Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli


A Lady of bas bleu celebrity (the term is getting odious, particularly to our sçavantes) had two friends, whom she equally admired — an elegant poet and his parodist. She had contrived to prevent their meeting as long as her stratagems lasted, till at length she apologised to the serious bard for inviting him when his mock umbra was to be present. Astonished, she perceived that both men of genius felt a mutual esteem for each other’s opposite talent; the ridiculed had perceived no malignity in the playfulness of the parody, and even seemed to consider it as a compliment, aware that parodists do not waste their talent on obscure productions; while the ridiculer himself was very sensible that he was the inferior poet. The lady-critic had imagined that PARODY must necessarily be malicious; and in some cases it is said those on whom the parody has been performed have been of the same opinion.

Parody strongly resembles mimicry, a principle in human nature not so artificial as it appears: Man may be well defined a mimetic animal. The African boy, who amused the whole kafle he journeyed with, by mimicking the gestures and the voice of the auctioneer who had sold him at the slave-market a few days before, could have had no sense of scorn, of superiority, or of malignity; the boy experienced merely the pleasure of repeating attitudes and intonations which had so forcibly excited his interest. The numerous parodies of Hamlet’s soliloquy were never made in derision of that solemn monologue, any more than the travesties of Virgil by Scarron and Cotton; their authors were never so gaily mad as that. We have parodies on the Psalms by Luther; Dodsley parodied the book of Chronicles, and the scripture style was parodied by Franklin in his beautiful story of Abraham; a story he found in Jeremy Taylor, and which Taylor borrowed from the East, for it is preserved in the Persian Sadi. Not one of these writers, however, proposed to ridicule their originals; some ingenuity in the application was all they intended. The lady-critic alluded to had suffered by a panic, in imagining that a parody was necessarily a corrosive satire. Had she indeed proceeded one step farther, and asserted that parodies might be classed among the most malicious inventions in literature, when they are such as Colman and Lloyd made on Gray, in their odes to “Oblivion and Obscurity,” her reading possibly might have supplied the materials of the present research.

Parodies were frequently practised by the ancients, and with them, like ourselves, consisted of a work grafted on another work, but which turned on a different subject by a slight change of the expressions. It might be a sport of fancy, the innocent child of mirth; or a satirical arrow drawn from the quiver of caustic criticism; or it was that malignant art which only studies to make the original of the parody, however beautiful, contemptible and ridiculous. Human nature thus enters into the composition of parodies, and their variable character originates in the purpose of their application.

There is in “the million” a natural taste for farce after tragedy, and they gladly relieve themselves by mitigating the solemn seriousness of the tragic drama; for they find, that it is but “a step from the sublime to the ridiculous.” The taste for parody will, I fear, always prevail: for whatever tends to ridicule a work of genius, is usually very agreeable to a great number of contemporaries. In the history of parodies, some of the learned have noticed a supposititious circumstance, which, however, may have happened, for it is a very natural one. When the rhapsodists, who strolled from town to town to chant different fragments of the poems of Homer, had recited, they were immediately followed by another set of strollers — buffoons, who made the same audience merry by the burlesque turn which they gave to the solemn strains which had just so deeply engaged their attention. It is supposed that we have one of these travestiers of the Iliad in one Sotades, who succeeded by only changing the measure of the verses without altering the words, which entirely disguised the Homeric character; fragments of which, scattered in Dionysius Halicarnassensis, I leave to the curiosity of the learned Grecian.1 Homer’s Battle of the Frogs and Mice, a learned critic, the elder Heinsius, asserts, was not written by the poet, but is a parody on the poem. It is evidently as good-humoured an one as any in the “Rejected Addresses.” And it was because Homer was the most popular poet that he was most susceptible of the playful honours of the parodist; unless the prototype is familiar to us a parody is nothing! Of these parodists of Homer we may regret the loss of one, Timon of Philius, whose parodies were termed Silli, from Silenus being their chief personage; he levelled them at the sophistical philosophers of his age; his invocation is grafted on the opening of the Iliad, to recount the evil-doings of those babblers, whom he compares to the bags in which Æolus deposited all his winds; balloons inflated with empty ideas! We should like to have appropriated some of these silli, or parodies of Timon the Sillograph, which, however, seem to have been at times calumnious.2 Shenstone’s “School Mistress,” and some few other ludicrous poems, derive much of their merit from parody.

This taste for parodies was very prevalent with the Grecians, and is a species of humour which perhaps has been too rarely practised by the moderns: Cervantes has some passages of this nature in his parodies of the old chivalric romances; Fielding, in some parts of his “Tom Jones” and “Joseph Andrews,” in his burlesque poetical descriptions; and Swift, in his “Battle of Books,” and “Tale of a Tub;” but few writers have equalled the delicacy and felicity of Pope’s parodies in the “Rape of the Lock.” Such parodies give refinement to burlesque.

The ancients made a liberal use of it in their satirical comedy, and sometimes carried it on through an entire work, as in the Menippean satire, Seneca’s mock Eloge of Claudius, and Lucian in his Dialogues. There are parodies even in Plato; and an anecdotical one, recorded of this philosopher, shows them in their most simple state. Dissatisfied with his own poetical essays, he threw them into the flames; that is, the sage resolved to sacrifice his verses to the god of fire; and in repeating that line in Homer where Thetis addresses Vulcan to implore his aid, the application became a parody, although it required no other change than the insertion of the philosopher’s name instead of the goddess’s; — 3

Vulcan, arise! ’tis Plato claims thy aid!

Boileau affords a happy instance of this simple parody. Corneille, in his Cid, makes one of his personages remark,

Pour grands que soient les rois ils sont ce que nous sommes,

Ils peuvent se tromper comme les autres hommes.

A slight alteration became a fine parody in Boileau’s Chapelain Décoiffé,

Pour grands que soient les rois ils sont ce que nous sommes,

Us fee trompent en vers comme les autres hommes.

We find in Athenæus the name of the inventor of a species of parody which more immediately engages our notice — DRAMATIC PARODIES. It appears this inventor was a satirist, so that the lady-critic, whose opinion we had the honour of noticing, would be warranted by appealing to its origin to determine the nature of the thing. A dramatic parody, which produced the greatest effect, was “the Gigantomachia,” as appears by the only circumstance known of it. Never laughed the Athenians so heartily as at its representation, for the fatal news of the deplorable state to which the affairs of the republic were reduced in Sicily arrived at its first representation — and the Athenians continued laughing to the end! as the modern Athenians, the volatile Parisians, might in their national concern of an OPERA COMIQUE. It was the business of the dramatic parody to turn the solemn tragedy, which the audience had just seen exhibited, into a farcical comedy; the same actors who had appeared in magnificent dresses, now returned on the stage in grotesque habiliments, with odd postures and gestures, while the story, though the same, was incongruous and ludicrous. The Cyclops of Euripides is probably the only remaining specimen; for this may be considered as a parody on the ninth book of the Odyssey — the adventures of Ulysses in the cave of Polyphemus, where Silenus and a chorus of satyrs are farcically introduced, to contrast with the grave narrative of Homer, of the shifts and escape of the cunning man “from the one-eyed ogre.” The jokes are too coarse for the French taste of Brumoy, who, in his translation, goes on with a critical growl and foolish apology for Euripides having written a farce; Brumoy, like Pistol, is forced to eat his onion, but with a worse grace, swallowing and execrating to the end.

In dramatic composition, Aristophanes is perpetually hooking in parodies of Euripides, whom of all poets he hated, as well as of Æschylus, Sophocles, and other tragic bards. Since, at length, that Grecian wit has found a translator saturated with his genius, and an interpreter as philosophical, the subject of Grecian parody will probably be reflected in a clearer light from his researches.

Dramatic parodies in modern literature were introduced by our vivacious neighbours, and may be said to constitute a class of literary satires peculiar to the French nation. What had occurred in Greece a similar gaiety of national genius unconsciously reproduced. The dramatic parodies in our own literature, as in The Rehearsal, Tom Thumb,4 and The Critic, however exquisite, are confined to particular passages, and are not grafted on a whole original; we have neither naturalised the dramatic parody into a species, nor dedicated to it the honours of a separate theatre.

This peculiar dramatic satire, a burlesque of an entire tragedy, the volatile genius of the Parisians accomplished. Whenever a new tragedy, which still continues the favourite species of drama with the French, attracted the notice of the town, shortly after uprose its parody at the Italian theatre, so that both pieces may have been performed in immediate succession in the same evening. A French tragedy is most susceptible of this sort of ridicule, by applying its declamatory style, its exaggerated sentiments, and its romantic out-of-the-way nature to the commonplace incidents and persons of domestic life; out of the stuff of which they made their emperors, their heroes, and their princesses, they cut out a pompous country justice, a hectoring tailor, or an impudent mantua-maker; but it was not merely this travesty of great personages, nor the lofty effusions of one in a lowly station, which terminated the object of parody. It was designed for a higher object, that of more obviously exposing the original for any absurdity in its scenes, or in its catastrophe, and dissecting its faulty characters; in a word, weighing in the critical scales the nonsense of the poet. Parody sometimes became a refined instructor for the public, whose discernment is often blinded by party or prejudice. But it was, too, a severe touchstone for genius: Racine, some say, smiled, others say he did not, when he witnessed Harlequin, in the language of Titus to Berenice, declaiming on some ludicrous affair to Columbine; La Motte was very sore, and Voltaire, and others, shrunk away with a cry — from a parody! Voltaire was angry when he witnessed his Mariamne parodied by Le mauvais Menage; or “Bad Housekeeping.” The aged, jealous Herod was turned into an old cross country justice; Varus, bewitched by Mariamne, strutted a dragoon; and the whole establishment showed it was under very bad management. Fuzelier collected some of these parodies,5 and not unskilfully defends their nature and their object against the protest of La Motte, whose tragedies had severely suffered from these burlesques. His celebrated domestic tragedy of Inez de Castro, the fable of which turns on a concealed and clandestine marriage, produced one of the happiest parodies in Agnes de Chaillot. In the parody, the cause of the mysterious obstinacy of Pierrot the son, in persisting to refuse the hand of the daughter of his mother-in-law, Madame la Baillive, is thus discovered by her to Monsieur le Baillif:—

Mon mari, pour le coup j’ai découvert l’affaire,

Ne vous étonnez plus qu’à nos désirs contraire,

Pour ma fille Pierrot ne montre que mépris:

Voilà l’unique objet dont son coeur est épris.

[Pointing to Agnes de Chaillot.

The Baillif exclaims,

Ma servante!

This single word was the most lively and fatal criticism of the tragic action of Inez de Castro, which, according to the conventional decorum and fastidious code of French criticism, grossly violated the majesty of Melpomene, by giving a motive and an object so totally undignified to the tragic tale. In the parody there was something ludicrous when the secret came out which explained poor Pierrot’s long-concealed perplexities, in the maid-servant bringing forward a whole legitimate family of her own! La Motte was also galled by a projected parody of his “Machabees”— where the hasty marriage of the young Machabeus, and the sudden conversion of the amorous Antigone, who, for her first penitential act, persuades a youth to marry her, without first deigning to consult her respectable mother, would have produced an excellent scene for the parody. But La Motte prefixed an angry preface to his Inez de Castro; he inveighs against all parodies, which he asserts to be merely a French fashion (we have seen, however, that it was once Grecian), the offspring of a dangerous spirit of ridicule, and the malicious amusement of superficial minds. —“Were this true,” retorts Fuzelier, “we ought to detest parodies; but we maintain, that far from converting virtue into a paradox, and degrading truth by ridicule, PARODY will only strike at what is chimerical and false; it is not a piece of buffoonery so much as a critical exposition. What do we parody but the absurdities of dramatic writers, who frequently make their heroes act against nature, common sense, and truth? After all,” he ingeniously adds, “it is the public, not we, who are the authors of these? PARODIES; for they are usually but the echoes of the pit, and we parodists have only to give a dramatic form to the opinions and observations we hear. Many tragedies,” Fuzelier, with admirable truth, observes, “disguise vices into virtues, and PARODIES unmask them.” We have had tragedies recently which very much required parodies to expose them, and to shame our inconsiderate audiences, who patronised these monsters of false passions. The rants and bombast of some of these might have produced, with little or no alteration of the inflated originals, A Modern Rehearsal, or a new Tragedy for Warm Weather.6

Of PARODIES, we may safely approve the legitimate use, and even indulge their agreeable maliciousness; while we must still dread that extraordinary facility to which the public, or rather human nature, is so prone, as sometimes to laugh at what at another time they would shed tears.

Tragedy is rendered comic or burlesque by altering the station and manners of the persons; and the reverse may occur, of raising what is comic or burlesque into tragedy. On so little depends the sublime or the ridiculous! Beattie says, “In most human characters there are blemishes, moral, intellectual, or corporeal; by exaggerating which, to a certain degree, you may form a comic character; as by raising the virtues, abilities, or external advantages of individuals, you form epic or tragic characters;7 a subject humorously touched on by Lloyd, in the prologue to The Jealous Wife.

Quarrels, upbraidings, jealousies, and spleen,

Grow too familiar in the comic scene;

Tinge but the language with heroic chime,

’Tis passion, pathos, character sublime.

What big round words had swell’d the pompous scene,

A king the husband, and the wife a queen.

1 Henry Stephen appears first to have started this subject of parody; his researches have been borrowed by the Abbé Sallier, to whom, in my turn, I am occasionally indebted. His little dissertation is in the French Academy’s “Mémoires,” tome vii. 398.

2 See a specimen in Aulus Gellius, where this parodist reproaches Plato for having given a high price for a book, whence he drew his noble dialogue of the Timæus. Lib. iii. c. 17.

3 See Spanheim Les Césars de L’Empéreur Julien in his “Preuves,” Remarque 8. Sallier judiciously observes, “Il peut nous donner une juste idée de cette sorte d’ouvrage, mais nous ne savons pas précisement en quel tems il a été composé;” no more truly than the Iliad itself!

4 The first edition of this play is a solemn parody throughout. In the preface the author defends it from being, as “maliciously” reported, “a burlesque on the loftiest parts of Tragedy, and designed to banish what we generally call fine writing from the stage.” When he afterwards quotes parallel passages from popular plays which he has parodied, he does so saying, “whether this sameness of thought and expression which I have quoted from them proceeded from an agreement in their way of thinking, or whether they have borrowed from our author, I leave the reader to determine!”

5 Les Parodies du Nouveau Théâtre Italien, 4 vols. 1738. Observations sur la Comédie et sur le Génie de Molière, par Louis Riccoboni. Liv. iv.

6 The Tailors; a Tragedy for Warm Weather, was originally brought out by Foote in 1767. There had been great disturbances between the master tailors and journeymen about wages at this time; and the author has amusingly worked out the disputes and their consequences in the heroic style of a blank verse tragedy.

7 Beattie on Poetry and Music, p. 111.

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