Monday, October 31, 2016

Comic Journalism

Froissart’s remark, that the manner of the English nation is “to take their pleasure sadly," has grown into a commonplace. Certainly, nothing illustrates it more pointedly than the character of the Comic Press of London. Many writers, from Locke to Sydney Smith, have attempted to frame a definition of wit. We are not ambitious of adding to the list of the failures of others, but we may so far profit by their labours as to point out some of its elements. Wit is undoubtedly closely connected with the perception of grotesqueness, incongruity, obscure analogies, and of the grounds of surprise. It follows that it is something exceptional and incidental, and that it is no more fitted to be anything else than an accessory to the subject to which it is applied than ornaments are fit for building materials. The writings of the greatest of wits have invariably been distinguished by the possession of great intellectual qualities, and their wit, in the common sense of the word, has been no more than their play and efflorescence. Take from Swift his logic, or from Sydney Smith his masculine good sense, and their jokes become more sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. The effect of a joke, like that of a jewel, depends almost entirely on its setting. Wit, if its distribution is judicious, and if it is skilfully contrasted with the matter in hand, is the most beautiful of all decorations of style; but if the jokes suggest the thought, instead of the thought suggesting the jokes, both are necessarily impoverished. Our objection to comic newspapers is, that from the necessity of the case they altogether ignore this fact. As they have imposed on themselves the obligation of being funny throughout a certain number of columns every week, a vast proportion of what the write must be wretchedly bad, and the effect of what is good is much diminished by the association. The functions of a newspaper are as well defined as those of a preacher. It is the duty of the one to report and to comment on what passes, and of the other to expound and to enforce men's duties. It is no more possible for the one to be uniformly comic than for the other to be uniformly solemn; and it is as offensive to be told, with an infinite quantity of grins, winks, and other comic business, that a proposal is before Parliament for the consolidation of the Statute Law, as it would be to hear a man proclaim, in a voice trembling with emotion, that Galilee was the northern part of Palestine, and that the Jordan flowed through it from north to south. An ingenious person might, perhaps, make jokes on the multiplication table, on a washing-bill, or on a cart-load of bricks and mortar; but if he never mentioned such subjects without a pun or a mot, he would be the most intolerable of bores.

Of many newspapers which have imposed upon themselves this questionable task, two only are conducted with sufficient talent to be worth notice the Press and Punch. The first condemns itself to from two to two and a-half, and the second to two dozen columns of fun every week. For this, if for no other reason, the Press appears to us decidedly the better of the two; but it must also be said that it flies at higher game than its contemporary. Political satire, like the other engines of party warfare, has fallen to such a low ebb that we look upon attempts to resuscitate it with a sort of historical interest. The Press has about it what the French call a fame air of the Anti-Jacobin, and it has, no doubt, succeeded in saying more clever things, and in ado ting a less vulgar mannerism, than might have been expected from such an undertaking. To compare a Coalition Ministry to a “bundle of sticks" is a very felicitous application of the old fable. To say (most unjustly) of Lord Aberdeen, that “all that remains of him now is pure womanly," is a far neater embodiment of a popular fallacy than the fallacy deserved. To compare the different members of the Ministry to “Cabinet Coins" was a thought which had about it a certain novelty, and though the details of the comparison were rather hackneyed, they were very ingeniously worked out; but when we compare the occasional gems with the staple tinsel, we cannot but consider the self-imposed necessity of the weekly tale of jokes very lamentable. Without any claim to our contemporary's confidence, we can tell pretty well what the two columns in question will contain in any of is forthcoming numbers. First will come some such sentimental or satirical poetry as the following:—
Huzzah! to God be thanks!
The Cossack columns form;
Mouravieff's chosen ranks
Advance the town to storm.
Each hot contested post
Saw Williams at his work,
Against the Russian host
He led the conquering Turk;
Their triumph nobly won,
They shout the victor’s name,
Thro bout that day of bloody fray
He fought for England’s fame. 
And so on, in undeniable iambics, tolerable rhyme, and sentiments which you cannot exactly call bad, through about three-fourths of the first column. Near the bottom we shall find a “Cabinet Council," or a “Premier at Home," or a “Scene at the Admiralty"—of which the principal features will be that Lord Palmerston drops his colleagues' titles, and takes certain conventional liberties with them, making great use of the phrase “my dear fellow." Thus, Sir Charles Wood, in a discussion about the Conferences at Paris, says, “I could easily go;" and Lord Palmerston answers, “Not a bit more easily than we could spare you, my dear fellow." Another great source of amusement is calling the Premier “Pam." There is probably some peculiar charm in this, as it is so frequently repeated; but all the pleasures of life are transitory, and when you’ve used a nickname a certain number of times, it is no more than an alias. The puns which are put into “Pam's” mouth are open to the objection that the do not appear to prove more than that the satirist supposes that Lord Palmerston is in the habit of making very bad ones. Surely it would be quite as amusing to set up in large type every week the words, WE ARE OF OPINION THAT LORD PALMERSTON FREQUENTLY MAKES BAD PUNS, as to go on making them for him and specifying them at full length. We want no ghost to tell us that a man is not wise who is perpetual dwelling on the circumstance that done may mean either cheated or performed, or who, when a Scotchman pronounces the e in “Armenian” like i, reminds him that “good works" may be used either in a military or in a theological sense.

The remainder of our contemporary's funny columns will be filled up with minor witticisms, which fall of themselves into the Joe Miller form, as thus—
A wag, on being told that Mr. Denman was a candidate for Cambridge, and that Mr. Helps sat on his committee, observed that no doubt Mr. Dinman would be glad of any additional HELPS and assistance.
A funny fellow, hearing of the fall of Kars, remarked that in Roman triumphs the Cars went up the hill of the Capitol, but that in modern wars our shame lay in the fall of Kars.
A wit, being laughed at for an article which many persons considered silly, composed an epigram to the following effect:—“ The proprietors of the Saturday Review, wishing to stop its circulation, applied to a bad writer to destroy the value of their property. The person applied to said, they could write it down themselves if they liked." Perhaps, if there is a fault in the last gem, it is that, if the application we not altogether probable, the answer was not altogether unnatural. If we wanted to “kill our new Review," we should simply give up its publication.

Punch has a far wider popularity than the Press, and in some respects has better claims to it. The caricatures which it contains are often excellent, and it has at times enjoyed the assistance of writers whose collected contributions are a real addition to literature. As the authors of the papers referred to have subsequently published them with their names, we are guilty of no breach of etiquette in thus alluding to them. Some of Mr. Thackeray’s Miscellanies, his prize novels for example, are admirable. Mr. Leech's Comic Album, and Mr. Doyle's Manners and Customs of the English, have photographed for future generations many curiously characteristic traces of the life of their ancestors; and many individual articles—such, for example, as the well-known description of the “Derby Lot"— have obtained a deserved popularity. But inasmuch as twenty-four columns weekly are to be filled with fun, the general tone of the paper is stupid to a degree hardly conceivable. Its great popularity is one of the most curious of all illustrations of the English character. In second-class railway carriages, in the lower forms of a public school, amongst the commercial gentlemen at a country inn—wherever there is little education and a good allowance of animal spirits—Punch is greedily read. In the higher class of coffee-houses or clubs in London, after an article or two has been skimmed, and the caricatures have been glanced at for a moment, it is thrown aside. In compassion to our readers, we give sparing illustrations of the enormous mass of rubbish with which the really good articles are encumbered. The following occur in the number of the 23rd of last month:
‘Some one says, always believe less than you are told. When a woman entrusts you (in confidence, of course) with her age, always believe a great deal more than you are told.
Archdeacon Hale is preparing a little work as a companion to the Three Experiment of Living. The Archdeacon’s book is to be called The Experiment of Three (or more) Livings.’
How well we can fancy a stupid fellow shouting into our ears in a railway cutting—“Have you seen Punch this week, sir? There is an admirable thing in it about Archdeacon Hale, air. The pluralist, you know. ‘Three or more livings.’ That's because he's a pluralist, sir. Don't you see?" Again—
‘When may a man be said to be literally immersed in business? When he's giving a swimming lesson.
Mr. Cornwall (sic) Lewis has not only to contend with the national deficiency (?deficit), but he has to struggle with his own.
An ephemeral popularity. The popularity of Prince Albert as a Field Marshal, is decidedly of an FM.eral nature.
An attorney said that Sir T. Wilson‘s bill for enclosing Hampstead Heath was a complete bugbear. Be it so, anyway Mr. Attorney, it is a bug that is not to be borne.’
There are other jokes, quite unworthy of publication, of which the point consists in references to the various meanings of mill, a machine, or a fight—blowing a trumpet, blow out, a feast, a blown away (with an allusion to raising the wind—commerce, connexion, or trade—sitting in parliament, and sitting (for a portrait) in Parliament-street—maintaining a question, and maintenance in the sense of livelihood—orders in a tavern, and orders of merit.

Fun like this is at least harmless, and may possibly be amusing to some people. The longest articles in Punch are far the worst. Its politics are always taken from the commonest claptraps of the day. When a folly has become contemptible, Punch is always ready to say so—when the Times has passed sentence, Punch comes in like the secular arm to gibbet the sufferer. On the occasion of the Papal Aggression agitation, Exeter Hall brayed no louder than Punch. Whenever the Times calls a general a coward, a liar, a fool, and an aristocrat, Punch is always ready to repeat the gibe without inquiry. When the Times praises the new Order of Merit, Punch chimes in with such pretty rhymes as these,—
Some talk of Alexander,
And some of Hercules,
And many a great commander
As glorious as these;
But if you want a hero,
Of genuine luck and pith,
It's perfectly clear, that none comes near
To full British private Smith.
When the Times has laid it down that, in order to get a good Court of Appeal, we must alter the constitution of the House of Lords by a hole-and-corner coup d'état, Punch gives its assent in the following crushing sarcasm:—
‘It has been absurdly argued that life peerages like that of Wensleydale are necessary in order to facilitate a sufficient infusion of legal talent into the Upper House. But if legal talent is hereditary, there will always be legal talent in the House. As long as there are sons of law lords, or even nephews, they of necessity will be law lords too, unless the constitutional doctrine of hereditary descent, as held by a great majority of existing law lords, is absurd.’
We are far from saying that our contemporary has no original opinions. He has a constitutional tendency to a kind of brand and-water sentimentality, and a certain sympathy with well-known rhetorical claptraps of what may be called the Love and Mercy school, which breaks out in awful tirades about capital punishments, the horrors of war, the wickedness of the Emperor of Russia, and the rapacity of lawyers. Take, for example, the following patriotic rebukes administered to the Czar. After describing how one of the wounded men visited by the Queen at Chatham had lost his eyes, the writer proceeds:—
‘Thus does war tear out human eyes; yet monsters who involve mankind in this misery die with their own eyeballs glaring whole in their sockets.’
Another man had his jaw broken, and had lost his teeth:--
‘Brutes that are the willful cause of such an atrocity expire with their fangs entire in their unbroken jaws.’
A third was shot through the mouth.  Yet
‘No retributive bullet smashed the nose and mouth of the tyrant who set balls flying by thousands and tens of thousands.  The wretch departed this life grinning with all his teeth.’
Now comes the high moral line:--
‘How departed this life, and what then?  Well—[what force in that word! How it would make the gallery at the Victoria hurrah, and cry, like members of Congress, “Go it!”] – That is for the demons to consider who initiate these horrors.’ 
Here follow some terrific sneers, for which we have no room, at unhappy wretches who consider such language "bad time, and think that it is wrong to speak evil of your enemies. upon our eloquent friend, after observing that in his opinion we have “millions of reasons" for considering Nicholas, and “the fellow who has succeeded him," worse than Greenacre, concludes with the following crushing sentiment:—“Nay,” (a capital word to begin a sentence with) “think of the torn-out eyes, the shattered jaws, for which the world is indebted to your ‘august personage.’ ” The inverted commas are a withering sarcasm. “Bah!" (Nay is not enough) “Pursue such curses of the earth as wild beasts while living. Hang them up as scarecrows when dead!"

With this mild expression of opinion we will conclude our extracts. But there is one subject connected with the popularity of Punch which is worth noticing on higher grounds than any which concern the talent or discretion of its contributor? No paper gives so strange a measure of the character of English enjoyments. A perfectly decorous, solemn, heavy respectability pervades all the fun. Like the amusements at a lady’s school the joking is conducted with the strictest regard to propriety. Punch is a permitted pleasure. Like Mr. Albert Smith’s “Mont Blanc,” it is not forbidden to families where theatres are considered wrong, balls worldly, and even novels questionable. It lies, moreover, on the extreme verge of such indulgences, and has therefore, with many of its readers: a sort of wild flavour, suggesting the great naughty world. It is an inevitable consequence of this, that a great proportion of its articles read like sermons preached by a man who feels himself under a solemn obligation to make three puns and a jingle in every page. We will not tire our readers by further extracts which, after all, would only exemplify dulness; but we would refer those who are curious on the subject to a perfectly silly article called Banes and Antidotes, which seems meant to prove that homoeopathy is absurd, because an ounce of gunpowder would not be a sufficient charge for a 10-inch shell. We may also mention an article (Dec. 22) in favour of a very excellent institution, the Printers’ Almshouse Fund, which Mr. Punch cannot conscientiously recommend, though sincerely and goodnaturedly eager to do so, without making a little joke about the stomach being used for shooting rubbish, and about the proud position of the press not preventing it from thankfully receiving the smallest contribution.

It is simply impossible to take the world in both ways. If a man can conscientiously say that, subject to some irregularities in its working, the constitution of society appears to him substantially sound—if he thinks that the different orders of society are in their right places—that the common relations and concerns of life proceed wisely and healthily—that the common opinions about man’s occupations here and his destiny hereafter, and the relations between the two are, in the main, true and reasonable—he is a happy man, but he is not in a position to be a great wit. The hypothesis upon which Rabelais, Montaigne, Swift, Sterne, Voltaire, and even in a certain sense Addison and Pascal proceed is—“The world is out of joint, and I am not born to set it right." The vocation of such writers is, to point out to mankind the grotesque results into which they are led by following out what, in the view of their censors, are false and contradictory hypotheses. From this point of view, no doubt, a man might pour out endless floods of ridicule, week by week, on all human affairs. He might even go the dreadful length upon which Pascal ventures in that celebrated letter, not to be quoted or read without a shudder, in which he justifies the use of ridicule against sin by the awful words—Jusque-la, à l’heure de la mort qui est la temps où leur état est le plus deplorable et le plus triste la sagesse divine joindra la moquerie et la risée à la vengeance et à la fureur qui les condamnera à des supplices eternels—In interitu vestro ridebo et subsannabo.

Those who cannot look at human life from a position which makes it all a farce, melancholy or ludicrous as the case may he, would do well not to make a business of being witty; for the may be sure that, if they keep consistently to their wit it will destroy their convictions, and if they keep to their convictions they will lose their wit. We are not in much fear for our contemporary's faith, but his fun appears to us to be, for the most part, past praying for.

Saturday Review, March 1, 1856.

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