WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Mumble a Sparrow

Today’s post is rather grim, so please consider yourself warned. The subject is animal cruelty; while I won’t go into detail here in my introduction, I will include the explicit descriptions of the subject matter of the engraving below.

Over the next four weeks, I’m looking at William Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty, and cruel they are. Hogarth was known for his realistic portrayals of life: A Harlot’s Progress and prostitution; A Rake’s Progress and the reckless living of the idle rich; Marriage A-la-Mode and a union of convenience; Gin Lane and drinking. The Four Stages of Cruelty portrayed man’s inhumanity against anything and everything. It is rough-going, and life and its most stripped-bare.

Mumble a Sparrow

A cruel sport practised at wakes and fairs, in the following manner: A cock sparrow whose wings are clipped, is put into the crown of a hat; a man having his arms tied behind him, attempts to bite off the sparrow’s head, but is generally obliged to desist, by the many pecks and pinches he receives from the enraged bird.

The First Stage of Cruelty: Children Torturing Animals, by William Hogarth, 1751, Yale Center for British Art.

From the Wikipedia description:

In the first print Hogarth introduces Tom Nero, whose surname may have been inspired by the Roman Emperor of the same name or a contraction of “No hero”. Conspicuous in the centre of the plate, he is shown being assisted by other boys to insert an arrow into a dog’s rectum, a torture apparently inspired by a devil punishing a sinner in Jacques Callot’s Temptation of St. Anthony. An initialed badge on the shoulder of his light-hued and ragged coat shows him to be a pupil of the charity school of the parish of St Giles. Hogarth used this notorious slum area as the background for many of his works including Gin Lane and Noon, part of the Four Times of the Day series. A more tender-hearted boy, perhaps the dog’s owner, pleads with Nero to stop tormenting the frightened animal, even offering food in an attempt to appease him. This boy supposedly represents a young George III. His appearance is deliberately more pleasing than the scowling ugly ruffians that populate the rest of the picture, made clear in the text at the bottom of the scene:

While various Scenes of sportive Woe,
The Infant Race employ,
And tortur’d Victims bleeding shew,
The Tyrant in the Boy.

Behold! a Youth of gentler Heart,
To spare the Creature’s pain,
O take, he cries—take all my Tart,
But Tears and Tart are vain.
Learn from this fair Example—You
Whom savage Sports delight,
How Cruelty disgusts the view,
While Pity charms the sight.

The other boys carry out equally barbaric acts: the two boys at the top of the steps are burning the eyes out of a bird with a hot needle heated by the link-boy’s torch; the boys in the foreground are throwing at a cock (perhaps an allusion to a nationalistic enmity towards the French, and a suggestion that the action takes place on Shrove Tuesday, the traditional day for cock-shying); another boy ties a bone to a dog’s tail—tempting, but out of reach; a pair of fighting cats are hung by their tails and taunted by a jeering group of boys; in the bottom left-hand corner a dog is set on a cat, with the latter’s intestines spilling out onto the ground; and in the rear of the picture another cat tied to two bladders is thrown from a high window. In a foreshadowing of his ultimate fate, Tom Nero’s name is written under the chalk drawing of a man hanging from the gallows; the meaning is made clear by the schoolboy artist pointing towards Tom. The absence of parish officers who should be controlling the boys is an intentional rebuke on Hogarth’s part; he agreed with Henry Fielding that one of the causes for the rising crime rate was the lack of care from the overseers of the poor, who were too often interested in the posts only for the social status and monetary rewards they could bring.

Below the text the authorship is established: Designed by W. Hogarth, Published according to Act of Parliament. 1 Feb. 1751 The Act of Parliament referred to is the Engraving Copyright Act 1734. Many of Hogarth’s earlier works had been reproduced in great numbers without his authority or any payment of royalties, and he was keen to protect his artistic property, so had encouraged his friends in Parliament to pass a law to protect the rights of engravers. Hogarth had been so instrumental in pushing the Bill through Parliament that on passing it became known as the “Hogarth Act”.

From the Tate Museum description:

This street scene shows a group of youths, almost all of whom are participating in or encouraging the abuse of animals and birds. Boys are seen tying a bone to a dog’s tail, cauterising the eyes of a bird, stringing up kittens from a signpost or cockfighting.

The worst abuse is being inflicted by Nero, who pushes an arrow into the anus of a terrified dog being restrained by two other boys. Another youth is distressed by what Nero is doing and attempts to stop him by offering a tart. To the left of Nero, a boy draws a hanged man on the wall and points at him, underlining the inevitable: that Nero’s behaviour will deteriorate further and cost him his life.


Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

2 thoughts on “WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Mumble a Sparrow

Comments are closed.