Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Cosmopugilism: Thomas Moore's Boxing Satires and the Post-Napoleonic Congresses

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Cosmopugilism: Thomas Moore's Boxing Satires and the Post-Napoleonic Congresses

Article excerpt

THOMAS MOORE'S SATIRES WERE EXTREMELY POPULAR IN THEIR DAY BUT fell into obscurity along with their topical references. Tom Crib's Memorial to Congress (1819), for instance, sold nearly two thousand copies in a matter of days but is now mentioned only briefly in scholarship and for its most transparent historical allusions: for its jibes at the aristocrats it all but names, and as evidence of the influence of Pierce Egan's Boxiana (1812-1813), especially through Regency-era boxing slang. (1) That the poem does not fit Moore's current reputation as an Irish-Catholic nationalist songwriter and orientalist poet has likely also contributed to its neglect. But putting the poem into the context of the 1818 Congress at Aix-la-Chapelle (the Congress of the poem's title) and the broader tradition of boxing satire can shed light not only on the satiric and political interests of the poem but also on the significance of the sport as a trope in Romantic-era political discourse. Despite its prominence in British material life throughout the Romantic Century (1750-1850), boxing is generally neglected in literary scholarship on the era. Important exceptions include Leo J. Henkin's 1947 essay on "Pugilism and the Poets," Jeffrey Robinson's recent chapter on 1820s boxing literature, centrally William Hazlitt's "The Fight" (1822), John Strachan's useful survey of sports and Regency writing, and Jane Moore's invaluable edition of Moore's satires. (2) There is also a significant body of work on Romantic-era boxing by cultural historians of various disciplines (including recent books by Jack Anderson, Kasia Boddy, James Kelly, and David Snowdon) and more specifically scholarship on race and boxing, from work by John Whale and Daniel O'Quinn on British parallels to the many important studies on the American context (where competitive boxing was inextricable from the practice of slavery). (3)

Boxing was not only a popular sport but also a preferred alternative to dueling, offering a less lethal way of settling disputes consistent with the legal and cultural tradition of "trial by battle." Long after his death the mid-1700s boxer Jack Broughton was being cited for his claim that the sport "would undoubtedly supersede, and entirely abolish the only use that was made of the sword; and men of honour, instead of tilting at each other, might have the satisfaction of drubbing one another in a tight set-to." (4) One 1796 account of an altercation in London, triggered by the artist James Gwinn looking for his missing pet viper in a woman's petticoats, notes, "This odd adventure was terminated by a boxing match between a gentleman [the woman's husband] and himself in his own chamber. " (5) Boxing was also a significant public spectacle, whether in the form of exhibitions in theaters or large outdoor gatherings for prizefights, with a committed following known as "the Fancy"--a more likely origin of the twentieth-century term "fan" than "fanatic." (6) Commodity culture followed the sport's popularity: prints, ceramics, and books all fed the Fancy, and were in turn adapted to satiric purposes. An impromptu boxing match to settle an argument between the Earl of Barrymore and the (commoner) son of Charles Fox was the subject of an Isaac Cruikshank graphic satire in 1790, capitalizing on the shock-value of a cross-class fight in a sport strongly associated with the brutality of working-class life. (7) Egan also attended to the class complications of boxing: in his Life in London (1821), the wealthy hero Corinthian Tom uses his boxing skills "in rescuing himself from the rude grasp of the 'guardians of the night.'" (8) Oliver Goldsmith similarly uses boxing to deflate elite claims to civility: in The Citizen of the World (1762), he inserts "an Indian tale" of shipwrecked royalty in which the mother is "called the black-eyed Princess," for "two black eyes she had received in her youth, being a little addicted to boxing in her liquor." (9)

In Romantic-era graphic satire, artists regularly used boxing to undercut the powerful: "The Prussian prize-fighter and his allies attempting to tame imperial Kate, or, the state of the European bruisers" (1791) spoofed European political tensions by representing rulers as boxers; "The set-too between Old Price and Spangle Jack the Shewman" (1809) mocked debate over a change in theater prices; Charles Williams's "A Boxing Match, Or Another Bloody Nose for John Bull" (1813) refers to US naval victories over Britain, and depicts George III with a black eye as well as a spewing nose. …

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