The citizen of the world: or, letters from a Chinese philosopher, residing in London, to his friends in the east. ... [pt.1]
Goldsmith, Oliver, 1730?-1774.
Page  232

LETTER LI.

From the same.

HOW often have we admired the eloquence of Europe! That strength of thinking, that deli∣cacy of imagination, even beyond the efforts of the Chinese themselves. How were we enraptured with those bold figures which sent every sentiment with force to the heart. How have we spent whole days together in learning those arts by which European writers got within the passions and led the reader as if by enchantment.

But though we have learned most of the rhetorical figures of the last age, yet there seems to be one or two of great use here, which have not yet travelled to China. The figures I mean are called Bawdy and Pert∣ness: none are more fashionable; none so sure of ad∣mirers; they are of such a nature, that the merest blockhead, by a proper use of them, shall have the re∣putation of a wit; they lye level to the meanest capa∣cities, and address those passions which all have, or would be ashamed to disown.

It has been observed, and I believe with some truth, that it is very difficult for a dunce to obtain the repu∣tation of a wit; yet by the assistance of the figure Bawdy, this may be easily effected, and a bawdy block∣head often passes for a fellow of smart parts and pre∣tensions. Every object in nature helps the jokes for∣ward, without scarce any effort of the imagination. If a lady stands, something very good may be said upon that, if she happens to fall, with the help of a little fa∣shionable Page  233 Pruriency, there are forty sly things ready on the occasion. But a prurient jest has always been found to give most pleasure to a few very old gentlemen, who being in some measure dead to other sensations, feel the force of the allusion with double violence on the organs of risibility.

An author who writes in this manner is generally sure therefore of having the very old and impotent among his admirers; for these he may properly be said to write, and from these he ought to expect his re∣ward, his works being often a very proper succedaneum to cantharides, or an assafoetida pill. His pen should be considered in the same light as the squirt of an apo∣thecary, both being directed at the same generous end.

But though this manner of writing be perfectly a∣dapted to the taste of gentlemen and ladies of fashion here, yet still it deserves greater praise in being equal∣ly suited to the most vulgar apprehensions. The very ladies and gentlemen of Benin, or Cafraria, are in this respect tolerably polite, and might relish a prurient joke of this kind with critical propriety; probably, too, with higher gust, as they wear neither breeches nor petti∣coats to intercept the application.

It is certain I never could have expected the ladies here, biassed as they are by education, capable at once of bravely throwing off their prejudices, and not only applauding books in which this figure makes the only merit, but even adopting it in their own conversation. Yet so it is, the pretty innocents now carry those books openly in their hands, which formerly were hid under the cushion; they now lisp their double meanings with Page  234 so much grace, and talk over the raptures they bestow with such little reserve, that I am sometimes reminded of a custom among the entertainers in China, who think it a piece of necessary breeding to whet the ap∣petites of their guests, by letting them smell dinner in the kitchen before it is served up to table.

The veneration we have for many things, entirely proceeds from their being carefully concealed. Were the idolatrous Tartar permitted to lift the veil which keeps his idol from view, it might be a certain method to cure his future superstition; with what a noble spi∣rit of freedom therefore must that writer be possessed, who bravely paints things as they are, who lifts the veil of modesty, who displays the most hidden recesses of the temple, and shews the erring people that the object of their vows is either, perhaps a mouse, or a monkey.

However, though this figure be at present so much in fashion; though the professors of it are so much caressed by the great, those perfect judges of literary excellence; yet it is confessed to be only a revival of what was once fashionable here before. There was a time, when by this very manner of writing, the gentle Tom. Durfey, as I read in English authors, acquired his great reputation, and became the favourite of a king.

The works of this original genius, tho' they never travelled abroad to China, and scarce have reach'd pos∣terity at home, were once found upon every fashionable toilet, and made the subject of polite, I mean very po∣lite conversation. "Has your Grace seen Mr. Durfey's last new thing, the Oylet Hole. A most facetious piece?" Page  235Sure, my Lord, all the world must have seen it; Dur∣fey is certainly the most comical creature alive. It is impossible to read his things and live. Was there e∣ver any thing so natural and pretty, as when the Squire and Bridget meet in the cellar. And then the difficul∣ties they both find in broaching the beer barrel are so arch and so ingenious! We have certainly nothing of this kind in the language." In this manner they spoke then, and in this manner they speak now; for though the successor of Durfey does not excel him in wit, the world must confess he out-does him in obscenity.

There are several very dull fellows, who, by a few mechanical helps, sometimes learn to become extreme∣ly brilliant and pleasing; with a little dexterity in the management of the eye-brows, fingers, and nose. By imitating a cat, a sow and pigs; by a loud laugh, and a slap on the shoulder, the most ignorant are furnished out for conversation. But the writer finds it impossible to throw his winks, his shrugs, or his attitudes upon paper; he may borrow some assistance indeed, by print∣ing his face at the title page; but without wit to pass for a man of ingenuity, no other mechanical help but downright obscenity will suffice. By speaking to some peculiar sensations we are always sure of exciting laugh∣ter, for the jest does not lie in the writer, but in the sub∣ject.

But Bawdry is often helped on by another figure cal∣led Pertness; and few indeed are found to excell in one that are not possessed of the other.

As in common conversation, the best way to make the audience laugh is by first laughing yourself; so in writing, the properest manner is to shew an attempt at Page  236 humour, which will pass upon most for humour in reality. To effect this, readers must be treated with the most perfect familiarity: in one page the author is to make them a low bow, and in the next to pull them by the nose: he must talk in riddles, and then send them to bed in order to dream for the solution. He must speak of himself and his chapters, and his man∣ner, and what he would be at, and his own importance, and his mother's importance with the most unpitying prolixity: Now and then testifying his contempt for all but himself, smiling without a jest, and without wit possessing vivacity.

Adieu.