Commentary: The Mad Man’s Petition

Signed J. M. G., ‘The Mad Man’s Petition’ was written by James Montgomery less than a year before he became editor of the Register’s successor, the Sheffield Iris.

In a letter written to Joseph Aston (later published posthumously in John Holland and James Everett’s composite biography Memoirs of the Life and Writing of James Montgomery, 1855), Montgomery helpfully signs off by disclosing a list of pseudonyms that he and Aston published under in the Register:

Paul Positive, Esq., Marcellus Moonshine, J. M. G., Plato, and 40,000 other idle fellows send their best respects to you and Peter Dubious.

The poem follows on nicely from No 313’s ‘The Statesman’s Soliloquy’ which similarly committed to presenting a monologue delivered in the voice of a fully formed fictional character. Here, Montgomery adopts the voice of a ‘mad man’ petitioning the gods. The use of the word ‘petition’ here is significant for its double meaning, as both an official request (as made to the government by reformers) and, in more antiquated usages, as a prayer.

Montgomery’s narrator is petitioning his gods to help find him a role in society, prompting a survey of positions perceived as being available to men at the end of the eighteenth century. In delivering this survey Montgomery also successfully touches upon the themes and concerns of many of the preceding poems, referring to monetary corruption, the violent and unnecessary war with France and the perverse gap between rich and poor.

Our narrator’s first impulse is to find a life in the country, immediately evoking the rustic and dream-like vision of rural living typified by pastoral poetry. The pastoral was a popular mode with roots that could be traced back to the poetry and drama of the ancient world. The pastoral, however, deals in idealised representations of rural life with only a cursory engagement with actual conditions at the time of composition. As a result, the narrator’s dream fades away before him as he admits that his pastoral sweetheart, Nancy, exists only in the mind’s eye.

Next he imagines himself as a merchant before soon realising that the typical vision of the trader is yet another fantasy. Merchants might walk and talk a certain way, they can ‘strut and swear, and job and range’, but our narrator suspects this is just a performance. He is looking for a role where he can be true and authentic.

Deciding that he will never be happy as a bachelor he pauses briefly to imagine what it would be like to have a ‘pretty wife’, before again struggling to reconcile his ideals (a wife as fair as the Roman God Venus) with the reality of a wife who might talk and nag him all the time, straining his already weak respiratory system with stress.

Instead he then contemplates a life dedicated to religious worship. Unfortunately, in the poem’s most topical allusion, he reflects on the disparity between his notion of a pious Christian and the recent behaviour of London’s so-called ‘Gordon Rioters’ who, in the name of Protestantism, offered violent civil disturbance in the 1780s in support of anti-Catholic legislation. Perhaps, the narrator reflects, a military life awaits. He imagines himself storming the enemy like Hercules before noting once more that the reality would fail to live up to this fantasy. In actuality he has too much gout to take on any foe and recognizes that he would most likely die if faced with actual conflict.

He briefly considers life as a hermit, eating and braying like an ass, but although this notion raises the least problems he concludes that he could never commit to such a lifestyle, for ‘who would be an ass, that can be a man’.

Finally it seems that life as a London Lord with forty thousand pounds a year might be most appropriate. Then he could do whatever he pleased and never have to confront the disjunction between ideals and reality. With that amount of capital he could surely be his true self. Unfortunately, though he might be true to himself he has no assurances that ‘friends’ will be true to him. Attracted to his wealth like moths to a flame he realises he can no longer be sure that the affections of those around him are genuine, fearing instead that they represent little more than scheming and sycophancy.

As the poem draws to a close the so-called ‘mad-man’ determines that his pursuit is forlorn. Ideals and authenticity will always remain unachievable, for ‘there’s no such thing on Earth as Heaven!’

Recommended Further Reading

For an accessible and readily available account of the Gordon Riots and their impact on reform efforts towards the end of the 18th century we recommend Paul Langford’s Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press, 2000).