The Humourist (January 15, 1754)

In today’s writings, the Humourist is perhaps at his best!  And, joy of all joys, he continues to provide a trail of identity clues:  his knowledge of the ancients, his knowledge of history, his knowledge of literature, his love of painting, and his love of architecture!  The pieces of this “literary whodunit” are falling into place.

 But for now, read what the Humourist writes and enjoy!

15 January 1754


So ancient is the Pedigree of Verse,
And so divine a Poet’s function.

I have ever been of Opinion that dramatic Performances promote good Purposes:  They purify our Minds and enlarge our Understandings, too, tho’, of the two kinds, Tragedy tends most to our Instruction.

A good Tragedy is a noble Lecture, full fraught with the Precept and the Moral, as we find them so delightfully diffused through the whole System of Philosophy; the Mind is ennobled by the Sentiment, the Passions are rectified by the very Passions themselves, and calm, by their Emotions, the alternate Palpitations of the Heart.

There are two predominant Rulers of the Soul, Pride and Cruelty, that stand in need of Regulation; this particular Branch of the Drama alone, so tempers the Affections, and subdues the unruly Operations of the Mind, that Pride starts at its own Authority, and Cruelty softly graduates into the sweet Path of kind Compassion.

If we turn over the Records of Drama, we shall find, that it is a first Principle to promote Modesty; and there is certainly no Method so effectual, as that of enforcing our Doctrine by Examples, by figuring to Mankind the most splendid Stations of Life, and representing the Heroes of the World humbled, by those very Acts of Heroism which rather distinguished an ambitious than a virtuous Impulse.

It requires no small Experience of Mankind, to be made acquainted with those Occurrences of Life, that are necessary in order to guard against the first risings of Evil.

The tragic Scene represents to us the Necessity of Tenderness on the one Hand, and that kind Compassion which dictates a proper Distinction of Misfortunes on the other, and teaches us to spare our Pity for those only who deserve it.  There is undoubtedly an Injustice, in being moved for that Man whose Behaviour can intitle him only to Disgrace.  Who does not take a secret Pleasure in beholding Clytemnestra sinking into the Arms of Death, after having committed a Murder of an heinous Nature?  When I say that she kill’d her Husband Agamemnon, my Pen denies its Master, my Hand forgets its Function, and every Faculty of the Soul its distinct and separate Operation.2

The Origin of Tragedy was purely a religious Worship, but afterwards it descended from the Temples to the Theatre, ’till it was allayed by secular Direction, and served as just Image and Representation of human Life.

Athens was the fostering Soil for dramatick Poetry; there it blossom’d and pour’d forth its Fruity; and who can wonder at the Veneration Tragedy was held even in those early Days, when we consider that Athens was the Place for more than Wit, solid Learning.

A Tragedy is, or ought to be, interesting; and where it is so, the Judgment furnishes us with those variety of Passions that will not suffer the Mind to lie lull’d supine, or easy.  Whatever may become the Brave, or the Unfortunate; whatever may agree with the Indulgence of a kind Parent, or a faithful Friend, are nobly displayed in Performances of this Nature; nothing discovering that close Connexion between Poets and Painters more graphically than the different Peinture they excel in, the one in the outward Lineaments of the Face and Body, the other in the inward Temperament of the Mind.

The Drama is always new, because it always affects; there is no Argoment of such Weight in favour of Tenderness, as the being moved and excited at the Occurrences of a good Play.

It was always esteemed by the Ancients:  If Lycurgus was a Law-giver and Patron, Solon was a Brother to the Muses; if Alexander made Homer his nocturnal Pillow, it as because the Story bordered so nearly on dramatick Writings.3 There runs the true Spirit of real Life and Action through the whole.

If these Efforts of the Genius were so regarded by the Ancients, and look’d upon with an Eye of Reverence, I might justly add Adoration, we Moderns are every way justified in imbibing the same Notions, and embracing the same Sentiments.

I am now speaking of those Plays whose Story forms a Moral:  I cannot be supposed to mean otherwise, nor can any Man of sense; because Immorality and Vice are the Refuge of those People only, who stand in need of better Endowments, a Good Genius and an honest Soul.

15 January 1754


Ridentem dicere verum,
Quid vetat.                           HOR.4


As I have always held those who practice Physic in great Contempt, it gave me much Pleasure to find my Opinion of that Profession confirmed, not only by the Judgment of Pope Adrian the VIth, but by the Humourist himself.  You indeed are benevolent enough, to allow them a greater Share of inward and outward Knowledge than most of them have a Right to; but, granting they had all you are pleased to bestow on them, how badly do they conform to the Lesson of the Oracle; for we have Reason to conclude, from their Behaviour, that they trouble their Heads as little with an Inspection into their own moral Conduct, as with an honest Concern for the Welfare of their their Patients.  I have the Honour likewise to agree, in the Main, with his Holiness, in his political Opinion of the Tribe, for were it not for the Physician, Men would live so long, and grow so THICK, that ONE could not live for the OTHER; and he makes the Earth cover all his Faults.5  I say, my judgment is the same, in the Main, with this good Pope’s, as shall be made appear afterwards; but a small Dilemma occurs, for I cannot, without shuddering, think of the miserable Condition of Men, did they live so long, and grow so thick, that ONE could not LIVE for the OTHER, for in that Case, it seems, that every Mother’s Son of them must surely die, and at the same Time too (when one could not longer live for the other); or else, the least ill Consequence would be, that the small ones would be trodden down and crushed to Death in the Croud by the great ones; but we are in no Danger of any such Misfortune (if there is no Solecism in the Pope’s Words) for Physic steps in and luckily prevents it.  What he says is literarally true, that were it not for the Physician, Men would live long, and might grow THICK too, for indeed, Mr. Humourist, what Man can live long, and grow thick, under a Diet of Pills, Boluses, Sage-Tea, and Water-Gruel? I will venture an even Wager, that any Man, be he ever so thick, will grow thin and dwindle under such a Regimen; nay more, that he will not live long:  The Experiment may easily be tried on yourself, if you prove too thick for your thin Aerial Mansion.  It seems very just likewise, that the Physician should finish his Work, by burying the Dead, and make the Earth cover all his Faults; and it is probable, it was formerly his Duty so to do, as it is Jack-catch’s at present; but I fear their Fees would be too high for this Office, and many of the Poor might life and rot above Ground, wherefore this shall not be insisted on.  It plainly appears then, from what You, Pope Adrian, and Myself have said, that Physic is so far from being a desireable Profession, either in a moral or political Sense, that it is destructive, and aims at the Extirpation of the human Species:  To say more of it, would be superfluous.  Law, on the other Hand, is unerring in its Decisions; for, who ever found himself aggrieved by its Decrees, which the most obstinate must not acquiesce in; and why should he not?  sure, what it decrees must be just?  It must also be granted, that Divinity would be of some Use to the World, if Men would but root out the Corruption of the Hearts, that they might profit by the Doctrine and Example of the Professors of it, but ’till that can be done, much Good, I fear, is not to be expected from it.

The following Doggrel Lines, were composed by some snarling Fellow, who seems to have been no Friend to either of the Professions, but such as they are, you are welcome to them.


     Law, Physic, and Divinity,
Being in dispute, could not agree,
To settle, which, among the three,
Should have the superiority.

     Law pleads, that he preserves men’s lands,
And all their goods, from rav’nous hands;
Therefore of right challenges He,
To have the superiority.

     Physic prescribes receipts for health
Which men prefer above their Wealth;
Therefore of right challenges He,
To have the superiority.

     Then strait steps up the Priest demure,
Who of men’s souls takes care and cure;
Therefore of right challenges He,
To have the superiority.

     If Judges end this triple Plea,
The Lawyers shall bear all the sway,
If Empiricks their verdict give,
Physicians best of all shall thrive;

     If Bishops arbitrate the case,
The Priest shall have the highest place.
If honest, sober, wise men judge,
Then all the three away may trudge.

     For let men live in peace and love,
The Lawyer’s tricks they need not prove;
Let them avoid excess and riot,
They need not feed on Doctor’s diet.

     Let them attend what God does teach,
They need not care what Parson’s preach.
But if men fools, and knaves will be,
They’ll be Ass-ridden by all three.


1 English poet Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon (c. 1630-1685). The quote is from his blank verse translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica.

2 In Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon, thereby establishing herself as a femme fatale.

3 Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta (c. 820-730BC). Solon, the Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet (c. 638-558BC). Alexander the Great (356-323BC), known for sleeping with a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow.

4  A line from Horace’s Satires: “What prevents me from telling the truth with a smile”

5 Pope Adrian VI (1459-1523). The Humourist may have been relying on James Howells’ Epistolae Ho-Elianae: The Familiar Letters of James Howells, Historiographer Royal to Charles II. In Book III (1650), he writes: “and as Adrian VI. said, he [the physician] is very necessary to a populous Country, for were it not for the Physician, Men would live so long and grow so thick, that one could not live for the other ; and he makes the Earth cover all his faults.”

8 thoughts on “The Humourist (January 15, 1754)

  1. I love “The Triple Plea.” I am more and more convinced our mystery man is Benjamin Franklin.

    Stephen Hudak | VP University | 130 Chestnut Oak Road, Front Royal, Virginia 22630 | 540.622.7499 |
    “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” Herbert Spencer


    • “The Triple Plea” is splendid! As for your conjecture that the mystery man is Benjamin Franklin, you are … WRONG! Even so, The Humourist is surely smiling big time that you think he’s Ben Franklin!


  2. I’m rather late to this party. While I figure out what’s going on, I’ll say thank you for helping me to better understand the novel Maddie and I are writing–alas, a tragedy. Now to make sure the right people receive the pity they deserve.


  3. Professor: I love it: [The pieces of this “literary whodunit” are falling into place.] I think you have had an idea from the start. It might have been his half-brother, or the butler, even…


    • Well, yes: of course. Indeed I have my aerial notions, but I am looking for validation. And, with every essay that I share, I am discovering more and more that validates the idea that I had from the start. Even so, I am still looking for the “clincher,” and I believe that I will find it.

      In the meantime, I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem:

      Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
      Success in Circuit lies
      Too bright for our infirm Delight
      The Truth’s superb surprise

      As Lightning to the Children eased
      With explanation kind
      The Truth must dazzle gradually
      Or every man be blind —

      Stay tuned: in due time, TRUTH!


  4. I have been obliged to Google United States history, not for the history but for the timeline, and am astonished to learn that 1754 saw the beginning of the French & Indian War, which predated the American Revolution. George Washington was alive! And so were lots of other soon-to-be heroes and martyrs. (Shakespeare had been dead nearly 200 years; Emily Dickinson would be born in about 75 years.)

    My favorite historical fact about the founding of the New World (which I learned in Southern Lit, taught by Professor Kendrick) is that it was the second and third sons who came over. Thanks to primogeniture, the first-borns stayed home and inherited the estates and all the money. So I’m thinking whoever The Humourist is, he’s the scion of a second or subsequent son who had been kicked out of England and forced to make his way in the Colonies. Obviously The Humourist is bitter about it, given his opinions of the professions and his negative world-view.

    My guess is that he was a politician.


    • I hereby award you an A++ for doing some unassigned homework! Yes, yes, yes!!! 1754 saw the beginning of the French and Indian War. And–did you know–it was the year of our country’s first political cartoon. “Join, or Die” was published in Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754.

      Politician? Your speculation is most intriguing! Unfortunately, you are wrong. However, you are close! Although the Humourist wasn’t a politician, some saw him (in some regards) as a bit of a rascal!


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