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ELH 67.4 (2000) 951-971
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John Thelwall and Popular Jacobin Allegory, 1793-95
During a remarkable three-year period flanked on one end by the start of war between Britain and France and on the other end by the Two or "Gagging" Acts, between which were the sedition trials in Scotland and the treason trials in London for the leaders of Scottish and English Jacobinism, John Thelwall played a central role not just politically as leader and lecturer of the London Corresponding Society but culturally as allegorical satirist, song-writer, and poetic parodist. 1 Thelwall's cultural production illustrates the unstable boundaries between discrete discourses (political, aesthetic, and legal), as his songs and allegories exist in both oral and print cultures. As legal evidence for Thelwall's and the London Corresponding Society's seditious and treasonous intentions, these poetic texts are sites for conflicting interpretations. The government's wish to punish what it perceives as symbolic violence in the various texts is not unconnected with the violence of the judicial system and of loyalist groups. In this explosive context, reformist politics appear to be revolutionary. Thelwall's speech at an ostensibly apolitical public forum--apolitical to conform with the strictures established by repressive legislation--gets published in a popular Jacobin periodical that is fiercely political. The periodical's editor is then put on trial and ultimately acquitted for publishing a seditious allegory. The acquittal, an invigorating triumph for London Jacobinism, inspires Thelwall to write yet another defiant allegory that is published only after his own acquittal for treason in 1794. The three songs he composed for the London Corresponding Society that were used as evidence against him at his treason trial Thelwall publishes in 1795 in his periodical, The Tribune, which, however, is forced to discontinue because of the repressive legislation passed at the end of 1795. At lectures during 1796 and 1797--necessarily apolitical because of the Gagging Acts--Thelwall is victimized by actual violence as loyalist mobs, sponsored or condoned by the government, force him to retire from political activism. 2 The very condition within which the transgressive articulation of popular Jacobinism existed, of which Thelwall's works are an important sample, was of political repression and violence, threatened or actual. [End Page 951]
First I will examine one of the Thelwall songs cited at his treason trial; then I will trace the trajectory from his speech on the allegorical gamecock, to the trial for its publication in Daniel Isaac Eaton's Politics for the People, to the post-acquittal satire and parody John Gilpin's Ghost.
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At his trial for treason in 1794, the prosecution used as evidence three of Thelwall's songs that were sung and distributed at London Corresponding Society meetings and that he later published in The Tribune. 3 One satirizes the military debacle at Toulon in 1793, another the rhetoric of constitutionalism, "Britain's Glory; or, The Blessings of a Good Constitution," and the third, the one I wish to examine, is a more general satire, "A Sheepsheering Song." 4 His songs avoid the biblical idiom that was so common in popular Jacobinism, using instead a republican satire that assumes shared urban experiences and values.
There are twelve eight-line stanzas of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines, with strong rhymes at the end of the trimeter lines: abcbdefe. Thelwall plays with the ambiguity of fleecing--both sheep and humans. To shear is to fleece, so that shearing and fleecing are used interchangeably. The song's theme, "all the world are sheerers" (S, 4), is developed in a series of vignettes beginning appropriately in the country (S, 1-63), and culminating in the city (S, 64-108). The song's humor comes from the contrast between shearing as harmless cutting of sheep's wool and shearing as harmful "cutting" of people. The gleeful tone and satirical focus are announced in the first stanza:
Come to a song of rustic growth
List all my jolly hearers,
Whose moral plainly tends to prove
That all the world...