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Let it be some comfort to those whose polite sensibility has laboured under such distress to be assured, that they need never henceforward fear to be reduced to similar dilemmas. They may be ensured for ever against such dangers at the slight premium and upon the easy condition of perusing the following little volume. It will satisfy them that there is a subject which still affords inexhausted and inexhaustible sources of conversation, suited to all tastes, all ranks, all individuals, democratic, aristocratic, commercial, or philosophic; suited to every company which can be combined, purposely or fortuitously, in this great metropolis, or in any of the most remote parts of England, Wales, or Scotland. There is a subject which dilates the heart of every true Briton, which relaxes his muscles, however rigid, to a smile,—which opens his lips, however closed, to conversation. There is a subject " which frets another's spleen to cure our own,” and which makes even the angelic part of the creation laugh themselves mortal. For who can forbear to laugh at the bare idea of an Irish bull ?
Nor let any one apprehend that this subject can ever become trite and vulgar. Custom cannot stale its infinite variety. It is in the main obvious, and palpable enough for every common understanding; yet it leads to disquisitions of exquisite subtlety, it branches into innumerable ramifications, and involves consequences of surprising importance; it may exercise the ingenuity of the subtlest wit, the fancy of the oddest humorist, the imagination of the finest poet, and the judgment of the most profound metaphysician. Moreover, this happy subject is enveloped in all that doubt and confusion which are so favourable to the reputation of disputants, and which secures the glorious possibility of talking incessantly, without being stopped short by a definition or a demonstration. For much as we have all heard and talked of Irish bulls, it has never yet been decided what it is that constitutes a bull. Incongruity of ideas, says one.
But this supposition touches too closely upon the definition of wit, which, according to the best authorities, Locke, Burke, and Stewart, consists in an unexpected assemblage of ideas, apparently discordant, but in which some point of resemblance or aptitude is suddenly discovered.
Then, perhaps, says another, the essence of a bull lies in confusion of ideas. This sounds plausible in theory, but it will not apply in practice; for confusion of ideas is common to both countries : for instance, was there not some slight confusion of ideas in the mind of that English student, who, when he was asked what
progress he had made in the study of medicine, replied, “I hope I shall soon be qualified to be a physician, for I think I am now able to cure a child ? "
To amend our bill, suppose we insert the word laughable, and say that a laughable confusion of ideas constitutes a bull. But have we not a laughable confusion of ideas in our English poet Blackmore's famous lines in Prince Arthur ?
“A painted vest prince Vortigern had on,
We are sensible that, to many people, the most vulgar Irish bull would appear more laughable merely from its being Irish,—therefore we cannot make the propensity to laughter in one man the criterion of what is ridiculous in another; though we have a precedent for this mode of judging in the laws of England, which are allowed to be the perfection of human reason. If a man swear that his neighbour has put him in bodily fear, he may have the cause of his terror sent to gaol; thus the feelings of the plaintiff become the measure of the defendant's guilt. As we cannot extend this convenient principle to all matters of taste, and all subjects of risibility, we are still compelled to acknowledge that no accurate definition of a bull has yet been
given. The essence of an Irish bull must be of the most ethereal nature, for notwithstanding the most indefatigable research, it has hitherto escaped from analysis. The crucible always breaks in the long-expected moment of projection: we have nevertheless the courage to recommence the
in a new mode. Perhaps by ascertaining what it is not, we may at last discover what it is: we must distinguish the genuine from the spurious, the original from all imitations, the indigenous from the exotic; in short, it must be determined in what an Irish bull essentially differs from a blunder, or in what Irish blunders specifically differ from English blunders, and from those of all other nations. To elucidate these points, or to prove to the satisfaction of all competent judges that they are beyond the reach of the human understanding, is the object of the following Essay concerning the Nature of Bulls and Blunders.