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Anna Jane Vardill

My Godmother’s Legacy;
or, The Art of Consoling

Section IV — Wits out of Place

This branch of my theory is purely speculative, for it must be confessed, I never found any wits out of place thoroughly consoled; yet it seems to me, that in their circumstances, as in many others, some comfort may be found by remembering how many great men have wanted it. There is no use in looking back to the histories, which vex schoolboys; though they abound in instructive examples of clever men, who had every thing but good luck—or in other words, good sense, which is most useful in securing the owner’s proper place. One might reckon, since the date of the modern world, at least twenty-five great poets and scholars, who have been lamentably out of place; though wicked jesters say, Tasso in a mad-house, and Cervantes in gaol, were only in the common places of wits. But modern wits choose to be comforted by the examples of gay and fashionable fops like themselves, who have lived in the sunshine of a court, and in the parterre of high life; for the inner circle of the politest society may be called in more significations than one, the parterre or pit of the theatre. We have the Buckinghams, the Wilmots, and the Chesterfields of our own land, to shew how wit goes out of employ and fashion, even in its owner’s life-time. Poor Williers “in the worst inn’s worst room” confessed his brilliant humours had been miserably out of place; and the most joyous of all facetious favourites, Lord Rochester, died woefully repenting his best jests. Lord Lyttleton tried some pleasant jokes to very little purpose in his last hour; and Chesterfield, the prince of polished wits, was so tired of himself, that he even forgot his most valued part, his exquisite politeness, and said to a lady of quality, “I am growing no better than an old gossip.”—“I thought, my lord,” she replied, “you were growing a much worse thing—an old-fashioned wit.”

We can hardly turn over the leaves of any memoirs of present or past times, without meeting such comical and frequent instances of great wits out of employ or out of season; that all lesser wits may be well consoled, especially if domestic misplacing be taken into account. For Hugo Grotius, who was in the good ancient acceptation of the word, a wit of the first order, that is, a man of most rare and subtle intellect, was considered at court “a simple smattering fellow, full of word;” and there are some strange stories abroad of his wife’s hiding his last papers in a barrel. Sir Thomas More and Sir Walter Raleigh shewed their wit in a place, which nobody would desire to equal them in, except scaffolds should become fashionable. And Sir Thomas More’s joke on his wife’s babblement is a strong proof, that his wit was often needed at home to parry her silliness. The wits of Oliver Cromwell’s time were generally royalists, and consequently out of place; and in King Charles’s, they were found among night-brawlers and bacchanals, therefore out of place and worse. Queen Ann’s tribe had all the advantages of good company and public favour, yet every one thought himself ill used; and both Pope and Swift seemed to have written letters for no purpose but to tell, how much they wished themselves in better places. Addison held a paltry office, and was held by a termagant wife; Sir Richard Steel by his creditors; and Gay by a handsome duchess, who could not spell. There is scarcely a French wit left on our shelves, who was not in his life-time ill employed or out of humour, or both. Rousseau was a thing made of bristles, which pricked and scratched all about him; but when his arguments were pulled out one by one, they were no stronger than single horse-hairs, though formidable and fine in a cluster, like a hussar helmet. Voltaire was as lean and mischievous as his own pet-eagle; and so conscious of the resemblance, that he threw his valet down stairs for hinting it. How far their successors are well-placed, in their own histories of court intrigues and courtezans, will be known by posterity, if their histories ever reach it.

It is some secondary comfort for the wits of our times, who have traded too long in the small wares of scandal and bagatelle, or lost a patron by an unlucky joke, to remember similar cases and illustrious precedents in more important matters. Our wittiest prime minister lost his influence by saying, “Vain men are the best spies, for they need no wages but flattery; besides, people talk before foolish hearers, forgetting that parrots, children, and fools can repeat.” They who compared papacy to a shuttlecock kept up between two parties, and puritanism to a blast of wind between two doors, making a noise between both, found the shuttlecock and the blast of wind too strong for them. Perhaps Bishop Latimer’s fate was as much provoked by the wit of his sermons, as by the firmness of his heresy; and the Catholic prelates of those days would have allowed him to serve Satan, as they said, if he had not made him one of themselves.

“Now I would ask a strange question, which is the most diligent bishop in all England? Methinks I see you listening and hearkening that I should name him—I will tell you, it is Satan! he is the most skilful preacher of all other—he is never out of his diocese—never out of his cure—he is ever in his parish, he keepeth watch at all times. Ye shall never find him out of the way—call when ye will, he is ever at home. But some will say to me, ‘What, sir, are ye so privy of his counsel that ye know all this to be true?’ Truly, I know him too well, and have obeyed him a little too much; but I know by St. Paul, who saith of him, circuit, he goeth about in every corner of his diocese—sicut leo, that is, strongly, boldly, and proudly—rugiens, roaring, for he letteth no occasion slip to speak or roar out—quærens, seeking, and not sleeping, as our bishops do. So that he shall go for my money, for he minds his business. Therefore, ye unpreaching prelates, if ye will not learn of good men, for shame learn of . . . . . . . . .!” [1]

Merry King Charles gave his subjects an unlucky hint how to treat his papist brother, by saying, “I am weary of travelling, but when James comes to the throne, I fancy he will be desired to travel again.” And his kingdom of Ireland probably forgave all his heavy impositions on Catholics sooner than his idle joke—“This Ireland may be a good bird’s egg, but we have sat on it a long time for nothing.”—As merrily and as unseasonably his favourite wrote on his door,

“Here lies the mutton-eating king,
Whose word no man relies on,
Who never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.”

Every body remembers how the merriest and best king of France gave great offence, when a provincial magistrate and his brethren made him a complimentary speech, while two or three asses began to bray—“Gentlemen,” said Henry, “one at a time, if you please.”[2] When our first George came to the throne, Sheridan’s wit did not preserve him from the hideous mistake of choosing a wrong text, when employed to preach before the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin. Through mere absence of mind he chose these words for a sermon on the anniversary of the Hanoverian succession—“Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof,”—and Swift’s tirades, against human nature in general, made him fewer enemies than the text of his sermon before the Merchant Taylors— “A remnant shall be saved.”

We have seen, near our own times, a comical instance of misplaced wit in the pulpit on an occasion, which might have produced the preacher more substantial benefit than the notoriety gained by his text: when the younger William Pitt made his first appearance at Cambridge as Premier—“There is a young lad with two loaves and five small fishes, but what are they among so many?” It would be hard to recollect any joke more out of place, or likely to prevent the maker from being in one; except that of a poor chaplain, who was asked to write a sermon in verse on the text chosen by his patroness—“There was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour:”—

“There was silence in heaven half an hour and no more— Some ladies, perhaps, waited outside the door; They were not let in as may plainly be seen, Else half an hour’s silence there would not have been.”

We hear seldomer of misplaced wit on the bench or at the bar; yet one cannot forget the rash truth, which looked very like it in a felon tried by Lord Chief Justice Holt—“What has become of your comrades in iniquity, prisoner?” asked the judge—“My lord, they are all hanged except your lordship and I.”

This kind of wit is in general like the barberry tree, which allows no harvest to flourish near it; but it is comforting to know, that all the cultivators of it have perished in the same manner. For if we begin as low as those, who assassinate their brother writers by anonymous sarcasms, (as Dr. Kenrick and others sacrificed Dr. Henry and many more by the poignards of their Review,) and attend to the witty statesmen and politicians, who have devoured each other as cameleons prey on their own species, we shall find all sunk into the same comfortable oblivion. A pleasant summary is given us in a speech of the Earl of Carnarvon, whose wit, nevertheless, appears to have been out of place, for it never shewed itself in the whole course of his life till set afloat by claret; when it launched forth in this memorable harangue in favour of the impeached Earl of Danby.

“My Lords,

I understand but little of Latin, but a good deal of English, and not a little of English history, from which I have learnt the mischief of such prosecutions, and the ill fate of the prosecutors. I could bring many instances, and those very ancient, but I shall go no farther back than Queen Elizabeth’s reign; at which time the Earl of Essex was run down by Sir Walter Raleigh; my Lord Bacon ran down Sir Walter Raleigh; and your lordships know what became of my Lord Bacon. The Duke of Buckingham—he ran down Lord Bacon, and your lordships know what happened to the Duke of Buckingham. Sir Thomas Wentworth, afterwards Earl of Strafford, ran down the Duke of Buckingham, and you all know what became of him. Sir Henry Vane—he ran down the Earl of Strafford, and we know what befel Sir Henry Vane. Chancellor Hyde ran down Sir Henry Vane, and your lordships know what became of the Chancellor. Sir Thomas Osborn, now Earl of Danby, ran down Chancellor Hyde; but what will become of the Earl of Danby your lordships best can tell; only let me see the man who dares run the Earl of Danby down, and we shall soon see what will become of him.”

When we have studied sufficiently what kind of wit is out of place, it is a consolation to see how the wits themselves have behaved when out of favor, or not in a suitable situation. Very few have shewn the wisdom of patience in obscurity, but many of their sprightliest sayings have arisen from awkward mischances, which ought to console us when we meet with any. Marshal Turenne’s short speech, when mistaken for his servant, will be remembered longer than his victories; and Lord Peterborough’s ready reply to a furious mob, who loaded him with abuse, is the only piece of good-natured wit recorded of him—“Gentlemen you mistake me for the Duke of Marlborough—to convince you I am not he, I have only five guineas in my pocket, and they are at your service.” When the Earl of Bottetourt saw some vagrants preparing to burn him in effigy, and very well disposed to add his own person to the bonfire, he threw a handfull of gold amongst them, and requested to be burned like a gentleman, with plenty of wood. “Pray” said the Marquis de Chatelet, when he saw the King looked coldly at him after his release from the Bastile, “tell his Majesty I have forgiven him, and he may venture to look at me”—a stroke of clever assurance which restored him to favour. No less well timed was some witty Abbé’s speech to the Prince of Conde, whose back was turned on him. “Your highness makes me proud, by this proof of friendship, for your back is never shewn to your enemies.” Lord Bolingbroke’s letters prove, a witty statesman may keep his wit and good humour when banished to his farm; and Lord North, always facetious, was never more so, than after his administration had died, as he used to say, by an apoplectic stroke. Even great commanders, to whom peace and retirement are heavy grievances, have found leisure to be witty when their occupation was gone. Marshal Kutusoff, the Russian Marlborough, has left us this billet as a choice morceau of an old soldier’s gaiety, when his last campaign was over “To-day my love,” he writes to his wife, “I have thought a great deal of Buonaparte, and this thought strikes me; fortune nursed him like a child in leading-strings, but seeing his ingratitude and deformity, she looked at me and said, ‘here is an old man who has always adored our sex, and still loves to be conducted by a woman’s hand—I will lend him mine at least for a few months, and then lead him back to his fire-side.’”

But the highest consolation to wits out of place will be the example of Buonaparte himself, who is said to have been witty always, but most witty on the rock of St. Helena. If the bon-mots ascribed to him prove genuine, they ought to be recorded on that solitary stone near Paris, whereon he sat by lanthorn-light, when Marshal Ney announced his dethronement; or on that huge column in the Gallery of Simplon, from whence it was to have been removed as a trophy, but where it still remains without an inscription; a most appropriate symbol of his fate.

The third and last branch of my system of consolation, is how to get into place again. For this, as every body knows, there are many hopeful and easy ways, and perhaps the easiest is the best. I mean, as nothing is less difficult than to play with reputations, devise caricatures, and lampoon public affairs, nothing is more likely to discompose the opposite party; for a skain of thread perplexes a crocodile’s teeth more than a cable. And as caricaturers, and lampooners seldom own any motive but gain, they often receive the only thing they respect. Chatterton, whose forgeries shewed more knavery than folly, gave also a tolerable proof of wordly wit in the calculation found after his decease in his memorandum book.

  £. s. d.
Lost by an Essay on Alderman Beckford’s Patrotism 1 11 6
Gained by an Elegy on his Death 2 2 0
By two Odes 3 3 0
Am glad he is dead by 3 8 6

The fame, the force, and the success of Junius’s letters, shew what wit can do; and if, as some suspected, and as Lord George Sackville’s aid-de-camp asserted to an eminent American, Lord George himself was the formidable Junius, the state secretaryship given to him may explain the cessation of those letters; and the vehement bitterness of sarcasm, poured forth against the Duke of Brunswick, may be found to prove how much fearless wit may lurk under seeming cowardice.

There are a few witty men who have been known, when fortune obstinately threw them out of place, to redeem themselves by courageous industry, and gain a longer though a later fame. For, after all, men take more pleasure in wit that resembles the bee rather than the wasp; and offering bribes to satirists, is only spreading a net for vipers, that sting alike both the finder and the feeder. Therefore the good divine, who printed his own eighteen folios of sermons with his own hands; and Robert Walker, the curate of Scathwarte,[3] who saved two thousand pounds, and portioned eight children from the fruits of his spinning and teaching, and from a glebe worth £17 a year, had more policy and wit in gaining friends and independence, than the keen knaves who are employed in the state, as rats are kept stirring in a bag lest they should eat holes in it.

However, neither of these two primitive pastors had wit of the fashionable kind, and there is no saying what they would have done if they had possessed it; as Dr. South merrily hinted to Bishop Sherlock, when he reproached him with unseasonable jokes—“What would your Lordship have done, if it had pleased Heaven to have made you witty?” And if wits do not always prosper, they may console themselves saying, as a bold churchman said to King James, “Whose fault is that?” or if all other ways of consoling fail, they may try the syrup of Borage and Scolopendra, Diazinziber, Diacapers, and Diacinnamonum; prescribed by another witty divine among a thousand medicines for melancholy, gathered by him from Professors Hearnius, Menadous, Busbequius and Johannes de Stuckius. Last and best they may learn from him these rules, to keep their wit always in its place. “Know thyself!—Be contented,—Trust not wealth, beauty, nor parasites,—Hear much, speak little,—Have peace with all men,—Be temperate in three things, linqua, oculis et poculis. If thou seest ought amiss in another, mend it in thyself.—Keep thine own secrets, and reveal no other man’s,—Be silent in thy intentions, cautious in thy jests,—Set thine own house in order, take heed of suretyship,—Be humble to thy superiors, respectful to thy equals, affable to all, familiar with none,—Keep thy word, and speak truth,—Lay no wagers, make no comparisons,—Find no faults, meddle not with other men’s matters, —Admire not thyself—be not proud and popular,—Fear not that which cannot be avoided, grieve not for that which cannot be recalled,—Undervalue not thyself, accuse no man, commend no man rashly,—Go not to law without a great cause, and strive not with a greater man,—Cast not off an old friend, take heed of a reconciled enemy,—If thou comest as a guest, stay not too long,—Do good to all,—Admonish thy friend in secret, commend him in public,—Provide for a tempest,—Make not a fool of thyself to make others merry,—Seem not greater than thou art,—Love others to be beloved thyself,—Go as thou wouldst be met, sit as thou wouldst be found,—Think no place without a witness,—Keep thyself upright, thou needest no other keeper.


  1. Preached in St. Paul’s, January 17th, 1548. 
  2. A certain Chief Justice applied this joke to the late Counsellor Curran, who revenged himself, by saying, when an Ass brayed during the Chief Justice’s charge, “Does not your lordship hear a remarkable echo in the Court?” 
  3. He died in 1802, after ministering 67 years.—See Wordsworth’s Memoir. 

The European Magazine, Vol. 81, April 1822, pp. 310-314