John Winstanley’s Robin Hood Poems

By Stephen Basdeo

This article originally appeared on the IARHS Website)

Rosemary Mitchell argues that during the eighteenth century, artists and writers when representing the medieval period did not strive for historical authenticity but instead sought to present a neoclassical or Shakespearean view of the past.[1] Classical imagery is present in some literary representations of Robin Hood from the eighteenth century. In a previous post for this website, it was pointed out that Joseph Addison (1672-1719) thought that Robin Hood was equal to classical heroes such as Achilles and Caesar.[2] The “classicisation” of Robin Hood is even stronger in two mid-eighteenth-century poems entitled “An Invitation to Robin Hood” and “Robin Hood’s Answer” (1742).

Winstanley Image 1
John Winstanley

These two Robin Hood poems appeared in John Winstanley’s Poems Written Occasionally, Interspersed with Many Others by Several Ingenious Hands(1742). Winstanley (c.1677-1750) was born in Ireland, but he is a minor figure in the eighteenth-century literary world, and virtually nothing is known of his life.[3] However, there is a good chance that the poems were not written by Winstanley, as the subtitle indicates that several writers contributed to the volume. His collection should therefore be viewed as one of the many poetic miscellanies that were published throughout the period. As Robin Hood scholars are unlikely to have come across this poem before, it is transcribed below in full. The original spelling, italicisation, and capitalisation of each word in the original book are retained, with the exception of long [∫].

“An Invitation to Robin Hood”

SIR, Thursday next, the Archers dine,

On Round of beef, if not Sir Loin;

Though Round suits best, at B—r’s House,

A Glass to drink, and to carouse,

And is, to Marks-men, you’ll allow,

For each his Arrow, and his Bow,

Much fitter to determine Lots;

The Center shewing nearest Shots:

The Day then, Sir, to celebrate,

And crown each Archer’s lucky Fate,

The Muse your Company bespeaks,

To shoot, at least, for Ale and Cakes;

And, Sir, whoever wins the Prize,

To do him Justice to the Skies.

“Robin Hood’s Answer”

Untouch’d by Phoebus’ scorching Rays,

And his poetick Fire,

Victorious Laurel, not the Bays,

Is all my Soul’s Desire.

Soon will the rash Apollo know,

The Danger of inviting,

An Archer armed with his Bow,

And Impliments for fighting.

The Round of Beef with all it’s [sic] Charms,

Will small Protection yield,

Against an Archer’s conquering Arms,

Tho’ turn’d into a shield.

His Butt he’ll make it, which shall feel,

The Marks of his Disdain,

His Arrows tipt with Blades of Steel,

Shall pierce thro’ ev’ry Vein.

The Vict’ry gain’d, he scorns to boast,

For gen’rous Deeds renown’d;

Then to the Round around we’ll toast

‘Till all the World turns round.

Thus writeth in a merry mood,

Your humble Servant Robin Hood.[4]

Commentary

The classical imagery in the poem is self-evident: Apollo (also known as Phoebus), is the Greek god of music, poetry, art, and archery, and he is holding a feast for all legendary archers. The feast will feature an archery contest in which all of the bowmen will test their skills. Winstanley will also be in attendance. He desires Robin Hood to be present, so Winstanley writes him an invitation. Robin responds that he will attend, but he will come to win the contest, outshining even Apollo himself. After Robin has won the contest, he will then feast with the rest of the archers.

There are several reasons why neoclassicism became prevalent in art, literature, and architecture in Britain during the eighteenth century. Joseph M. Levine argues that it was the result of several factors: antiquity was viewed as a “refined,” “polished,” and “civilized” age in which men enjoyed political liberty. This was perfect for England’s polite and commercial elites who viewed themselves as the vanguard of civilisation and liberty.[5] Moreover, classicism was linked to ideals of heroism during the eighteenth century.[6] Winstanley and even the “Augustan” Addison believed that Robin was a hero, one who surpassed even Apollo in his skill and bravery.

250px-MG_RevCoke_and_Daniel_Coke_M.P.
Politeness epitomised: Rev. D’Ewes Coke and Family

In general, the ancient Greeks did not consume great quantities of meat. The references to beef, in contrast to the classical imagery present in the play, lend an air of Englishness to the poems. Perhaps this is Winstanley’s attempt to provide continuity with earlier Robin Hood texts. The outlaws in both the medieval and post-medieval tradition are frequently seen feasting. Feasting occurs in the first and seventh ‘fyttes’ of A Gest of Robyn Hode, and illustrates the truth, honor, and fellowship of the outlaws’ society.[7]

Smith, James H., active 1781-1789; Sir Thomas Egerton, Bt, as an Archer in Heaton Park
Thomas Egerton as Apollo Belvedere (c) Manchester Museums and Galleries.

Admittedly, it is venison that the outlaws eat in earlier Robin Hood texts. The consumption of beef in Winstanley’s connects the recurrent motif of feasting in the Robin Hood tradition with eighteenth-century British patriotism. During the eighteenth century in which Britain was involved in many wars and a number of these were fought either directly or indirectly against France, beef became a patriotic symbol.[8] It was assumed that the beef fed to English soldiers made them hardy and strong, in contrast to the slim and underfed continental soldiers.[9] The image of the strong Englishman fed on a diet of beef appeared numerous times in contemporary popular culture. In Henry Fielding’s very popular play The Grub Street Opera (1731) contained a patriotic ballad entitled The Roast Beef of Old England. The same theme that was taken up by William Hogarth in an eponymous painting completed in 1748. Fielding’s song was soon set to music and became a military anthem. Later in the century, especially during the Napoleonic Wars, the portly/stocky John Bull, one of England’s national symbols, was often depicted as gorging himself on beef.[10]

Why Winstanley chose to author this poem is unclear. As so little is known of his life, his reasons can only be speculated at. Perhaps he had grown up reading a version of the frequently reprinted eighteenth-century ballad collections known as Robin Hood’s Garland or The English Archer. As a whole, Winstanley’s book appears to have received a favorable reception from some major eighteenth-century cultural figures, such as Jonathan Swift, Colley Cibber, and Alexander Pope.[11] Miscellany collections of poetry, such as Winstanley’s volume, were extremely popular during the eighteenth century. They were not published in order to create a canon of poetic taste but instead were published to provide a snapshot of the popular literary tastes of the moment.[12] And this is why their content is often diverse, explaining why the text of a cheap seventeenth-century broadside ballad such as A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour (which also features a Christmastime feast on beef) appears alongside poetry written by John Dryden in the same volume.[13]

In conclusion, R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor were quite dismissive of texts from this period, and they included one eighteenth-century Robin Hood ballad in their anthology, for instance, only to illustrate what in their words was

“the imaginative poverty as well as stylistic debasement that overtook the legend of the greenwood during the course of the eighteenth century.” [14]

Similarly, while Stephen Knight’s research is substantial concerning earlier texts and post nineteenth-century sources, there is still a relative neglect of eighteenth-century works in all three of his monographs. Thus Robin Hood’s appearance in eighteenth-century texts certainly is an area which requires more research.


References

[1] Rosemary Mitchell, Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image, 1830-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 9.

[2] Stephen Basdeo, “If They Must Have a British Worthy, They Would Have Robin Hood.” Robin Hood Scholars: IARHS on the Web – The Web Presence of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, accessed August 12, 2016, http://robinhoodscholars.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/notes-from-greenwood-if-they-must-have.html.

[3] Bryan Coleborne, “Winstanley, John (1677?–1750)” in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29758.

[4] John Winstanley, Poems Written Occasionally, Interspersed with Many Others by Several Ingenious Hands (London, 1742), 210-212.

[5] See Joseph M. Levine, “Why Neoclassicism? Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England,”Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 25, no. 1 (2002): 75-101; and Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[6] See A. D. S. Smith, “Patriotism and New-Classicism: The ‘Historical Revival’ in French and English Painting and Sculpture, 1746-1800.” PhD diss., University of London, 1987.

[7] Basdeo, Stephen, Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018); Douglas Gray, “The Robin Hood Poems,” in Robin Hood: Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: Brewer, 1999), 3-37 at 26-27. See also Stephen Knight, “Feasts in the Forest,” in Telling Tales and Crafting Books: Essays in Honor of Thomas H. Ohlgren, eds. Alexander L. Kaufman, Shaun F. D. Hughes, and Dorsey Armstrong. Festschriften, Occasional Papers, and Lectures XXIV (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2016), 161-75.

[8] For example, the wars that Britain fought either directly or indirectly against France include The Great Northern War (1700-1721), The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the Jacobite Rebellion (1715), Drummer’s War (1721-25), The War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), The Second Carnatic War (1749-1754), The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), The War of American Independence (1776-1783), and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815).

[9] Hannah Velton, Cow (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 132-133.

[10] See Mark Bryant, The Napoleonic Wars in Cartoons (London: Grub Street Publishing, 2009).

[11] John Winstanley, Poems Written Occasionally, xv-xxv.

[12] “Miscellanies and Eighteenth-Century Print Culture.” Digital Miscellanies Index, accessed August 13, 2016, http://digitalmiscellaniesindex.org/about/miscellanies.php.

[13] ”A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour,” in The Sixth Part of Miscellany Poems, Containing a Variety of New Translations of the Ancient Poets, Together with Several Original Poems by the Most Eminent Hands. Publish’d by Mr. Dryden (London: J. Tonson, 1716), 346-352.

[14] R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, eds., Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd ed. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), 183.

Image Credits: Frontispiece to John Winstanley’s Poems Written Occasionally (Dublin: Powell, 1742). Digitised by University of Michigan and Made Available via The Internet Archive.

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