The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 9. Bon Gaultier Ballads

If it be urged that Firmilian requires for its full appreciation rather more knowledge of past literature than most people can be expected to possess, that plea cannot avail as regards the famous and delightful Bon Gaultier Ballads which Aytoun, some years earlier, wrote with Theodore Martin. Ta Fhairshon and the parody of Locksley Hall have probably been the most popular pieces; but it may, perhaps, be questioned whether George of Gorbals—a burlesque both of the metre and the manner of Mrs. Browning—is not the best of all. Aytoun’s scholarship, his mastery of phrase and metre, his sardonic humour and, behind it, that blend of romance and passion, without which so-called humorous verse is apt to be merely funny or merely horse-playful, made it difficult for him to go wrong; while his powers in criticism and in satiric prose-narrative were hardly less.

The historical influence of two such books as The Ingoldsby Legends and The Bon Gaultier Ballads, following, as it did, on the exceptional development of satiric verse of the lighter description from The Rolliad onwards through Canning and his group to Moore and others with Hood and Praed following, is greater than has always been allowed for. Among the numerous sources of amusement provided by a certain recent tendency to regard early and mid-Victorian things as characterised by dull conventionalism alternating with silly sentimentality, there is hardly any one which is so much of a fons Bandusiae as the memory of these two books, of Thackeray’s light verse and of the enormous popularity of at least the first two collections. For, at least, twenty years past there has been no “master of the laugh” who has produced anything approaching them. In fact, there have been pessimists who have held that, since the departure of “C. S. C.” and “J. K. S.” and the comparative desertion by W. S. Gilbert of the pure lighter lyric unconnected with the stage, the gloomy assertion of Theodore de Banville, much earlier justified in French,

  • Mais á prèsent c’est bien fini de rire
  • has transferred itself to English.

    Certainly, however, no such thing was true from 1830 to 1890 or even a little later; and we must briefly survey here the bearers of that torch of laughter which some very grave and precise persons have not hesitated to indicate as one of the most triumphant and idiosyncratic possessions of humanity at large and of English humanity rather specially.