"Wit is first and last a matter of expression. You cannot think a witty thought, even, without thinking in words." Ronald Knox
Father Ronald Knox, 1937 - National Portrait Gallery
"Father Knox, are not limericks unfit
for a priest to compose?" "Not a bit!"
He'd reply to his foes,
"What makes you suppose
That the Lord is deficient in wit?"
Reprinted by permission of The Pentatette — the newsletter of the Limerick Special Interest Group.
"Knox was once twitted by a bishop for reading his sermons from a prepared text - twitted a bit too long. At last Knox said: "Ah yes, Your Grace, I recognize the validity of your observations. I sensed it one day when I was about to mount the pulpit with my manuscript in my hand and I heard a gentleman in the first pew whisper to his wife, 'My God, another bloody pastoral!' " (from Preaching: the Art & the Craft, Walter J Burghardt SJ)
Renowned for his wit, Knox was also a remarkably fine satirist. He practiced this genre as a young man and mastered it swiftly. He could parody the literary style of a wide variety of authors both ancient and modern. Satire was well suited to his character because it depends upon sympathy as well as criticism. Although his satirical arrows could pierce the toughest armor, Msgr.Knox never descended to scorn; his purpose was not to mortally wound his opponents but to make them squirm. He was, first and foremost, a priest concerned with the salvation of souls.
MEMORIES OF THE FUTURE (1923) Being Memoires of the Years 1915-1972, Written in the Year of Grace 1988 by Opal, Lady Porstock. As the title suggests, this is a futuristic satire on morals and manners in the 20th century.
"My nurse, a woman of strong character and decided views, left me little permanent legacy of her care except that which most nurses leave to most English children - a horror of spiders and of the Pope. My mother was known to me as a lady who lived in a comfortable smell of tweeds on a hard, scratchy chair, in front of a table full of shiny things which I was forbidden to touch (not without reason, I found, for they were hot when touched), and appeared to surround herself with a group of similarly dressed ladies whom it was my favourite parlour trick to distinguish, in spite of superficial resemblances, from her." - Lady Porstock
The above passage is reminiscent of a passage in The Knox Brothers, by Penelope Fitzgerald:"...the grim warnings of Nurse and Cook, whose villain was that horror-figure, the Pope, 'always laying snares in far-off Italy to entrap our nursery in especial, and in general, into the evil lures of his superstition'. Old Nurse said she could smell a Papist a mile off, and was much preoccupied with the imminence of the Last Trump, which she hoped might come when they were all at prayer, and if possible in clean underclothes."
ESSAYS IN SATIRE (1928) consists of assorted pieces previously published as tracts or magazine articles. The introduction by Knox explains his views on humour and the higher, salutary purpose of satire. It contains the following titles among others:
Reunion All Round is a devastating parody of the Modernist New Church written in the style of Swift (quote modernised for convenience).
"There is some doubt in this connection whether or not the churches of
parodies the method of literary criticism - especially biblical criticism - much in vogue at the time.
Materials For A Boswellian Problem is a masterful spoof which denotes three different sources in Boswell's Life of Johnson.
A Forgotten Interlude is described below under the title Broadcasting the Barricades.
Absolute and Abitofhell is more serious and takes to task the modernist theologian. It was written in 1913 and published in Oxford Poetry 1910-1913. It is written in the manner of John Dryden and was Knox's response to a modernist theological work entitled Foundations.
A man so broad, to some he seem’d to be
Not one, but all mankind in effigy ...
When suave politeness, temp’ring bigot Zeal,
Corrected "I believe" to "One does feel";
BARCHESTER PILGRIMAGE (1935) is a delightful pastiche even for readers who are not familiar with Anthony Trollope’s most endearing series about an imaginary Cathedral city. Knox continues the history of Barchester for two generations after Trollope, until 1934. He also fearlessly introduces a Catholic element into each of his stories. We have reprinted the dedication below to whet the appetite.
SANCTIONS: A FRIVOLITY (1932) is a remarkably delightful mixture of satire and philosophy. The setting is a Scottish castle, the combattants unwitting guests at a socialite's house party. "Why couldn't you write your book in the form of a dialogue, and have all the problems in it discussed by a party of friends sitting round the fire - ourselves, for instance?", asks one character. "No, but that would not do at all. Because the philosophers would say, This is flippant stuff. And the novel readers would say, This is not a novel, and the library ought never to have sent it. And that would be a pity, because, you see, I love my book.", replies the author.
LET DONS DELIGHT (1939) is probably Msgr.Knox’s greatest literary achievement. It is satire but also history. In the words of Robert Speaight in his literary biography, Ronald Knox, the Writer, "Where the weapon of satire is exaggeration, the virtue of history is exactitude. This is the way dons talk; this is the way they have always talked; these are the subjects they discuss; these are the kinds of men they are." It is also Knox’s farewell to the Oxford he had known and loved. The title references a pious rhyme, taught to all English boys, beginning "Let dogs delight to bark and bite for God hath made them so". The literary device he employs is nothing short of brilliant: the scene is an Oxford Common Room at 50 year intervals, beginning in 1588. The topics of discussion vary according to historical context, the zealous young dons become elderly Provosts asleep by the fire, and by 1938 the extrusion of theology from academia is fully accomplished.
BROADCASTING THE BARRICADES
On January 16, 1926, Ronald Knox broadcast live from Edinburgh - over the BBC - his satire, "Broadcasting the Barricades". Little did he know what a commotion it would cause! His parody of a news bulletin - complete with reports of the sacking of the National Gallery, the hanging of a government minister from a lampost and other assorted crimes - was taken seriously by many who failed to understand the humor or did not listen to the BBC's prior announcement as to the satirical nature of the program. Panic ensued throughout the land.
Recently, BBC Radio 4 aired a program about this infamous broadcast entitled, "The Riot that Never Was". To hear the BBC program and listen to the reconstructed audio version of Knox's original broadcast go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/the_riot_that_never_was.shtml
The text of the broadcast was published under the title of "A Forgotten Interlude" in Essays in Satire.
EXPLANATORY DEDICATION TO MAURICE BARING
I owe you a deep debt of ingratitude for pointing out to me, when this book was nearly three parts written, that practically nobody would read it, because practically nobody had ever heard of Barchester.
Do you really suggest that we have got to tell people what the title means? To say that there was a man called Anthony Trollope, who was born in the year of Waterloo, and died in 1882 – died of laughing at a new book called Vice Versa? That this man, however much you rank him below the Immortals, is the novelist of the Victorian era, because most of all he was its unconscious spokesman; and that among the great library of his writings, five novels are endeared beyond all others to those who read them, the five which centre round the imaginary Cathedral city of Barchester? Will it be any use to tell them all this, and give them a few more stray pieces of information such as would help them in a General Paper – as, that Mrs.Proudie, the Bishop’s wife, hen-pecked him and tried to run the diocese for him; or that Mr.Harding, the precentor, was the gentlest and most lovable of characters in fiction, or that Dr.Grantley, the Archdeacon, was a fine, domineering clergyman of the old school? Would such information help one who has never had the entrée of Courcey Castle, or strolled with the Archdeacon across Barchester Close, or faced up to the anger of Lady Lufton in her "den" at Framley Park; or blushed and wept over the poverty of Hogglestock Parsonage?
However, I dare say you are right in thinking that some kind of explanation is needed. To publish a book written entirely in the style of somebody else, when your reader is not expecting it, is to put yourself in the position of one who meets callers at the front door when he is dressed up in an eiderdown and an old cavalry helmet to amuse the children. To be an ass in a lion’s skin is dangerous work at the best of times; but you look even more of an ass if you are meeting people who have never heard of the lion. So I have done what you suggested, and explained it all in words of one syllable; only insisting that my explanation should take this dedicatory form. My readers may be few enough; but it will be something to have told my non-readers – the people who will put down the book in disgust at this point – that you think as poorly of them as I do, for taking so little interest in Trollope.
Barchester Pilgrimage Ronald Knox, 1935 Sheed & Ward
The notion of a bazaar is 'that form of vendition in which things of the least possible value are sold at the greatest possible price, by those who most want to get rid of them to those who least want to acquire them, for charitable purposes'.
The EFFICIENT cause of a bazaar is the parish priest; and the more efficient he is, the more bazaars he has.
The MATERIAL cause of a bazaar is all unwanted objects, such as photograph frames, pincushions, and Japanese screens.
The FORMAL cause of a bazaar is because you can't think of any excuse for evading the formality.
The FINAL cause of a bazaar is the wiping off of the Church debt. This is the end of all bazaars, having no end itself.
It is asked 'Whether it is permissible to hold parish bazaars?' And at first sight it appears not. The first reason is taken from the principle that it is not lawful to do evil in order that good may come of it. But to sell anything for more than it is worth is an evil. Ergo. And again, St Paul tells us that charity is not inflated: now, to be able follows to be; therefore it is repugnant that charity, not being itself inflated, should inflate prices. Ergo.
The second reason is taken from the principle that nothing is vendible except what is desired by the buyer as a good. Now, the buyer desires a good either under the species of the useful or under the species of the beautiful. But that the things sold at bazaars are not useful is clear from the terms of the definition; and that they are not beautiful is clear from the contemplation of the things themselves. For the senses are not deceived over their proper objects. And from another point of view it may be argued that the things bought at bazaars are never either used or exposed as beautiful: they are kept in a back room and sold at the next bazaar. And this process will go on ad infinitum. But the concrete infinite is not found in experience.
The third reason is taken from Scripture, from that passage to wit where the holy Apostles say that it is not right for them to serve tables. Now a stall at a bazaar partakes in some way of the nature of a table; a priest, therefore, may not serve a stall at a bazaar, nor cause others to serve at it, for he who acts through another acts in his own person.
But the argument that it is not permissible to hold parish bazaars is found to be untenable. For Father Sims is holding a parish bazaar. Ergo.
It must be replied therefore to the first point that no injustice can be done to one who knows it and wills it. And everybody who goes to a bazaar knows that he is being defrauded and also wills it - not directly indeed but by accident, in order to avoid greater evils, such as a personal appeal for a subscription. And also, St Paul tells us that charity endures all things; it is evident therefore that it must endure even a parish bazaar.
It must be replied to the second point, that a thing may be useful to its owner not in so far as he applies it to himself, but in so far as he applies it to another. For an arrow is useful to its owner only when he applies it to another, not to himself. It is useful therefore to possess a photograph frame which you can hand over to the next parish bazaar. And that this process is infinite is not true; for the frame will fall to pieces sooner or later, and all the sooner in proportion as it is a bad frame.
To the third point it must be replied that a stall at a bazaar does not fall under the definition of a table, but under the definition of a tent. And St Paul made tents. Now, he who wills the means wills the end; St Paul, therefore, in willing that tents should be made, willed that they should be used. And again, the Scripture says that we ought not to muzzle a Knox -
(We will though. Editor). April 1st, 1924
from the 'Souvenir de Luxe' of a bazaar at Golders Green, May, 1924 and published in In Three Tongues, 1959, Chapman & Hall