Chesterton on Dickens
We are trying to get at G. K. Chesterton’s characteristic approach to what we call stereotype and what he called a vulgar joke or an established theme.
But before we get into Chesterton, a word from our friendly neigborhood etymological dictionary.
stereotype (n.) 1798, “method of printing from a plate,” from French stéréotype (adj.) “printed by means of a solid plate of type,” from Greek stereos “solid” + French type “type.”
Meaning “a stereotype plate” is from 1817.
Meaning “image perpetuated without change” is first recorded 1850, from the verb in this sense.
Meaning “preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or group” is recorded from 1922.
And now for Chesterton. He begins by telling us that Dickens was a poor man of inadequate education. That his first work, ‘Sketches by Boz,’ was a collection of “sketches” and short stories, was vulgar (literally, “common” and therefore low) in its character, was tendentioiusly funny and alive, and made great use of alll the stock jokes and humorous situations of the era.
The great point to be emphasised at such an initiation is this: that people, especially refined people, are not to judge of Dickens by what they would call the coarseness or commonplaceness of his subject. It is quite true that his jokes are often on the same subjects as the jokes in a halfpenny comic paper. Only they happen to be good jokes. He does make jokes about drunkenness, jokes about mothers-in-law, jokes about henpecked husbands, jokes (which is much more really unpardonable) about spinsters, jokes about physical cowardice, jokes about fatness, jokes about sitting down on one’s hat. He does make fun of all these things; and the reason is not very far to seek. He makes fun of all these things because all these things, or nearly all of them, are really very funny. But a large number of those who might otherwise read and enjoy Dickens are undoubtedly “put off” (as the phrase goes) by the fact that he seems to be echoing a poor kind of claptrap in his choice of incidents and images. Partly, of course, he suffers from the very fact of his success; his play with these topics was so good that every one else has played with them increasingly since; he may indeed have copied the old jokes, but he certainly renewed them…
…Dickens showed himself to be an original man by always accepting old and established topics. There is no clearer sign of the absence of originality among modern poets than their disposition to find new themes. Really original poets write poems about the spring. They are always fresh, just as the spring is always fresh. Men wholly without originality write poems about torture, or new religions, of some perversion of obscenity, hoping that the mere sting of the subject may speak for them. But we do not sufficiently realise that what is true of the classic ode is also true of the classic joke. A true poet writes about the spring being beautiful because (after a thousand springs) the spring really is beautiful. In the same way the true humourist writes about a man sitting down on his hat, because the act of sitting down on one’s hat (however often and however admirably performed) really is extremely funny. We must not dismiss a new poet because his poem is called To a Skylark; nor must we dismiss a humourist because his new farce is called My Mother-in-law. He may really have splendid and inspiring things to say upon an eternal problem. The whole question is whether he has.
On “Pickwick Papers:”
Sam Weller is the great symbol in English literature of the populace peculiar to England. His incessant stream of sane nonsense is a wonderful achievement of Dickens: but it is no great falsification of the incessant stream of sane nonsense as it really exists among the English poor. The English poor live in an atmosphere of humour; they think in humour. Irony is the very air that they breathe. A joke comes suddenly from time to time into the head of a politician or a gentleman, and then as a rule he makes the most of it; but when a serious word comes into the mind of a coster it is almost as startling as a joke. The word “chaff” was, I suppose, originally applied to badinage to express its barren and unsustaining character; but to the English poor chaff is as sustaining as grain. The phrase that leaps to their lips is the ironical phrase. I remember once being driven in a hansom cab down a street that turned out to be a cul de sac, and brought us bang up against a wall. The driver and I simultaneously said something. But I said: “This’ll never do!” and he said: “This is all right!” Even in the act of pulling back his horse’s nose from a brick wall, that confirmed satirist thought in terms of his highly-trained and traditional satire; while I, belonging to a duller and simpler class, expressed my feelings in words as innocent and literal as those of a rustic or a child.
For readers who wonder what this is all about, we are debating the merits of Chesterton’s poem, “The Donkey,” and the comment section of the post regarding that poem is the scene of that debate.