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


"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!' " - Walter J. Burghardt S.J., Preaching: the Art & the Craft

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 oF 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 Russia and Greece, arrogantly styled Orthodox, can have any part in the Church of the future. Their very title is, it must be confessed, most horrid and repellant to our ears; for how can a man proclaim his own tenets to be orthodox, without thereby implying that other people's opinions are less likely to be true than his own? We must have no more of this; I leave it to themselves to pitch upon a new designation, with the suggestion that they would do well to alter their present style to that of Symphorodox, which is to assert no more than that they find their own doctrines helpful. As to our old quarrel about the clause Filioque, it will clearly have disappeared at the time of which we speak: for, as tradition avers that the Apostles, when they first formed a Creed, did not all profess it together, but each supplied his contribution, Peter leading the way with I Believe In God, so in this new Church nobody will be expected to recite the whole Creed, but only such clauses as he finds relish in; it being anticipated that, with good fortune, a large congregation will usually manage in this way to recite the whole formula between them."

MATERIALS FOR A BOSWELLIAN PROBLEM is a masterful spoof which denotes three different sources in Boswell's Life of Johnson

ABSOLUTE AND ABITOFHELL 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.

BROADCASTING THE BARRICADES On January 16, 1926, Ronald Knox broadcast live from Edinburgh - over the BBC - his satire, Broadcasting the Barricades (or 'A Forgotten Interlude'). 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 about 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

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.


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