Irony is that form of jest in which we ridicule a second person in the presence of a third. It is most complete when the second person is most ignorant of our intention, the third person most alive to it. Irony exists and is full even when the second person thus attacked is alone in suffering the attack, and irony exists and is full when the third person is restricted to our own expectant selves or even to God who made us and in whom is mirrored the universal truth of things. Irony enjoys an exuberant life, whether the second person so attacked is universal and the third as restricted as can be; or whether the second person so attacked is particular and singular, and the third person, the onlooker and the audience, comprehends the whole world.
It is in the intention of irony that it should do good, because it is of the nature of irony that it should avenge the truth. I say "avenge" because irony would not be irony were it not destined to inflict a fatal, or at least a grievous, wound. There is not in irony any measure of pity for the enemy, though irony could not exist without some vast motive of pity for a victim in whose defence it was aroused. Irony is a sword, and must be used as a sword. It has this quality about it, that, like some faery sword, it cannot be used with any propriety save in God's purpose; and those who have been the most expert swordsmen, when they take a wrong reward for their service, or use that weapon for an unworthy end, find it fail in their hands. Nay, like any faery sword, in hands that use it unworthily it will disappear. And the history of Letters is full of men who, tempted by this or by that, by money or by ease, or by random friendship, or by some appetite lower than the hunger and thirst after justice, have found their old strong irony grow limp and fruitless after they had sold their souls.
Irony, therefore, is unknown in those societies where the love of ease dominates all men. It is most powerful in those societies which are by their temper military. You will find irony treated angrily, as though it were an acid or a poison, where men love ease. And you will find it merely ignored when men have wholly lost the sense of justice. In such societies it retires from the realm of letters to that more powerful sphere in which divine vengeance and divine necessity have their action over things ; and many such a society no longer capable of producing or of appreciating irony when it proceeds from the mouth or the pen of a man, learn it most dreadfully in the catastrophes of war.
To the young, the pure, and the ingenuous, irony must always appear to have in it a quality of something evil, and so it has, for, as I have said, it is a sword to wound. It is so directly the product or reflex of evil that, though it can never be used, nay, can hardly exist, save in the chastisement of evil, yet irony always carries with it some reflections of the bad spirit against which it was directed. How false it is to say that vengeance and the hatred the evil men are in themselves evil, all human history can prove. Nay, but for irony in the last times of a decline no breath of health would remain to man. Nevertheless, as it is called into being by evil things, it works in an evil light. It suggests most powerfully the evil against which it is directed, and those innocent of evil shun so terrible an instrument.
Alone of the powers of expression possessed by the human spirit wherewith to defend right against wrong, irony is invulnerable, and alone of those powers it can always strike. Nor is anything invulnerable against it save that death of the intelligence which comes so shortly before the death of the society suffering it, that there is no need in the interval to attack the evil of that society or attempt to remedy it; for when stupidity come upon a State all is over.
A happy world, such as the world of children, or any society of men who have still preserved the general health of the soul, such a society as may be found in many mountain valleys, needs none of this salt for the curing and the preservation of morals. But even where men have so protected primal virtue, old men, old proverbs, dim records of past misfortunes leave some savour of irony in the traditions of the tribe. And irony is proved native to the scheme of things and not of its own self unnatural or rebellious by the manner in which the mere course of human happenings is perpetually filled with it. A dreadful irony is present when a man, having heard of the death of a friend, receives later his living letter posted from far off before that death. There is irony when, every defence having been made against some natural accident, that accident yet enters by another gate unsuspected to man. There is an irony in every unfulfilled prophecy and in every lengthy and worthless calculation. No man having purchased an honour defends unpurchased honour without the spirit of irony surrounding all his words. No man praises courage being himself but a rhetorician, or praises justice being himself a lawyer or a magistrate, without some savour of irony in the air of his audience, and it may be presumed without too much phantasy that spirits equal and undisturbed and of a high intelligence can see in every action of human life save the most holy an irony as strong as that which inhabits the tragedies of the great poets. There is a last use for irony, or rather a last aspect of it which this general irony of Nature, and of Nature's God, suggests: I mean that irony which can only appear in the letters of a country when corruption has gone so far that the mere truth is vivid with ironical power.
For there comes a time it is brief, as must be all final moments of decay but there comes a time in the moral disruption of a State when the mere utterance of a plain truth laboriously concealed by hypocrisy, denied by contemporary falsehood, and forgotten in the moral lethargy of the populace, takes upon itself an ironical quality more powerful than any elaboration of special ironies could have taken in the past. Some truth too widely put aside and quietly thrust forward, a detail in general conversation about a powerful man strikes, in such societies, exactly like the point of a spear. Blood flows: and the blood is drawn by irony. Yet was here no act nor any fabric of words. Mere testimony to the truth was enoug : and this should prove that irony is in touch with the divine and is a minister to truth. In such awful moments in the history of a State that which makes the dreadful jest is not the jester, but the eternal principle of truth itself. That which is jested at is the whole texture of the universal society upon which the truth falls, and for the audience, for the third person who shall see the jest at the second person's expense, there is present nothing less than the power by which truth is of such effect among men.
No man possessed of irony and using it has lived happily; nor has any man possessing it and using it died without having done great good to his fellows and secured a singular advantage to his own soul.
This wonderful essay, published in 1910, is taken from On Anything, a follow-up to his seminal 1907 collection, On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, a volume, as it happens, on nothing and kindred subjects.