Barham, Richard Harris (DNB00)

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BARHAM, RICHARD HARRIS (1788–1845), author of the ‘Ingoldsby Legends,’ was born at Canterbury on 6 Dec. 1788, and was the son of Richard Harris Barham of Tappington Everard in the county of Kent. He was educated at St. Paul's School and at Brasenose College, and, though originally intended for the bar, took orders in 1813, and in 1817 was presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the living of Snargate in Romney Marsh. An accident which confined him to the house directed his active mind to literary composition as a resource against ennui, and in 1819 he produced his first work, a novel entitled ‘Baldwin,’ which fell dead from the press. Nothing daunted, he began to write ‘My Cousin Nicholas,’ and in 1821 was placed in a more favourable position for literary effort by obtaining a minor canonry in St. Paul's Cathedral. His energy, good sense, and good humour soon gained him the esteem and confidence of the chapter, and more especially the friendship of Bishop Copleston, dean of St. Paul's from 1827 to 1849. In 1824 he was presented to the living of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Gregory, and was made priest in ordinary of the chapels royal. The latter appointment brought him into closer intimacy with the eccentric Edward Cannon, and connection with the press introduced him to other kindred spirits, whose society fostered the talent for humorous composition in verse of which he had already given proof. His acquaintance with Theodore Hook dated from their college days. He contributed to ‘Blackwood’ and the ‘John Bull,’ and in 1834 ‘My Cousin Nicholas,’ which had long lain in his desk, was completed and published in the former periodical. Though endowed with indefatigable powers of work, Barham seems to have always required some strong external prompting to composition of any extent. His first novel was the result of an accident; his second was forced into completion by a friend who printed the first chapters without his knowledge; and, although he was continually throwing off humorous verse with great freedom and spirit, the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’ would probably never have existed but for his desire to aid his old friend and schoolfellow, the publisher Bentley, in ‘Bentley's Miscellany,’ commenced under the editorship of Charles Dickens in January 1837. The magazine was originally intended to have been called ‘The Wits' Miscellany.’ ‘Why,’ urged Barham, when the change of title was suggested to him, ‘why go to the other extreme?’ This excellent mot has been erroneously attributed to Jerrold. ‘The Spectre of Tappington’ opened the series, and was speedily succeeded by a number of others, at first derived from the legendary lore of the author's ancestral locality in Kent, but soon enriched by satires on the topics of the day and subjects of pure invention, or borrowed from history or the ‘Acta Sanctorum.’ The later members of the series appeared in the ‘New Monthly Magazine.’ The success of the ‘Legends’ was pronounced from the first, and when published collectively in 1840 they at once took the high place in humorous literature which they have ever since retained. A second series was added in 1847, and a third was edited by his son in the same year. In 1842 Barham was appointed divinity lecturer at St. Paul's, and exchanged his living for St. Faith's, also in the city. In 1840 the death of his youngest son had inflicted a blow upon him from which he never recovered, and in 1844 a cold caught at the opening of the Royal Exchange, and aggravated by his neglect of precautions, laid the foundation of a fatal illness. He died on 17 June 1845, having written his pathetic lines, ‘As I laye a-Thynkynge,’ a few days previously.

Barham owes his honourable rank among English humourists to his having done one thing supremely well. He has thoroughly naturalised the French metrical conte with the adaptations necessary to accommodate it to our national genius. French humour is rather finely malicious than genial: Barham carries geniality to the verge of the exuberant. He riots in fancy and frolic, and his inexhaustible faculty of grotesque rhyming is but the counterpart of his intellectual fertility in the domain of farcical humour. There is, indeed, an element of farce in his fun, an excessive reliance on forced contrasts between the ghastly and the ludicrous, and a not unfrequent straining after cheap effects; nor can the most successful work of the professional jester be compared to the recreation of a great poet, such as Browning's ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin.’ It is nevertheless true that no English author, with the exception of Hood, has produced such a body of excellent rhymed mirth as Barham; and that, if his humour is less refined than Hood's, and his gaiety not equally purified and ennobled by being dashed with tears, he excels his rival as a narrative poet. He may, indeed, be said to have prescribed the norm in our language for humorous narrative in irregular verse, which can now hardly be composed without seeming to imitate him.

As a man Barham was exemplary, a pattern Englishman of the most distinctively national type. The associate of men of wit and gaiety, making himself no pretension to any extraordinary strictness of conduct, he passed through life with perfect credit as a clergyman and universal respect as a member of society. He mitigated the prejudices of his education by the innate candour of his disposition, and added to other endowments soundness of judgment and solidity of good sense.

[The principal authority for Barham's biography is his life by his son (3rd edition, 1880), a book abounding in excellent stories, excellently told. New editions of the Ingoldsby Legends continue to be called for, and his lyrics were published separately in 1881.]

R. G.