Friday 10 July 2009

A brief history of Jokes (Part VI)

It was the Romantic Era. When it was sunny, it was sunny in a mellow, hazy kind of way. When it was stormy, it was really stormy. And as soon as it was night the moon blinked out from behind ragged clouds which raced across the sky, while shadows shuddered and trees hissed in the high wind. It was never quiet unless there was a hard frost.

The year 1797 brought together two young men who had independently been struggling to develop a new kind of humour that befitted the extreme weather of the epoch. Their names were Wordsworth and Coleridge. Coleridge had been working as a politically-minded stand-up, playing clubs in places as far afield as Bristol, Sheffield and Manchester. The quieter Wordsworth had been writing character-based comic pieces, featuring every variety of broken-down person and building. Now in an extraordinary year of collaboration, the two young men would develop a host of comical characters, and immortalise them in memorable stand-up routines.

One of their most successful creations was the extremely garrulous character, who it was impossible to get away from once he started talking (Coleridge, “The Ancient Mariner”, Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”). Then, there was the pedantic mathematician who, in the routine “We Are Seven”, encounters a child who claims that she is one of seven children, despite the fact that two of them are dead! This routine was a great favourite when performed by Wordsworth in the folk clubs of Bridgwater. There would be howls of laughter as the pedant tried to prove to the child that her maths was faulty:

‘How many are you then,’ said I,
If they two are in Heaven?’
The little Maiden did reply,
‘O Master! we are seven.’

Finally the pedant would lose his temper with the child. Contemporary accounts report that Wordsworth would mime comical exasperation at this point, clenching his fists and jumping up and down on the stage:

‘But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!’
‘Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, ‘Nay, we are seven!’

Then, before the gales of laughter subsided, Wordsworth would move swiftly into a routine featuring a pedantic land-surveyor. In this, the land-surveyor recounts a stirring tale of betrayal, madness and infanticide, while all the time giving very exact measurements of everything in the locality.

But already, Wordsworth and Coleridge had plans to move beyond the sketch format and nurtured hopes to become the Galt and Simpson of their age. Together they were working on a sitcom to be called “The Pedlar”, in which a pedlar (or mean hawker of wares) travels through a mountainous neighbourhood, dispensing philosophical gems and encountering many humorous characters and situations. But like so much of their planned collaboration, it was never to see fruition.

For, sitting on a hillside and watching the sun sinking over the Bristol Channel on those long summer evenings, the two men did not know that their year of wonders was soon to end. The years that followed were to bring misery, addiction and much tedious moralising. Coleridge would spend long years seeking out a glory that had passed, trying to reconstitute a perfect pun from the metaphysical works of Immanuel Kant. Meanwhile, a gloom would settle over the work of Wordsworth which would stifle every impulse to humour. (Even when he worked on a lengthy preamble to “The Pedlar” it would prove to be almost entirely joke-free.)

For the two men could not know the identity of the planet they marvelled at each summer evening as it followed the track of the blazing sun into the sea. They could not know that for much of human history it was a planet that was hidden behind the sun. Nor could they know of the mystery of its influence on the world of men or that, after the summer of 1798, it would once more return to its hiding place. The spark would be lost, and for the rest of the age Romanticism would devote itself to landscape painting, tragedy and high emotion.

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