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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816)

The Art of Puffing

From “The Critic”


Dang.My dear Puff!

Puff.My dear Dangle, how is it with you?

Dang.Mr. Sneer, give me leave to introduce Mr. Puff to you.

Puff.Mr. Sneer, is this? Sir, he is a gentleman whom I have long panted for the honour of knowing—a gentleman whose critical talents and transcendent judgment——

Sneer.Dear sir——

Dang.Nay, don’t be modest, Sneer; my friend Puff only talks to you in the style of his profession.

Sneer.His profession!

Puff.Yes, sir; I make no secret of the trade I follow. Among friends and brother authors, Dangle knows I love to be frank on the subject, and to advertise myself vivâ voce. I am, sir, a practitioner in panegyric, or, to speak more plainly, a professor of the art of puffing, at your service—or anybody else’s.

Sneer.Sir, you are very obliging! I believe, Mr. Puff, I have often admired your talents in the daily prints.

Puff.Yes, sir, I flatter myself I do as much business in that way as any six of the fraternity in town. Devilish hard work all the summer, friend Dangle—never worked harder! But, hark’ee, the winter managers were a little sore, I believe.

Dang.No; I believe they took it all in good part.

Puff.Aye, then that must have been affectation in them; for, egad, there were some of the attacks which there was no laughing at!

Sneer(aside).Aye, the humourous ones. But I should think, Mr. Puff, that authors would in general be able to do this sort of work for themselves.

Puff.Why, yes—but in a clumsy way. Besides, we look on that as an encroachment, and so take the opposite side. I dare say, now, you conceive half the very civil paragraphs and advertisements you see to be written by the parties concerned, or their friends? No such thing: nine out of ten manufactured by me in the way of business.


Puff.Even the auctioneers, now—the auctioneers, I say—though the rogues have lately got some credit for their language—not an article of the merit theirs. Take them out of their pulpits, and they are as dull as catalogues! No, sir; ’twas I first enriched their style, ’twas I first taught them to crowd their advertisements with panegyrical superlatives, each epithet rising above the other, like the bidders in their own auction-rooms! From me they learned to inlay their phraseology with variegated chips of exotic metaphor; by me, too, their inventive faculties were called forth. Yes, sir, by me they were instructed to clothe ideal walls with gratuitous fruits; to insinuate obsequious rivulets into visionary groves; to teach courteous shrubs to nod their approbation of the grateful soil; or, on emergencies, to raise upstart oaks, where there never had been an acorn; to create a delightful vicinage without the assistance of a neighbour; or fix the temple of Hygeia in the fens of Lincolnshire!

Dang.I am sure you have done them infinite service; for now, when a gentleman is ruined, he parts with his house with some credit.

Sneer.Service! If they had any gratitude, they would erect a statue to him; they would figure him as a presiding Mercury, the god of traffic and fiction, with a hammer in his hand instead of a caduceus. But pray, Mr. Puff, what first put you on exercising your talents in this way?

Puff.Egad, sir, sheer necessity—the proper parent of an art so nearly allied to invention! You must know, Mr. Sneer, that from the first time I tried my hand at an advertisement, my success was such, that for some time after I led a most extraordinary life indeed!

Sneer.How, pray?

Puff.Sir, I supported myself two years entirely by my misfortunes.

Sneer.By your misfortunes!

Puff.Yes, sir, assisted by long sickness, and other occasional disorders; and a very comfortable living I had of it.

Sneer.From sickness and misfortunes! You practised as a doctor and an attorney at once?

Puff.No, egad; both maladies and miseries were my own.

Sneer.Hey! what the plague!

Dang.’Tis true, i’ faith.

Puff.Hark’ee! By advertisements—To the charitable and humane, and To those whom Providence hath blessed with affluence!

Sneer.Oh, I understand you.

Puff.And, in truth, I deserved what I got; for I suppose never man went through such a series of calamities in the same space of time. Sir, I was five times made a bankrupt, and reduced from a state of affluence, by a train of unavoidable misfortunes. Then, sir, though a very industrious tradesman, I was twice burned out, and lost my little all both times. I lived upon those fires a month. I soon after was confined by a most excruciating disorder, and lost the use of my limbs. That told very well; for I had the case strongly attested, and went about to collect the subscriptions myself.

Dang.Egad, I believe that was when you first called on me.

Puff.In November last? Oh, no; I was at that time a close prisoner in the Marshalsea, for a debt benevolently contracted to serve a friend. I was afterward twice tapped for a dropsy, which declined into a very profitable consumption. I was then reduced to— Oh, no; then I became a widow with six helpless children, after having had eleven husbands pressed and being left every time eight months gone with child, and without money to get me into an hospital!

Sneer.And you bore all with patience, I make no doubt?

Puff.Why, yes, though I made some occasional attempts at felo de se; but as I did not find those rash actions answer, I left off killing myself very soon. Well, sir, at last, what with bankruptcies, fires, gouts, dropsies, imprisonments, and other valuable calamities, having got together a pretty handsome sum, I determined to quit a business which had always gone rather against my conscience, and in a more liberal way still to indulge my talents for fiction and embellishments, through my favourite channels of diurnal communication. And so, sir, you have my history.

Sneer.Most obligingly communicative indeed! And your confession, if published, might certainly serve the cause of true charity, by rescuing the most useful channels of appeal to benevolence from the cant of imposition. But surely, Mr. Puff, there is no great mystery in your present profession?

Puff.Mystery, sir! I will take upon me to say the matter was never scientifically treated nor reduced to rule before.

Sneer.Reduced to rule!

Puff.O Lud, sir, you are very ignorant, I am afraid! Yes, sir, puffing is of various sorts. The principal are, the puff direct, the puff preliminary, the puff collateral, and the puff collusive, and the puff oblique, or puff by implication. These all assume, as circumstances require, the various forms of Letter to the Editor, Occasional Anecdote, Impartial Critique, Observation from Correspondent, or Advertisement from the Party.

Sneer.The puff direct, I can conceive——

Puff.Oh, yes, that’s simple enough! For instance: A new comedy or farce is to be produced at one of the theatres, though, by-the-bye, they don’t bring out half what they ought to do. The author is, suppose, Mr. Smatter, or Mr. Dapper, or any particular friend of mine. Very well: the day before it is to be performed, I write an account of the manner in which it was received; I have the plot from the author, and only add: “Characters strongly drawn—highly coloured—hand of a master—fund of genuine humour—mine of invention—neat dialogue—Attic salt.” Then, for the performance: “Mr. Dodd was astonishingly great in the character of Sir Harry. That universal and judicious actor, Mr. Palmer, perhaps never appeared to more advantage than in the colonel. But it is not in the power of language to do justice to Mr. King; indeed, he more than merited those repeated bursts of applause which he drew from a most brilliant and judicious audience. As to the scenery, the miraculous powers of Mr. De Loutherbourg’s pencil are universally acknowledged. In short, we are at a loss which to admire most, the unrivalled genius of the author, the great attention and liberality of the managers, the wonderful abilities of the painter, or the incredible exertions of all the performers.”

Sneer.That’s pretty well indeed, sir.

Puff.Oh, cool, quite cool, to what I sometimes do!

Sneer.And do you think there are any who are influenced by this?

Puff.O Lud, yes, sir! The number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves is very small indeed.

Sneer.Well, sir, the puff preliminary?

Puff.Oh, that, sir, does well in the form of a caution. In a matter of gallantry, now: Sir Flimsy Gossamer wishes to be well with Lady Fanny Fete; he applies to me; I open trenches for him with a paragraph in the Morning Post: “It is recommended to the beautiful and accomplished Lady F four stars F dash E to be on her guard against that dangerous character, Sir F dash G; who, however pleasing and insinuating his manners may be, is certainly not remarkable for the constancy of his attachments!”—in italics. Here, you see, Sir Flimsy Gossamer is introduced to the particular notice of Lady Fanny, who perhaps never thought of him before; she finds herself publicly cautioned to avoid him, which naturally makes her desirous of seeing him; the observation of their acquaintance causes a pretty kind of mutual embarrassment; this produces a sort of sympathy of interest, which, if Sir Flimsy is unable to improve effectually, he at least gains the credit of having their names mentioned together by a particular set, and in a particular way—which nine times out of ten is the full accomplishment of modern gallantry.

Dang.Egad, Sneer, you will be quite an adept in the business!

Puff.Now, sir, the puff collateral is much used as an appendage to advertisements, and may take the form of anecdote: “Yesterday, as the celebrated George Bonmot was sauntering down St. James’ Street, he met the lively Lady Mary Myrtle coming out of the park. ‘Good God! Lady Mary, I’m surprised to meet you in a white jacket, for I expected never to have seen you but in a full-trimmed uniform and a light horseman’s cap!’ ‘Heavens! George, where could you have learned that?’ ‘Why,’ replied the wit, ‘I just saw a print of you in a new publication called the Camp Magazine; which, by-the-bye, is a devilish clever thing, and is sold at No. 3, on the right hand of the way, two doors from the printing-office, the corner of Ivy Lane, Paternoster Row; price only one shilling.’”

Sneer.Very ingenious indeed!

Puff.But the puff collusive is the newest of any, for it acts in the disguise of determined hostility. It is much used by bold booksellers and enterprising poets: “An indignant correspondent observes, that the new poem called ‘Beelzebub’s Cotillon, or Proserpine’s Fête Champêtre,’ is one of the most unjustifiable performances he ever read. The severity with which certain characters are handled is quite shocking; and as there are many descriptions in it too warmly coloured for female delicacy, the shameful avidity with which this piece is bought by all people of fashion is a reproach on the taste of the times, and a disgrace to the delicacy of the age.” Here, you see, the two strongest inducements are held forth: first, that nobody ought to read it; and, secondly, that everybody buys it, on the strength of which the publisher boldly prints the tenth edition, before he had sold ten of the first; and then establishes it by threatening himself with the pillory, or absolutely indicting himself for scan. mag.

Dang.Ha-ha-ha! ’Gad, I know it is so.

Puff.As to the puff oblique, or puff by implication, it is too various and extensive to be illustrated by an instance. It attracts in titles and presumes in patents; it lurks in the limitation of a subscription, and invites in the assurance of crowd and incommodation at public places; it delights to draw forth concealed merit, with a most disinterested assiduity; and sometimes wears a countenance of smiling censure and tender reproach. It has a wonderful memory for parliamentary debates, and will often give the whole speech of a favoured member with the most flattering accuracy. But, above all, it is a great dealer in reports and suppositions. It has the earliest intelligence of intended preferments that will reflect honour on the patrons; and embryo promotions of modest gentlemen, who know nothing of the matter themselves. It can hint a ribbon for implied services in the air of a common report; and with the carelessness of a casual paragraph, suggest officers into commands to which they have no pretension but their wishes. This, sir, is the last principal class of the art of puffing—an art which I hope you will now agree with me is of the highest dignity, yielding a tablature of benevolence and public spirit; befriending equally trade, gallantry, criticism, and politics: the applause of genius—the register of charity—the triumph of heroism—the self-defence of contractors—the fame of orators—and the gazette of ministers.