Commentary: The Bull

Though this is the first to explicitly address itself to John Bull he is a character named and referred to with discernible regularity throughout the poems of the Sheffield Register. He was last seen, for instance, in ‘A Loyal Song’, printed just two weeks earlier.


John Bull defends Britannia.
John Bull defends Britannia.

In ‘The Bull’, written in Sheffield in 1793, we find a John Bull subjugated by the very people running the nation, the savage king. As hinted in the two poems to precede this one, those at the top benefit from the subjugation of those at the bottom; on this occasion, the mighty John Bull. The opening lines gloriously celebrate the strong, brave and majestic figure of John Bull (‘awful’ here employed in its typical 18th-century sense as meaning ‘awe-inspiring’). Bull arrives in this poem like a cross between Homer’s Zeus and Milton’s Satan, with a ‘voice of thunder’, a ‘lightning eye’ and ‘fire in every vein.’ As a result of this it comes as quite a shock when the poem reveals that ‘so much strength’ is matched by ‘so much weakness’, for this majestic and awesome figure is prepared to bow passively when led by this ‘string.’

The figure of the bull is described as a beast and, although he is majestic (described as both a ‘monarch’ and a ‘king’) he is also ‘savage.’ His Kingly attributes are derived from nature rather than the divine right that installs those monarchs at the head of state, making him their raw and unrefined counterpart. That the bull remains very much an animal throughout the poem adds weight to the next section, which sees this proud creature led to slaughter.

Though intending to submit, when the bull finds himself confronted with the pestilence and slaughter his courage awakens and he is compelled to make a sudden stand. His efforts are met with force, and in moments he is tied to a stake, a ‘moaning victim left to wait in agonizing pangs, his lingering fate.’ When you reflect that John Bull is no single man but a metonym for the honest men and women of rural Britain this harrowing image of his torture at the hands of those at the very head of state is rendered all the shocking.

John Bull and Sawney Scott.
John Bull and Sawney Scott.

Until this point the poem has observed events, recoding the fate of the bull and encouraging readers to map his fate onto analogous trials faced in recent months by the population of Great Britain. Here, we see a faint shift, anchored by the suddenly modal word ‘should’:

 O! In that moment dart through frame,
Should sudden fury touch his powers of flame.

From then on the poem no longer delivers a commentary but a hypothesis, imagining the bull’s riotous but righteous revolt. In a single move he uproots the post to which he’s tied and brings down the roof. The roof (you’ll note) is unsupported, symbolic of a regime which this poet finds illegitimate and with neither public nor divine backing.  When it topples, so too does ‘death and destruction, terror and dismay.’

‘Terror’ is burdened with some very specific connotations here, evoking the events of the still recent French Revolution and the tyrannical regime that led to it.  This poem is imagining a British equivalent to France’s Revolutionary wars, in which John Bull and the men and women he represents stand up to an equally tyrannous monarch; a seditious sentiment which has only the poem’s necessary lurch into speculative territory for protection.

John Bull in Paris.
John Bull in Paris.

The final lines explicitly evoke James Thomson’s lyrics to the 1740 song ‘Rule, Britannia.’ That song, an unapologetic work of staggering patriotism and uncomfortable British exceptionalism, featured the unforgettable refrain:

“Rule Britannia, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.”

This sentiment is amplified via the power of the ‘People’s Voice’; a voice that will not only resist the tyranny of foreign monarchs but also its own; a voice not satisfied with its own freedom, but proud to pursue freedom for the entire universe:

“For Freedom all the Nations look to thee;
Britannia speaks and bid the Universe be free.”

Recommended Further Reading

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

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