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57. Definition.-IRONY is such a use of language as will convey to an intelligent hearer a meaning precisely opposite to what the language, literally understood, would express.
When the prophets of Baal were striving in vain by cries to induce some demonstrations of the presence and power of their god, Elijah, the prophet of Jehovah, tauntingly said to them, "Cry aloud: for he is a god! Either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked!"
58. How Indicated. Of course, in the use of Irony the intonation of the voice must be such as will indicate the speaker's real meaning. In writing, the punctuation should, as far as possible, be made to aid the perception of the reader. Sometimes the intention of a writer to be ironical is not perceived by the reader, and unfortunately the author is understood to affirm just what he meant to make appear so ridiculous that no one would believe it. Some have thought, that the expression of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians xii. 16, is ironical, and should be printed in this way: "Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you
with guile!" That is, "How absurd to suppose, if what I have said is true, that I could have used craft and guile !"
59. The Philosophy of Irony.-The philosophy of it seems to be, that some thoughts which the author wishes to repel are so manifestly false that they need only to be distinctly uttered to make the hearer see their falsity and reject them with indignity. Or, if the irony is playful, the hearer is pleased with the ingenuity of the author, who can express, as if true, such absurd ideas. The absurdity also of the sentiment is clearly exposed.
Therefore, Irony has two offices: to expose false sentiment by asserting it so baldly as to induce others to see its falsity, and to present ludicrously inconsistent associations as though true, but in such a way as to amuse and perhaps instruct the hearer. It is an efficient exposer of falsehood, though it acts itself under the guise of falsehood (illustrating the maxim "that it takes a rogue to catch a rogue").
Thus Shakspeare represents Marc Antony as attempting artfully to inflame the Roman people against Brutus because he had stabbed Cæsar; and ever and anon, when quoting the words of Brutus, he adds,
"And Brutus is an honorable man!"
The proper intonation intimates that Brutus is very dishonorable man, and the rabble are represented as soon understanding the speaker.
Mr. Fox, in Parliament, responded to an opponent in a passage that has often been quoted, and is a good specimen of Irony:
"But we must pause!' says the honorable gentleman. If a man were present now at the field of slaughter, and were to inquire for what they were fighting, 'Fighting!' would be the answer; 'they are not fighting; they are pausing.' Why is that man expiring? Why is that other writhing with agony? What means this inexplicable fury? The answer must be, 'You are quite wrong, sir; you deceive yourself; they are not fighting; do not disturb them; they are merely pausing! Lord help you, sir, they are not angry with one another; they have now no cause of quarrel, but their country thinks that there should be a pause!"
By such expressions as the above, Mr. Fox ridiculed the idea that had been advanced, that the great events then occurring were simply a "pause" in history.
Dr. Johnson, in his indignant letter to Lord Chesterfield, refusing his patronage and favor which were not offered till he began to be popular and did not need assistance, inquires: "Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encounters him with help?" Of course Johnson does not ask such a question for information, but intends by his question to intimate precisely the opposite idea as the truth,
Shakspeare, that great delineator of every passion, often employs Irony. In King Lear, Cordelia is represented as ridiculing a blunt plain-speaking man as coarse and rude, thus:
"This is some fellow,
Who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect
The words printed in italics are a repetition by Cordelia of what the rough man is supposed to say of himself craftily. She repeats them, to show their falsity, simply by a peculiar emphasis. This kind of irony is often prompted by anger.
60. Irony in Controversy.-Controversialists sometimes resort to Irony to expose the ridiculousness of the errors which they oppose. Thus Henry Rogers* ironically asks deists to construct a book as ingenious and powerful as the Bible. He begs of them, "Do not let your imaginative forms be so exquisite as to make mankind take them for genuine history" [as they have taken the Bible]; "do not, I warn you, so transcend Homer and Shakspeare, as to make people fancy your fable fact! Or else not only will you fail of your object, but will have added unexpectedly another to the many historical religions !"
This is exquisite Irony, as is the whole letter from which it is taken. None can deny the efficiency of this weapon, when properly used, either to expose error, or meanness, or ignorance, or vice.
Bishop Haret has a long argument, in the form of a letter, to dissuade young clergymen from studying the Bible, so written as to show that such a neglect as it pretends to advise would be cowardly and guilty. Such ironical writing, when well done, is exceedingly efficient.
*The Greyson letters: Selections from the Correspondence of R. G. H. Greyson, Esq. Edited by Henry Rogers (Boston, 1857), p. 428.
†The Works of Dr. Francis Hare, Lord Bishop of Chichester (London, 1746), vol. ii. p. 1-38.
61. Irony intended to Amuse.-The lighter use of Irony, simply to amuse, may be seen principally in humorous productions. Some whole volumes have a vein of irony running through them; and while to superficial readers they appear to be sober, are really ridiculing some theory or practice. This covert, gentle irony, it is, that gives such an inexpressible charm to such works, as "Don Quixote," the "Vicar of Wakefield," and many of the writings of Dean Swift and Sydney Smith. Washington Irving, in his "Knickerbocker's History of New York," has given us some of the best specimens of this kind of irony. We have room but for a single passage:
"Of the creation of the world we have a thousand contradictory accounts; and though a very satisfactory one is furnished us by divine revelation, yet every philosopher feels himself in honor bound to furnish us with a better. As an impartial historian, I consider it my duty to notice their several theories, by which mankind have been so exceedingly edified and instructed."
Who does not perceive in this a ridicule of the absurd theories of the origin of the world that have been promulgated?
One of the most successful specimens of ironical writing is a pamphlet by the celebrated humorist Swift, entitled, "A Modest Proposal to the Public for preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from being a Burden to their Country, and for making them Beneficial to the Public?" The "modest proposal" is that the little children be fattened and used for food! He enters into grave statistical calculations of the pecuniary profit of such a course, written with such an appearance of candor and cool brutality, that