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Hyperbole, by William S. Walsh (page four)

From "The Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities" (1892)

By

Hyperbole, by William S. Walsh (page four)

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Better still is his description of his newly-levied recruits: "You would think that I had a hundred and fifty tattered prodigals, lately come from swine-keeping, from eating draff and husks. A mad fellow met me on the way, and told me I had unloaded all the gibbets and pressed the dead bodies. . . . There's but a shirt and a half in all my company; and the half shirt is two napkins, tacked together, and thrown over the shoulders like a herald's coat without sleeves; and the shirt, to say the truth, stolen from my host of St. Alban's, or the red-nosed innkeeper of Daventry. But that's all one; they'll find linen enough on every hedge."

Dr. Johnson had something Rabelaisian in his mirth, especially when he was attacking Scotchmen. When Albert Lee spoke of some Scotchmen who had taken possession of a barren part of America and wondered why they should choose it, "Why, sir," said the Doctor, "all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren"; and when Boswell stated that a beggar starving in Scotland was an impossibility, Johnson's reply was, "That does not arise from the want of beggars, but from the impossibility of starving a Scotchman." Which reminds one of Jekyll's comment on the Irish beggars, that they had helped him to solve one problem that had always vexed him,--what the beggars of London did with their cast-off clothing. Sydney Smith, another defamer of the Scotch, would often throw loose the reins of his fancy and dash into the wildest and most frolicsome metaphors, as when he told a lady the heat was so great "I found there was nothing for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones," or when, seeing a child stroking a turtle's back, thinking it would please the turtle, he exclaimed, "Why, child, you might as well stroke the dome of St. Paul's to please the dean and chapter." Nothing could be more Rabelaisian than his burst of astonishment when told that a young neighbor was going to marry a very fat woman double his age:

Going to marry her? Going to marry her? Impossible! You mean a part of her: he could not marry her all himself. It would be a case, not of bigamy, but trigamy: the neighborhood or the magistrates should interfere. There is enough of her to furnish wives for a whole parish. One man marry her!--it is monstrous. You might people a colony with her, or give an assembly with her, or perhaps take your morning's walk round her,--always provided there were frequent resting-places, and you were in rude health. I once was rash enough to try walking round her before breakfast, but only got half-way, and gave it up exhausted. Or you might read the Riot Act and disperse her. In short, you might do anything with her but marry her.

It is curious that this impromptu description, dashed off on the spur of the moment, finds its parallel in the jest-books of the past. Mr. Carew Hazlitt is our authority for the following instances culled from sources dated 1640 and 1790:

"That fellow," said Cyrano de Bergerac to a friend, "is always in one's way and always insolent. The dog is conscious that he is so fat that it would take an honest man more than a day to give him a thorough beating."

A man being rallied by Louis XIV on his bulk, which the king told him had increased from want of exercise, "Ah, Sire," said he, "what would your majesty have me do? I have already walked three times round the Duc d'Aumont this morning."

A man was asked by his friend when he last saw his jolly comrade ---. "Oh," said he, "I called on him yesterday at his lodgings, and there I found him sitting all round a table by himself."

Smith's jest at Lord Russell's small size is well known. "There is my friend Russell," he said, "who has not body enough to cover his mind: his intellect is indecently exposed." Foote caricatured the smallness of Garrick in another way, equally surprising, when he proposed to get up a marionette show, half the size of life, just a little above the size of Garrick.

A much earlier attempt in the same line is found in Athenaeus, who tells us that Demetrius Poliorcetes said of the palace of Lysimachus that it was in no respect different from a comic theatre, for that there was no one there bigger than a dissyllable.

Is the following sublime or ridiculous? That is easily answered: It is not sublime. Is it meant to be sublime or ridiculous? One would give the same answer, yet not so glibly. Perhaps Heine himself was not quite certain. If one may hazard a guess, he started out to be very sublime, and then, fearing that he had fallen short of sublimity by a step, saved himself from ridicule by consciously going just a step beyond it:

Explanation

Adown and dimly came the evening,
Wilder tumbled the waves,
And I sat on the strand, regarding
The snow-white billows dancing,
And then my breast swelled up like the sea,
And, longing, there seized me a deep homesickness
For thee, thou lovely form,
Who everywhere art near
And everywhere dost call,
Everywhere, everywhere,
In the rustling of breezes, the roaring of ocean,
And in the sighing of this my sad heart.

With a light reed I wrote in the sand,
"Agnes, I love but thee!"
But wicked waves came washing fast
Over the tender confession,
And bore it away.

Thou too fragile reed, thou false shifting sand,
Ye swift-flowing waters, I trust ye no more!
The heaven grows darker, my heart grows wilder,
And, with strong right hand, from Norway's forests
I'll tear the highest fir-tree,
And dip it adown
Into Aetna's hot glowing gulf, and with such a
Fiery, flaming, giant graver,
I'll inscribe on heaven s jet-black cover,
"Agnes, I love but thee."

And every night I'll witness, blazing
Above me, the endless flaming verse,
And even the latest races born from me
Will read, exulting, the heavenly motto,
"Agnes, I love but thee!"

"Hyperbole" by William S. Walsh appears in The Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, first published by J.B. Lippincott Company, 1892; reprinted 1906.

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