Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Charles L. Graves
THE WORLD is supposed to grow more serious if not sadder with its increasing burden of years, but certainly England in the nineteenth century showed considerable skill in dissembling its sadness in song. No century has been richer in verse written in a mood of conscious levity. It began joyously with the Rejected Addresses, with the Anti-Jacobin, with the brilliant fooling of Hook, Barhams ingenious medley of the comic and the macabre, and the patrician grace and gaiety of Praed. Though light verse became sentimental in the Keepsake period, the torch was never dropped, but was handed on from Lamb to Hood, from Praed to Locker, and, in the domain of the new parody, from the brothers Smith to Martin and Aytoun, and from them to Calverley. As for occasional verse, Frederick Locker laid down the rules of the game as he conceived it should be played, and as he certainly played it, in words which cannot be bettered:
Occasional verse should be short, graceful, refined, and fanciful, not seldom distinguished by chastened sentiment, and often playful. The tone should not be pitched high; it should be terse and idiomatic, and rather in the conversational key; the rhythm should be crisp and sparkling, and the rhyme frequent and never forced, while the entire poem should be marked by tasteful moderation, high finish and completeness; for, however trivial the subject-matter may be, indeed, rather in proportion to its triviality, subordination to the rules of composition, and perfection of execution, are of the utmost importance.
But a great deal of the best light or humorous poetry written in the last half of the nineteenth century stands outside Lockers definition of occasional verse. Praeds influence was very considerable. He had many imitators, and to this day there are very few writers of light verse who at one time or another have not made him their model. It has, however, been almost always a mere passing phase of discipleship. Locker himself was almost the last of his successful followers. Vers de société have been dethroned from the exalted position they once held in the domain of light verse, and parody has long been raised from crude verbal mimicry to a high art and an instrument of literary criticism. The successors of Canning, the Smiths, and Bon Gaultier have maintained and improved on the high level of achievement reached in this branch, and it is impossible to render justice to modern humorous verse without taking parody into special account. Indeed, the work of the best living parodists goes a long way to justify the contention of one of their numberthat the finest parody is based not on derision but on admiration, on the principle that faithful are the wounds of a friend. But the borders of this domain were enlarged in other ways. Scholarship was allied to high spirits and irresponsibility, and the charm of exhilarating nonsense appealed to readers of all ages.
Apart from the contributions of light-hearted scholars, artistic parodists, and writers of romantic nonsense, there remains the sphere of comic topical verse, burlesque, and extravaganza. Here, too, it may be fairly contended that in the period under review the example of Barham and Hook has been bettered by their followers, certainly in respect of technique. Hood in his own line remains unsurpassed: we can point to no sustained humorous or satirical narrative equal to Miss Kilmansegg. But in W. S. Gilbert we had a writer who achieved for burlesque what Calverley did for parody, who had a wider appeal than any other composer of light verse in his day, and who by his wit and technical dexterity raised the literary quality of the libretti of comic opera to a level never reached before.