An evening’s entertainment analyzing humour

Paul Sparkes
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Public lectures were popular events in 19th century St. John’s

When a newly married couple walked past a beggar one day, arm in arm, and very happy looking, in order to touch heart and pocket at the same time, the beggar exclaimed, “May the blessing of the Lord, that brings love, and joy, and wealth, and a fine thumping family, follow you all the days of your life.” The happy couple passed on without taking the least notice of his supplications, so the beggar added by way of a postscript, “and may they never overtake you!”

Just one little joke from a presentation given in St. John’s a century and a half ago. Not terribly funny? Difficult to understand? Not surprising. The language has changed and our collective psyche has changed. For example, who today, would use the word “supplication” in a joke? In the 1860s, no doubt, the teller of this joke would have had to pause to allow ripples of laughter to criss-cross the hall.

The speaker in this case was our well-known Moses Harvey. You really cannot do much with Newfoundland history before you run into Rev. Mr. Harvey. He was born in Ireland in 1820 (died here in 1901) a son of Scottish parents; he studied theology and came here to serve the Congregational Church. But he was interested in many things besides souls — politics and geology, wild flowers, our future and giant squid. Harvey seems to have been one of those people who miss nothing.

Mind you, it is not easy to visualize him telling jokes, especially Irish, English and Scottish jokes — but he did. Google his name and you will see a thin, caustic looking cleric. Try to imagine him slapping his knee as he breaks up over a good line! In 1864 Harvey brought out a book (through Andrew Elliott, publishers in Edinburgh) entitled “Lectures Literary and Biographical.” I  quoted from this book in an earlier column. The book contains a selection of his lectures — “delivered at intervals, during the last few years, on behalf of Literary Institutes, in the town of St, John’s, Newfoundland,” Harvey says in his preface.

Lectures were popular, must-attend events in those days. An intriguing thing to me is the variety of presentations. But while they went from the most serious, in-depth matters to lighter material, to popular inventions and God knows what else, no lecturer seemed ever to have delivered a sleeper. And you need only read published advertisements to see that lecturers were catering to a lively intellectual appetite in this salty, hard-working port.

Not only were various venues rented out for lectures, but one of the lecture societies lent its name to an imposing hall, erected on Duckworth Street in the mid-1870s. The Atheneum, used for a variety of public events, lectures included, was lost in the fire of 1892. There were also debating societies and they seemed to shy away from nothing. These, such as MCLI (the Methodist College Literary Institute) were active well into the 20th century. Debates were considered news by the local papers.

When you consider that a lecture by Moses Harvey on the subject of “Wit and Humour” takes nearly 57 pages in his book (with about 245 words per page), then the lecture was pretty well an evening’s event; much, much longer than a sermon and likely much, much more interesting.

In part, Harvey discusses points of one-upmanship between the Scottish and the English and between the Irish and (seemingly) everyone else. He told his audience at one point in the “Wit and Humour” lecture that “there is one name that the English are very fond of brandishing”: Shakespeare. “Scotland, they say, has produced no Shakespeare” and he continued:

“I believe it was an Irishman who said that he did not see what all this fuss about Shakespeare was for, adding, ‘If it had not been for his writings, the fellow never would have been heard of.’”

Richard Henry Dana, who wrote “Two Years Before the Mast,” said at one point in his narrative, “a sailor’s life is at best but a mixture of a little good with much evil … the beautiful is linked with the revolting … and the solemn with the ludicrous.”

The unifying thread of Rev. Mr. Harvey’s particular lecture was that “throughout this strange, mysterious web of existence there runs the mirthful element.” Harvey used his thread skilfully, rather like a clothesline. You can see the line, but the things hanging on it are of much greater moment.

He spoke for some time on what were called “bulls,” explaining, “the bull involves a blunder in which some ludicrous incongruity lurks. He gave some examples of bulls:

“A gentleman, in speaking of somebody’s wife, regretted that she had no children. “Ah!” said a medical man present on the occasion, “to have no children is a great misfortune, but I have remarked that it is hereditary in some families.”

This next was attributed to Sir Boyle Roche (who is credited with, or blamed for, many bloopers, whatever else he may have done in life): “Sir, I would give up half, nay, the whole of the constitution, to preserve the remainder.”

We next learn that upon hearing that Admiral Richard Howe was in quest of the French, Roche remarked, “somewhat pleasantly,” that the admiral would “sweep the French fleet off the face of the Earth.”

Writing to a friend “in troublous times,” Roche said, “You may judge of our state when I tell you that I write this with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other.”

Harvey also quotes another “bull”:

“This invitation to a gentleman on his travels was hospitable and well meant, but equivocal: ‘I  hope, My Lord, if you ever come within a mile of my house you will stay there all night.’”

Harvey, as I hinted at the start of this column, shows no hesitation in poking fun at the people of the different components of the United Kingdom. He says that when an “Essay on Irish bulls” (today we would call this unconscious humour, unintended humour) was published in Ireland, an English agricultural society ordered 50 copies, under the impression that it was a treatise on cattle-breeding. Harvey added, “Here was a practical English bull!”

The question is begged as to how and when pronouncements from the Vatican came to be called “bulls.” But I, like sheep, have gone astray.

 When Harvey shows that sublime and ridiculous are close neighbours, he cites the matter of the laying of the Atlantic Telegraph.

“The whole civilized world was jubilant over it. The press assured us it was a great event. Even the pulpit admitted it into its sacred precincts and many a preacher waxed eloquent over the sympathetic nerve laid down between the Old World and the New.”

But, he says, “our American cousins, determined to be foremost in the jubilation, managed to take the short step between the sublime and the ridiculous and set all the world laughing.”

He then quotes a portion from “a western editor writing under a tremendous head of steam”:

“The world is finished — its spinal cord is laid, and now begins to think. A living nerve has been unwound from the Anglo-Saxon heart, and tied in a true-love knot between the Old World and the New.”

Harvey goes on to say that “even such a grave body as the Corporation of New York lost its balance on this grave occasion and in an address to the Telegraph Company congratulated them on the fact that the Earth was a sphere and not a plane; “‘for,’ said they, ‘had it not been so, the operation of sin, working through the passions of nations and individuals, would have driven the weak to the extreme brink of humanity and hurled them over the precipice once and for all.’”

Except for admitting that this would be quite a fall, Harvey does not help his audience to understand the quotation — likely not even the authors could do that. But he did quote from the British satirical magazine Punch, which took its cue from the corporation’s message:

“May the blood of freedom course along that giant vein with the rush of Niagara and sweep away before its mightiness the moulding cerements of antiquated hallucination.”

Cerements are burial cloths; shrouds.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Methodist College Literary Institute, Congregational Church, Google Literary Institutes Corporation of New York Telegraph Company

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Ireland, Edinburgh Duckworth Street Scotland United Kingdom Vatican

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