The mixed and mongrel style of the English imagination emerges in the most disparate contexts. The alliterative line of the Anglo-Saxons encouraged “paradox or antithesis.”1 Beowulf combines heroic adventure and horror, pathos and fantasy. Chaucer can change tone from farce to tragedy in an instant. Spenser delights in his alterations of mood. Marlowe specialises in comedy and horror mixed. The fact that precisely the same descriptions have been applied both to Shakespeare and to Dickens suggests, at the very least, a certain continuity of expression.
The absence of studied or central feeling can be glimpsed in fourteenth-century English music, also, with its unique “interactions between the popular and the learned.”2 The upper part of one motet is an anthem to the Virgin Mary while the tenor accompaniment is a demotic and secular song entitled “Dou way, Robin”; both are to be sung at the same time. In Worcester Cathedral the arcades of the choir are composed “in a deliberately clashing rhythm, a technique borrowed from Lincoln.” 3 The poetry of Wyatt and Skelton is filled with “deliberately clashing” imagery also. In one love poem or “balet” Skelton proceeds with the conventional aureate diction:
Of al your feturs fauorable to make tru discripcion
only to descend quickly into lewd abuse:
Jaist ye, Jenet of Spayne, for your tayll wagges
Wyatt performs the same act of sudden transition:
For fancy ruleth though right say nay, Even as the good man kissed his cow . . .
If the English language contains the elements of many other languages, Saxon and Latin among them, then paradox and incongruity will be of its very nature. It may encourage irony or scepticism, and when Samuel Johnson observed that in “metaphysical” poetry, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked violently together” he was remarking upon a native tendency. But it does not have to be a violent practice; in the archaic and artificial diction of The Faerie Queene all possible languages are accommodated within the music of Spenser’s verse, in a poem which in the words of Shakespeare ’s Polonius is “pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral” all at once.
The English delight in the hybrid emerges forcefully in English drama. The nature of the earliest plays, where buffoonery and death were paraded side by side, is the context for a thousand years of what Sir Philip Sidney called “mungrell” drama which “be neither right Tragedies, nor right Comedies, mingling Kings and Clownes.” In the great “cycles” of York or Chester, a multitude of verse forms encompass a variety of styles and themes. Christ is surrounded by figures of fun, and the crudity of farce can sometimes be touched by intimations of eternity. So the “mungrell” style can in a way achieve transcendence—of all the mystery cycles in Europe, only the English aspired to a complete statement of human destiny from Creation to Doom. The “mixed” or “mingled” style, abused and rejected by the more learned courtiers and scholars, might nevertheless afford the direct experience of extremes. Here are all the constituents of divine comedy. The rapid movement from farce to the sublime in the York plays was accompanied in 1426, according to one censorious preacher, by “feastings, drunkenness, shouts, songs, and other insolences.”
Moralists also inveighed against sixteenth-century drama, often on the assumption that “high” and “low” elements were being promiscuously mingled. The drama offended decorum on every level. The “unities” of time and place are not observed in the Elizabethan theatre, where the imperative is still that of the mystery plays; a vast inclusiveness is required, registering complexity and variety in each part of the design. There were “medlies” which were “part pageant, part morality play, part clowning and political cabaret.”4 The contemporary play-wright, however, did not necessarily apologise for his various genius: “If we pretend a mingle-mangle, our fault is to be excused, because the whole world is become an hodge-podge.” Lyly can in “hodge-podge” fashion parody himself. One soliloquy in his play Endymion is couched in a “high” style—“Behold my sad tears, my deep sighs, my hollow eyes, my broken sleeps, my heavy countenance”—only to be deflated by a young page who ridicules “moonshine on the water.” All the pastoral romances of the Elizabethan stage have this double perspective, so that in characteristic English fashion love is mocked as well as celebrated. Heywood asked himself “why among sad & grave Histories, I have here & there inserted fabulous jeasts & tales, savouring of Lightnesse?” And he answered, simply, that “I have therein imitated our Historical & comical Poets, that write to the Stage.”
“High” and “low” were confused in quite another sense, too, since in the late sixteenth century the audience at the Rose or Curtain comprised courtiers and merchants, scholars and “mechanicals,” poets and pie-men:
For as we see at all the playhouse doors, When ended is the play, the dance and song, A thousand townsmen, gentlemen and whores Porters and serving-men together throng
Thus wrote Sir John Davies in 1593, a time when the finest examples of English drama were being composed for this mixed and heterogeneous collection of citizens; it can even be argued that when the audiences were segregated, as they became in the latter half of the seventeenth century, great plays could no longer be written. The early “adulterate” audience, on the other hand, came to see themselves in the hybrid drama of the stage. On the wooden scaffold the actor, considered then to be of low profession, is enunciating the highest sentiments. In the dramatic act, all order and degree are thrown into confusion. In the first part of Henry IV Falstaff speaks in feigned passion:
For Gods sake Lords, conuay my tristfull Queene, For teares do stop the floudgates of her eyes
But then the hostess replies, “O Iesu, he doth it as like one of these harlotrie plaiers as ever I see.” The shifting of perspective, and therefore the mixed mode, are complete when the actors remark upon their own theatrical devices.
In the early seventeenth century, through the agency of playwrights such as Marston and Beaumont, the “tragicomedy” became “the century’s most popular dramatic form,”5 but a “Tragicall Comedie” had already been acted before Elizabeth I in 1564. This conflation of sadness and absurdity has been the native and instinctive mode ever since drama first emerged in England, but now it acquired generic identity. In the frontispiece to Ben Jonson’s Workes in 1616, the regal figure of “Tragicomoedia” is flanked by “Satyr” and “Pastor” playing musical instruments. John Fletcher defined “tragicomedy . . . in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy.” Dramatic conventions and theatrical “types” were then thoroughly mingled, just as plots and themes had been. The English “mungrell” idiom was established and defined. Or as Michael Drayton wrote at the end of his celebration of England, Poly-Olbion:
My muse is rightly of the English straine That cannot long one Fashion intertaine
As in art, so in life itself. Dryden remarked that his play The Spanish Friar (1680) was “an unnatural mingle” devised in order to please the continuing “Gothic” taste of the English audiences. His funeral was conducted according to the same precepts. As George Farquhar described it, “And so much for Mr. Dryden, whose Burial was the same with his life; Variety, and not of a Piece. The Quality and Mob, Farce and Heroicks; the sublime and Redicule mixt in a Piece, great Cleopatra in a Hackney Coach.”
In this period there emerged “anti-masques” celebrating disorder with parodic dance measures, and “semi-operas” of a typically mixed form including spectacle, speech and song as well as “heroic rant, conjuring and magical illusions, singing spirits, music as sexual temptation, political allegory, and interpolated masques.”6 Seventeenth-century virtuosi criticised the “medlie and motlie Designes” of contemporary artistic taste, and in English architecture of the seventeenth century there appeared an idiom which “is neither Italian, French, nor Dutch Baroque but an increasingly interwoven mixture of the three, combined with elements borrowed from none, which are particularly English.”7
This mixed and motley style can also be applied to the English intelligence. Samuel Johnson wrote of Thomas Browne that “His style is a tissue of many languages; a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art, and drawn by violence into the service of another.” It recalls his criticism of the “metaphysicals” for violent juxtaposition of imagery, but they were only mingling the sacred and the secular in the tradition of the mystery plays. Browne himself had a thoroughly English mind.
The constituents of eighteenth-century drama do not materially differ. The names change, but the reality remains the same. Thus “monstrous medlies” became the most popular form of stage entertainment, earning the rebuke of Alexander Pope in The Dunciad:
Hell rises, Heav’n descends, and dance on Earth: Gods, imps, and monsters, music, rage, and mirth, A fire, a jigg, a battle, and a ball, ’Till one wide conflagration swallows all.
The most popular and representative drama of the eighteenth century is, without any doubt, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, from which many imitations continue to emerge. The play, first performed in 1728, is concerned with the early eighteenth-century London “underworld” in which a highwayman appropriately named Macheath is pursued both by Lucy, the daughter of a Newgate warder, and by the daughter of a receiver of stolen goods. It may seem simple enough, but its form is mixed and various. The Whitehall Evening Post “found occasion to complain with equal tartness of The Beggar’s Opera then running at the two main London theatres: at one house Lucy was being played as high tragedy, and at the other she was played as low comedy and ‘we scruple not to pronounce them both wrong.’ ” 8 The Beggar’s Opera was neither farcical nor heroical, neither comic nor tragic, but all four at the same time. It was also intended as a parody of the Italian opera—hence the absurdly brazen deus ex machina at the end by means of which Lucy arranges Macheath’s escape—and thus represents both the absorption, and rejection, of foreign influence. Gay had entitled an earlier play The What D’Ye Call It and labelled it as a “Tragic-Comi-Pastoral Farce.” No one seemed to care. The audiences took naturally to it.
In the last act of The Beggar’s Opera Macheath is in the condemned hold of Newgate when the bell of execution sounds; the gamester or gangster cries out, “Here—tell the Sheriff ’s officers I am ready.” This is a pure theatrical joke, a parody of the same solemn moment in Otway’s Venice Preserv’d, written almost fifty years earlier, when Pierre utters the immortal phrase “Come, now I’m ready” as the passing-bell tolls out its note of doom. It is meant to be a comic moment in The Beggar’s Opera, yet instead it enters that enchanted English world where pathos and humour mingle effortlessly. Gay himself noted that, in this scene, “how ludicrous soever the general character of the piece may be . . . the joke ceases.” He adds: “I have observed the tolling of St Pulchre’s Bell received with as much tragical attention and sympathetic terror as that in Venice Preserv’d.” Even within the parody and the burlesque the audience is plunged into pity and horror, before being immediately lifted out of it with the pastiche of a “happy ending.” The power of the heterogeneous form is emphasised by the contemporaneous report that “several thieves and street robbers confessed in Newgate that they raised their courage at the playhouse by the songs of their hero Macheath, before they sallied forth in their desperate nocturnal exploits.”
The Beggar’s Opera was also considered to be a satire upon the thefts and depredations of Robert Walpole and his administration, so that “high” and “low” were conflated in a more pointed political sense; the whole of society is a highway robbery, in this account, with the face of the prime minister hidden by a scarf. In this context, therefore, we can see the “mungrell” drama of the English as evincing that instinctive egalitarian or levelling spirit which is always present within the English imagination.
The association of Walpole and Macheath in the form of a “monstrous medlie” was unwittingly complemented by Samuel Johnson’s observation on English politics itself; he wrote in one pamphlet that governments “are never to be tried by a regular theory. They are fabricks of dissimilar materials, raised by different architects, upon different plans.” This distrust of theory and regularity in all cultural proceedings is familiar enough; more significantly, perhaps, public administration itself is seen to partake of the “mixed mode” so instinctive to English cultural expression. The analogy with “different architects” serves only to confirm the native genius since in the eighteenth century architecture was also of the mixed and mongrel kind. It has been noted that the west front of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, so incongruous a composition, was “an attempt to re-create the effect of a Gothic spire in classical terms,” 9 an odd effect by James Gibb which was immediately copied by less prominent English architects. James Wyatt designed one country house in a curious “amalgam of Roman, Chambersian, Picturesque and Greek Revival elements”10 and the whole mixed effect was deemed beautiful; John Nash, the architect who was most attuned to fashionable taste, built in “Gothic, castellated, Italianate and classical styles.” 11 The garden at Kew once harboured “an Alhambra, a mosque, a Gothic cathedral; a number of classical temples, a classical orangery, a ruined arch, a chinese pagoda and a ‘House of Confucius.’ ”12
The abiding tendency towards eclectic and heterogeneous ostentation is discussed by Nikolaus Pevsner in his The Englishness of English Art , where he notes that the mixed effect applied also to the mingling of past and present; he infers that in the sixteenth century “funeral monuments were self-consciously made to look medieval,”13 and that eighteenth-century gentlemen’s clubs were designed to resemble Renaissance palaces. He characterises it as “this English quality, the quality that has made England the land of Follies.” He relates it to the reticence or detachment of the English artist, so that the “mixed” mode comes naturally to those who cannot take seriously, or consider very long, one feeling or one style or one theory. He notes also that “England was the first country to break the unity of interior and exterior and wrap buildings up in clothes not made for them but for buildings of other ages and purposes.”14
In nineteenth-century architecture, too, the “mungrell” tendency is everywhere apparent in edifices which took traditional eclecticism and pastiche to even greater levels. There were four standard styles available— Greek, Italian, Tudor and Gothic—and they could be mixed in any proportion to guarantee the effects which we now call “Victorian.” But there was also the “Flemish Renaissance” style, and the “Queen Anne” style; the New Scotland Yard building combined the modes of the Dutch and French Renaissance, while the Natural History Museum in South Kensington took Romanesque architecture as its model. The Brighton Pavilion was based upon “Hindoo” originals. We may add that breaking “the unity” has always been an English obsession. Alexander Pope thus describes, in English verse
How Tragedy and Comedy embrace; How Farce and Epic get a jumbled race
These just representations of general nature begin with the beginning of life itself. In the sixteenth chapter of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, just after Tristram’s mother has suffered a phantom pregnancy, “my mother declared, these two stages were so truly tragicomical, that she did nothing but laugh and cry in a breath.” Tristram Shandy itself is a “medley” or “gallimaufry” taken to its widest and wildest extreme; it is a sterling example of that rambling, wayward, inconsistent and inconclusive native temper which Charles Dickens described as “streaky well-cured bacon.”
The novels of Dickens himself have been alternately praised or blamed for their reliance upon the concatenation of farce and tragedy, pathos and romance. Dickens was much influenced by the conventions of nineteenth-century theatre, and in one speech declared that “every writer of fiction, though he may not adopt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage.” The “stage” of his period was characterised by extravagant plots and exaggerated performances, where tragedy and melodrama jostled each other for attention; he had as a child read the great works of eighteenth-century fiction, with their strange mixture of formality and farce, elegance and violence. The “tragicall comedie” of urban life was compounded by his personal experience; he suffered violent changes in his own childhood, particularly when he was set to work in an old blacking factory. Hence the scrap of dialogue in Nicholas Nickleby:
“There were hyacinths there this last spring, blossoming in—but you’ll laugh at that, of course.”
“At their blossoming in old blacking bottles.”
As a young man he wrote a parody of Othello with an Irish hero, O’Thello, and he knew already that he possessed a gift for subverting “high” drama; in his early journalism he could mimic “all the voices” from the judge and the beadle to the thief and the vagabond. While writing the comic and picaresque narrative of The Pickwick Papers he began the solemn and pathetic story of the orphan introduced to London servitude in Oliver Twist. But then The Pickwick Papers contains its own sorrowful mysteries, such as the powerful scenes set in Fleet Prison, and Oliver Twist is filled with a wild and hysterical humour. Once more we witness the workings of the native genius, in what Dickens described as “the tragic and the comic scenes . . . sudden shiftings of the scene, and rapid changes of time and place.” All of his subsequent works are characterised by the violent transition of moods and themes, so that even in the description of wretchedness and despair he will find a detail which is inimitably comic.
There is another element here which is less easy of definition. Many contemporaries noticed a certain “hardness” in Dickens’s temperament and demeanour, and it may be that the heterogeneity of his style came from an unwillingness or incapacity to express wholly genuine feeling; every sentiment must be extravagant, and every emotion contrived. The mixed style, after all, was theatrical in origin. Yet it may also be aligned to a national character which, in previous centuries, was known for its violence and insensitivity to suffering.
It is difficult to express that which is amorphous. Englishness is the principle of appropriation. It relies upon constant immigration, of people or ideas or styles, in order to survive. This “mungrell” condition was perhaps best expressed by Daniel Defoe, of all writers the most various and adaptable. In his poem “The True Born Englishman” the heterogeneity of the English imagination is lent its proper context:
From this Amphibious Ill Born mob began That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman . . . By which with easie search you may distinguish Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.