Read INTRODUCTORY of The History of "Punch" , free online book, by M. H. Spielmann, on ReadCentral.com.

“If humour only meant laughter,” said Thackeray, in his essay on the English humorists, “you would scarcely feel more interest about humorous writers than the life of poor Harlequin, who possesses with these the power of making you laugh. But the men regarding whose lives and stories you have curiosity and sympathy appeal to a great number of our other faculties, besides our mere sense of ridicule. The humorous writer professes to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness; your scorn of untruth, pretension, imposture; your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the unhappy. To the best of his means and ability he comments on all the ordinary actions and passions of life almost.”

It may surely be claimed that these words, consecrated to his mighty predecessors by the Great Humorist of Punch, may be applied without undue exaggeration to his colleagues on the paper. Though posing at first only as the puppet who waded knee-deep in comic vice, Punch has worked as a teacher as well as a jester a leader, and a preacher of kindness. Nor was it simple humour that was Punch’s profession at the beginning; he always had a more serious and, so to say, a worthier object in view. This may be gathered from the very first article in the very first number, the manifesto of the band of men who started it, contributed by Mark Lemon, under the title of

“THE MORAL OF PUNCH.”

“As we hope, gentle public, to pass many happy hours in your society, we think it right that you should know something of our character and intentions. Our title, at a first glance, may have misled you into a belief that we have no other intention than the amusement of a thoughtless crowd, and the collection of pence. We have a higher object. Few of the admirers of our prototype, merry Master PUNCH, have looked upon his vagaries but as the practical outpourings of a rude and boisterous mirth. We have considered him as a teacher of no mean pretensions, and have, therefore, adopted him as the sponsor for our weekly sheet of pleasant instruction. When we have seen him parading in the glories of his motley, flourishing his baton in time with his own unrivalled discord, by which he seeks to win the attention and admiration of the crowd, what visions of graver puppetry have passed before our eyes!... Our ears have rung with the noisy frothiness of those who have bought their fellow-men as beasts in the market-place, and found their reward in the sycophancy of a degraded constituency, or the patronage of a venal ministry no matter of what creed, for party must destroy patriotism....

“There is one portion of PUNCH’S drama we wish was omitted, for it always saddens us we allude to the prison scene. PUNCH, it is true, sings in durance, but we hear the ring of the bars mingling with the song. We are advocates for the correction of offenders; but how many generous and kindly beings are there pining within the walls of a prison whose only crimes are poverty and misfortune!...

“We now come to the last great lesson of our motley teacher the gallows; that accursed tree which has its root in injuries. How clearly PUNCH exposes the fallacy of that dreadful law which authorises the destruction of life! PUNCH sometimes destroys the hangman, and why not? Where is the divine injunction against the shedder of man’s blood to rest? None can answer! To us there is but ONE disposer of life. At other times PUNCH hangs the devil: this is as it should be. Destroy the principle of evil by increasing the means of cultivating the good, and the gallows will then become as much a wonder as it is now a jest....

“As on the stage of PUNCH’S theatre many characters appear to fill up the interstices of the more important story, so our pages will be interspersed with trifles that have no other object than the moment’s approbation an end which will never be sought for at the expense of others, beyond the evanescent smile of a harmless satire.”

A portion of this programme was duly eliminated by the abolition of the Fleet and the Marshalsea; and it must be admitted that Punch has long since forgotten his declared crusade against capital punishment. But he has been otherwise busy. His sympathy for the poor, the starving, the ill-housed, and the oppressed; for the ill-paid curate and the worse-paid clerk; for the sempstress, the governess, the shop-girl, has been with him not only a religion, but a passion. Professor Ruskin, judging only by Punch’s pictures, and that a little narrowly, has thought otherwise. Punch “has never in a single instance,” says he in his “Art of England,” “endeavoured to represent the beauty of the poor. On the contrary, his witness to their degradation, as inevitable consequences of their London life, is constant and, for the most part, contemptuous.”

Truth to tell, Punch has been kindly from the first; and a man of mettle, too. None has been too exalted or too powerful for attack; withal, his assaults, in comparison with those of his scurrilous contemporaries, have been moderate and gentlemanly in tone. He has attacked abuses from the highest to the lowest. Sham gentility, vulgar ostentation, crazes and fads, linked aestheticism long drawn out, foolish costume, silly affectations of fashion in compliment and language all have been set up as targets for his shafts of ridicule or scorn. He has been a moral reformer and a disinterested critic. A liberal-minded patriot, he has ever opposed the advocacy of “Little Peddlington” in Imperial politics; and municipal maladministration is a perennial subject for his denunciations. He has been a kindly cautériser of social sores; caustic, but rarely vindictive. Spiritualism, Socialism, Ibsenism, Walt Whitmania all the movements and sensations of the day, social, political, and artistic, in so far as they are follies have been shot at as they rose. And having conquered his position, Punch has known how to retain it. “The clown,” says Oliver Wendell Holmes, “knows his place to be at the tail of the procession.” It is to Punch’s honour that with conscious dignity and, of course, with conscious impudence he took his place at its head. And there he has stayed; and transforming his pages into the Royal Academy of pictorial satire, his alone among all the comic papers has forced its way into the library and taken up its position in the boudoir. His workers are the best available in the land; and when in course of time one contributor falls away, another is ready to step quickly into his place uno avulso non deficit alter.

So Punch who for many years past has set up as the incarnation of all that is best in wit and virtue is a scholar and a gentleman. He is, moreover, on his own showing, a perfect combination of humour, wisdom, and honour; and yet, in spite of it all, not a bit of a prig. It is true that when he donned the dress-coat, and “Punch” and “Toby” put on airs as “Mr. Punch” and “Toby, M.P.,” he became milder at the expense of some of his political influence. Yet what he lost in power he gained in respectability, as well as in the affection of his countrymen. He appealed to a higher class, to the greater constituency of the whole nation; and remembering that a jest’s prosperity lies in the ear that hears it, he transferred some of his allegiance from pit to stalls, and was content with the well-bred smile where before he had been eager for noisy laughter and loud applause.

People say among them Mr. du Maurier himself that there does not seem quite as much fun and jollity in the world as when John Leech was alive; but that surely is only the wail of the middle-aged. Englishmen never were uproarious in their mirth, as Froissart once reminded us. But it is true that Punch does not indulge so much as once he did in caricature which after all, as Carlyle has pointed out, is not Humour at all, but Drollery. Caricature, one must remember, has two mortal enemies a small and a great: artistic excellence of draughtsmanship, and national prosperity with its consequent contentment. Good harvests beget good-humour. They stifle all motive for genuine caricature, for “satire thrives only on the wrath of the multitude.” A joke may be only a joke or a comedy, or a tragedy; but the greatest caricature (which need by no means display the greatest art) is necessarily that which goes straightest to the heart and mind. No drawing is true caricature which does not make the beholder think, whether it springs simply from good-humour or has its source in the passion of contempt, hatred, or revenge, of hope or despair. Mere amusement, said Swift, “is the happiness of those who cannot think,” while Humour, to quote Carlyle again, “is properly the exponent of low things; that which first renders them poetical to the mind.” Through this truth we may see how Punch has so continually dealt with vulgarity without being vulgar; while many of his so-called rivals, touching the self-same subjects, have so tainted themselves as to render them fitter for the kitchen than the drawing-room, through lack of this saving grace. Fun may have been in their jokes, but not true humour. Punch thus became to London much what the Old Comedy was to Athens; and, whatever individual critics may say, he is recognised as the Nation’s Jester, though he has always sought to do what Swift declared was futile to work upon the feelings of the vulgar with fine sense, which “is like endeavouring to hew blocks with a razor.”

If there is one thing more than another on which Punch prides himself on which, nevertheless, he is constantly reproached by those who would see his pages a remorseless mirror of human weakness and vice it is his purity and cleanness; his abstention from the unsavoury subjects which form the principal stock-in-trade of the French humorist. This trait was Thackeray’s delight. “As for your morality, sir,” he wrote to Mr. Punch, “it does not become me to compliment you on it before your venerable face; but permit me to say that there never was before published in this world so many volumes that contained so much cause for laughing, and so little for blushing; so many jokes, and so little harm. Why, sir, say even that your modesty, which astonishes me more and more every time I regard you, is calculated, and not a virtue naturally inherent in you, that very fact would argue for the high sense of the public morality among us. We will laugh in the company of our wives and children; we will tolerate no indecorum; we like that our matrons and girls should be pure.”

It was not till the great occasion of his Jubilee that the Merry Old Gentleman of Fleet Street, who “hath no Party save Mankind; no Leader but Himself,” discovered the full measure of his popularity. The day broke for him amid a chorus of greeting a perfect pæan of triumph, in which his own trumpet was not the softest blown. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Press of the world welcomed the fiftieth anniversary of his birth, and that with a cordiality and unanimity never before accorded to any paper. Hardly a journal in the English-speaking world but commented on the event with kindly sympathy; hardly one that marred the celebration with an ill-humoured reflection. Pencil as well as pen was put to it to do honour to the greatest comic paper in the world, and demonstrate in touching friendliness the confraternity of the Press.

For the public, Punch issued his “Jubilee number” and, in accordance with the promise given in the first volume fifty years before, he produced in his hundredth a brief history of his career and the names of the men who made it, modestly advising his readers to secure a set of his back volumes as the real “Hundred Best Books.” For himself, he dined with the Staff at the “Ship Hotel” at Greenwich, when the Editor, who occupied the chair, was feted by the proprietors of the paper and received a suitable memento of the glorious event.

And what may appear to some as the most curious celebration of all was a solemn religious celebration nothing less than a Te Deum in honour of the occasion. It sounds at first, perhaps, a little like a joke though not in good enough taste to be one of Mr. Punch’s own; but the service was held; and when regarded in the light shed upon it by the Rev. J. de Kewer Williams, the incongruity of it almost disappears. “I led my people yesterday,” he wrote, “in giving thanks on the occasion of your Jubilee, praying that you might ever be as discreet and as kindly as you have always been.” The prayer spoken in the pulpit appropriately ended as follows: “For it is so easy to be witty and wicked, and so hard to be witty and wise. May its satire ever be as good and genial, and the other papers follow its excellent example!”

The public tribute was not less cordial and sincere, and poetic effusions flowed in a gushing stream. But none of these verses, doggerel and otherwise, expressed more felicitously the general feeling than those which had been written some years before by Henry J. Byron (who had himself attempted to establish a rival to Punch, but had been crushed by the greater weight) one of his verses running:

“From ’Forty-one to present times
How much these pages speak,
And Punch still bids us look into
The middle of next week;
And that’s a Wednesday, as we know,
When still our friend appears,
As honest, fearless, bright, and pure
As in the bygone years.”

But greater far than the public esteem is the affection of the Staff, who naturally enough regard the personality of Punch with a good deal more than ordinary loyal sentiment and esprit de corps. It is interesting to observe the different views the artists have severally taken of it, for most of them in turn have attempted his portrayal. Brine regarded him as a mere buffoon, devoid of either dignity or breeding; Crowquill, as a grinning, drum-beating Showman; Doyle, Thackeray, and others adhered to the idea of the Merry, but certainly not uproarious, Hunchback; Sir John Tenniel showed him as a vivified puppet, all that was earnest, responsible, and wise, laughing and high-minded; Keene looked on him generally as a youngish, bright-eyed, but apparently brainless gentleman, afflicted with a pitiable deformity of chin, and sometimes of spine; Sir John Gilbert as a rollicking Polichinelle, and Kenny Meadows as Punchinello; John Leech’s conception, originally inspired, no doubt, by George Cruikshank’s celebrated etchings, was the embodiment of everything that was jolly and all that was just, on occasion terribly severe, half flesh, half wood the father, manifestly, of Sir John Tenniel’s improved figure of more recent times. Every artist Mr. du Maurier, Mr. Sambourne, Mr. Furniss, and the rest has had his own ideal; and it is curious to observe that in his realisation of it, each has illustrated or betrayed in just measure the strength or weakness of his own imagination.