Answer to The Knitting [with] The Knitting

Bury: Birchinall, Printer, [c. 1820].

Two poems consider Johnny and Susan's tryst, taking very different approaches to how gossip affects men and women

(Item #5877) Answer to The Knitting [with] The Knitting. Bawdy Broadside, Anonymous.

Answer to The Knitting [with] The Knitting

Bury: Birchinall, Printer, [c. 1820]. First edition. Broadside measuring 245 x 380mm and printed to verso only; the layout and placement of the imprint suggest that this piece was meant to be folded down the center with The Knitting appearing first and Answer appearing at rear. A very nearly Fine example, with just a bit of creasing at the corners and faint offsetting along the left margin. Unrecorded by the Bodleian Library of Broadside Ballads or by OCLC, the typeface suggests that it was produced toward the end of W. Birchinall's operations (1806-1829).

A common thread connecting the Birchinall broadsides recorded by OCLC is the sensational depictions of 19th century true crime -- from the murder of Mary Booty in 1806 to the execution of Thomas South and his companions in 1816 to the burglary trial of James Philips and John Wade in 1822. The Knitting and Answer to the Knitting stand apart from these in a number of ways. Not only are they not sensationalizing identifiable local activities (using names and dates clearly within their titles), they take a more literary and satirical tone in relating young Susan's education in "knitting" and her resulting pregnancy and rejection by the shepherd Johnny.

The Knitting focuses not only on Johnny's seduction but even more so on Susan's public exposure to gossip and social rejection as a result of his refusal to marry her. The text's serious warning to young women -- that whether right or wrong, they will ultimately be blamed for the outcomes of unwed sex -- is undercut, however, by the followup Answer. Unlike The Knitting, which opens with a more formal, communal overture "come all ye pretty maidens fair," Answer creates a more private, conspiratorial tone with its "It's of a young damsel as I have heard say." Lured into gossip by the narrator, readers hear how Johnny returns to Susan after being required to pay child support for their son; how he secretly confesses his love in order to lure Susan again into a tryst; and how the couple's intercourse in a grove is a source of humor (with Johnny's lovemaking resembling "a man that had fits"). Unlike The Knitting's widely shared community knowledge and its use of gossip to warn young women and curb their sexual behavior, Answer depicts how gossip spreads individual to individual (with the narrator having heard this story from an unnamed friend, and then sharing it with the reader) among men to warn them against getting caught for their indiscretions.

A research rich piece and the only known copy, further work could be done on the physical object, its typography, and its printer. On a literary level, further analysis could be done on how the pairing connects to other call-and-response poems (such as the 17th century Passionate Shepherd to His Love and The Nymph's Reply) and to the pastoral tradition. On a social history level, further study could connect the work to 19th century gossip, helping historians to understand how the practice of gossip differed in groups of various genders or classes especially surrounding sexuality and shame.
Near Fine (Item #5877)

Answer to The Knitting [with] The Knitting

"So all ye pretty maidens fair, Where ever you may be, With shepherds take particular care, And give them no liberty."