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Yet despite its paucity of immortals it was a period of genuine importance, not only as revealing the dissolution. of the great romantic impulse but also as providing the auspices under which those same demigods of the Victorian era spent their formative years. And even apart from these extrinsic claims to attention, it is a decade with a very distinctive and likable character of its own, which is not yet so irrevocably submerged by the tide of indifference that it fails to respond gladly to any gesture of resuscitative intention. On the contrary, when one has read but a few pages of its loquacious annals, the protagonists resume their fleshly semblances and indulge once more in their interminable conversations.
Something of the spirit of the time is expressed by Mr. J. B. Priestley:
It may be described, shortly, as the period of high spirits, or, if you will, the period of plentiful spirits and high jinks. The world, with the universe still in attendance upon it, was safe for a moment; there was still leisure, time to do everything; the old picturesque world had not yet crumbled. . . . Ideas, beyond a gentlemanly interest in animal magnetism or phrenology, were infrequent and unfashionable. . . . These were the days of Barham, Hood, Lever, Surtees, Theodore Hook, Marryat, Peacock, Warren, Walker and his Original, and a hundred more; even criticism was troubled by the prevailing spirit, and so we had Christopher North and his roistering Noctes.1
As Mr. Priestley implies, the age was devoted to hearty and rather crude enjoyment of physical and intellectual indulgence. To this golden age of sociability one can attribute the inexhaustible hosts of good things to eat and drink that populate the pages of Dickens. And just as the aesthetic sense was thus satisfied with the primitive gratification provided by the gastronomic arts, so the intellect of the day was chiefly devoted to the equally elementary forms of humor, the pun and the practical joke or hoax. The former
The English Comic Characters, 198–99.
had its laureate in Tom Hood, the latter in Theodore Hook, and these professional wags, with a numerous entourage, enjoyed their heyday under the benignant patronage of their dean of Wits and canon of St. Paul's, Sydney Smith.
One remarkable characteristic of the group was the fact that so often the man himself was more significant than his writings. For convenience of classification Hook and Sydney Smith and Christopher North are regarded as authors, but as a matter of fact in each case the individual was his own best work of art. The influence of a picturesque personality was more effective than that of a conscientious writer, and could be exerted with much less drudgery. So the officially published productions of such men are sadly disappointing to the reader who has so repeatedly encountered them promenading amid gales of merriment and applause in the memoirs of their contemporaries. Eccentricity, so long as it was entertaining, was the highest virtue, and with a happy disregard for posterity the most popular wits of the day devoted their best efforts to such ephemeral concoctions as personal epigrams and elaborate hoaxes. And here again one is tempted to recognize a source for a Dickens trait: to modern minds, disciplined by the democratic maxim of conformity, practically all the outstanding personages in his novels are incredibly eccentric; but we must realize that when he was observing men in his journalistic capacity eccentricity was the most assiduously cultivated of graces, and the Victorian rigor of propriety had not been imposed.
Probably for the first and last time in literary history, the most prominent group of writers consisted preeminently of humorists. Of course there have been times, such as the Restoration, when wit was paramount, finding its literary embodiment in satire and high comedy; but there is a fundamental difference between the wit of Dryden and Congreve and the humor, the sheer ebullient fun, of Barham, Hood, and Edward Lear. Wit is essentially rational and logical, whereas the very life of their fun is its glorious nonsense; wit is superior and mordant, whereas their fun is
the most genial of good-fellowship; wit is utterly of this world, whereas their fun is astonishingly akin to mysticism. And the result of this antithesis is to be seen in the verse of the respective periods: one hesitates to apply to even the most skilful couplets of Pope the sacred name of poetry, feeling that the ecstatic sibyl has no concern with his cerebral dandyism, but the work of Hood and his confreres, although it is often appallingly bad poetry, is poetry none the less; no matter how bedraggled a camp-follower, it at least belongs to the cohorts of genius, and its voice does not lack the authentic ring which is sounded more mightily by the paladins.
This group of writers stood at the mid-point of a hundred years in which the tradition of humorous poetry in England was particularly definite—the century from the Rolliad and the Anti-Jacobin to W. S. Gilbert; and at this particular juncture, owing to the current of humor being at high water when the tide of serious poetry and prose was at its lowest ebb, there resulted the unique phenomenon of the babbling tributary assuming more significance than the sounding sea. The particular type of comic poetry which flourished may be described as vers de société endowed with virility and roystering gusto, as if a curate had imbibed gin by mistake for his afternoon tea and had swaggered in to share the conversation at a livery stable. The genteel type of polite verse was represented by Praed, but to offset his elegant irony there is Miss Kilmansegg and her Precious Leg; there are Maginn and Father Prout; above all, there is The Ingoldsby Legends.
Of all the prominent characteristics which distinguished his coterie both in outlook and literary technique, of all the currents of influence which they received and transmitted, the most typical representative is Richard Harris Barham. His work is more consistently excellent than that of his friends, being the occasional pastime of a busy cleric instead of the enforced and often desperate hack-work of professional humorists. And furthermore, as well as being both delightful in itself and typical of its era, his work forms a
notable link in a remarkable tradition which recurs throughout English literature.
There is a mysterious but incontrovertible identification in England and perhaps abroad also-between humor and the church. In the catalogue of English humorists the proportion of ecclesiasts is astonishing. One thinks immediately of Dean Swift, of Lawrence Sterne, of Sydney Smith, and the list is more extensive. One goes back as far as Archdeacon Walter Map, with whose merry legends the work of Barham bears an amazingly close affinity; one proceeds to John Skelton's ribaldries, thence to the whimsies of Herrick, the satires of Bishop Hall, the scurrilous Rosciad of Charles Churchill; and one comes all the way to the twentieth-century limerick, of which an anthology has just been compiled, with this interesting result:
The author has been vastly intrigued to discover that "The Church' has been responsible for perpetrating more Limericks than all the other professions put together.2
In particular, it is noteworthy that this unexpected affinity of surplice and motley does not produce a bowdlerized type of humor. Indeed, one is tempted sometimes to declare that uncleanliness is next to godliness. Beyond a doubt the spiritual father of the tribe is the amiable doctor Rabelais, whose ecclesiastical training gave him so much material; Herrick, for all his daintiness, produced some of the coarsest epigrams in English; the Reverend Robert Burton's learned treatise is consistently Rabelaisian; Swift is a master of the downright revolting, as Sterne is of the knowing leer; and even the humble limerick has an incorrigible tendency toward the unprintable.
The Anglican church appears to have fostered a type of mind that was in literature epicurean and ribald, yet by a strange anomaly this form of relaxation does not seem often to have affected the professional excellence of the worthies who indulged in it. Unto the pure all things are pure. Perhaps they were so secure in the knowledge of their
2 Reed, Langford, Complete Limerick Book, 34.
spiritual rectitude that they could entertain thoughts which in gross lay minds would have sinful consequences; it may even have been a strict conscience which forced them to dwell on aspects of life dishonestly avoided by other writers with a resulting suppressio veri. Somehow, at least, there is in many of these writers an elusive quality which enables us to accept without skepticism the recorded facts that they led-in working hours-godly, righteous, and sober lives.
In comparison with Swift or Sterne, Barham is positively bashful, but there is nevertheless in many of the Ingoldsby Legends more than a suspicion of the fabliau. If we can discover what element exists in the Legends to preserve them from being offensive to readers who would be painfully shocked by far less ribald tales by other writers, we will understand something of the peculiar age in which they were produced. And this saving element seems to be just a boyish gusto, an unaffected high-spirited geniality, causing one to apply the adjective 'innocent' to even the most torrid episodes. Barham has not the subtlety of mind which produces 'suggestiveness,' so there is no hint that the thought of indecency ever entered his consciousness. In unsophisticated ages the amusement derived from such anecdotes is entirely healthy, until pharisaical 'reformers' create a factitous prudery. The motto of the Garter is widely applicable.
In devotion to his family, in service and thoughtfulness toward his parishioners, Barham was of the breed of Chaucer's parson and of Dr. Primrose. Yet in the pursuit of his humorous effects he gaily shatters all our theories of clerical rectitude. Here for instance is the record in his diary of a fascinating hoax which seems to the feeble modern intelligence nothing more nor less than barefaced lying:
William Linley was a man of great simplicity of mind. . . . He had begun to spout from the opening scene in Macbeth, and would probably have gone through it if I had not cut him short at the third line-"When the hurly-burly's done," with "What on earth are you talking about? Why, my dear Linley, it is astonishing that a man so well read in Shakespeare