humour is like poetry;it cannot be defined

Published by: mike on 5th Oct 2017 | View all blogs by mike


     It did interest me  that  the word ‘humorist’ has been mentioned and a group formed.  The word did  not seem to be in common use, and I came to the conclusion that it referred to the comedy of the Edwardian era.  I had researched the life of someone who called himself a humorist.  I think it means someone one writes  with a  particular ‘humor’ or state of mind.      

    In my opinion the mood of a humorist is benign,

    The O.E.D defines a humorist as: ‘a person who is subject to fancies, obsessions, or quirks of thought, or behavior, a whimsical person‘   This definition is then compared with the word ‘humor’ which is defined as: ‘ a  particular disposition, inclination, or liking, esp. one having no apparent ground or reason; a fancy, a whim. Also occasionally as a mass noun. Now arch. and rare’

     The first source for the word ‘humorist’ that can be understood by mere mortals is in 1712 .    J. Addison Spectator No. 477:   “I am looked upon as an Humorist in Gardening. I have several Acres about my House, which I call my Garden, and which a Skilful Gardener would not know what to call.”

     (Addison belongs to a school of writing called Augustan - a period active during the reign of Queen Anne.  I doubt if Addison or Steele would have caused the inhabitants of the local coffee house to roll in the aisles , but a gentleman - or aristocrat  - might have the ‘Spectator’ delivered in the morning, along with  his copy of the’Times’ )

    I could not find the reference in the books  of the person I researched, but came across some paragraphs in the introduction to one of his travel books, and I have typed them out.  Comedy is linked to poetry.   He writes:  “Humor is like poetry, It cannot be defined.’


 “Much of my apparently strained philosophical reflections may appear like strange digressions and slightly unbalanced rhapsodies.  My excuse for this is, that I am endowed with a strange mixture of misanthropy and misplaced humour.  Humour is like poetry; it cannot be defined.  The humour I possess is something of an unrecognisable quality, and I have often spent sleepless nights laughing convulsively over my own jokes!    Often I have sat in some South Sea grog shanty telling my most exquisite joke.only to look up to see all the rough men burst into tears!  On one occasion I told what I thought to be the most pathetic incident I know - lo!- men smacked me on the back and were seized with paroxysms of ecstatic laughter!

    When I dwelt for a brief period in England I listened to many thousands of British jokes, but cannot recall that I laughed more than twice.  This fact convinces me that I am incorrigibly dull and devoid of mirth. So, whoever takes up my book with the idea of gathering laughter will lay it down disappointed.  I feel that it is better to make this confession at the outset.’’


    I had picked up one of a grandfather’s books which happened to be on my parents’ bookshelves.   The book was totally weird but I persevered and it made me laugh. I have no idea why?   I notice this grandfather uses the word ‘mirth’ and this word is not used today either.   He is one of those authors whose writing became very dated and belongs to a previous epoch, but then he travels forwards and lands up in the following epoch, which does suggest a cyclical nature to generational change.

    I had asked myself if I could get close to a great, great grandfather, who would have been my grandfather’s great uncle.  He is from the Regency/early Victorian period and the language he used was  a barrier.  He wrote travel books too,    It was only when I got to grips with the comedy in the writing that any communication across the generations became possible.



  • Dolly
    by Dolly 9 months ago
    Well Mike, You've defined the word humorist and myself. I'm certainly subject to fancies and quirks of thought. I have to be careful sometimes, as something will happen in front of me, or someone will say something, and I see or hear it in a humorist way that can be far removed from what was meant, and can make me laugh. I remember a quote from Noel Coward, which I really related to when he said he had been 'blessed with an over developed sense of the ridiculous'. Humour is like poetry, it can't be defined, and I write that as well.The only time i can be serious in my writing is through poetry, or the use of the poetic in prose. Otherwise I can start to write by the seat of my pants, give free rein to the imagination, and end up in all sorts of odd,strange and sometimes ludicrous places. I think that is why I formed the group.
  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    Dear Dolly,
    That does come across in your blogs. You should try writing for say 10 year olds.I went to a production of 'The Barber of Seville' last night. It is the funniest show in London and is a revival of a Jonathan Miller production. He turned up on the stage and took a bow with the cast.I got a discounted seat and was five rows from the front. There empty seats which is shame. I am off this morning to see if I can get a discounted seat for Oscar Wilde, But when get back, I copy out another quotation.
  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    Dear Dolly,

    ‘“A great man produces beauty, terror and mirth, and a little man produces cleverness (personality psychology) instead of beauty, ugliness instead of terror, and jokes instead of mirth.’ Henry Irving’s grandson used a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson’ to introduce a life of Irving. It is taken out of context, but Stevenson does write :a little man produces jokes instead of mirth’ I wonder if there is some truth in this?” But he is wirting of the late nineteenth century/Edwardian period and artistic values were somewhat different than those of today.
    There were plenty of unsold stall seats for Oscar Wilde and I’m off to see: “A woman of No Importance’ this evening. The seat cost £20 but it is five rows from the front, so I can hear the words. The ex-director of the Globe has hired a London theatre and is staging Wilde for a whole year. Eleanor Bron is in the cast tonight. The name seems familiar. I think she had been a comedienne on TV in the eighties.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 9 months ago
    Eleanor Bron has a long acting career (stage, screen and TV) stretching right back to the sixties. She was in 'Not So Much a Progamme...' and 'Help', for starters.
  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    Thanks, Richard. I could only remember the name. The theatre was packed and it is crystal clear production in every way. A young black actress is in the play and she acted as well as the others,. The casting of a black actress added resonance as she played an American puritan. Lines such as ‘the unspeakable pursuing the uneatable’. were almost thrown away. In the area where I sat, I could hear that English was not the audience’s first language and, from the laughter, the actors certainly succeeded. I had not seen the play before, Anne Reid stole the show, especially as she - - and some of the cast - sang parlour ballads while the scenery was changed. The production is rather soft spoken but my hearing is not too good. The actors could certainly speak loudly if they so wished.
    There was a comedian in ;Young Frankenstein’ - Ross Noble, who played Igor. He played the part well but everything was totally gross, I wonder if he could have played in ‘A Woman of No Importance’
    £20 may seem a lot but people spend that much on a round of drinks or a take away pizza, The theatre is a bit of a life saver for me but I don’t book over the internet; otherwise I would be mainlining on boxes for the RHO. As it was I had to do with the live streaming of La Boheme.
    I really cannot see how Mell Brooks can be un PC. The monster is played with great sympathy. If a monster knocks at your door, please ask him in and give him a cup of tea. Mell Brooks counts as a humorist but I am not sure about Oscar Wilde. The play is so mannered and I would almost count him as an Augustan writer. But I am no critic or literary theorist. A Wiki on Augustan writers made a comment that Augustan writers can be confused with the Georgians. It is a much earlier period and Jane Austen seems modern in style in comparison with say, Jonathan Swift. I had ; made the mistake of confusing the two groups.
  • RichardB
    by RichardB 9 months ago
    Maybe your perception of 'A Woman of No Importance' as mannered results from the dichotomy that bedevils Wilde's earlier plays: the grafting of flippant and witty dialogue onto a plot of Victorian melodrama. It wasn't until 'The Importance of Being Earnest' that he really let himself go and produced a play of magnificent silliness through and through.
  • mike
    by mike 9 months ago
    Dear Richard,
    I think you are right. The play rather loses steam in the final scene where the resolution occurs and there are only four actors left the stage. The actors playing the comedy, especially in the minor parts, have left the stage by then. The vicar got a round of applause when he left the stage and he has no real part - he only comments on his ill wife.
    Victorian theatre is an interest of mine and it is rather forgotten now, The popular plays of the time are not staged and the playwrights out of common memory. I think Oscar Wilde might be the writer who turned the drawing room play into art. I tried a play recently but this was only a competition entry. I did not win and it has no life outside the competition. It is about the problems of being a metaphysical construct in s post modern world. Between you, me and the gatepost, it is about a ghost. I had a word with the gatepost and have been informed that I had not paid enough attention to 'Waiting for Godot' But I only read this after I sent the play off. It is, of course, about nothing.
    There is a play on at the moment called 'The Uncertainty Principle' It is clever and the set consistently changes to suggest uncertainty. Two actors mirror the uncertainty. I won't do spoiler in case anybody sees it.
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