The notion that poetry in its various forms raises the tone of early modern crime writing is one that can be explored through the works of a number of individuals. Two in particular are Bernard Mandevilles The Grumbling Hive and a variety of pieces by the famous Jonathan Swift, such as The Dog and the Thief and Blue-Skins Ballad to name just two. These examples also provide contrasting forms of poetry as Mandevilles is longer, whereas Swifts are more in the style of short ballads. Swift also provides parodies of the final speeches of real criminals such as Ebenezor Elliston. Further demonstrations of diverse forms are displayed through other works such as the street ballads used in The Beggars Opera by John Gay. Gays work is particularly important also, as it is intended for the stage, which has an obvious effect on the tone in which it comes across to an audience.
Of the aforementioned works, the most obvious example of a predominantly satirical tone is The Grumbling Hive. The fact that it is written in the form of a long poem makes the point more memorable, along with the violently tongue-in-cheek manner in which it is written. The idea of a hive provides the reader with an unusual image of society. It allows us to read it with the eyes of God. It is a suitable metaphor also as one of the main arguments presented is that everybody is cheating everybody else, and not just a section of criminals. Therefore the correlation of a frantic beehive and the general social structure of the time seems a strangely valid one. The opening line automatically leans towards the satirical nature of the poem, A spacious Hive well stockd with Bees, / That lived in Luxury and Ease (Mandeville, B. The Grumbling Hive, from The Fable of the Bees, ed. Philip Harth (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970) p. 63) as the reality was that the majority of people lived in anything but harmony and luxury. This introduction is comparable to the opening of An Excellent New Ballad by Swift which contains the same comedic tones. It reads, Our Brethren of England who love us so dear (Swift, J. Poetical Works, ed. Herbert Davis (London: Oxford University Press, 1967) p. 471) which is very similar to the opening of Mandevilles piece due to its ironic voice. We can compare The Grumbling Hive to other works of the time as it introduces the same typical characters that were so prominent throughout the period. This is portrayed early on in the poem where Mandeville describes the Sharpers, Parasites, Pimps, Players, / Pick-Pockets, Coiners, Quacks, Sooth-Sayers (Hive, p. 64) in order to emphasise the cony-catchers that were thriving throughout society, and did not have legitimate employment. However, Mandeville did not place the blame squarely on these criminals as he highlights the notion straight away that All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, / No Calling was without Deceit (Hive, p. 64). This suggestion is reinforced with the introduction of another commonly criticised profession; the lawyers. They are compared here in the same light as a simple burglar. It is also declared that they do not pursue justice, and will do anything in order to look after their own interests;
And to defend a wicked Cause,
Examind and surveyd the Laws;
As Burglars Shops and Houses do;
To find out where they’d best break through. (Hive, p. 65)
This beginning is very characteristic of crime writing in the themes and figures that it depicts. However, it is made different through the extensive use of hyperbolic language which gives the reader the feeling that the tone is above a basic description of certain criminal activities. It seems that Mandeville is taking a high line and making a more specific comment on the entire social situation, and this notion is emphasised as the poem continues.
This hyperbolic language is mirrored in much of Swifts work, and is used in a similar fashion. An example of this relation is in the poem entitled The Dog and the Thief which was written in 1726. Through this poem, a metaphor is adopted which is not unlike that of the grumbling hive. In this case, the thief represents the candidate that is attempting to buy the vote of the freeman, who is characterised through the guise of the dog. The idea of the tone being raised above the criminal underworld is certainly evident here, and the message is delivered in a more subtle way. This is aided through the use of comedy, as the opening line gives us an idea of what is to come, Quoth the Thief to the Dog; let me into your Door, / And I’ll give you these delicate Bits (Swift, p. 310). The language is certainly quite eloquent and the idea of a thief bartering with a dog for entrance is amusing. It is a kind of fable. The comical effect of this poem is cemented by the fact that it is in the form of a street ballad and cannot be taken too seriously due to the set rhyme scheme. One particular difference between Swift and Mandeville was that Swift was viewed as a rabble rouser, whose work was created with the intention of inciting mob behaviour, although not especially in this poem. This is contrary to Mandeville who looked upon things from a birds eye view. However, they both use these forms in order to convey the situation for a satirical effect. Another interesting point from The Grumbling Hive is the notion of opposites being imperative for the survival of society and the economy. This was not a conventional idea and therefore supports the ongoing debate that Mandevilles poetry looked further than the basic unlawful world that is ordinarily displayed within writing of the period. His satirical argument was that ‘vice’ and ‘virtue’ were of equal importance. He demonstrates this in the line, Thus every Part was full of Vice, / Yet the whole Mass a Paradise (Hive, p. 67) which promotes the theme that the system works perfectly, even though there was no justice. This is repeated again at the end when Mandeville displays the moral of the story, and he reiterates that Vice is beneficial found, / When it’s by Justice lopt, and bound (Hive, p. 76). He states that vice should not just thrive, but it is needed to keep the economy going. The poor are supposedly better off in a system where nobody pays any real attention to ethical matters.
The antithesis of The Grumbling Hive is also presented by Mandeville through his 1725 work, An enquiry into the causes of the frequent executions at Tyburn. All of the factors that he was previously trivialising are here manifested as being extremely wrong and immoral. He puts forward the case that hanging does not work at all in the prevention of crime. He outlines this in his third chapter where he states that All the way from Newgate to Tyburn, is one continuous Fair, for Whores and Rogues of the meaner Sort. (Mandeville, B. An enquiry into the causes of the frequent executions at Tyburn (William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles, 1964) p. 20) Mandeville felt that the displays were too public, and actually provided the opportunity for provoking more crime, as opposed to making people fearful of the consequences. Many people turned up with the intention of robbing and pick-pocketing. He again contradicts his other piece with his stance on the poor. Instead of the poor being a necessary factor for the stability of the economy, he now argues that Poverty itself is a strong Temptation to Thieving (Tyburn, p. 36). This comment is supported by Pat Rogers in his Grub Street where he states that. The district was in the entertainment business the executions were themselves among the biggest free shows in town. (Rogers, P. Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture (Methuen & Co Ltd. London, 1972) p. 253) The style of the work has also altered from the other piece. It is fairly continuous, without many full stops. This constancy represents both the chaos that was going on inside the jail, as well as the inevitability of people becoming stuck in the criminal life once they have started, which is another problem that is highlighted within the content of Mandevilles discussion.
Certain examples from Swifts work show his eagerness to get closer to the low form of the street criminal. This provides an interesting contrast with the higher tones previously examined. This becomes evident through his work that is more specific to particular crimes or criminals. The most obvious example of this effect is in Blue-Skins Ballad. Blue-Skin was a real-life criminal and was a member of one of Londons most notorious gangs, which was led by Jonathan Wild. The poem itself documents the event of Blue-Skin attacking Wild and slitting his throat, which was not actually successful in reality. However, the death of Wild is presented in this case as giving the rest of the criminal world more freedom to work. The poem is different in style to those already viewed. This is largely due to the fact that it is addressed directly to the criminals themselves, right from the opening line which reads, Ye Fellows of Newgate whose Fingers are nice (Swift, p. 661, line 1). The drop in vocabulary also denotes this change to an intentionally lower form. This is shown through the word nice that is used to mean delicate and elusive. The drop in tone is also indicative of the criminals trivialising the crimes. However, this is done in a contrasting way to The Grumbling Hive which does it for satire. In this example, it feels as though the flippancy towards the victims is more commonplace. This is portrayed through the reaction towards Wilds wife, who has been made a widow, But forty Pounds paid her, her Grief shall appease (Swift, p. 661, line 16). The offering of money in compensation is genuinely expected to make the woman feel better. The notion of crime being an everyday occurrence is again focused upon in the fourth stanza of the poem where the criminals are compared to normal occupations:
Call Briberies Grants, and plain Robbery Pensions.
Physicians and Lawyers who take their Degrees
To be learned Rogues, call their pilferings Fees. (Swift, p. 662, lines 29,31)
This lower form is rather similar to that shown by Swift in another of his works, The Last Speech and Dying Words of Ebenezor Elliston. He was another real criminal that was executed for his crimes. This theme of low form is evident in the genuine final speech where Ellistons sentences are littered with mistakes such as the poor syntax in the line, The crimes which they all Dyed for they justly deserved being the Persons who committed them (Swift, J The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, Vol. VI , ed. Herbert Davis, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1939, 1968) p. 365). Swift has attempted to repeat this basic language in his parody of that same speech, through such lines as the final one where he concludes with, I hope you shall see me die like a Man, the Death of a Dog (Elliston, p. 41).
In The Beggars Opera, John Gay puts across his view of early modern England in a way more comparable to Mandevilles satire than to Swifts poetry. His story is an opera that is set for the stage. This immediately elevates the piece out of the base criminal world, as opera was a very high and expensive form at the time. This was certainly not the usual way to depict such criminal events, as Italian opera was traditionally concerned with the themes of love and duty. The events are interspersed with regular street songs that accompany the actions on stage. There are numerous examples of how this raises the tone of the writing. One such example is in Act one, Scene four, Air three, which is a street ballad that trivialises murder through song, The youth in his Cart hath the Air of a Lord, / And we cry, There dies an Adonis! (Beggars, p. 7). Pat Rogers emphasises the importance of the element of spectacle which is so crucial to the appeal of these works (Rogers, P. Literature and Popular Culture in Eighteenth Century England (The Harvester Press Ltd. Sussex, 1985) p. 9). This notion is certainly relevant in the case of Gays production. A certain ludicrousness is introduced to the audience at the end of Act two where the characters are ballet-dancing in chains. The fact that no crime or punishment of any description is actually enacted on the stage throughout the performance proves that this is not a serious depiction of the criminal world, but a light-hearted story for the higher classes to enjoy.
In conclusion, I would suggest that there is plenty of evidence in works of the period that supports the notion of poetry raising the tone of the writing above the criminal world that it depicts. Rogers claims that Low life becomes the staple of a certain kind of fashionable entertainment (Lit. and Pop. Culture, p. 20) and this is definitely supported through John Gays opera. The Grumbling Hive does not make a display of the lower classes in the same way, but serves to highlight the futility of aspirations of equality. He uses satire through his poetic form in order to inadvertently criticise the system. His real opinions are then manifested in An enquiry into the causes of the frequent executions at Tyburn. Swift is different from Mandeville and Gay. Much of his work can be revealed as satirical and high toned. However, he also makes an effort to write in the language and form of the criminals themselves, as is shown in Blue-Skins Ballad and The Last Speech and Dying Words of Ebenezor Elliston. He deals with the real details of actual criminals of the era, which makes an intriguing change from the more conventional poets of the time. This provides the opposition to the argument that poetry always raises the tone, as Swift intentionally lowers it in many of his poems.
Gay, J. The Beggars Opera, from Dramatic Works, Volume II, ed. John Fuller (Clarendon Press. Oxford, 1983)
Mandeville, B. The Grumbling Hive, from The Fable of the Bees, ed. Philip Harth (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970) pp. 61-75
Mandeville, B. An enquiry into the causes of the frequent executions at Tyburn (William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles, 1964)
Rogers, P. Grub Street: Studies in a Subculture (Methuen & Co Ltd. London, 1972)
Rogers, P. Literature and Popular Culture in Eighteenth Century England (The Harvester Press Ltd. Sussex, 1985)
Swift, J. Poetical Works, ed. Herbert Davis (London: Oxford University Press, 1967)
Swift, J. The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, Vol. VI , ed. Herbert Davis, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1939-1968)