Commentary: The Ox Over Driven; an Original Fable

‘The Ox Over Driven’ presents the most explicit criticism of the British constitution printed in the Sheffield Register in 1793, actually referring to the government’s oppressive regime in its closing couplet. Written by ‘A Reformer of Sheffield’, the poem sets out to change ministerial practice and ensure better treatment of the general population. It was sensible to avoid charges of treason and sedition by presenting this critique as a fable (although this was somewhat undermined by the key to the poem’s allegory presented in the second stanza).

Typically understood as being fictional tales designed to impart a moral lesson, fables lend themselves very well to allegory. In this poem, which positions itself as an ‘original fable’, we find two drovers (dealers in cattle) leading an Ox through Smithfield market.
We are told that the Ox is ‘gentle and harmless’. Unfortunately the drovers are ‘full of ale and play’ and drunkenly begin goading the Ox, beating and pricking him until he is sore. The Ox, who had previously no thoughts of causing harm, is provoked into a feral rage. At this point the poem recalls No 306’s poem ‘The Bull’, in which John Bull means to submit passively to the King and government but is ultimately provoked into revolutionary action to defend his country from pestilence and ruin.

None of the witnesses present have any sympathy for the Ox. Instead he is described as being ‘mad’ and chased as a fugitive. As he smashes the market, appropriately taking out a china stall, the poem describes the ‘terror [that] ran through half the town.’ As seen elsewhere in this collection ‘terror’ had a very specific resonance in 1793, evoking the actions of the new French Republic during the revolutionary wars.

At this point the Ox turns on the drovers (who are still pricking him) and mauls them almost to death. As they take their dying breath the drovers have just enough time to lament that they had no need to make the Ox their enemy and have no one to blame for events but themselves:

But, from our cruelty, we find,
We both are justly paid in kind.

In the second stanza this poem goes to great pains to disabuse readers of any notion that this poem might actually be about the mistreatment of livestock at Smithfield market. ‘The fable told’, it explains, ‘the Moral’s next’. The Ox in the poem is revealed to represent ‘the people’ and the Drovers ‘the Ministry’, or more generally, the government. If the Ministry continue galling and pricking the people, the poem warns, they will share the fate of the Smithfield Drovers.

Remarkably the poem does not strike a hypothetical stance; it does not prophesise a dystopian future as seen in previous poems. ‘The Ox Over Driven’ is rooted firmly in the present tense, referring to the current state of affairs:

And cease their galling, base oppression,
Ere they be brought to their confession!