6 JUNE 1931, Page 20

Literary Clowning

A Survey of Burlesque and Parody in English. By George. Kitchin. (Oliver and Boyd. 16s.) PARODIES, if good enough, are always great fun, though the censorious question whether merit is acquired either by reading them or writing them. We may take refuge—and Dr. Kitchin lays great stress on this point—in the excuse that parody is a form of criticism. Perhaps, at the second remove, it may be so. But consider the remark of a recent parodist, whose name escapes me, writing of Christmas, that he would wish his days to be bound to each other by a sweet mince- piety ! It is amusing, we respond : but is it in any way a criticism of Wordsworth ? We are forced to the conclusion that parody is a kind of game—a game in which we try to make something look very like something else, yet be quite different. It is the fun we get out of seeing a clown imitating some perfectly serious person ; and genius may be on the side of the clown. Some parodies, of course, are definitely critical. You may think such and such a poem tommy rot, and proceed to write another poem to show what tommy rot the first one is : there is much of this in Rejected Addresses. Burlesque, which deals with ideas, is possibly more directly critical, for nobody burlesques ideas they respect, though they may parody poems they admire ; but there again the zest lies in the game you play with the ideas. Hudibras, no doubt, is didactic burlesque, but we read it for the fun and not for the criticism. The danger, of course, is that parody may save us from the effort of criticism ; some even go so far as to think that parody of good things ought to be suppressed because it belittles greatness : but a greatness which will not survive parody is not one worth bothering to maintain. If the critical side of burlesque becomes too important, it ceases to be bur- lesque and becomes satire : at that point, hard to define, we are in a different realm altogether.

For satire, according to Mr. Fowler—and nobody dares con' tradict Mr. Fowler—aims at morals and manners, and perhaps the ideas underlying them. Thus, when Jane Austen pokes

delicious fun at the gloomy, romantic, horror school, she is satirizing and not, as Dr. Kitchin suggests, parodying or burlesqueing. She is aiming at reformation. Nor can Defoe's ironic The Shortest Way with Dissenters be regarded strictly as parody or burlesque : it had a keenly directed political pur pose. Once introduce irony, and the playfulness is gone. Pure parody is free of purpose. What on earth did Mr. Beerbohm wish to change or reform when he wrote, at various times, the parodies he wove into A Christmas Garland? He may have been criticizing some of the inferior authors, but not the great ones. Meredith, he says, " was so transcendent, that such skits must ever be harmless." Then why write, or publish, parodies ? Because they are a delightful game ; and Mr. Beerbohm is the best master of it there has ever been.

Dr. Kitchin provides us with an admirably documented history of parody and burlesque (omitting the stage, which he mysteriously says calls for separate treatment), the only serious omissions being perhaps Shamela and Mr. Joyce's parodies in Ulysses. It is a learned book, an excellent book of reference. It is, indeed, too well documented ; the interest of such a mass of material is apt to pall unless distinctions are continually made, some line or lines of thought unremittingly pursued. We feel that Dr. Kitchin published his book prema- turely ; it would have gained by weeding. We cannot see the road for the motors, and we lose our sense of direction. We find ourselves skipping what Dr. Kitchin has to say to dip into the abundant quotations. Yet Dr. Kitchin says some sound things : he suggests, for instance, that however over- riding " movements " may be, there is always some body of solid middle-way men who will not be bowled over, and that the evidence of their existence is to be found in parody.

English literature is very rich in these forms. It had its Goliardic beginnings, and it stretches almost uninterrupted to the present day, in which, besides " Max," the greatest of them all, we have " Q," Sir Owen Seaman, and a dozen others of note. Some will say that this is so because we do not take art or poetry seriously ; but the reverse is true. It is pre- cisely because as a nation we take poetry seriously that we can afford to jest at it. The real mystic will crack a joke with God and about God : it is only the man uncertain of his faith who has to be desperately serious about it all the time. And perhaps it is just because parody is not criticism that we can enjoy it so much : it is just because it does not matter, because in it we are free of all ulterior considerations, that it is so amusing ; and thus, if it is well enough done, so refreshing.