Irony: A bed of thorns

Irony is a kind of saturnine, sardonic wit.

Irony: A bed of thorns 

From Handy-book of Literary Curiosities by William Shepherd Walsh:
IRONY, [L. ironia; Gr. eipuveia, a dissembler in speech.]

I. Irony has the self-possession, complexity, and continuity of humor, without humors geniality.

a. It is an insult conveyed in the form of a compliment.
b. It is galling satire under the phraseology of panegyric.
c. It places its victim naked on a bed of briers and thistles thinly covered with rose-leaves.” (E. P. Whipple)

II. Irony is an ancient rhetorical device.

a. Irony is found in the Old Testament,
in Elijah’s ridicule of the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18:27), when in answer to his challenge, Baal’s prophets clamor to Baal to send fire from heaven upon the altar.
Starting about noon, Elijah began to tease them: “Shout louder! [Baals] a god, so maybe he’s busy. Maybe he’s relieving himself. Maybe he’s busy someplace. Maybe he’s taking a nap and somebody needs to wake him up.”
(International Standard Version)

b. Irony was a well-known figure in Greek literature.
1. It was such a pervading element in the Socrates’ discourse that even his contemporaries spoke of it as his “customary irony.”
2. In time Socratic and ironic have become almost interchangeable terms:
Most socratick Lady!
Or, if you will, ironick!

(Ben Jonson in New Inn)

III. Shakespeare admirably uses irony.

In Antony’s speech over the corpse of Caesar, Shakespeare derives additional intensity from contrast with Antony’s impassioned soliloquy in the preceding scene, which reveals the world of fury that Antony is really suppressing when he reiterates that Brutus is an honorable man.
The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar’s ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

IV. Jonathan Swift wrote one of the most exquisite pieces of irony in literature.

a. 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,” it is also a terrible satire on the misgovernment of Ireland.
b. It was published in 1729, when people were starving in hundreds from the famine and the dead were left unburied before their doors.
c. And what was Swift's plan?
1. It was to turn the children into food.
“I have been assured,” he says, “by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt it will equally serve as a ragout.”
2. He argues out the proposition with the calm deliberation of a statistician, or of a projector suggesting the importation of food from abroad.
“A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends,” Swift writes, “and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish.” The expense of fattening a child for the table will not be great, not above two shillings per annum, “rags included,” and he believes “no gentleman will repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child.”
d. Swift answers with mock arguments.
1. He considers all objections that might be raised to the scheme “as a little bordering on cruelty.”
2. He is careful to add that he has no personal motive, as his own children “are all past the age when he could make a profit of them.”

IV. Irony presents a calm exterior, but it is a thin veil.

a. The scorn and indignation of the writer shoots through this veil with blistering and blighting force.
b. The author does not wear his heart on his sleeve.
1. This does not prove that he is heartless.
2. On the contrary, it shows that his heart is in the right place.
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