Your RDA of Irony

Casus Belli Laugh

Among its most shameless literary traditions, England has the grate Briton, that unsparing malicious wit, the mean for all seasons, whose jaundice is not merely infectious but irresistible.  Waugh, Wilde and Thackeray used venom to etch the telling portraits of their times.

This pedigree of cantankerous brilliance might be tenuously traced as far back as Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1517-1547).  A gifted poet and an acerbic wit, the cousin of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard probably did not find an appreciative audience with Henry VIII.  Surrey’s decapitation might be regarded as a hint.  In fact, it was a setback from which Catholic humor has never recovered.

Another putative ancestor of this morbid mirth would be John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680).  The court wit, playwright and human spirochete proved to be too disreputable even for Charles II.  The Earl was exiled from Court, although that was as much a matter of aesthetics as morals. Rochester’s nose was rotting away from syphilis.       

Neither Surrey nor Rochester lived long enough to be a curmudgeon, so perhaps the real father of Grand Old British Grouches was Edward Gibbon.  Being a historian–the author of the intimidating “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“–one might presume that Gibbon was a stupefying bore.  In fact, he was biliously funny.  “The Decline and Fall…” proves him to be an equal-opportunity misanthrope.  With a droll contempt, he denounced the Romans, Christians, Jews, barbarians, and Byzantines.  He only seemed to approve of a few pagan Greek intellectuals.

Here is a sampling of his acidic wit and scathing perspective: 

We are always prone to impute our own sentiments and passions to the Deity.”

“The acquisition of knowledge seldom engages the curiosity of the nobles, who abhor the fatigue and disdain the advantages of study.”  

“The vices of the Byzantine armies were inherent, their victories accidental.”

Modern research has disproved many of Gibbon’s contentions, and he is much too interesting by current scholastic standards.  If he has been forsaken by today’s historians, however, he still is cherished by curmudgeons.

And today is his 272th birthday: Happy, no make that Dyspeptic Birthday Mr. Gibbon!

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene — As you undoubtedly know, when Gibbon published the last volume of his history, he drew the following comment from the Duke of Gloucester, the brother of King George III: ”Another damned big black book, Mr. Gibbon. Scribble, scribble, scribble — eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

    Gibbon is still recommended to aspiring writers, because reading him helps them correct whatever is wrong with their style.

  1. […] p.s.  Obviously the Enlightenment is in the past tense but let’s remember the historic significance of this day: […]

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