Commentary: On the Effects of Gold

Though this is the only poem attributed to C.B. in the Sheffield Register in 1793, it picks up on a theme that recurs throughout these papers and adopts a very familiar pose, apparently praising that which it actually seeks to criticise. The poem chimes well with one of Joseph Gales’s chief anxieties: that either a lack or excess of monetary capital might affect an individual’s legal rights and political representation.

In his final editorial for the Sheffield Register Gales acknowledged that he considered himself a poor man, along with most of his peers in the Sheffield Society for Constitutional Information and the vast majority of his readers. He there also acknowledged that one of his most passionate ambitions was to demonstrate that all men, regardless of wealth, were entitled to respect and representation from their government, lamenting that his goal had always been ‘to rescue my Countrymen from the darkness of Ignorance, and to awaken Them to a Sense of their Privileges as Human Beings, and, as such, of their Importance in the grand scale of Creation.’

The greatest challenge to social equality is identified throughout the paper as being man’s commitment to personal capital gain over the well-being of his neighbours and the wider community. This poem apparently praises that reality, recalling the strategy of ‘A Loyal Song‘ (printed just a week earlier) as it invites incredulity from its readers, covertly lampooning the statements it appears to endorse.

The poem presents its addressee with a series of complicated scenarios before revealing that each can easily be resolved with gold, imagined here as a ‘magic wand.’ Pulling no punches the poem immediately associates this phenomenon with political corruption, hinting that gold greases the wheels of government at every conceivable level, in ‘country and senate and city.’

This theme continues into the second quatrain, addressing MPs looking for the support of voters. It suggests that prospective MPs need only take from their chest of riches (their ‘coffer’) some of their most valuable possessions (their ‘pelf’), and upon seeing such treasure the wretched voter ‘having nothing to over, will frugally sell you – himself.’  Imagining the vote, the keystone upon which Western democracy is built, as a currency that can be bought and sold by the rich and the desperate, is by far the poem’s most scurrilous move.

Taking an allegorical turn the poem imagines gold not only as a hunter’s weapon, employed for shooting fowl and catching fish, but as a device which can actually prompt fish (such as the ‘Gudgeon’, a European fresh-water fish often used for bait) to actually offer themselves up as food, going so far as to prepare themselves as an attractive meal ‘ready drest in your dish’.

Moving away from corrupt politicians and voters the second half of the poem lists others who can be manipulated by gold. First, with a flash of cash the dullest student can be made to open his mouth like ‘Tully’ (an abbreviation of ‘Master Tully’, a nickname for the Roman Orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, whose works of rhetoric saw a resurgence of interest throughout the eighteenth century).  Blockheads, saints and cardinals are all also susceptible to this golden rod. Therefore, the poem concludes, surely the pursuit of anything but capital gain is a waste of time?

The true purpose of this ironic resolution is to point a finger at those who are not only implicated in this corrupting obsession with money but responsible for its centrality to all social discourse: ‘Priests, Ladies, Lawyers and Kings.’

A final closing irony of the poem is the paradox that whilst gold will forever prevent the possibility of that equality later imagined by Gales in his final editorial, it also proves here to be society’s greatest leveller. The poem may close with its gaze rested on ‘Lawyers and Kings’, but in the lines leading to this  moment their interest in gold is one seen to be shared by ‘wretches’ at every rung on the social ladder.


Click here to listen to a performance of this poem on Soundcloud.

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