Controlled Revelation #13: The Humourist as a Musical Virtuoso! Plus, A Curious Challenge!

This week, as we explore The Humourist’s essay of March 5, 1754, we see him once again as a master of sarcasm as he continues—and, thankfully, finishes—his mock literary analysis of the dreadful combat between Moore of Moore Hall and the Dragon of Wantley.  You might want to re-read the ballad:  “The Dragon of Wantley.”

As I noted last week, as a classicist The Humourist knew that the poem was not great literature and that it was hardly worthy of the nearly 700 words that he devoted to it initially.  Even so, he resumes his task on March 5, 1754, devotes his entire essay to his ongoing mock analysis, and does so with such exquisite sarcasm that what is ridiculous already becomes even more so.

I am intrigued.  Why would The Humourist be so interested in this nonsensical 1685 ballad?  To answer my question, I decided to do some quick research just to see how popular the poem was during The Humourist’s lifetime.  I am surprised by my findings!  The poem was wildly popular not only as a satirical ballad but also as a burlesque opera!

Here’s what Nick Adams has to say about “The Dragon of Wantley”:

The publication history of the ballad itself is intriguing. It was first published in 1685, although there is an undated edition presumed to be earlier (though possibly dating to earlier in 1685), and there are ten subsequent editions before its appearance in a mid-eighteenth century anthology, Thomas Percy’s Relics of Ancient Poetry of 1767. By this time, the reference to Rotherham is removed and the text is bowdlerised; so excising the local colour along with the rude bits. This is a lot of editions. Moreover, the ballad is included in published edition of Henry Carey’s The Dragon of Wantley (1737). This is perhaps the most improbable manifestation of them all. It is a burlesque opera, satirising the operatic conventions of the time, but tellingly also attacking the taxation policies of the Whig government of the time, led by Robert Walpole. Some of Carey’s burlesques are appealing, but it is pretty hard to say this of The Dragon of Wantley. Nevertheless, it was hugely successful, running for 69 performances (more even than The Beggar’s Opera, the big stage hit of the time). The play was similarly popular in printed form.

“The Dragon of Wantley” as a burlesque opera!  Well, of course!  Burlesque opera!  As a musical virtuoso, The Humourist would have been more than interested in this ballad!

Oh my goodness!  I think I just dropped a major clue!

I am aware, fully, that there is absolutely nothing in this essay—or, for that matter, in any of The Humourist’s essays—that points in the direction of The Humourist being a musical virtuoso!  However, I know enough about his life that I can make that statement!  You’ll find out all the details on August 8.

So let’s move on quickly, lest I reveal more than I should right now!  Let’s move on quickly to that which I can reveal:  the Curious Challenge of this week’s post! Continue reading

Controlled Revelation #12: The Humourist as Master of Sarcasm and as Promoter of Colonial South Carolina

Now that my “Vay-kay” has ended, I am back to The Humourist with more vim and vigor than before!

Today, we’ll be giving The Humourist’s essay of February 26, 1754, a close reading. However, before we start that analysis (and simply by way of reminder), I want to share with everyone my plan for these “Controlled Revelations.” (I shared it with you in my April 16 post.)

“[Here’s] my PLAN for sharing with you the extensive clues that have allowed me to solve this Colonial American “Literary Whodunit”.

“My plan is, as Dr. Watson might have said (but, in fact, did not say, except in the movies), “Elementary, dear Watson.”

“I have shared with you the Humourist’s essays, week by week without fail, since last November 26. As I shared them with you, I kept copious and extensive notes of my own reactions, insights, and investigative excursions. I have given his essays a carefully controlled and disciplined “close reading”. This is an ancient method, going all the way back to Roman rhetorician and literary critic Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria, composed about 92-96). (The Humourist himself would be delighted because he, too, was familiar with Quintilian, quoted him on at least one occasion, and knew the value of paying attention to every detail!)

“It goes without saying (I should hope) that while the controlled revelation of the clues will be important, of equal (or, perhaps, greater importance) will be the candid disclosure of my process: what clues led me to particular revelations and what clues came together, ultimately, to allow me solve this literary mystery.

“Starting next week, I will make my posts available on Monday. Thus, on Monday, April 22, I will share with you my close reading of the Humourist’s first essay from November 26, 1753. (Go ahead: click on the link and re-read that essay now. See what clues YOU find. Start with the obvious ones and see where they lead. I welcome your comments sharing your own observations and insights!)

“The following week (Monday, April 29), I’ll provide a close reading of the Humourist’s second essay. I will continue that week-by-week strategy until we have come full circle to the Humourist’s last essay.

“Then, dear followers, my controlled revelations will have ended. Then I will reveal the Humourist’s identity. The revelation will be stupendous!”

Today, I want to share one more detail regarding my Controlled Revelations plan.  It’s significant, so sit up and take notice!  Continue reading


I am confident that you will notice two things missing from the title of today’s post.  First, it doesn’t include the word Controlled.  Second, it is not numbered!

Here’s why:  I’m simply providing a revelation that even Wired-Researchers need vacations, and I’m away on one!  Or, as one of my esteemed friends (also a lover of language) would say, “I’m away on vay-kay.”  Here’s her take on the word:

I mostly deplore the ‘evolution’ of the English language, because it’s going the wrong way.  Down and ignorant and sloppy and ugly.  It’s the ‘ugly’ that really depresses me.

But every now and then a phrase or word pops up that takes my fancy and I like to use it.  ‘Vay-kay’ is one.  It is so funny to say it out loud.

It is funny to say it aloud, and I must say that I hear it from time to time.  It has made its way to various Urban dictionaries, but, thankfully, it has not made its way to our beloved Oxford English Dictionary!

In case you’re wondering where my “vay-kay” has taken me, I’m in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, located in Southwest Virginia.

If you’re into biking, then the 34 mile Virginia Creeper Trail connecting Damascus and Abingdon must be on your list of things to do.

If you’re into hiking, then the trek to the top of Mount Rogers, the highest point in the Virginia with a summit elevation of 5,729 feet, is a must-do.

Or, if you want some less strenuous hiking, explore Grayson Highlands.  You can’t go wrong.

Next week, I’ll be back with a Controlled Revelation!  In the meantime, I’m on vay-kay.

Controlled Revelation #11: The Humourist’s Reputation Preceded Him to Colonial South Carolina

“It is the office of justice to injure no man; of propriety, to offend none.”  —Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), De Officiis, Book I:20

As  noted elsewhere, The Humourist was a man of considerable distinction in his own country, and, for that matter, he was well known throughout much of Europe.  So extensive was his reputation that he received rather frequent front-page coverage in numerous eighteenth century newspapers.  Obviously, when The Humourist arrived in Colonial South Carolina, his reputation preceded him.

He was a known authority—expert, if you will—in at least one area of study, and he was a master in several other areas.  Generally well respected, it seems, nonetheless, that he came to learn first hand (and, perhaps, the harsh way) the bitter reality behind Benjamin Franklin’s pithy saying, Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never mended well.”

In the “Old World,” many people saw him as someone whose ambitions often exceeded his grasp; as someone who took on many projects without seeing them all to successful completion; as someone who dabbled in many occupations so that he could earn enough money to keep creditors at bay; and as someone who was not always honest. Others saw him as fickle, mercurial, anti-Catholic, and overly zealous of his nationality.

These “cracks” in his reputation were not known to the public at large and, to be certain, they were never of such alarm or magnitude that they made it to the press.  Still, the cracks were there—in journals, diaries, and letters:  the sorts of documents to which The Humourist would not have been privy.  Generally, they were comments make by others about him, behind his back.  In that sense, I am reminded of what American novelist and newspaper/magazine editor would say many years later, What people say behind your back is your standing in the community.”

In the “New World,” it appears that The Humourist fared better.  Occupationally, he seems to have settled down to one or two positions, and he seems to have prospered.  He acquired land in Charleston, erected homes quite profitably, and participated in small groups focused on belles lettres. When he died, the inventory of his extensive estate suggests that he had enjoyed full success as a transplanted European.  Of his reputation, one word from his obituary is notable:  ingenious. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word thusly, “Having high intellectual capacity; able, talented, possessed of genius.”  If The Humourist had not quite managed to repair his reputation in the New World—and it is possible that it may have never been sullied on these shores to begin with—he, at least, established and maintained his reputation as a man of keen intellecual abilities.

It is clear, however, as we examine The Humourist’s essay of February 19, 1754—the focus of this week’s Controlled Revelation—that he knew all about gaining and losing a reputation.  It is clear that The Humourist knew the various types of people who “whisper away their Neighbour’s Reputation.”  It is equally clear that he held in contempt  those who eat away at and sully the reputation of others.  He held in contempt those “unsocial brutes” who undermine the influence of others.   

In one part of the essay, I suspect that he is reflecting on his younger years in the “Old World” when his own reputation was attacked by “mean and sordid” detractors, intent on “dissect[ing] characters, and devour[ing] good Names: 

There are a Kind of Detractors, tho’ last mentioned, not least in the Cause of Evil, who being mean and sordid, will condescend to collect a Catalogue of Stories, to humour a Patron and tickle a Friend.  Such Men as these, do almost come up to a literal Sense of what the Psalmist spoke in a figurative, (and eat up People for Bread;3) dissect characters, and devour good Names, for the monstrous Entertainment of a servile Master.

How shocking is it, to think, that such unwarrantable Favour should be shewn these People, who make no Allowances for Actions which frequently arise from sudden Passions, or are the unhappy Attendants of some Constitutions, or are the Errors of a hasty Judgment, and now are form’d into Crimes, and charged as the highest , when Good-Nature and good Sense must certainly have overlook’d them.

Of all The Humourist’s essays, his essay of February 19, 1754, is one of my favorites.  It contains truths which, if followed, help make us honorable and noble human beings and, of equal importance, help us to be cautious and circumspect before we speak (or write) words that harm someone’s reputation.

Of all The Humourist essays, his essay of February 19, 1754, provides the fewest clues in terms of his identity  At the same time, this week’s Controlled Revelation is itself riddled with clues aplenty!