A Chapter on Laughing by Unknown

"And Laughter holding both his sides."—Milton.

If you were to ask a learned physician to explain to you the peculiar sensation termed laughter, it is more than likely he would astonish you with an amazing profundity of erudition, ending in the sage conclusion that he knows nothing more about the matter than that it is a very natural emotion of the senses, generally originating with a good joke, and not unfrequently terminating in a fit of indigestion. If he happened to be (as there are many) a priggish quack, it is not unlikely he would add as a sequel, that it was a most injurious and unmannerly indulgence, particularly favouring a determination of blood to the head, and decidedly calculated to injure the fine nerves of the facial organ! If, on the contrary, he should be a good, honest follower of Galen, he would not fail to pronounce it the most fearful enemy to his profession, as being altogether incompatible with physic and the blues, and, by way of illustration, he might go so far as to read a chapter of Tom Hood's best, in order to prove the strength of his position.

Laughter—good, hearty, cheerful-hearted laughter—is the echo of a happy spirit, the attribute of a cloudless mind. Life without it were without hope, for it is the exuberance of hope. It is an emotion possessed by man alone,—the happy light that relieves the dark picture of life.

We laugh most, when we are young; the thoughts are then free and unfettered, there is nothing to bind their fierce impulse, and we sport with the passions with the bold daring of ignorance. Smiles and tears, it has been observed, follow each other like gloom and sunshine; so the childish note of mirth treads on the heels of sorrow. It was but yesterday we noticed a little urchin writhing apparently in the agony of anguish; he had been punished for some trivial delinquency, and his little spirit resented it most gloriously. How the young dog roared! His little chest heaved up and down; and every blue vein on his pure forehead was apparent,—bursting with passion. Anon, a conciliatory word was addressed to him by the offended gouvernante; a smile passed over the boy's face; his little eyes, sparkling through a cloud of tears, were thrown upwards; a short struggle between pride and some other powerful feeling ensued; and then there burst forth such a peal of laughter, so clear, so full, so round, it would have touched the heart of a stoic!

Our natural passions and emotions become subdued, or altogether changed, as we enter the world. The laugh of the schoolboy is checked by the frown of the master. He is acquiring wisdom, and wisdom (ye Gods, how dearly bought!) is incompatible with laughter. But still, at times, when loosened from his shackles, the pining student will burst forth as in days gone by: but he has no longer the cue and action for passion he then had; the cares of the world have already mingled themselves in his cup, and his young spirit is drooping beneath their influence. The laughter of boyhood is a merry carol; but the first rich blush has already passed away. The boy enters the world, full of the gay buoyancy of youth. He looks upon those he meets as the playmates of other hours. But Experience teaches him her lessons; the natural feelings of his heart are checked; he may laugh and talk as formerly, but the spell, the dreams that cast such a halo round his young days, are dissipated and broken.

There are fifty different classes of laughers. There is your smooth-faced politic laugher, your laugher by rule. These beings are generally found within the precincts of a court, at the heels of some great man, to whose conduct they shape their passions as a model. Does his lordship say a bon mot, it is caught up and grinned at in every possible manner till, the powers of grimace expended, his lordship is pleased to change the subject, and strike a different chord. And it is not astonishing. Who would refuse to laugh for a pension of two hundred a year? Common gratitude demands it.

There is, then, your habitual laugher, men who laugh by habit, without rhyme or reason. They are generally stout, piggy-faced gentlemen, who eat hearty suppers, and patronise free-and-easys. They will meet you with a grin on their countenance, which, before you have said three sentences, will resolve itself into a simper, and terminate finally in a stentorian laugh. These men may truly be said to go through life laughing; but habit has blunted the finer edges of their sympathies, and their mirth is but the unmeaning effusion of a weak spirit. These personages generally go off in fits of apoplexy, brought on by excessive laughter on a full stomach!

There is, then, your discontented cynical laugher, who makes a mask of mirth to conceal the venom of his mind. It is a dead fraud that ought not to be pardoned. Speak to one of these men of happiness, virtue, &c. he meets you with a sneer, or a bottle-imp kind of chuckle; talk to him of any felicitous circumstance, he checks you with a sardonic grin, that freezes your best intentions. He is a type of the death's head the Egyptians placed at their feasts to check exuberant gaiety.

There is, then, your fashionable simperer, your laugher -la-mode, your inward digester of small jokes and tittle-tattle. He never laughs,—it is a vulgar habit; the only wonder is, that he eats. People, he will tell you, should overcome these vulgar propensities; they are abominable. A young man of this class is generally consumptive, his lungs have no play, he is always weak and narrow-chested; he vegetates till fifty, and then goes off, overcome with a puff of eau de rose, or millefleur, he has encountered accidentally from the pocket-handkerchief of a cheesemonger's wife!

Last of all, there is your real, good, honest laugher; the man who has a heart to feel and sympathize with the joys and sorrows of others; who has gone through life superior to its follies, and has learnt to gather wisdom even from laughter. Such are the men who do honour to society, who have learnt to be temperate in prosperity, patient in adversity; and, who, having gathered experience from years, are content to drink the cup of life mingled as it is, to enjoy calmly the sweeter portion, and laugh at the bitter.

There is a strange affinity in our passions. The heart will frequently reply to the saddest intelligence by a burst of the most unruly laughter, the effigy of mirth. It seems as though the passion, like a rude torrent, were too strong to pursue its ordinary course; but, breaking forth from the narrow channel that confined it, rushed forth in one broad impetuous stream. It is the voice of anguish that has chosen a different garb, and would cheat the sympathies. But we have ourselves been demonstrating the truth of our last proposition; for we have been writing on laughter till we have grown sad. But what says the old song?

"To-night we'll merry, merry be,
To-morrow we'll be sober."

So sadness, after all, is but joy deferred.