This month’s eighteenth-century hottie is Robert Walpole, England’s first prime minister. I taught John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera last month in my eighteenth-century literature class. Of course, you can’t teach that play without talking about Walpole.
Walpole was born in 1676, the same year that my favorite Restoration comedy, Sir George Etherege’s The Man of Mode premiered. In 1701, he was elected to Parliament as a member of the Whig party. In 1721 be became Lord of the Treasury. By 1730, he was the undisputed leader of the Whig party and, more importantly, the Prime Minister of the country. (He was also the first minister to reside at 10 Downing Street.)
Writers like Gay despised Walpole because he used a patronage system, giving MPs honors and positions based on their support for his policies. Today, this system doesn’t seem all that foreign or controversial, but in the 1730s it vehemently debated and criticized by writers like Gay, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift.
These and other writers argued that this system was inherently corrupt, based on interest and greed rather than the good of the country. Criticism of Walpole’s administration was also publicized in what we now know as political cartoons, satiric prints that mocked Walpole, the patronage system, and his policies.
Whenever I teach The Beggar’s Opera, I like to bring in a couple of these cartoons to show my students. The best study of these works is Paul Langford’s Walpole and the Robinocracy (Cambridge, 1986). This monograph is especially useful for teaching because it reproduces a large collection of these eighteenth-century engravings. One of my favorites is this one:
This print practically teaches itself. We have Walpole bending over with his ass exposed. As ministers walk through the gate, they are forced to kiss his ass as the “way to preferment.”
One of the things I also like about this image is that there is some ambiguity in it: Walpole’s exposed ass could almost as easily be sodomized as kissed. This potential association of Walpole with sodomy is continued in some of the other prints in Langford’s anthology.
These satiric prints also take up the association of Walpole with birds, sometimes calling him Cock Robin.
When he fell from power in 1742 reportedly led to the publication of a little rhyme, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” It appeared in print in 1744 as “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.” It starts:
Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
With my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin
It then proceeds in the same question and answer format to ask who saw him die, who caught his blood, and who’ll make his shroud.
This poem has lived on through time, even though it’s been divorced from its original historical context. In 1806, John Harris, a London publisher, commissioned the writing of a poem to serve as a forerunner to by now well-established poem, which had become a popular nursery rhyme. In 1935, Walt Disney recycled the rhyme as one of his Silly Symphonies. I’m surprised to have found it on YouTube — I would have thought that the Disney Company would have sued the pants off anyone putting it on the web. But as long as it’s there …
I remember watching the Wonderful World of Disney in the 1970s as a little kid. At some point, the Silly Symphonies must have been shown on there, because I remember loving this one (as well as “Music Land”).
One of my favorite books as a kid also happens to have been about Cock Robin, a reprinting of the eighteenth-century rhyme and the 1806 poem illustrated by Barbara Cooney. I’ve still got the book:
I loved the images in this book so much that year later my aunt painted a series of reproductions for me to frame and hang in my house. They’re great. Here’s another example:
I don’t go into all of the Cock Robin stuff with my students, but teaching a little about Walpole always reminds me of this interesting poetic history. For that reason, Robert Walpole is the March hottie of the month.