The Collapse of the Bubble

In 1721 Pope's friend Bishop Berkeley berated the South Sea Bubble with his apocalyptically entitled An Essay Toward Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain. Britons, once "enemies to luxury" and "lovers of their country," had become "degenerated, servile flatterers of men in power, venal, corrupt, injurious." The Englishman's habit of thinking in providential patterns, a legacy from the Civil Wars, interpreted the collapse of the South Sea Company and the concomitant loss of personal fortunes as God's punishment for national greed, just as Puritans in the 1660s interpreted the Plague and the Great Fire as punishments for the Restoration of Charles II.

The South Sea Bubble derived its name from the runaway fashion for purchase of shares in the South Sea Company, a company which in fact had no genuine capital. The "stockjobber" — the trader in stocks and shares, a familiar fixture in Exchange Alley — collected subscriptions for many other increasingly implausible get-rich-quick investment schemes. Among the subscribers to South Sea stock were Pope, Swift, and Gay, seeking financial stability amid the uncertainties of the writer's life. When a sudden loss of public confidence led to a collapse in South Sea stock and a run on the banks in September 1720, London suffered its first ever stock market crash. Although poets participated in the general vilification of the South Sea directors which followed, many exploited the rich metaphoric and imaginative potential of the Bubble. Swift's Bubble poems conflate the worlds of financial speculation and poetic fantasy, both worlds potentially derived from the irrational impulse that intrigued him. Anne Finch's unpublished "A Ballad [upon the South Sea affair]" (MS Harleian 7316, fos. 54r-55r) reflects interestingly on the gender implications of the Bubble. Women formed a substantial percentage of those investing in South Sea stock, a form of "labor" or "ownership" immune to the usual restrictions imposed upon female ownership of property or land. In Finch's ballad, female stockjobbers make an unusual appearance: they defy gender expectations of social propriety and the niceties of dress by setting up stall in 'Change Alley, "Without staying for prayers or their Patches [beauty spots] put on." In this jaunty, impromptu ballad Finch hints:

There's a Bubble set up of Copper & Brass

Of which at the Head was his Highness late was

But some have no need on't they have so much on their face

Which nobody can deny &c.

The lines allude to Prince George (later George II)'s directorship of another "bubble," the Welsh Copper Company. But the veiled allusion to those who have "so much on their face" is, of course, a reference to Robert Walpole, early nicknamed the "screen of brass" for his cool ability to cover up scandal by deflecting criticism of the South Sea Bubble away from the royal family and restoring confidence in the government.

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