Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 19. Richard Harris Barham; The Ingoldsby Legends

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 19. Richard Harris Barham; The Ingoldsby Legends

The most remarkable book—as distinguished from scattered pieces of comic or semi-comic verse—in the peculiar style which Southey had almost originated and which Hood and Praed had developed, was published, some of its parts having already, but not long before, appeared, much later than the work of either of the pair, by a man who, nevertheless, was as much Praed’s elder as he was Southey’s junior. Richard Harris Barham was, indeed, not a young man when, long before the beginning of The Ingoldsby Legends, he wrote anonymously that famous parody of Wolfe’s Corunna poem (see below) which was attributed to all sorts of better known persons; and he was an active, and by no means unclerical, parson, as well as a not very successful novelist, before, at nearly fifty, he found the remarkable vocation which he obeyed, without a sign of impoverishment or exhaustion for some decade before his too early, but not very early, death. How little the horse-collar was Barham’s single vestment or instrument was shown, once for all, by the beautiful lines, not in the least requiring their Chattertonian pseudo-archaism of spelling, As I lay a thynkynge, which are said to have been his last, and which, no doubt, supply the one and sufficient evidence of the undercurrent of feeling necessary to keep fresh and in full flavour such humour as his. For it is a most unfortunate mistake—though one which has been constantly committed, sometimes with the quaintest explosions of virtuous misunderstanding—to regard the fun of The Ingoldsby Legends as merely “high jinks.” Its period was, of course, the period of that curious institution, and there is the “high jinks” quality in the Legends. Yet Barham, on the whole, belonged not to the school of his friend Hook always, of Christopher North too often and of Maginn, father Prout and some others, save on the rarest occasions; but, rather, to that, just mentioned of Hood, Praed and Thackeray himself, who, by the way, imitated Ingoldsby very early. High-principled but feeble-minded persons actually regarded the Legends at the time, and have regarded them since, as an infamous attempt to undermine the high-church movement by ridicule; as a defiling of romance; as a prostitution of art; as a glorification of horseplay and brutality; as a perilous palliation of drunkenness, irreverence, loose and improper conduct of all sorts. With quite infinitely less than the provocation of Rabelais, allegations and insinuations of faults not much less heinous than those charged by anti-Pantagruelists were raised, while, for a decade or two, more recently, has been added the sneer of the superior person at “fun out of fashion.” On the other hand, it is a simple fact that not a few fervent high-churchmen, medievalists, men zealous for religion and devotees of romance, have been among Ingoldsby’s most faithful lovers. For they have seen that “Love me and laugh at me” is a motto not in the least self-contradictory, and that the highest kind of laughter is impossible without at least a little love, and a very high kind of love compatible with at least a grain of laughter.

To go straight to the point, The Ingoldsby Legends are examples of the style started by Southey in The Old Woman of Berkeley and other pieces, raised to much higher power both of humour and of poetry and carried out on an instrument of verse which, though it owes a great deal to the poet laureate’s principles and practice, attempts variations of a far bolder, more intricate and more symphonic kind. No one who has not studied the Legends from this point of view knows how sure the artist is in handling and fingering all his most complicated arabesques and gambollings. The defects of taste which had been by no means uncommon in the master and which are certainly a danger of the kind, have been, as stated above, enormously magnified by objectors. They may, sometimes, exist; but they are never very heinous, and they are, to a fairly catholic appreciation, carried off by such a flood of fantastic humour, quaint miscellaneous erudition (like Sterne’s and Southey’s mixed), vivid picture, happy conversation (always a difficult thing to manage in verse), pointed phrase, narrative felicity and refreshing medley of style and subject, that only a critic deaf and blind to the merits can pay much attention to the defects.