Commentary: The Observations of a Swine

Full title: The Observations of a Swine, on the Condition of his Fellow Creatures

As the introductory note printed above this poem makes clear, it is addressed explicitly to ‘Patriotism’, a poem printed a month earlier in the Sheffield Register 309. However each of these texts is also in dialogue with a third text: Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Burke argues that it was the sharing of learning with the masses that brought about revolution:

Learning paid back what it received to nobility and to priesthood, and paid it with usury, by enlarging their ideas and by furnishing their minds. Happy if they had all continued to know their indissoluble union and their proper place! Happy if learning, not debauched by ambition, had been satisfied to continue the instructor, and not aspired to be the master! Along with its natural protectors and guardians, learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude.

People, Burke argues, should stay in their proper place. The ‘swinish multitude’ soon became shorthand for any political philosophy defending and perpetuating rigid social hierarchy. Burke is arguing here that those disenfranchised in society, the people with the least, deserve their subjugation.

The statement alone prompted a plethora of responses criticising Burke’s logic. In 2008 Darren Howard collated many of these responses, which included Daniel Isaac Eaton’s ‘Hog’s Wash’ (1794), Thomas Spenser’s ‘Pig’s Meat: Or, Lessons from the Swinish Multitude’ (1793) and James Parkinson’s ‘Address to the Hon. Edmund Burke from the Swinish Multitude’ (1793). Two issues later the Register would go on to publish its own poetic response to Burke: Mr Cooper’s ‘Swinish Herd to Edmund Burke.’

‘Observations’ centres its attack on the employment of Burke’s phrase to describe British soldiers as a ‘swinish rabble’ in No 309’s poem ‘Patriotism’. The sentiments of ‘Patriotism’ are difficult to gauge given the penchant of most Register poems to adopt attitudes they oppose in order to present them as absurd (‘A Loyal Song’ remains the clearest example of this strategy). The poem gleefully asserts that young soldiers fighting in France do not understand why they are there and any claim that they do should not be taken seriously. A generous reading would see this poem as hinting that if they understood the rationale for Britain’s war they would not be as quick to cheer their nation’s cause. However, reading it straight (as ‘Observations’ clearly does), the poem appears to suggest that the soldiers enlisted in the British army were born to die and shouldn’t be permitted to do anything else. They should never, for instance, become involved in politics or ever cast a vote. This second reading situates ‘Patriotism’ far closer to Burke’s Reflections and as a result ‘Observations’ reads as a vehement attack on both.

The opening line lifts directly from the final couplet of ‘Patriotism’, recasting it as a question rather than a conclusive statement: did nature mean us to be slaves? Adopting the literalised voice of Burke’s allegorical swine the poem’s first stanza contests the implications of this question. It refrains from making statements, instead inferring its conclusions through a series of rhetorical questions. First it implies that surely the ‘swinish multitudes’ retain some claim to ‘common rights and common sense’ (evoking another revolutionary tract of political philosophy: Thomas Payne’s Common Sense, 1776).

Extending Burke’s unfortunate metaphor to uncomfortable lengths ‘Observations’ imagines the swinish population bred purely to be consumed by their social masters:

And when they’ve fattened to be taken
And quarter’d into hams and bacon,
To satiate those who think it fit,
To eat the carcase bit by bit:

The power of this image is derived from its use of an unstable allegory. It is never clear whether the poem is referring to the actual relation between man and pig or that which it is elsewhere used to represent; the relationship between rich and poor. The slippage here is useful, facilitating an image of the gentry feasting on the fatted carcasses of the peasantry that never actually needs committing to pen and ink.

There is a refrain used to introduce the following three stanzas which revives the aforementioned Register tradition of cheerfully embracing an opposing view for the purposes of ridicule and satire. Here it is the phrase ‘We’re only Swine!’, delivered before six or seven lines justifying why this can’t be true. The second stanza stages an interesting reversal: if the King is sovereign over a multitude of swine then what does that make him in turn?

‘Observations’ then derives a perverse comedy from again literalising Burke’s image and applying it to the scenes described in ‘Patriotism’:

We’re only Swine!—think but what fun,
To see a Pig strut with his gun!
How fierce and terrible the fight,
To march large herds of Swine to fight!

In the closing stanzas this poem does something unlike any of the preceding Register satires. It stops criticising the idea that the poor are swine and embraces it, rebranding Burke’s insult as a source of pride and inspiration. There would be no society if it wasn’t for the labouring classes:

We groan beneath the ponderous weight,
Of all the creatures of the state.

What is more, these multitudes are only swine in the allegorical sense. They are, of course, literally men and they demand the respect of other men like Burke, leaving him to ponder on how logical it really is to insult a large populace of strong, labouring men:

But learn to treat them with respect,
Lest they should grunt at your neglect:
For, should they be provok’d!—what then?
The Swine would rise—and rise to MEN!

 


To read more about the many reactions and responses to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France we recommend Darren Howard’s ‘Necessary Fictions: The “Swinish Multitudes” and the Rights of Man’ in Studies in Romanticism, vol. 47, No 2 (2008).