Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Una's Mirror or Ithuriel's Spear

And whence this Lust to Laugh? what fond Pretense?
Why, Shaftsb'ry tells us, Mirth's the Test of Sense;
Th'enchanted Touch, which Fraud and Falshood fear,
Like Una's Mirror, or Ithuriel's Spear.

Not so fair Truth--aloft her Temple stands
The Work and Glory of Immortal Hands.
Huge Rocks of Adamant its Base enfold,
Steel bends the Arch, the Columns swell in Gold.
No Storms, no Tumults reach the sacred Fane,
Waves idly beat, and Winds grow loud in vain.
The Shaft sinks pointless, e'er it verges there,
And the dull Hiss but dies away in Air.

Yet let me say, howe'er secure it rise,
Sly Fraud may reach it, and close Craft surprize.
Truth, drawn like Truth, must blaze divinely bright;
But, drawn like Error, Truth may cheat the sight.

[William Whitehead, An Essay on Ridicule, ll. 87-102.]

At some point I'm going to have to do some posts on the Ridicule Controversy, which was one of the most heated philosophical disputes of the eighteenth century; it was started off by some ambiguous comments written by Shaftesbury, which can be interpreted either as saying that ridicule is a good means for uncovering unreasonable gravity and that truth does not need, in the long run, to fear ridicule, or as saying that ridicule is a test of truth, and therefore a reasonable means of inquiry. It was generally read, by both sides, as the latter. The slogan, "ridicule a test for truth," was argued back and forth with considerable ink (and ridicule). Whitehead's poem is an entry on the anti-Shaftesbury side; this side of the dispute didn't reject ridicule (people like Warburton used it extensively) but denied the "test for truth" part vehemently. It's an uneven poem, but Whitehead has a good sense of imagery, and occasionally something stands out -- "Truth, drawn like Truth, must blaze divinely bright; / But, drawn like Error, Truth may cheat the sight" is an excellent couplet.

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