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Jack Sheppard

by James Graham 

Posted: 16 May 2006
Word Count: 344
Summary: This has been on the go for a year or so, and may still need sorting. But I'll give it an airing.


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Jack Sheppard

Mayhew's children, without schooling, knew this name.
Master gaol-breaker, exemplar of the dangerous poor, he was
their Alexander. It was the little men

of property he robbed, from whom he gathered watches,
linen swatches, bric--brac; but could not forage
among Lords and Commons, they who would not 'open

bags and barns, and make the earth a common treasury'.
A hundred thousand came to see him hanged.
The Tyburn crowd: their skulls deep-mined; clear-

felled their wildwood; harried of their rubies, gold,
obsidian, diamonds; one and all they mourned their chief,
who seemed to have opened for them a heavy door.

Let us recite his deeds. His hands more versatile
than goldsmith's tools, the whole sweet mechanism
between brain and fingers exquisitely tuned, he made a jest

of locks and bolts, a fool of Rackall the drunken turnkey.
Departing the Stone Room was his greatest work.
Muscling and narrowing his craftsman's hands,

he streamlined them free of the cuffs; then worked
with a silly nail at the ankle-chains; with a link of broken chain
he rooted out the chimney-bar; with a railing-spike

he forced four doors; at last, emerging in free air but high
above the surrounding roofs, he turned, went back (went back!
such mastery of suspense!) to fetch some shinning-blankets.

In Newgate, he became a peepshow (short season only!)
The embezzler Macclesfield, the kleptomaniac Lord Chancellor,
was once his audience there; the greater drew the less.

A carpenter to trade, he could masquerade
as butcher, botcher, beggar, porter - badges
of servitude he wore ironically. And once

in a carriage driving through the arch of Newgate,
he was maestro, impresario. But 'they hang poor men
if they do steal, having taken from them all their maintenance';

born in the prison-camp at Spitalfields, fettered from birth,
he could not redeem his neighbours' loss. Yet Mayhew's
children acknowledged him; even we who have walked

across the blasted plain, stood in the ruins of our cities,
who habitually turn our keys in the double locks
of our house-doors: we have not lost him yet.






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Comments by other Members



Brian Aird at 08:51 on 17 May 2006  Report this post

This has obviously been crafted well. We identify with Jacks poor beginnings (which we learn near the end) he was even born in a prison. He was the people's hero; robbing the rich they would have seen and envied every day.

There are some brilliant touches, for example we know that Jack would have enjoyed telling and re-telling his escape tale, so 'such mastery of suspense' fits when referring to the time he goes back to his cell for 'shinning blankets'. However at one point I was left wondering if a few phrases might be almost too much ; the 'blasted plain' and 'ruin of our cities' fits (say) Hiroshima or somewhere like Bosnia/Iraq; but was that intended?

Also the railing-spike would only have been obtainable when he got outside, but Jack uses it before he leaves the jail. If he had it on his person, surely he'd have used it in preference to the 'stupid nail'.

Brian



James Graham at 10:55 on 17 May 2006  Report this post
This poem probably needs some explanation, but my apologies to anyone who knows all this already. Jack Sheppard (1702-24) was literally world famous, long after his death: during the heyday of Ned Kelly in Australia, for example, the Australian press kept asking if this was the down-under Jack Sheppard. In England, there were books, ballads and theatre shows about him.

'Mayhew's children' is a reference to Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1851), one of the classics of investigative journalism, which did so much to make people at that time aware of how poor people lived, and of the extent of social inequality. I don't know if there's an actual reference to Sheppard in Mayhew, but the same East End children he wrote about knew of Sheppard. In a government report of the time, we're told that children who had never been to school and 'who had never heard of Moses or Queen Victoria', knew the story of Jack Sheppard. (Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography p.251.)

Lord Macclesfield, Lord Chancellor 1718-25, embezzled or took in bribes a total of 100,000. He was impeached and found guilty by the Lords, fined 30,000 and most of his ill-gotten gains confiscated. However, after it was all over he was still able to retire to Shirburn Castle. By contrast, Sheppard stole (on numerous occasions, it has to be said) such things as lengths of cloth, wigs, hats, silver spoons, watches and penknives - and was hanged.

The quotes about making the earth a common treasury, and taking from poor people all their maintenance, are from political pamphlets from the time of Cromwell.

The poem may seem too sympathetic to Sheppard, who was a criminal after all. But the reason the poem exists at all is that ever since I began reading about him, and about the social history of that time, I've felt a wholehearted sympathy with him, and a healthy dislike of those who had power over him and over the people he lived among.

James.

Thanks for your comment, Brian. I'll get back to you on these points soon.

NinaLara at 13:25 on 17 May 2006  Report this post
I enjoyed reading this very much. It reads very much like the ballads you talk about. As far as 'sorting' goes I have a few thougths that may or may not be helpful!

I wonder if this could be the first verse?

Let us recite his deeds. His hands more versatile
than goldsmith's tools, the whole sweet mechanism
between brain and fingers exquisitely tuned, he made a jest


and the poem to flow down to shinning blankets. Then the Meyhew's children down to Let us recite, followed by the In Newgate. Then the rest of the poem as you have it.

There may be good reasons why you do not want to do this but I think the 'Let us' verse is wonderful and would make a great opening, together with the exciting exploits of the following verses. In fact, I think this section is a poem in its own right.

Final thought: is there a reason why you have used chain twice? Could you use ankle-cuff instead? Thank you for bringing him back to life ... I love a bit of working-class history (especially if it's women's .. which Meyhew included for us).

James Graham at 19:29 on 17 May 2006  Report this post
Brian and Nina, thank you for your detailed comments. On the details you mention, these can be irritating if they're not clear. 'Chain' used twice - I was going to change that, but going back to Peter Ackroyd's book and another book I've been using for reference, I remembered it was the same chain. He worked at the chains on his ankles until he broke them, then he used a link of the same chain to work on the bar that was across the inside of the chimney. The railing-spike, it seems, came from the prison chapel, which of course was inside the building.

At the end, where I talk about the 'blasted plain' etc, I think I mean that even in the 21st century, after humanity has come through events more terrible than anything 18th century people could have imagined, maybe we have still not lost the significance of the Jack Sheppard story. But I agree that the 'blasted plain' and 'ruins of our cities' may be out of place, and the poem's ending may need a rethink.

Nina, I'll try the reshuffle you suggest, then leave it a while to see if it works. The escape from the Stone Room at Newgate impressed me very much when I first read about it, and maybe this comes over in this section - which would be a good reason to place it at the beginning.

James.


James Graham at 19:28 on 18 May 2006  Report this post
Nina, thanks again. There's a lot to be said for this. Only a slight change was needed in the 'Macclesfield' verse. From past experience I know I may still go back to the first version, but just now this one is leading by a length.

James.

Jack Sheppard

Let us recite his deeds. His hands more versatile
than goldsmith's tools, the whole sweet mechanism
between brain and fingers exquisitely tuned, he made a jest

of locks and bolts, a fool of Rackall the drunken turnkey.
Departing the Stone Room was his greatest work.
Muscling and narrowing his craftsman's hands,

he streamlined them free of the cuffs; then worked
with a silly nail at the ankle-chains; with a link of broken chain
he rooted out the chimney-bar; with a railing-spike

he forced four doors; at last, emerging in free air but high
above the surrounding roofs, he turned, went back (went back!
such mastery of suspense!) to fetch some shinning-blankets.

Mayhew's children, without schooling, knew his name.
Master gaol-breaker, exemplar of the dangerous poor, he was
their Alexander. It was the little men

of property he robbed, from whom he gathered watches,
linen swatches, bric--brac; but could not forage
among Lords and Commons, they who would not 'open

bags and barns, and make the earth a common treasury'.
A hundred thousand came to see him hanged.
The Tyburn crowd: their skulls deep-mined; clear-

felled their wildwood; harried of their rubies, gold,
obsidian, diamonds; one and all they mourned their chief,
who seemed to have opened for them a heavy door.

In Newgate, he had been a peepshow (short season only!)
The embezzler Macclesfield, the kleptomaniac Lord Chancellor,
was once his audience there; the greater drew the less.

A carpenter to trade, he could masquerade
as butcher, botcher, beggar, porter - badges
of servitude he wore ironically. And once

in a carriage driving through the arch of Newgate,
he was maestro, impresario. But 'they hang poor men
if they do steal, having taken from them all their maintenance';

born in the prison-camp at Spitalfields, fettered from birth,
he could not redeem his neighbours' loss. Yet Mayhew's
children acknowledged him; even we who have walked

across the blasted plain, stood in the ruins of our cities,
who habitually turn our keys in the double locks
of our house-doors: we have not lost him yet.

NinaLara at 08:56 on 19 May 2006  Report this post
I think this makes such a difference (though I would wouldn't I?)!

The opening drops us right in - not only to the story, but also into a performance of the story. The voice is that of a story teller/minstral immediately. I can almost see the speaker ... in his rough patched overcoat and clogs ... stubble and a tooth knocked out at the front ... and a chesty cough (not TB I hope?).

James Graham at 10:11 on 20 May 2006  Report this post
Yes, I think this is it. It's interesting you should hear the voice of the minstrel - I did sort of have in mind the old Celtic bards, or the Anglo-Saxon poets, who would recite the deeds of the heroes, mostly the killings they had done. 'He slew many in fierce battle, his sword oft tasted the blood of his enemies' etc etc... But Jack never killed anybody, just thieved stuff and picked pockets, so maybe now the voice of the bard is telling a different kind of story.

James.

Tina at 17:30 on 25 May 2006  Report this post
Hi James

Have read all this comment at length and pondered a bit.

Actually I did know this story as he was the subject of a television drama quite recently - the secenes of him escaping from Newgate and emerging on the roof were amazing!

I like the change of initial verse as this verse was one of my favourites from the initial draft - I really like this:

hands more versatile
than goldsmith's tools, the whole sweet mechanism
between brain and fingers exquisitely tuned, he made a jest

of locks and bolts

Also one thing that really strikes me is the length of the poem as it does feel ballad like - the story unfolding - his life, his deeds, his death. And you as the poet choosing the path you will take and the comparsions and images you will use which in a poem of this length could have been any variety of other choices too numerous to mention.

I am not sure about the blasted plain either but I do like the ruined cities as the idea of ruin was central to the lives of so many in his era - both financial ruin and the physical ruin of property and it is evokative in this context.

He was a real peoples hero and way before his time it seems to me.

I enjoyed reading this James - thanks
Tina
x

James Graham at 20:56 on 27 May 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Tina. I'm glad you enjoyed this. I'm still thinking about the closing lines, which are supposed to say something about our own response today to Jack Sheppard. We're still taken by him even though we have made a 'journey' that no-one before the 20th century had made, through world wars, genocide, nuclear threat, terrorist threat. We have come such a long way and his times should seem very distant and ancient to us now. His story comes from long before our time. But I'm still unsure of the reasoning behind this; I may need to find another way to express why it is that his story still appeals to the 21st century imagination. It may be more to do with changing society - the mass abject poverty that existed in Sheppard's time, and in Henry Mayhew's time, no longer exists, but still we respond to his story. Maybe the end of the poem should say something along these lines.

James.


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