Notes and Commentary

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The Political House that Jack Built, Edited by Kyle Grimes

The Political House that Jack Built

Notes and Commentary


Accumulation 1, The House:

Cruikshank's engraving shows an airy, classical temple with three columns labeled "Commons," "Lords," and "King." The temple has a domed roof upon which stands the female figure of Liberty holding a staff topped with a Phrygian Cap of Liberty, the widely known symbol of the reformist political movements of 1819. The image suggests that the proper function of the three principal branches of the English government is to uphold and safeguard popular liberty. Furthermore, this symbolic structure was not built by some external authority, but rather by Jack himself--that is, John Bull, the English common man. To paraphrase, then, "the House that Jack Built" is an English tripartite government created by the People and intended to support the liberty of the People. The caption, "A distant age asks where the fabric stood" (The Task, V, 535), hints at the fragility of the structure.

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Accumulation 2, The Wealth:

Again, Cruikshank's engraving clarifies the meaning of Hone's sketchy lines. The illustration shows a treasure chest standing amidst a scattering of coins, bags of money, and a printed book (presumably the Bible or perhaps a legal volume). The chest is open to reveal three parchment rolls labeled "Magna Charta," "Habeas Corpus," and "Bill of Rights" which echo against the parchment rolls of repressive legislation shown in the title page illustration. Together with Hone's verses, the suggestion is evidently that the "wealth" of England lies not in economic riches or military power; rather, it rests in the legal guarantees of the liberties and rights of the common man. Hone draws the epigraph from The Task, VI, 50-53, where the "treasure," interestingly enough, refers to the speaker's now deceased father.

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Accumulation 3, The Vermin:

The engraving presents a grouping of six government officials and servants. According to Anne Bowden's explication, these figures include a Court Chamberlain, a Huzzar officer, a soldier, a tax collector, and a barrister (probably Attorney General Robert Gifford who will appear again in the fifth accumulation). At the center of the composition is a caricature probably of Rev. Charles Ethelston, who served also as a magistrate in Manchester and who read the Riot Act during the Peterloo demonstration. (Ethelston is also the principal target of the attached poem, The Clerical Magistrate.)  Hone's central point, of course, is that such governmental figures undermine the popular liberties that constitute the wealth of England.  Hone borrows the epigraph verses from The Task, II, 826-32.  The punctuation is slightly altered from Cowper, and the complete line 829 of the original is "Were cover'd with the pest; the streets were fill'd."

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Accumulation 4, The Thing:

The "thing" presented here is an unadorned image of Hone's printing press, an iron Stanhope with the tympan raised to the right. The defiant text claims, in effect, that Hone's press remains free despite efforts to stifle it through stamp taxes and through the gagging clauses of the famous "Six Acts" (especially 60 Geo. III, c. 8. which called for increased vigilance and punishment in cases of seditious and blasphemous libel). The press, Hone implies, will be an effective counter-measure to the combined force of the "Vermin" pictured on the facing page.  The epigraphs--self explanatory--are from The Task, V, 477, 491-92.

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Accumulation 5, The Public Informer:

The "Public Informer" represented here is Attorney General Robert Gifford. In December 1817, of course, Hone had won courtroom victories the over Gifford's predecessor, Attorney General Samuel Shepherd. These victories notwithstanding, the new Attorney General is shown with Ex Officio Informations in his pocket, indicating a continuation of the policy of press prosecutions.

The Cowper epigraph here exemplifies some of Hone's creative manipulation of his source.   The first two lines, "The seals of office glitter in his eyes; / He climbs, he pants, he grasps them," come from The Task, IV, 59-6, where they describe a generic character from "the map of busy life" as represented to the reclusive poet by the newspaper. The final line, "To be a pest where he was useful once" (IV, 657), describes in the original a once-honorable and hard-working peasant youth who has now become insolent and discontent as a result of being pressed into military service. Together, the lines may suggest a collusion between hierarchies of power within the London courts and the violence of the yeoman cavalry who charged the protestors at Peterloo.

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Accumulation 6, The Reasons of Lawless Power:

Cruikshank's engraving shows a trio of military figures weilding a canon, swords, and a bayonetted musket. With them stands a jailer--probably the much-hated Nadin of Manchester--holding a set of shackles in one hand and keys in the other. These figures are associated with the forcible repression of popular liberties; thus, Hone's lines suggest that, if the Attorney General's legal proceedings against the radicals fail, he can nonetheless resort to the "lawless" power of physical repression.  The two epigraph lines are from The Task, IV, 568 and II, 322.

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Accumulation 7, The Dandy of Sixty:

Probably the most famous and certainly the most reprinted image in the pamphlet, Cruikshank's illustration shows a portly Prince Regent squeezed into an absurdly decorated military uniform that just barely covers his bulging midsection. The Regent wears a foppish hat adorned with three scrawny peacock feathers in place of the plumes of the Prince of Wales insignia. Hone's text describes a Regent who, having abandoned his earlier political alliances with the Whigs (including Charles James Fox in the 1790s), has now become more concerned with maintaining his private pleasures than with the welfare of the state. The Regent's obsessive concern with his personal appearance had long been a source of waggish humor and even public derision; Hone himself had in 1816 published bitter satirical attacks on what he saw as wasteful public spending on the Regent's lavishly equipped sailing vessel. But the closing lines of this section hint that the Regent is more dangerous than his reputation as mere public embarrassment might indicate. In an "evil hour" this Regent takes into his counsel the "Friends of the Reasons of lawless Power"; Hone is apparently suggesting that the violent repression of the Manchester protestors may have been carried out according to the Regent's direct orders.   The bitingly ironic epigraph lines are from The Task, IV, 788-89.

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Accumulation 8, The People:

The accompanying image shows in the foreground several tattered, obviously destitute figures and, in the background, the cavalry attacking a defenseless huddle of Peterloo protestors who hold up a Cap of Liberty. Part of the radical case against the government centered on taxation rates that remained high even though the war with France had been over for four years. Furthermore, when the radicals attempted to make their grievances known to the unreformed Parliament, their petitions were typically rejected or ignored. Left with virtually no legitimate political representation, the radicals turned to mass public meetings such as the one in Manchester; they were of course incensed that the Prince Regent actually condoned the violence of the yeomanry cavalry by thanking them for their service to the state.

The epigraph lines are a rather eclectic collection of memorable quotations from The Task, often with their meanings utterly altered in this new context.  For instance, the line about "Portentous, unexampled, [and] unexplain'd" events comes from Book II, 58, where it refers to various natural phenomena like volcanoes and meteors rather than the present comment on the Peterloo affair.  The next set of lines, from II, 26-28, refer in the original specifically to slavery; the following three lines about "headlong rage" and "heedless folly" reflect Cowper's skepticism about the eighteenth-century passion for scientific experiment and discovery.   The final line condemning the wasteful Ministers refers in The Task to new taxes on malt and home-brewed beer; in fact, the original subject of the verb "Bleed" was "casks," not the honest and overburdened "lower orders" that the present context would suggest.

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Accumulation 9, The Guilty Trio:

The "Doctor" is Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary who was responsible for maintaining the public peace. His draconian measures became a particular focus of anti-government wrath. Hone's reference to Sidmouth's "circular fame" is a personal grudge: in March of 1817 Sidmouth had issued a "Circular Letter" to all local magistrates, urging increased vigilance and vigorous repression in matters of seditious and blasphemous libel. Shortly thereafter, Hone was himself arrested for having written and published three anti-government parodies based on common liturgical texts.

"Derry Down Triangle" is Hone's name for Lord Castlereagh, leader of Parliament. The nickname derives from the triangular framework into which people were strapped while being whipped. Castlereagh, pictured in Cruikshank's engraving with a cat-o'- nine-tails behind his back, was notorious for the fervor with which he employed this punishment during the Irish "troubles" of 1798.

The "Spouter of Froth by the Hour" refers to cabinet minister George Canning. Canning, writing in the Anti-Jacobin, had originally dubbed Sidmouth with the unflattering "doctor" epithet; likewise, Canning had fought a duel with Castlereagh in 1809. His inclusion in an alliance with his two former enemies thus becomes for Hone a sign of Canning's corrupt, self-serving politics.

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Accumulation 10, The Word:

The "word," of course, is "Reform" which Cruikshank's illustration shows emblazoned on a banner like those carried at the Manchester meeting. This concluding accumulation offers some hope for the English political future. While the government may have recently invited Wellington (the "Waterloo Man") to serve in the cabinet--a move that worried reformers suspected might indicate more violence to come--Hone also suggests that Parliamentary reform might still be achievable through conventional political channels if only the leaders of the Whig aristocracy (Norfolk, Bedford, and others) would lend their full support to the movement.  The epigraph passages here are drawn respectively from The Task, IV, 672-75; V, 371-73; and V, 477-79.

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Published @ RC

March 1998