LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[William Hazlitt]
Wat Tyler and the Quarterly Review.
The Examiner  No. 480  (9 March 1817)  157-59.
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No. 480. SUNDAY, MARCH 9, 1817.


No. 25.

Wat Tyler; a Dramatic Poem.

The Quarterly Review: Article, “On Parliamentary Reform.

“So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man;
So shall it be when I grow old and die.
The child’s the father of the man:
Our years flow on
Link’d each to each by natural piety.”

According to this theory of personal continuity, the author of the Dramatic Poem, to be here noticed, is the father of Parliamentary Reform in the Quarterly Review. It is said to be a wise child that knows its own father; and we understand Mr. Southey (who is in this case reputed father and son) utterly disclaims the hypostatical union between the Quarterly Reviewer and the Dramatic Poet, and means to enter an injunction against the latter as a bastard and impostor. Appearances are somewhat staggering against the legitimacy of the descent, yet we perceive a strong family likeness remaining in spite of the lapse of years and alteration of circumstances. We should not indeed be able to predict that the author of Wat Tyler would ever write the article on Parliamentary Reform, nor should we, either at first or second sight, perceive that the Quarterly Reviewer had ever written a poem like that which is before us: but if we were told that both performances were literally and bona fide by the same person, we should have little hesitation in saying to Mr. Southey, “Thou art the man.” We know no other person in whom fierce extremes meet with such mutual self-complacency; whose opinions change so much without any change in the author’s mind; who lives so entirely in the “present ignorant thought,” without the smallest “discourse of reason looking before or after.” Mr. Southey is a man incapable of reasoning connectedly on any subject. He has not strength of mind to see the whole of any question; he has not modesty to suspend his judgment till he has examined the grounds of it. He can comprehend but one idea at a time, and that is always an extreme one, because he will neither listen to nor tolerate any thing that can disturb or moderate the petulance of his self-opinion. The woman that deliberately is lost. So it is with the effeminate soul of Mr. Southey. Any concession is fatal to his consistency; and he can only keep out of one absurdity by the tenaciousness with which he stickles for another. He calls to the aid of his disjointed opinions a proportionable quantity of spleen; and regularly makes up for the weakness of his own reasons, by charging others with bad motives. The terms knave and fool, wise and good, have undergone a total change in the last twenty years: the former he applies to all those who agreed with him formerly,—the latter to all those who agree with him now. His public spirit was a prude and a scold; and “his poor virtue,” turned into a literary prostitute, is grown more abusive than ever. Wat Tyler and the Quarterly Review are an illustration of these remarks. The author of Wat Tyler was an Ultra-jacobin; the author of Parliamentary Reform is an Ultra-royalist; the one was a frantic demagogue; the other is a servile court tool; the one maintained second-hand paradoxes; the other repeats second-hand common-places: the one vented those opinions which gratified the vanity of youth; the other adopts those prejudices which are most conducive to the convenience of age: the one saw nothing but the abuses of power; the other sees nothing but the horrors of resistance to those abuses: the one did not stop short of general anarchy; the other goes the whole length of despotism: the one vilified kings, priests, and nobles, the other vilifies the people: the one was for universal suffrage and perfect equal-
ity: the other is for seat-selling and the increasing influence of the Crown: the one admired the preaching of
John Ball; the other recommends the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus, and the putting down of the Examiner by the sword, the dagger, or the thumb-screw,—for the pen, Mr. Southey tells us, is not sufficient. We wonder that in all this contempt which our prose-poet has felt at different times for different persons and things, he has never felt any dissatisfaction with himself, or distrust of his own infallibility. Our differing from others sometimes staggers our confidence in our own conclusions; if we had been chargeable with as many contradictions as Mr. Southey, we suppose we should have had the same senseless self-sufficiency. A changeling is your only oracle. Those who have undergone a total change of sentiment on important questions ought certainly to learn modesty in themselves and moderation towards others; the reason of which we have shewn elsewhere, to the satisfaction of the proprietor of the Old Times. Before we have done, we shall perhaps do the same thing to the satisfaction of the publisher of the Quarterly Review; for these sort of persons, the patrons and paymasters of the band of gentlemen pensioners and servile authors, have “a sort of squint” in their understanding, and look less to the dirty sacrifices of their drudges or the dirtier they are ready to make, than to their standing well with that great keeper, the public, for purity and innocence. The band of gentlemen pensioners and servile authors do not know what to make of this, and hardly believe it: we shall in time convince them.

But to proceed to our extracts:—

Morceau I.
Wat Tyler. Hob—I have only  six groats in the world, 
And they must soon by law be taken from me.
Hob. Curse on these taxes—one succeeds another—
Our ministers, panders of a king’s will, 
Drain all our wealth away, waste it in revels, 
And lure, or force away our boys, who should be 
The props of our old age!—to fill their armies, 
And feed the crows of France! Year follows year, 
And still we madly prosecute the war;— 
Draining our wealth—distressing our poor peasants— 
Slaughtering our youths—and all to crown our Chiefs 
With glory!—I detest the hell-sprung name.
Tyler. What matters me who wears the crown of France? 
Whether a Richard or a Charles possess it? 
They reap the glory—they enjoy the spoil— 
We pay—we bleed! The sun would shine as cheerly, 
The rains of heaven as seasonably fall, 
Though neither of these royal pests existed.
Hob. Nay,—as for that we poor men should fare better! 
No legal robbers then should force away 
The hard-earn’d wages of our honest toil. 
The Parliament for ever cries more money, 
The service of the state demands more money; 
Just Heaven! of what service is the State?
Tyler. Oh! ’tis of vast importance! Who should pay for 
The luxuries and riots of the court? 
Who should support the flaunting courtier’s pride, 
Pay for their midnight revels, their rich garments, 
Did not the state enforce?—Think ye, my friend, 
That I—a humble blacksmith, here at Deptford, 
Would part with these six groats—earn’d by hard toil, 
All that I have! to massacre the Frenchmen, 
Murder as enemies men I never saw! 
Did not the state compel me?
(Tax-gatherers pass by.) There they go, 
Privileged r—s!
 Morceau II.
Piers. Fare not the birds well, as from  spray to spray, 
Blithesome they bound, yet find their simple food 
Scatter’d abundantly?
TylerNo fancied boundaries of mine and thine 
Restrain their wanderings. Nature gives enough 
For all; but Man, with arrogant selfishness, 
Proud of his heaps, hoards up superfluous stores 
Robb’d from his weaker fellows, starves the poor, 
Or gives to pity what he owes to justice!
Piers. So I have heard our good friend John Ball preach.
Alice. My father, wherefore was John Ball imprisoned? 
Was he not charitable, good, and pious? 
I have heard him say that all mankind are brethren, 
And that like brethren they should love each other; 
Was not that doctrine pious?
Tyler. Rank sedition— 
High treason, every syllable, my child! 
The priests cry out on him for heresy, 
The nobles all detest him as a rebel, 
And this good man, this minister of Christ, 
This man, the friend and brother of mankind, 
Lingers in the dark dungeon!
Morceau III.
Tyler. Piers, I have  not been idle, 
I never ate the bread of indolence— 
Could Alice be more thrifty than her mother? 
Yet with but one child, and that one how good, 
Thou knowest, I scarcely can provide the wants 
Of nature: look at these wolves of the law, 
They come to drain me of my hard-earn’d wages. 
I have already paid the heavy tax 
Laid on the wool that clothes me—on my leather, 
On all the needful articles of life! 
And now three groats (and I work’d hard to earn them) 
The Parliament demands—and I must pay them, 
Forsooth, for liberty to wear my head— 
Enter Tax-gatherers.
Collector. Three groats a head for all your family.
Piers. Why is this money gather’d?—’tis a hard tax 
On the poor labourer!—It can never be 
That government should thus distress the people. 
Go to the rich for money—honest labour 
Ought to enjoy its fruits.
Coll. The state wants money. 
War is expensive—’tis a glorious war, 
A war of honour, and must be supported.— 
Three groats a head.
Tyler. There, three for my own head, 
Three for my wife’s; what will the state tax next?
Coll. You have a daughter.
Tyler. She is below the age—not yet fifteen.
Coll. You would evade the tax.—
Tyler. Sir Officer, 
I have paid you fairly what the law demands.
(Alice and her mother enter the shop. The Tax-gatherers go to her. One of them lays hold of her. She screams.—Tyler goes in.)
Coll. You say she’s under age.
(Alice screams again. Tyler knocks out the Tax-gatherer’s brains. His Companions fly.)
Piers. A just revenge.
Tyler.  Most just indeed; but in the eye of the law 
’Tis murder:—and the murderer’s lot is mine.
Morceau IV.—Song.
“When Adam delved and Eve span, 
Who was then the gentleman?”
Wretched is the infant’s lot, 
Born within the straw-roof’d cot; 
Be he generous, wise, or brave, 
He must only be a slave. 
Long, long labour, little rest, 
Still to toil to be oppress’d; 
Drain’d by taxes of his store, 
Punish’d next for being poor: 
This is the poor wretch’s lot, 
Born within the straw-roof’d cot.
While the peasant works,—to sleep, 
What the peasant sows,—to reap, 
On the couch of ease to lie, 
Rioting in revelry; 
Be he villain, be he fool, 
Still to hold despotic rule, 
Trampling on his slaves with scorn! 
This is to be nobly born.
“When Adam  delved and Eve span, 
Who was then the gentleman?”
Morceau V.
John Ball. Friends, brethren! for ye are my brethren all; 
Englishmen, met in arms to advocate 
The cause of freedom! hear me!  pause awhile  
In the career of vengeance; It is true 
I am a priest, but, as these rags may speak, 
Not one who riots in the poor man’s spoil, 
Or trades with his religion. I am one 
Who preach the law of Christ; and, in my life, 
Would practise what he taught. The Son of God 
Came not to you in power:—humble in mien, 
Lowly in heart, the man of Nazareth 
Preach’d mercy, justice, love: “Woe unto ye, 
Ye that are rich: if that ye would be saved 
Sell that ye have, and give unto the poor.” 
So taught the Saviour: Oh, my honest friends! 
Have ye not felt the strong indignant throb 
Of justice in your bosoms, to behold 
The lordly Baron feasting on your spoils? 
Have you not in your hearts arraign’d the lot 
That gave him on the couch of luxury 
To pillow his head, and pass the festive day 
In sportive feasts, and ease, and revelry? 
Have you not often in your conscience ask’d, 
Why is the difference; wherefore should that man, 
No worthier than myself, thus lord it over me, 
And bid me labour, and enjoy the fruits? 
The God within your breasts has argued thus! 
The voice of truth has murmur’d. Came ye not 
As helpless to the world?—shines not the sun 
With equal ray on both?—do ye not feel 
The self-same winds of heaven as keenly parch ye? 
Abundant is the earth—the Sire of all, 
Saw and pronounced that it was very good. 
Look round: the vernal fields smile with new flowers, 
The budding orchard perfumes the sweet breeze, 
And the green corn waves to the passing gale. 
There is enough for all; but your proud baron 
Stands up, and, arrogant of strength, exclaims, 
“I am a lord—by nature I am noble: 
These fields are mine, for I was born to them, 
I was born in the castle—you, poor wretches, 
Whelp’d in the cottage are by birth my slaves.” 
Almighty God! such blasphemies are utter’d: 
Almighty God! such blasphemies believed!
Tom Miller. This is something like a sermon.
Jack Straw. Where’s the bishop 
Would tell you truths like these?
Hob. There never was a bishop among all the apostles.
John Ball. My brethren!
Piers. Silence; the good priest speaks.
John Ball. My brethren, these are truths, and weighty ones, 
Ye are all equal: nature made ye so. 
Equality is your birthright.—when I gaze 
On the proud palace, and behold one man 
In the blood-purpled robes of royalty, 
Feasting at ease, and lording over millions, 
Then turn me to the hut of poverty, 
And see the wretched labourer worn with toil, 
Divide his scanty morsel with his infants, 
I sicken, and indignant at the sight, 
“Blush for the patience of humanity.”
Jack Straw. We will assert our rights.
Morceau VI.
Tyler. King of England, 
Petitioning for pity  is most weak.  
The sovereign people ought to demand justice. 
I kill’d your officer, for his lewd hand 
Insulted a maid’s modesty: your subjects 
I lead to rebel against the Lord’s anointed, 
Because his ministers have made him odious: 
His yoke is heavy, and his burden grievous. 
Why do we carry on this fatal war, 
To force upon the French a king they hate, 
Tearing our young men from their peaceful homes, 
Forcing his hard-earn’d fruits from the honest peasant, 
Distressing us to desolate our neighbours? 
Why is this ruinous poll-tax imposed, 
But to support your court’s extravagance, 
And your mad title to the crown of France? 
Shall we sit tamely down beneath these evils 
Petitioning for pity?
King of England, 
Why are we sold like cattle in your markets—
Deprived of every privilege of man? 
Must we lie tamely at our tyrant’s feet, 
And, like your spaniels, lick the hand that beats us? 
You sit at ease in your gay palaces, 
The costly banquet courts your appetite, 
Sweet music soothes your slumbers: we the while, 
Scarce by hard toil can earn a little food, 
And sleep scarce shelter’d from the cold night wind; 
Whilst your wild projects wrests the little from us 
Which might have cheer’d the wintry hour of age: 
The Parliament for ever asks more money; 
We toil and sweat for money for your taxes: 
Where is the benefit, what good reap we 
From all the counsels of your government? 
Think you that we should quarrel with the French? 
What boots to us your victories, your glory: 
We pay, we fight, you profit at your ease. 
Do you not claim the country as your own? 
Do you not call the venison of the forest, 
The birds of heaven your own?—prohibiting us, 
Even though in want of food, to seize the prey 
Which nature offers—King! is all this just? 
Think you, we do not feel the wrongs we suffer? 
The hour of retribution is at hand, 
And tyrants tremble—mark me, King of England.
Morceau VII.
Hob. ’Twas well ordered. 
I  place but little  trust in courtly faith.
John Ball. We must remain embodied; else the King 
Will plunge again in royal luxury, 
And when the storm of danger is past over, 
Forget his promises.
Hob. Aye, like an aguish sinner, 
He’ll promise to repent, when the fit’s on him, 
When well recover’d, laugh at his own terrors.
Piers. Oh I am grieved that we must gain so little. 
Why are not all these empty ranks abolish’d, 
King, slave, and lord, “ennobled into MAN.” 
Are we not equal all?—have you not told me 
Equality is the sacred right of man, 
Inalienable, tho’ by force withheld?
John Ball. Even so: but, Piers, my frail and fallible judgement 
Knows hardly to decide if it be right, 
Peaceably to return, content with little, 
With this half restitution of our rights, 
Or boldly to proceed, through blood and slaughter, 
Till we should all be equal and all happy. 
I chose the milder way:—perhaps I err’d!
Piers. I fear me—by the mass, the unsteady people 
Are flocking homewards! how the multitude 
Morceau the Last
John Ball. Why, be it so. I can smile at your vengeance, 
For I am arm’d with  rectitude of soul. 
The truth, which all my life I have divulg’d, 
And am now doom’d in torments to expire for, 
Shall still survive.—the destined hour must come, 
When it shall blaze with sun-surpassing splendor, 
And the dark mists of prejudice and falsehood 
Fade in its strong effulgence. Flattery’s incense 
No more shall shadow round the gore-dyed throne; 
That altar of oppression, fed with rites, 
More savage than the Priests of Moloch taught, 
Shall be consumed amid the fire of Justice; 
The ray of truth shall emanate around, 
And the whole world be lighted!

This will do.