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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Richard Harris Barham (Thomas Ingoldsby) (1788–1845)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE AUTHOR of the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’ belonged to a well-defined and delightful class of men, chiefly found in modern England, and indeed mostly bred and made possible by the conditions of English society and the Anglican Church. It is that of clergymen who in the public eye are chiefly wits and diners-out, jokers and literary humorists, yet are conscientious and devoted ministers of their religion and curators of their religious charges, honoring their profession and humanity by true and useful lives and lovable characters. They are men of the sort loathed by Lewis Carroll’s heroine in the ‘Two Voices,’
              “a kind of folk
Who have no horror of a joke,”
and indeed love it dearly, but are as firm in principle and unostentatiously dutiful in conduct as if they were leaden Puritans or narrow devotees.
  1
  By far the best remembered of this class, for themselves or their work, are Sydney Smith and Richard Harris Barham; but their relative repute is one of the oddest paradoxes in literary history. Roughly speaking, the one is remembered and unread, the other read and unremembered. Sydney Smith’s name is almost as familiar to the masses as Scott’s, and few could tell a line that he wrote; Barham’s writing is almost as familiar as Scott’s, and few would recognize his name. Yet he is in the foremost rank of humorists; his place is wholly unique, and is likely to remain so. It will be an age before a similar combination of tastes and abilities is found once more. Macaulay said truly of Sir Walter Scott that he “combined the minute learning of an antiquary with the fire of a great poet.” Barham combined a like learning in different fields, and joined to a different outlook and temper of mind, with the quick perceptions of a great wit, the brimming zest and high spirits of a great joker, the genial nature and lightness of a born man of the world, and the gifts of a wonderful improvisatore in verse. Withal, he had just enough of serious purpose to give much of his work a certain measure of cohesive unity, and thus impress it on the mind as no collection of random skits could do. That purpose is the feathering which steadies the arrows and sends them home.  2
  It is pleasant to know that one who has given so good a time to others had a very good time himself; that we are not, as so often happens, relishing a farce that stood for tragedy with the maker, and substituting our laughter for his tears. Barham had the cruel sorrows of personal bereavement so few escape; but in material things his career was wholly among pleasant ways. He was well born and with means, well educated, well nurtured. He was free from the sordid squabbles or anxious watching and privation which fall to the lot of so many of the best. He was happy in his marriage and its attendant home and family, and most fortunate in his friendships and the superb society he enjoyed. His birth and position as a gentleman of good landed family, combined with his profession, opened all doors to him.  3
  But it was the qualities personal to himself, after all, which made these things available for enjoyment. His desires were moderate; he counted success what more eager and covetous natures might have esteemed comparative failure. His really strong intellect and wide knowledge and cultivation enabled him to meet the foremost men of letters on equal terms. His kind heart, generous nature, exuberant fun, and entertaining conversation endeared him to every one and made his company sought by every one; they saved much trouble from coming upon him and lightened what did come. And no blight could have withered that perennial fountain of jollity, drollery, and light-heartedness. But these were only the ornaments of a stanchly loyal and honorable nature, and a lovable and unselfish soul. One of his friends writes of him thus:—
          “The profits of agitating pettifoggers would have materially lessened in a district where he acted as a magistrate; and duels would have been nipped in the bud at his regimental mess. It is not always an easy task to do as you would be done by; but to think as you would be thought of and thought for, and to feel as you would be felt for, is perhaps still more difficult, as superior powers of tact and intellect are here required in order to second good intentions. These faculties, backed by an uncompromising love of truth and fair dealing, indefatigable good nature, and a nice sense of what was due to every one in the several relations of life, both gentle and simple, rendered our late friend invaluable, either as an adviser or a peacemaker, in matters of delicate and difficult handling.”
  4
  Barham was born in Canterbury, England, December 6th, 1788, and died in London, June 17th, 1845. His ancestry was superior, the family having derived its name from possessions in Kent in Norman days. He lost his father—a genial bon vivant of literary tastes who seems like a reduced copy of his son—when but five years old; and became heir to a fair estate, including Tappington Hall, the picturesque old gabled mansion so often imaginatively misdescribed in the ‘Ingoldsby Legends,’ but really having the famous blood-stained stairway. He had an expensive private education, which was nearly ended with his life at the age of fourteen by a carriage accident which shattered and mangled his right arm, crippling it permanently. As so often happens, the disaster was really a piece of good fortune: it turned him to or confirmed him in quiet antiquarian scholarship, and established connections which ultimately led to the ‘Legends’; he may owe immortality to it.  5
  After passing through St. Paul’s (London) and Brasenose (Oxford), he studied law, but finally entered the church. After a couple of small curacies in Kent, he was made rector of Snargate and curate of Warehorn, near Romney Marsh; all four in a district where smuggling was a chief industry, and the Marsh in especial a noted haunt of desperadoes (for smugglers then took their lives in their hands), of which the ‘Legends’ are rich in reminiscences. In 1819, during this incumbency, he wrote a novel, ‘Baldwin,’ which was a failure; and part of another, ‘My Cousin Nicholas,’ which, finished fifteen years later, had fair success as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine.  6
  An opportunity offering in 1821, he stood for a minor canonry in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and obtained it; his income was less than before, but he had entered the metropolitan field, which brought him rich enjoyment and permanent fame. He paid a terrible price for them: his unhealthy London house cost him the lives of three of his children. To make up for his shortened means he became editor of the London Chronicle and a contributor to various other periodicals, including the notorious weekly John Bull, sometime edited by Theodore Hook. In 1824 he became a priest in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace, and soon after gained a couple of excellent livings in Essex, which put him at ease financially.  7
  He was inflexible in principle, a firm Tory, though without rancor. He was very High Church, but had no sympathy with the Oxford movement or Catholicism. He preached careful and sober sermons, without oratorical display and with rigid avoidance of levity. He would not make the church a field either for fireworks or jokes, or even for displays of scholarship or intellectual gymnastics. In his opinion, religious establishments were kept up to advance religion and morals. And both he and his wife wrought zealously in the humble but exacting field of parochial good works.  8
  He was, however, fast becoming one of the chief ornaments of that brilliant group of London wits whose repute still vibrates from the early part of the century. Many of them—actors, authors, artists, musicians, and others—met at the Garrick Club, and Barham joined it. The names of Sydney Smith and Theodore Hook are enough to show what it was; but there were others equally delightful,—not the least so, or least useful, a few who could not see a joke at all, and whose simplicity and good nature made them butts for the hoaxes and solemn chaff of the rest. Barham’s diary, quoted in his son’s ‘Life,’ gives an exquisite instance.  9
  In 1834 his old schoolmaster Bentley established Bentley’s Miscellany; and Barham was asked for contributions. The first he sent was the amusing but quite “conceivable” ‘Spectre of Tappington’; but there soon began the immortal series of versified local stories, legendary church miracles, antiquarian curios, witty summaries of popular plays, skits on London life, and so on, under the pseudonym of ‘Thomas Ingoldsby,’ which sprang instantly into wide popularity, and have never fallen from public favor since—nor can they till appreciation of humor is dead in the world. They were collected and illustrated by Leech, Cruikshank, and others, who were inspired by them to some of their best designs: perhaps the most perfect realization in art of the Devil in his moments of jocose triumph is Leech’s figure in ‘The House-Warming.’ A later series appeared in Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine in 1843.  10
  He wrote some excellent pieces (of their kind) in prose, besides the one already mentioned: the weird and well-constructed ‘Leech of Folkestone’ and the ‘Passage in the Life of Henry Harris,’ both half-serious tales of mediæval magic; the thoroughly Ingoldsbian ‘Legend of Sheppey,’ with its irreverent farce, high animal spirits, and antiquarianism; the equally characteristic ‘Lady Rohesia,’ which would be vulgar but for his sly wit and drollery. But none of these are as familiar as the versified ‘Legends,’ nor have they the astonishing variety of entertainment found in the latter.  11
  The ‘Ingoldsby Legends’ have been called an English naturalization of the French metrical contes; but Barham owes nothing to his French models save the suggestion of method and form. Not only is his matter all his own, but he has Anglified the whole being of the metrical form itself. His facility of versification, the way in which the whole language seems to be liquid in his hands and ready to pour into any channel of verse, was one of the marvelous things of literature. It did not need the free random movement of the majority of the tales, where the lines may be anything from one foot to six, from spondaic to dactylic: in some of them he tied himself down to the most rigid and inflexible metrical forms, and moved as lightly and freely in those fetters as if they were non-existent. As to the astonishing rhymes which meet us at every step, they form in themselves a poignant kind of wit; often double and even treble, one word rhyming with an entire phrase or one phrase with another,—not only of the oddest kind, but as nicely adapted to the necessities of expression and meaning as if intended or invented for that purpose alone,—they produce on us the effect of the richest humor.  12
  One of his most diverting “properties” is the set of “morals” he draws to everything, of nonsensical literalness and infantile gravity, the perfection of solemn fooling. Thus in the ‘Lay of St. Cuthbert,’ where the Devil has captured the heir of the house,
  “Whom the nurse had forgot and left there in his chair,
Alternately sucking his thumb and his pear,”
the moral is drawn, among others,—
  “Perhaps it’s as well to keep children from plums,
And pears in their season—and sucking their thumbs.”
And part of the moral to the ‘Lay of St. Medard’ is—
  “Don’t give people nicknames! don’t, even in fun,
Call any one ‘snuff-colored son of a gun’!”
And they generally wind up with some slyly shrewd piece of worldly wisdom and wit. Thus, the closing moral to ‘The Blasphemer’s Warning’ is:—
  “To married men this—For the rest of your lives,
Think how your misconduct may act on your wives!
Don’t swear then before them, lest haply they faint,
Or—what sometimes occurs—run away with a Saint!”
Often they are broader yet, and intended for the club rather than the family. Indeed, the tales as a whole are club tales, with an audience of club-men always in mind; not, be it remembered, bestialities like their French counterparts, or the later English and American improvements on the French, not even objectionable for general reading, but full of exclusively masculine joking, allusions, and winks, unintelligible to the other sex, and not welcome if they were intelligible.
  13
  He has plenty of melody, but it is hardly recognized because of the doggerel meaning, which swamps the music in the farce. And this applies to more important things than the melody. The average reader floats on the surface of this rapid and foamy stream, covered with sticks and straws and flowers and bonbons, and never realizes its depth and volume. This light frothy verse is only the vehicle of a solid and laborious antiquarian scholarship, of an immense knowledge of the world and society, books and men. He modestly disclaimed having any imagination, and said he must always have facts to work upon. This was true; but the same may be said of some great poets, who have lacked invention except around a skeleton ready furnished. What was true of Keats and Fitzgerald cannot nullify the merit of Barham. His fancy erected a huge and consistent superstructure on a very slender foundation. The same materials lay ready to the hands of thousands of others, who, however, saw only stupid monkish fables or dull country superstition.  14
  His own explanation of his handling of the church legends tickles a critic’s sense of humor almost as much as the verses themselves. It is true that while differing utterly in his tone of mind, and his attitude toward the mediæval stories, from that of the mediæval artists and sculptors,—whose gargoyles and other grotesques were carved without a thought of travesty on anything religious,—he is at one with them in combining extreme irreverence of form with a total lack of irreverence of spirit toward the real spiritual mysteries of religion. He burlesques saints and devils alike, mocks the swarm of miracles of the mediæval Church, makes salient all the ludicrous aspects of mediæval religious faith in its devout credulity and barbarous gropings; yet he never sneers at holiness or real aspiration, and through all the riot of fun in his masques, one feels the sincere Christian and the warm-hearted man. But he was evidently troubled by the feeling that a clergyman ought not to ridicule any form in which religious feeling had ever clothed itself; and he justified himself by professing that he wished to expose the absurdity of old superstitions and mummeries to help countervail the effect of the Oxford movement. Ingoldsby as a soldier of Protestantism, turning monkish stories into rollicking farces in order to show up what he conceived to be the errors of his opponents, is as truly Ingoldsbian a figure as any in his own ‘Legends.’ Yet one need not accuse him of hypocrisy or falsehood, hardly even of self-deception. He felt that dead superstitions, and stories not reverenced even by the Church that developed them, were legitimate material for any use he could make of them; he felt that in dressing them up with his wit and fancy he was harming nothing that existed, nor making any one look lightly on the religion of Christ or the Church of Christ: and that they were the property of an opposing church body was a happy thought to set his conscience at rest. He wrote them thenceforth with greater peace of mind and added satisfaction, and no doubt really believed that he was doing good in the way he alleged. And if the excuse gave to the world even one more of the inimitable ‘Legends,’ it was worth feeling and making.  15
  Barham’s nature was not one which felt the problems and tragedies of the world deeply. He grieved for his friends, he helped the distresses he saw, but his imagination rested closely in the concrete. He was incapable of weltschmerz; even for things just beyond his personal ken he had little vision or fancy. His treatment of the perpetual problem of sex-temptations and lapses is a good example: he never seems to be conscious of the tragedy they envelop. To him they are always good jokes, to wink over or smile at or be indulgent to. No one would ever guess from ‘Ingoldsby’ the truth he finds even in ‘Don Juan,’ that
  “A heavy price must all pay who thus err,
In some shape.”
But we cannot have everything: if Barham had been sensitive to the tragic side of life, he could not have been the incomparable fun-maker he was. We do not go to the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’ to solace our souls when hurt or remorseful, to brace ourselves for duty, or to feel ourselves nobler by contact with the expression of nobility. But there must be play and rest for the senses, as well as work and aspiration; and there are worse services than relieving the strain of serious endeavor by enabling us to become jolly pagans once again for a little space, and care naught for the morrow.
  16
 
 
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