavior. He does not like anyone to go to sleep in church except himself! We laugh at his apparent bewilderment about the local “witch”, Moll White. He is a simple and unintellectual character but he is a good man. We smile at his oddities but not bitterly. We, in fact, like him better for these oddities. Even when the humor is ironical, we do not lose sympathy with Sir Roger. Will Wimble’s attainments and occupations are another sources of humor in these essays. We laugh at the excuse that Will Honeycomb offers for his wrong spellings. He says that he does not like pedantry in spellings and that he spelled like a gentleman and not like a scholar! In connection with Will Honeycomb, we also remark that Addison uses a specific type of humor which consists of employing, or rather misemploying, learned and pseudo-learned arguments for putting forward an outrageously absurd idea which the writer wants to satirize. Thus Will Honeycomb’s tastes are satirized by Addison by making Will use a peculiar logic. Will uses Ovid to support his own ideas about hoods matching the complexion of the ladies who wear them.

Stylistic Humour

      Addison also shows a great ability in employing stylistic humor, i.e., humor which depends upon the use of words more than the thought itself. Often the style lends added humor to the passage. This is the type of humor contained in Addison’s use of similes. He compares the ladies who are wearing the short head-dresses in accordance with contemporary fashions to the “trees new lopped and pruned, that will certainly sprout up and flourish with greater heads than before”. There is another stylistic device which lends humor to his essays. This is the use of certain humorous terms for ordinary things. Thus the tombs and their inscriptions are called “registers of existence” in the essay, Meditations in the Abbey. We see this humor in the employment of certain grandiloquent terms for ordinary things. Thus the ordinary women who sell fish in Britain become “the ladies of the British fishery”. Grand phrases are often used for a humorous effect. Thus, in the essay, The Aim of the Spectator, we have references to “titular physicians”, “contemplative tradesmen”, and “Templars that are not given to be contentious”. We also have some humorous names which convey the essence of the character. In the essay, Female Orators, we have Mrs. Fiddle-Faddle — such an apt name for the gossip who can talk at length about the wit of her boy who has not yet learned to speak! The names of Sir Andrew Freeport and Captain Sentry are not without aptness to their situations and professions.

      In some places, Addison exhibits a supreme ability to condense a whole lot of humor in one significant word. In the essay dealing with the encounter of Sir Roger with gypsies, we have such an instance. Sir Roger is very pleased with what the gypsies say after reading his palm. They have picked his pocket. Sir Roger, however, discovers that his pocket has been picked only later. And we have a very amusing use of the word “palmistry” to mean the ability of the gypsies to read the palm as well as their skill at using their hands to pickpockets!


      Addison is a great and a true humorist. But his humor is mostly corrective, employed for the purposes of reform. He never ridicules anything which was normally held to be sacred or solemn. He does not indulge in any farcical or boisterous and coarse humor. He is always smooth, decent, gentlemanly and suave. His humor is dignified and refined, never cheap or vulgar. Furthermore, he is not bitter and does not rant and rail. And yet, this humor is most effective. Therein lies his greatness as a humorist. 

University Questions

1. Write an account of Addison’s humor.
2. Addison revealed to his successors “the full possibilities of humorous satire”. Comment and illustrate with reference to his prescribed essays.
3. What are the salient features of Addison’s humor?
4. “We feel the charm; we give ourselves up to it; but we strive in vain to analyze it.” Discuss in the context of Addison’s essays.
5. What is the part that wit and humor play in making “Spectator” so popular?

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