The Humourist on the Power Of Imagination, on the Anatomy of Human Heads, and on Making Hay

Today, The Humourist gifts us with  an essay on the power of imagination, an advertisement about a forthcoming publication on the anatomy of human heads, and a song on making hay!  But, interestingly enough, even though it is the day before Christmas, he makes no mention at all of Christmas!

If he were a New Englander, I would not be surprised by his silence.  Colonial New Englanders—especially Puritans—brought with them many of the Reformation issues that were prevalent in Europe, including controveries about the celebration of Christian feast days.

But the Humourist was living in Colonial South Carolina, where Anglicans (Episcopalians), Lutherans, and Roman Catholics celebrated Christmas with feasting, dancing, drinking, cock fighting, and lavish entertainments. How strange that the Humourist on this day before Christmas does not once mention Christmas!

Regardless, let’s enjoy and celebrate The Humourist!

24 December 1753


Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance.     SHAKESPEAR.1

That all men entertain high notions of their own importance, is a position of great antiquity; experience, that best of masters, never fails to shew it in the most glaring colours:  From the minister of state to the cobler in the stall, every individual swells at his own imaginations; no man considers himself as ordained to act a part only; we are all universal players, and are as eminently qualified for princely dignity as rustic familiarity; and in our own eyes appear equally suited for the hero or the buffoon, the king or Abel Drugger.2

I have frequently considered these ideas as flowing from a mind emulous of fame, and centering at least in innocent amusement.  These imaginary operations, may truly be termed the science of Castle-building; there is a pleasure arising from this profession, unknown to all others.

I have patronized this art many years, and after having run thro’ the several stages of life, am happy enough to find my finances in tolerable order.

If a man has any talent for building, my scheme not only furnishes him with fruitful designs, but likewise with suitable materials.  In the ordinary course of architecture, the pocket suffers, and the house must bear the shocks of weather and inconvenience of situation; now I can erect a little citadel, vary the prospects at pleasure, can suppose myself its governor, attended with all the pomp of a military cavalcade, and, by the forgeries of imagination, persuade myself into a firm belief that the enemy are soliciting for favor and protection.

I remember a brother of mine busied in the noble art of turning nine-pins, who, to all outward appearances, had look’d as if the balance of power depended upon every individual pin; I have erected houses for children by the help of cards, houses, in my opinion equal to those of Venice, and have absolutely undertook the arduous task of compiling laws for their inhabitants, equal to those of Solon and Lycurgus.3

If mankind can by any lawful means amuse time, remove inquietude to a great distance, and from mere fancy picture to his mind any grateful objects, sure this art must take place:  If a sign-painter can imagine himself possessed of the finger of a Raphael,4 that his portraits are surprizing, his pencil bold and animating, and that his figures swell on the canvas and quicken into life, permit him to hug the blest idea, no one suffers for it, no one receives an injury; the incident affords pleasure to the one, and a fund of laughter for the rest:  Thus all men may live in harmony, and a more just degree of equality subsist in the world; common humanity alone justifies this reasoning;

— — The pleasure is as great

In being cheated, as to cheat,

in the language of Hudibras.5

Henceforward let the curate look the bishop with impunity, the lawyer (if he list) suppose himself a judge, the merchant what he pleases, and in short, let every member of the world look every thing.

24 December 1753


Shortly will be published.

The Anatomy of human heads, describing the various kinds, the mathematical, spherical and elliptical; interspersed with many curious anecdotes, and reflections, critical, moral, and philosophical; and illustrated with near a million of worthy personages, as engrav’d by the best masters.

24 December 1753


As Damon one Day with his fair One was sate,
He talk’d pretty freely of this and of that,
While he toy’d on the Green in Negligence gay,
And Proverb-wise quickly began to make Hay.

Lord bless me, how rude! such a Man I protest
Is the Plague of my Heart, and Foe to my Rest;
No Woman can bear such like Freedom as this,
And the NO shall from henceforth take place of the YES.

He whisper’d an Accent so sweet in her Ear,
When she look’d a smile, (if smiles are sincere)
But too soon to his Grief, responsive Eccho
Gave, instead of the YES, a Gentle NO, NO.

Unskill’d in the Arts of Lucinda the gay,
He soon discontinu’d his amorous play;
She slighted him too; for the Women detest
That a Man should invert what’s meant as a Jest.

Henceforth ye fond Lovers, who wish to obtain
The thousand endearments oft sought for in vain,
Accept this Advice, which th’ experienc’d all know,
That a Woman means YES whene’er she says NO.


1  William Shakespeare, the “Prologue,” Henry the V.

2  A character in Ben Jonson’s comedy The Alchemist, first performed in 1610. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the play “one of the three most perfect plots in all literature.”

3  Solon is known as the lawgiver of Athens; Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta.

4  Raphael (1483-1520), an Italian painter and architect.

Hudibras, Part II, Canto III by English satirical poet Samuel Butler (1612-1680). The full quotation reads: “Doubtless the pleasure is as great / Of being cheated as to cheat; / As lookers-on feel most delight, / That least perceive a jugler’s slight; / And still the less they understand, / The more th’ admire his slight of hand.”

6 thoughts on “The Humourist on the Power Of Imagination, on the Anatomy of Human Heads, and on Making Hay

  1. Wired Prof! I love it, reminds me of our memoir class(es): “…every individual swells at his own imaginations; no man considers himself as ordained to act a part only; we are all universal players, and are as eminently qualified for princely dignity as rustic familiarity; and in our own eyes appear equally suited for the hero or the buffoon….”


    • Yes, of course, the “memoir” connection is there, not only to our memoir classes but also to memoir writing: It’s the most popular genre today because we see ourselves as “universal players” and our stories are worth telling and sharing.

      This particular Humourist essay is important to American literature for another reason, however. It’s perhaps the first American essay dealing, even if marginally, with literary aesthetics and imagination. This essay comes seventeen years before Philip Freneau’s poem “The Power of Fancy” (1770) and twenty years before Phillis Wheatley’s “On Imagination” (1773).


  2. Yet, for all his imagination, The Humourist could conceive of no better punchline than that hoary old chestnut about a woman’s no meaning yes.


  3. While it is not possible to DEDUCE that the Humorists’ comments prove that the writer is beyond the youthful stages, the inference Wired Researcher offers seems sound enough. More dubious, however, is the pinning down to a specific five-year age range (55-59). In the 18th century, people in their forties may have experienced the beginning stages of late adulthood; on the other hand, it’s possible that the Humorist is referring to being in the sixth decade of life. Wired Researcher assumes too much about the correlation between stable finances, stages of life, and a particular five-year age range, ignoring the fact that people experienced aging very differently the 18th century compared to today and ignoring the significant variation in aging among individuals. An inference that the humorist is probably above the age of 40 seems fairly tenable (though we should not be surprised if we learn that the Humorist is only 38)–anything else seems speculation that is interesting, but no more credible than a speculation that the Humorist is 65, 45, or 35. I get the feeling of confirmation bias in today’s blog post: Wired Researcher has decided the identity of the Humorist and now finds confirmation in every Rorschach.


    • Excellent observations! Thank you. As I indicated from the get go, I am 99% certain of the Humourist’s identity, so you may be spot on when you say that I find “confirmation in every Rorschach.”


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