The Ingoldsby Legends Essay - Critical Essays

Richard Harris Barham


“Captain Swing,” the symbol of proletarian revolt in England in the 1830’s, makes several appearances in Richard Harris Barham’s comic verse, always in a contemptible light. The rick-burning associated with the “Captain” may have been abhorred by the poet and his middle-class public as a foreign import of violence, but it was also a sure sign of the depression which closed the decade and the one which followed. A very different sign of the temper of the times was THE INGOLDSBY LEGENDS themselves; they increased the flow of comic verse initiated by Hood and continued by Lear, Carrol, and Gilbert among a host of minor talents who parodied everything they could lay their hands on and produced comic versions of every familiar object from fox hunting to the history of England. Although the fashion spread to America and the colonies, and lasted into the early decades of this century in PUNCH, it was so much confined to Victorian England as to become a characteristic of that time and place.

THE INGOLDSBY LEGENDS first appeared in 1837, the year of Victoria’s accession, in Richard Bentley’s MISCELLANY. This was a new publishing venture, edited by Charles Dickens, which ceased shortly before Barham’s death in 1845. The volume now titled THE INGOLDSBY LEGENDS was largely collected from the MISCELLANY pieces which had previously been published in two series in 1840 and 1842. Apart from a few occasional or sentimental pieces, the legends comprise about fifty long poems and six short stories. The best-known of the latter, “The Spectre of Tappington,” initiated the LEGENDS and explains in a final note that this is a story or legend of the Ingoldsby family of Tappington Everard in Kent, the family mansion of the Barhams. Later the legends continued to be published under the pseudonym of “Thomas Ingoldsby,” who was supposed to have found them in an old oak chest in the manor and who edited them for publication in the MISCELLANY.

Barham’s pseudonym was preserved for a time and maintained in his letters from “Thomas Ingoldsby” to Bentley prefacing the two series published in his lifetime; but the pretense must soon have been penetrated. Barham in 1837 was forty-nine and well-known in London ecclesiastical, theatrical, and journalistic circles. For sixteen years he had been a Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral and was now also Vicar of St. Mary Magdalene; he is supposed to have been a model parish parson but it is difficult to see how he combined those duties with editing the London Chronicle for a number of years and religiously attending the theater. A minister of the Church of England was obviously in the early nineteenth century a gentleman above all else, and as such he was expected to go out in society and to possess some accomplishments such as the ability to turn out light verse. Barham had already shown such ability in the comic verses and the novel he had published before he began the LEGENDS which are now his claim to fame.

Some of the LEGENDS are still anthologized, “The Jackdaw of Rheims” being the best-known; but the volume as a whole is likely to become wearisome to the modern reader when read right through. The early Victorians found the work amusing because the LEGENDS are long stories in comic verse ending in a mock moral: they were intended to occupy one’s time, to entertain, and to instruct. The peculiar mode evolved by Thomas Hood and developed by Barham, that of comic verse, accounted for the length of the stories (over one thousand lines in some poems) and for the sly humor of the moral conclusion.

A comparison of “The Jackdaw of Rheims” and “The Spectre of Tappington” will fix most of the qualities of the LEGENDS. Both deal with the apparently magical disappearance of objects, in the former the Cardinal’s turquoise ring, in the latter Charles...

(The entire section is 1613 words.)