Decorated initial O

ne might almost conclude that the following poem was a parody of William Morris's The Dream of John Ball created under the influence of Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution — except that the utopian novel appeared two decades later. Like Carlyle, “The Dream of John Bright” argues that political reforms meant to redress injustices and introduce sensible, comparatively minor changes for the better end up disastrously. Since this is a comic poem in a satiric magazine it proceeds by using William Cowper’s “The Diverting History of John Gilpin Shewing how he went Farther than he intended, and came safe Home again” (1782) as the model for its political narrative. In that poem Gilpin gets on a horse he can't control as it rides where it wants to go. John Gilpin, the poet explains, is a type of all agitators — and what happens to them and their followers.

The author of these verses makes John Bright, the famous radical who fought against slavery, the corn laws, and restrictions on the right to vote, the reformer who dreams about the way his proposed improvements will supposedly destroy Parliament and lead England to the same chaos that France experienced. According to Punch, the Quaker pacifist Bright really wanted to make himself a “Brummagem CROMWELL” — the Oliver Cromwell of Manchester — but once reforms begin they lead to uncontrollable changes in redistribution of wealth that violate the economic laws proposed by Adam Smith. Chartist and early socialist poets like Ernest Jones (1819–1869), author of The New World (1851) mix with radical voices in Parliament. Observing all these changes for the worse, the Bright take a train out of London.

Some words in the poem that need explaining: According to Merriam-Webster, a regrater is “a middleman who travels about the country buying up farm produce for market” and (by extension) a person who “gets profits or credits due another especially by irregular means.” “Cocker,” if not the name of a Victorian radical, could be slang for “friend” or “mate.”

Twas on the closing of the year,
      About the time of Yule,
Came four-and-twenty loose M.P.s
     Tale-telling out of school;
There were some that raved, and some behaved
     Like old Lords of Misrule.

They talked about with reckless minds;
     Reformers thick and thin:
All old-world caution laughed to scorn,
     Called moderation sin:
Bade folks kick British notions out,
     And Yankee ones take in.

Such gen'ral shying ne'er was seen
     Since knock-me-downs began:
They turned to mirth rank, wealth, and worth,
     As but mob-flatterers can:
But the leader sat apart from all,
     A melancholy man!

His broad-brim off: his vest apart:
     No tie his neck to squeeze:
In negligé unquakerlike,
     And with spirit ill at ease,
As a tar who finds he's raised a gale
     By whistling for a breeze.

Tired of distorting facts, to fig-
     -ures tired of playing cook,
He fumed, he fretted: springing up,
     Some moody turns he took.
When lo! he saw a small M.P.,
     That pored upon a book!

"In what book read you, thus intent?
     Progress’s Tale, by Philp in?***
— Progress! Oh, happy they, their faith
      Who on the word can still pin! — "
The small M.P. looked up, and said,
     "I'm reading Johnny Gilpin."

The leader took six hasty strides —
     (To such strides he was prone:)
Six hasty strides beyond the place,
     Six hastier back anon:
And down he sat by the small M.P.,
     And talked to him of JOHN.

And how the tale that Cowper wrote,
     And all the world doth know,
Deep allegoric meaning veils,
     Its mask of mirth below;
How few that start to ride can tell
     How far they'll have to go.

And how JOHN GILPIN is a type
     Of Agitator kind;
The calender's hot, hard-mouth'd horse,
     A hobby of the mind;
Whereon who mounts by no means can,
     Pull up when so inclined.

And he told of Revolutions wild,
     And things that then befall;
How there are times, when public men
     Turn JOHNNY GILPINS all:
To whom, at speed, mobs shout " well done,
     As loud as they can bawl."

While they have much ado to hold
     The saddles they bestride,
Nor more control the steed they sit,
     Than vessels do the tide:
It is the team has bolted: they
     Are passengers inside.

"And well," quoth he, "I know for truth
     Their pangs must be extreme; —
Stokers, who find they 've stopped the valves,
     When they wish to shut off steam —
For why — methought I was such an one
     But last night — in a dream.

"A Brummagem CROMWELL I would be,
     And to the Speaker's face
As a fool's-cap treat his reverend wig,
     As a bauble mock his mace.
Yes: now, said I, the old House shall die,
     And a new House take its place.

"Two monster meetings at Birmingham,
     At Manchester but one;
A talk at Glasgow and Edinburgh,
     And then the deed was done:
There lay the old Parliament defunct,
And I was the great gun!

"There lay the old Parliament defunct,
     And I had drawn the bill!
But, oh! the pricks and qualms I felt
     When I had wrought my will:
There seemed a life in the Old House,
     Not even I could kill.

"I thought of all my triumphs there,
     In Corn-Law fights of fame;
     Ten thousand thousand memories
Seemed to be crying 'Shame!'
     I took my COCKER in my hand,
But the figures went and came.

"And now for my new Commons' House
      The writs went through the land;
Which I had parcelled out in squares,
     Symmetrically planned:
With household suffrage and ballot-box,
     That numbers might command.

"The new House met: a motley set:
     The place I hardly knew:
What with COXES multiplied by ten,
     And the POPE's brass hand by two.
The old House had few working men,
     But none at all had the new!

"Yet where the old House passed one bill,
     The new one, it passed three:
For as all were of one way of thinking,
     They didn't disagree.
And the know-nothings and the have-nothings
     Worked well in companie.

"And first they voted each Member
     Should have his pound a-day;
And then they voted the National Debt
     Should be sponged clean away;
And they organised labour on the plan
     Of 'no work and good pay.'

"I urged them to clap on the break;
     I swam against the stream:
But was called a bloated aristocrat,
     Puffed out by blood and steam —
My good M.P., remember, this
     Was nothing but a dream.

"They voted the peoples of the earth
     What the French call solidaire;
Went in for oppressed nationalities,
     Big or little, dark or fair;
I called for diminished armaments,
      But I found myself nowhere.

"The Income-Tax they doubled soon
     In country and in town:
Why should not the rich, they asked, pay up
     A shilling in the crown?
     But was instantly coughed down.

"The old Trade-Combinations
     Next reared their heads and thrived;
The statutes 'against Forestallers
     And Regraters' were revived:
I saw Protection's old flag brought out,
     And for shame 'neath the benches dived!

"O Lord! to think of their wild schemes,
     And mine so right and fair; —
Retrenchment, non-intervention,
     Free-Trade, and Laissez faire!
Where were my hopes from the House I had made?
     And Echo answered, 'Where?'

"I had raised a power I could not guide;
     Like GILPIN, of whom you read;
I meant to stop at Birmingham,
     And got Lord knows where instead.
And the more I pulled at my horse's reins,
     The straighter he kept his head.

"I couldn't appeal to Knowledge;
     Household suffrage drown'd her cry:
I couldn't appeal to Wealth or Worth,
     Or Rank their power to try;
The ballot to all such influences
     Had given the go-by.

"Then down I cast me on my face,
     And did my best to weep:
And I wished the Old House alive again,
     And the New One fathoms deep —
But 'tis easier to lose the road,
     Than back to it to creep!

"Oh, me— that frothy, fussy House
     Besets me now awake —
COXES and WILLIAMSES by scores,
     With each a speech to make;
And ERNEST JONESES at intervals,
     The monotone to break!

"And still no peace to my tortured soul
     Will night or day allow;
That dreadful New House haunts my life —
     I'm sitting in it Now!"
The scared M.P. looked up and saw
     Huge drops upon his brow.

That very night while his platitudes
     That M.P. s audience hissed,
     A stout Quaker took train for Rochdale
And resumed the spinning of twist.
And if JOHN BRIGHT bring in no bill,
      I can't say 'twill be miss'd.

***See - Philip's History of Progress: very nice reading for M.P.s of an Inquiring turn of mind. — Ed. [Possibly Sewel’s History of the Quakers (see bibliography), which Philips published.


“The Dream of John Bright.” Punch, the London Charivari (8 January 1859): 17.

Gilbert, Pamela K. “History and Its Ends in Chartist Epic.” Victorian Literature and Culture. 37 (2009): 27-42.

Sewel, William. The History of the Rise, Increase, and Progress, of the Christian people called Quakers: Intermixed with Several Remarkable Occurrences. “Written originally in Low Dutch, and also translated into English.” 3rd ed. London: J. Philips, 1795.

Last modified 12 June 2020