The Ingoldsby Legends, 1840-1847 (3 volumes; stories in verse and prose)
My Cousin Nicholas, 1841
Richard Harris Barham, who successfully combined the apparently incompatible vocations of clergyman and humorist under the pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby (IHNG-guldz-bee), was born December 6, 1788, in Canterbury, England. His childhood was a happy one, for he shared the fun-loving disposition of his parents. He was educated at St. Paul’s School, London, and Brasenose College, Oxford, where his undergraduate life has been characterized as extravagant and wild, and he remained a convivial soul after he obtained his degree. He had contemplated a career in law; however, a serious illness and the death of his mother in 1813 altered his outlook and he entered the ministry. From minor curacies, he rose to positions of some eminence, first as a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral and later as vicar of St. Mary Magdalene. During the years from 1825 to 1840, he also became a popular figure in the literary and social life of London.
Barham was characterized as a model clergyman. He was an avid theatergoer, had a large circle of witty and clever friends, and never pretended to strictness of conduct. His contemporaries saw no inconsistency in his way of life, and he was universally respected and admired. Although he produced two novels, Barham came to be remembered principally for his comic verse–a literary form initiated by Thomas Hood and continued by such witty spirits as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, though Barham emerged preeminent in the field. His sense of humor was boundless, his fund of rhymes and rhythms inexhaustible, and his verbal dexterity astonishing. Most of his poems are written in the form of burlesque poetic narratives; the rhyming is ingenious, elaborate, and often grotesque, and the sentiments are often outrageous and occasionally vulgar. Written under the name Thomas Ingoldsby and bearing the collective title The Ingoldsby Legends, they proved immensely popular. Initially and over a period of time, he contributed these “legends” to Bentley’s Miscellany, which was then edited by Charles Dickens.
The Ingoldsby Legends was a source of public delight throughout the Victorian era, and it is said there was a time when every schoolboy knew most of them by heart. A few of the verses, among them “The Jackdaw of Rheims,” continue to be included in anthologies. There has, however, always been a certain amount of hostile criticism directed toward Barham’s verse. In his own day, it resulted from his occasional vulgarities and his habit of poking fun at church ritual; in later times, it was aroused by elements of social and racial snobbery. In neither case was the criticism aroused by anything but Barham’s irreverence and facetiousness. He was perhaps unequaled in the particular form of comic verse that was his specialty. Barham’s last years were made melancholy by the untimely death of his youngest son in 1840, a blow from which he never recovered.