Poets & Pugilists
Byron’s love affair with bare-knuckle boxing was shared by many of his fellow Romantics, who celebrated this most brutal of sports in verse. John Strachan examines an unlikely match.
In May 1808, the gentlemen of ‘the Fancy’, the fraternity of moneyed, often aristocratic patron-gamblers and rough-hewn fighters at the heart of contemporary pugilism, gathered with more than a thousand other enthusiasts to watch a title fight for the Championship of All England held in Sir John Sebright’s park in Hertfordshire. The protagonists were John Gully, the reigning champion, and Bob Gregson, the ‘Lancashire Giant’, fifteen stones in weight and over six ft tall. Watching them was Pierce Egan, the leading boxing journalist and the most notable early historian of the profession in England. Egan charted the progress of bare-knuckle boxing from its emergence in the early eighteenth century to its decline in the 1830s. His chronicles of concussion are well known to sports historians, but what is less familiar is the fact that he was also a poet of some facility. Egan included an anthology of pugilistic verse in the first volume of Boxiana, or Sketches of Modern Pugilism (1812-29), his hugely successful series of boxing histories, and peppered his successful novel Life in London (1821) with comic and lyrical poetry. The Irish poet Thomas Moore described him as ‘the Plutarch of the Ring’.
From Odysseus’s match with Irus in the Odyssey onwards, boxing has been the subject of verse, but, in historical terms, pugilism and poetry were most closely allied during the Regency period. That the foremost sporting journalist of the time so frequently turned to verse is emblematic of the link. But he was by no means alone. Robert Gregson was himself a sounder of the muse’s lyre. The ‘Lancashire Giant’, who fought three unsuccessful championship fights, in Egan’s words ‘united Pugilism with Poetry’, recounting ‘the deeds of his Brethren of the Fist in heroic verse, like the Bards of Old’.
Also present at the ringside that day was a man who would come to be known as the poetic champion of the age – at least in terms of sales – and a central figure in British Romanticism. This was George Gordon, the 6th Baron Byron, who was to take his seat in the House of Lords in 1812 before establishing himself as a Whig satirist and a highly successful poet. Alongside his enthusiasm for seduction, sodomy and the works of Alexander Pope, Lord Byron also possessed a taste for sport. He had represented Harrow at cricket against Eton, rowed and angled at school, and his feat of swimming the Hellespont is well known (Byron’s athleticism – like his constant dieting – was the result of a fear of a constitutional rotundity; inside the svelte figure of the seducer of both men and women there was, as the phrase goes, a fat man waiting to get out). Byron decorated his rooms in Cambridge with a decoupage screen illustrated with pictures and reports of the most notable boxers. He was an enthusiastic sparrer tutored in the rooms of the former champion John ‘Gentleman’ Jackson, whom Byron referred to as ‘my corporeal pastor and master’. In his Hints from Horace (1811), Byron wrote:
Who shoot not flying rarely touch a gun:
Will he who swims not to the river run?
And men unpractised in exchanging knocks
Must go to Jackson ere they dare to box.
Byron was not alone among the poets of his day in his love of the Prize Ring: John Keats, John Clare, John Hamilton Reynolds and Byron’s close friend Thomas Moore all shared an enthusiasm for the sport.
Pierce Egan reported the Gregson-Gully Championship in the pages of the following month’s Sporting Magazine and in Boxiana. Always keen to portray his favourite pastime as a socially cohesive ‘One England’ sport, he described the tumult in the park as the ranks assembled, borne on liveried carriage and hackney cab alike:
The quantity of carriages, and persons upon horseback, travelling in haste to arrive at the destined spot, beggared all description, from the splendid barouche to the jolting taxed-cart, all were seen in rapid motion – at length arriving in the park belonging to the above Baronet, and a good piece of ground secured for the purpose, a forty foot ring was soon formed, and well secured by pedestrians and horsemen.
Late Georgian boxing crowds, memorably described by the contemporary philosopher Dr Samuel Parr as ‘a vulgar and tumultuous rabble of vagrants, drunkards, ruffian brawlers, and gambling desperadoes’, were no models of delicacy. They gathered to booze, bet and watch bare-knuckle, and were not disappointed as Gully, the more technically accomplished boxer, or ‘scientist’ as the slang of the ring had it, clinically disposed of the bruiser Gregson, who was possessed of ‘bottom’ (strength and pluck) but not much skill. Egan gave a round-by-round account of the fight as it developed:
Eighth – Gully’s superiority began now to appear, not only respecting his knowledge of the science, but as to the termination of the fight; his antagonist’s head displayed considerable punishment, and, finally, Gregson was levelled.
Ninth – Some blows were exchanged, when they closed and fell.
Tenth – This was a truly bloody round – the hits were tremendous in the extreme – Gregson’s head was frightful, literally covered in blood, and his left eye nearly useless, and fighting rather in the Lancashire method, without any pretensions to science …
Fourteenth – Gregson nearly blind, appeared much confused, and was more an object of punishment now, than to act in an offence.
By the 22nd round, ‘it was all up with Gregson’, and the fight ended in the 24th as Gregson, bashed in his ear, could not come up to the scratch. (In those days rounds ended when a pugilist fell, and if he could not come up to the line marked at the centre of the ring – the scratch – at the start of a new round, then his game was up.)
The fight was to be one of the last for the victor John Gully. The son of a West Country tavern keeper, twice conqueror of the Lancashire Giant, Gully retired from the ring in June 1808 to become a successful punter on the race track. He grew rich from gaming, fathered twenty-four children and eventually sat as MP for Pontefract in the reformed parliament of 1832.
Then, as now, boxing was a highly controversial sport and debates raged about its ethical significance. These disputes, in which Egan was a leading participant, touched on issues of masculinity, national identity and martial prowess. Boxing was censured on the one hand as cruel, xenophobic and brutalising, a corrupt activity in the palm of the gamester, and celebrated on the other as inculcating hardiness, courage and resolve, the epitome of British fighting spirit.
For men such as Egan, boxing was more than just a game, it was an elevating, thrilling and morally educative sport. Egan’s books were highly influential and prompted a significant number of literary treatments of boxing, the most famous example being William Hazlitt’s essay ‘The Fight’ published in the New Monthly Magazine in February 1822.
In proselytising for boxing, Egan used both prose and poetry. Why should this have been? Part of the answer lies in the fact that boxing had something to gain from its flirtation with poetry. Poetry dignified modern sport, moving it from one level of cultural status to another, re-inscribing a fight or a game of cricket in aesthetic, even philosophical terms. The ennobling laurel of verse allowed sporting journalists – anxious that theirs might not be a gentlemanly trade – to dignify themselves. Egan’s poetry reiterated in metrical form the polemical convictions of his journalism and historical writing.
Egan articulated his conviction that settling disputes with the ‘naked fist’ was a particularly British and honourable custom. ‘Britain’, he declared in Boxiana, is
... a country where the stiletto is not known – where trifling quarrels do not produce assassination, and where revenge is not finished by murder. Boxing removes these dreadful calamities; a contest is soon decided, and scarcely ever the frame sustains any material injury’.
Egan makes the same point in verse in ‘A Boxing we will go’ (1811), his imitation of the old song ‘A Begging we will go’. This begins in the usual style of the drinking songs of the Fancy by toasting maiden fair and boxer brave, and in particular Thomas Cribb (or ‘Crib’ as was often used in contemporary writing), then champion of England (1809-22), before moving on to philosophise about the honest Briton and the foreign stabber:
Come move the song and stir the glass,
For why should we be sad?
Let’s drink to some free-hearted lass,
And Crib, the boxing lad.
And a boxing we will go, will go, will go,
And a boxing we will go.
Italians stab their friends behind,
In darkest shades of night;
But Britons they are bold and kind,
And box their friends by light.
The sons of France their pistols use,
Pop, pop, and they have done;
But Britons with their hands will bruise,
And scorn away to run.
Throw pistols, poniards, swords aside,
And all such deadly tools;
Let boxing be the Briton’s pride,
The science of their schools!
In ‘A Boxing we will go’, Egan’s conviction that boxing embodied the good-natured temper of the national spirit, in contrast to the Mediterraneans’ perfidy, is given poetic shape. Britain was, of course, at war with France when Egan wrote these words and the poet drives his ethical hobby horses, portraying pugilism as a matter of national pride and linking it to the notions of Britishness and manliness:
Since boxing is a manly game,
And Briton’s recreation;
By boxing we will raise our fame,
’Bove any other nation.
The spirit of boxing, it was frequently argued in the Napoleonic period, was of real utility in time of war, and Egan's poem gives metaphorical life to this notion, whimsically imagining the boxers of England defeating the French emperor or, as if Tom Cribb's fists were instruments of British military power rather than just its symbol. A roaring patriotism fills the air:
If Boney doubt it, let him come,
And try with Crib a round;
And Crib shall beat him like a drum,
And make his carcase sound.
Mendoza, Gulley, Molineaux,
Each nature’s weapon wield,
Who each at Boney would stand true,
And never to him yield.
Yet Egan’s anti-Gallic cohort was itself a rainbow coalition of Jew, Caucasian and black: Thomas Cribb the West Countryman champion, Daniel Mendoza the East End Jew who fought as the ‘Hebrew’, and ‘the tremendous man of colour’, the black Virginian pugilist and freed slave Tom Molineaux who fought two epic bouts with Cribb in 1810 and 1811. If Molineaux had the misfortune to be born outside Albion’s shores, and a Negro to boot, in his pluck and bottom he had shown himself capable of behaving like an Englishman. The social inclusiveness which Egan imagined for the Fancy’s congregation of sporting artisan and aristocrat is here widened to include races outside Egan’s beloved country. Boxing unites the nation, both native and immigrant.
The view was somewhat different in the verse on boxing produced by Bob Gregson, facetiously labelled by Egan as the ‘Laureate’ of the Fancy. Typical of the Giant’s poetic effusions is his ‘British Lads and Black Millers’ published in the Sporting Magazine in 1811. Gregson begins, in the familiar contemporary manner, by portraying the fight as a trial of national honour. Rather than being for stakes alone, this is a contest in which the very heart and oak of old Albion is at stake:
You gentlemen of fortune, attend unto my ditty,
A few lines I have penn’d upon this great fight,
In the centre of England the noble
place is pitch’d on,
For the valour of this country, or
The sturdy Black doth swear,
The moment he gets there,
The planks the stage is built on,
He’ll make them blaze and smoke;
The Crib with smiling face,
Says, these boards I’ll ne’er disgrace,
They’re relations of mine, they’re
old english oak.
Pierce Egan could resist the temptation of burlesque, and commented of Gregson:
Although not possessing the terseness and originality of dryden, or the musical cadence and correctness of pope, yet still he has entered into a peculiar subject with a characteristic energy and apposite spirit.
Certainly Gregson gave poetic voice to the pugilistic exchange of male braggadocio which then, as now, preceded a title fight. His Molineaux offers to smite his opponent, making explicit reference to his racial origins: ‘I’m the Moorish milling blade/ That can drub my foes’. This prompts Gregson’s Cribb to reply with the ignoble threat that he will thrash the former slave as ‘your master us’d to cane you’:
The garden of freedom is the British
land we live in,
And welcomes every slave from his
Allows them to impose on a good
nation good and generous,
To incumber and pollute our native soil.
But John Bull cries out aloud,
We’re neither poor nor proud,
But open to all nations,
Let them come from where they will
The British lads that’s here,
Quite strangers are to fear,
Here’s tom crib, with bumpers round,
for he can them mill!
In contrast to Egan’s welcoming stance, Gregson offers a malign vision of Molineaux polluting the soil of England. ‘John Bull cries out aloud’: Gregson, aware that what made his country great was bellicosity and shouting, especially if some fearsome foreigner threatened its supremacy, celebrates the victory of old England against the unsavoury outsider.
The poet Gregson possessed a brow of the lowest kind; the poet Egan was something of the middle sort, but some of the canonical poets also wrote boxing verse. In Byron’s comic masterpiece Don Juan (1819-24), the eponymous hero develops a taste for boxing when he visits London. Keats’s friend J.H. Reynolds wrote a book-length poem on the boxing fraternity, The Fancy (1820), and Thomas Moore composed a book on the same theme, Tom Crib’s Memorial to Congress, with Preface, Notes and Appendix, by One of the Fancy (1819). This volume pressed the vogue for boxing writing into the service of wider socio-political satire on the state of post-Napoleonic Europe. Moore envisages the European dignitaries who had overseen the negotiations between Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia on the withdrawal of troops from France, at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in 1818, becoming pugilists under the tutelage of Tom Cribb himself. Cribb writes to the statesmen of Aachen suggesting a new way to resolve European quarrels. Instead of sending armies into battle on their behalf, kings and statesmen, trained by Cribb himself, could fight it out like men in the prize ring:
What think you, great Swells,
of a royal set-to?
A Ring and fair fist-work at
Or at old Moulsey-Hurst,
if you likes it as well –
And that all may be fair as to wind,
weight, and science,
I’ll answer to train the whole
Moore’s Cribb offers an example of what might be achieved along these lines in a spoof press report that envisages George the Prince Regent and Tsar Alexander sorting out their differences in a ‘grand set-to between long sandy and georgy the porpus’. As the participants strip, the ‘gnostics’ (or knowing ones) gasp at the size of the Prince’s vast paunch or ‘crummy’, sadly immune to Cribb’s training regime:
Both peel’d – but, on laying his
Old georgy went floush, and his
backers looked shy;
For they saw, notwithstanding
crib’s honest endeavour
To train down the crummy,
‘twas monstrous as ever!
Not so with long sandy – prime meat
every inch –
Which, of course, made the Gnostics
on t’other side flinch
Despite his advantage in weight terms, the Prince is humbled as the imperial Russian fights dirty. The Regent relies solely on his huge stomach to crush his opponent but his obesity is no match for Sandy’s ‘ruffianing’ work and the Emperor trounces the Prince. Moore’s choice of targets here is unsurprising. Prince George was, alongside Viscount Castlereagh, the customary bête noire of the parliamentary opposition and its literary supporters. The Prince of Wales had maintained the Tories in office during 1812, thereby ensuring his overnight transformation in the eyes of the Whigs from a wise and judicious friend of the people to a corpulent, womanising drunkard. While crop failure and the post-Napoleonic economic recession threatened famine in mainland Britain in this period, Moore implies that the rulers of the United Kingdom and Europe hogged the continent’s wealth and resources, a heedless greed summarised in the Prince of Wales’s huge girth.
Though it might seem, on the face of it, no easy thing to coax poetry out of the raucous brutality of a Prize Ring, this was no uncommon accomplishment in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Moore – Ireland’s famed poet and biographer of Lord Byron – and Egan, pothouse philosopher, have more in common than one might initially think. Boxing united them. Like Pierce Egan, Thomas Moore contrived to make pugilism a matter of state. Consequently, in the late Georgian period, pugilism was a space in which matters of European politics could be debated in verse, whether in Egan’s cheerleading against Napoleon or Moore’s indictment of the post-Napoleonic settlement.