[The decorated initial appears in the original text of this essay, which appeared in More. George P. Landow scanned and formatted the text, adding illustrations and links to material on this site.]
In the following discussion of both Punch's historical importance and the changes it had undergone since his youth, Beerbohm at first assumes the common satirical stance of the naive, even jejune observer, after which he takes the part of the expert critic. His remarks on the humor magazine's decline reminds one of the response that Mark Lemon, then editor-in-chief, made to someone who had complained that "Punch is not as good as it used to be": "It never was, Sir. It never was."
T is from the bound volumes of Punch that small boys derive their knowledge of life. That, I suppose, why small small boys are always so old-fashioned in their ideas. They do not—how should they?—know that lineal art can represent life and life's type only through certain symabols, certain conventions; they imagine these symbols and conventions to be realistic portraiture. Even in later years, when they have detected how wide and fluid a thing life is, they do yet conceive many real things through the false convention of John Tenniel, George Du Maurier, Charles Keene, and the rest. I myself, steeped in Du Mauner's innumerable drawings, am always surprised when I see a nouveau rich whose shirtfront no diamond stud irradiates with conventional lines. Also, when I go to a party of any kind, I expect, always to find there grouped impressively, an elderly Statesman with a star and riband, a tall Artist with a beard, a Bishop with gaiters, a long-haired Musician with a fiddle under his arm, an old General with a grey moustache, and a young barrister with side whiskers.
Three of DuMaurier's depictions of “a tall Artist with a beard” [Click on these and following images for larger pictures.]
Left: “a Bishop with gaiters”. Right: “a long-haired Musician [but without his fiddle]”.
My study of Keene, likewise, has brought me to this belief—in which I shall most likely die;—that a tipsy man always has a white cravat straggling over his left shoulder, and that cabmen are, as a class, witty— But if these two artists deceive me, dealing, so far as they coutlddirectly with life, how much more did Tenniel, the maker of symbolic cartoons, deceive me! Beatus insipiens, I never dreamt that the Duke of Argyll did not always wear a kilt. Even now, when I go to France, 1 expect to see every man with moustache and imperial, after the pattern of Louis Napoleon, and every woman with short skirts, sabots, and cap-of-liberty. I am not rid, even now, of the notion that every English burglar goes about his work in knee-breeches, with a fur cap on his head, a mask over his face, and a "Jemmy" protruding from a side-pocket. And so, whenever, in the dead of night, I hear scraping and shuffling down below, I seek refuge in renewed aleep. Could I persuade myself that the burglar was but an ordinary individual in trousers, I would take candle and poker and send him about his business. As it is, I am quite unable to cope with burglars, and so they come rather often. Thus may a man suffer for his ideals.
It is a painful thing, youth's awakening to the fallacies of its first mentor, Punch. I remember well a great shock I received in my first term at Oxford. I had arranged to go with some other undergraduates to Kempton Park. I had never been on a race-course in my life: my knowledge of race-courses was bounded by Tenniel's annual cartoon for Derby Day, doubly impressive hy reason of its double page. How horrified I was, on the eve of the races, to hear that we were not going to drive to Kempton on a coach! "How else could one go?" I asked. "By train," my friends answered. "But can one go to a race by train?" I objected; "has it ever been done?" My friends, older and of more experience than I, assured me that it was the only possible way. They assured me, the next morning, when I joined their breakfast at the "Mitre," that I could not possibly go "dressed like that." (I was wearing a light frock-suit and a white top-hat with a green veil round it. In my hand was an open betting-book, and between my lips a small straw. I, in my turn, commented sarcastically upon their own appearance. I told them that ihey might choose to make themselves ridiculous, but that I did not; that I should go alone to the races. Gradually they proved to me that I was in the wrong. I had just time to go liack to my rooms, change my clothes, and catch the train. But I felt tnat the whole spirit of the thing had evaporated. When we reached the course, there was not one gipsy to tell me my fortune, nor any troupe of niggers to sing to me, nor any welsher for me to chase out of the ring and duck in a horse-pond. There was but a crowd of noisy and unremarkable persons, such as one might see any day in the Strand. No one snatched at my watch-chain, No dog ran down the cleared course, but only some outspread horses, which looked, in the distance, absurdly like the horses in that "race-game" of my childhood- My friends and I disbursed small sums uf money to various book-makers, receiving small paper tickets in return, My friends and I gained nothing by our discriminate charity. The sun was ferociously hot. We left before the last race, dusty and reserved.
Well! As historian. Punch still holds his sway over little boys. But as jester for adults he is at present labouring under a cloud, and his weekly appearance is not the event it yet was even within my recollection. No one is excited nowadays at the prospect of Punch; yet I asssure all my juniors that, when I was a small boy, Wednesday morning marked an epoch in each week. So early as Monday, the members of each family would begin to revel in anticipation. Tuesday evening was a time of ill-suppressed excitement, and, at bedtime, sleep wooed even the eldest as coyly as it woos children on their birthday-eves. When the sun rose, the most incorrigible lie-a-bed could scarce await the delivery of hot water. Even the cockscomb would telescope his toilet. Family-prayers would be read quickly, sometimes even abbreviated for the day, and the last Amen was ever signal for an ugly rush to the place where the new Punch was reposing. A bundle of heads, young and old, hung over the crisp pages. What sort of Britannia had Tenniel done? How had Du Maurier satirised Sir Gorgius Midas or Mrs. Ponsonby de Tomkyns? Had Sambourne made Gladstone into a shark or a canary or a buffalo or what? Not until nightfall had the full sweets of the comic paper been exhausted. Thursday was felt to be something of a blank, an anti-climax.
Rut Time is a sad iconoclast, and this family idol, though it hdd not been utterly shattered, has been knocked from its high pedestal. Punch still plays his pairt in English family home life, but his part is comparatively humble, and he no longer takes precedence of the morning paper. In the smoking-rooms of clubs, he contends with a score of comic rivals. Everybody affects to despise him, and his jokes merely raise the eyebrows of the community. "Don't you think that Punch gels more stupid every week?" has superseded "Have you been to many theatres lately?" Mr. Burnand has his consolation, at least, that his paper is not ignored. there are few people who do not look through it every week, and few who do not talk about it. Quite lately. Indeed, it was the object of many attacks from other newspapers. One journal published, week by week, an unkind analysis of the current number. This "Scheme for the Reformation of Punch" was a thing of great unconscious humour—imagine a man sitting down, industriously marking the jokes which do not come up to hia standard of wit, industriously copying them out, writing an article to explain their defects, and warning their maker that they must do better next week. Without wishing to perpetuate the use of an old and generally foolish sneer, I must say that such a proceeding was peculiarly English. The Star's portentous employé did not stop short at criticism, but even dabbled in creation, apparently that we might see what humour can and should be. Afer eulogising Mr. Phil May, and expressing his regret that this artist had no worthy colleague on the staff. "Let us," he said brightly "have not only a Phil May, but also a Phil June, a Phil July, a Phil August, a Phil September, a Phil October, a Phil November, and a Phil December." It would be interesting to see the man who wrote that. But I do not agree with the writer's contempt for all Mr. May's colleagues. So far as I can see, the drawings in Punch, and the jokes they illustrate, are not less good than they have been in former times. Certainly they are better than the efforts of other comic paper?. Punch is no longer the close concern it was when Du Maurier had three drawings, and Keene two, in every number. The admission of many artists' work makes the paper far more interesting—to me, at least; and though there are many drawings without technical merit and without humour, there are many others which make atonement. The influence of Mr. Raven Hill and Mr. Phil May seems salutary. They deal with jokes which depend on illustration—physical jokes, or jokes of character—and they neglect, rightly, thirdrate quips of conversation, which form the staple of most artists on the other comic papers. "She: 'Who discovered the circulation of the blood?'—He: 'A Johnny called Harvey!'—She: 'Then who discovered Harvey's sauce?'" I have invented this as a fair sample of the jests in the more modern comic papers, or in the sad enclosure which serious papers set aside for purposes of mirth. Whether such jests require, or are in any way strengthened by a picture of a décolletée girl sitting in the shadow of a standard-lamp, with a hald man bending over the back of her chair, is a question on which I have already made up my mind.
The ordinary complaint against Punch seems to be that he has lost the two last letters of his name, and is mereiy the mouthpiece through which Mr. Burnand forces au oldfashioned and discredited form of humour. For my own part I have never sympathized with Dr. Johnson's view of the pun and its maker, and I have often admired the feats of H. J. Byron. Mr. Burnand has made many good pun in his day, and is still making good puns, nor has he any reason to be ashamed of them. A good pun, properly used, is one of the best bells in the jester's cap. Why its tinkle should be received, in all places and on all occasions, with groans of mock despair, I have never been able to understand. But it is a pity that Mr. Burnand should enlarge it to the size of a muffin-bell and let it drown the whole carrillon. Perhaps he knows his own business best. I have no wish to be ponderous and dictatorial. I do not consider as his mentors seem to consider, that he has in Punch a sacred trust of National Humour. Nor am I so foolish as to suppose that any diatribe will cure him of a phase of fun to which he has, at length, exclusively devoted himself. I prefer him as he was when he wrote that delightful work of humour and insight, that epic farce, "Happy Thoughts." But, being no magician, I do not expect him to produce another "Happy Thoughts" at my bidding. In point of fact, Time, not Mr. Burnand, has been the bane of Punch. Satire should be irresponsible, tilting at the strong and the established as well as at the momentary follies of the day. When Punch was young, he had the courage of his own levity. But Punch is old now, pompous and respectable, exemplary in all relations of life. No more does he bob wickedly from side to side, banging everything with his cuddled stick; He grins and squeaks and bludgeons only in the cause of law and order, and is almost polite to the hangman. He has become a national institution.
Yes! scoff at this comic paper as you will, it is as much a national institution as the Times. It is no longer the force it was once, but its position is yet strengthened with every year. You cannot root it out. Try to take it in good humour. If you cannot laugh with it, as I do often, laugh at it, as you laugh at its rival in Printing House Square. Blowitz and Mr. Smalley, Mr. Lang and Mr. Humphrey Ward—!o say nothing of such outside humourists as Pigott—all these amuse you gently, pleasantly. Why he so angry with poor little Bouverie Street? Come! make the best of it. It is your own duhiess that has made comic papers necessary. You are of a nation which can't laugh at large and must needs have certain specified places and occasions for its mirth. You find nothing funny in Mr. Balfour. You take Mr. Asquith quite seriously. But you split your sides at the mere name of Ashmead-Bartlett. Those of you who are journalists put anything funny that they may have to say at the beginning of their articles, and then start afresh with a "but seriously." As if—but I could never explain. Only remember this, that you are very dull dogs, who do not deserve comic papers half so good as Punch and the Times.
Beerbohm, Max. “Punch.” More (1899). New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1922. 17-28.
Last modified 6 December 2011