This book examines the function of irony and humor in Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, Newman's Apologist and Yeats' A Vision. Steven Helmling identifies in these three unusual texts a comic sensibility that has its roots in Augustan satire. In his view, the works are 'proto-modernist', exemplifying a major cultural shift that was to find expression in the avant-garde comic self-consciousness and the 'black humor' of writers like Joyce, Beckett and Pynchon. Hemling analyzes the motives and functions of parody, the uses of difficulty and self-referentiality, and the development of ironic personae (in Carlyle) or presentations of the self as eccentric or foolish (in Newman and Yeats). Such devices were central to these imaginative writers, who sought to address an audience that was increasingly homogenized by the emergence of mass culture. The book attempts to explain why, over the course of a century, ambitious works of art became increasingly difficult and demanding, culminating in the daunting masterpieces of 'high' modernism. By asserting the continuity of a genre of esoteric comedy, it provides t only an account of three very different careers, but also explores in a fresh light some of the origins of modernism.