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THE JACKDAW OF RHEIMS
The English clergyman R.H. Barham (1788-1845) was a prolific writer of myths, legends and poetry using the pen-name Thomas Ingoldsby. Collectively published as The Ingoldsby Legends, its best-known poem is ‘The Jackdaw of Rheims’, about a jackdaw which steals the ring of a cardinal, and is subsequently made a saint.
This tonal setting uses all but 25 lines of the lengthy poem, yet the narrative remains uncompromised. Although now dated, the poem still offers a humorous and relevant comment on today’s church. In Trollopian manner, the poem debunks the power and wealth of organised religion and uncovers the potential for corruption within its higher echelons. Indeed, the Cardinal is so outraged at the loss of his turquoise ring that he ‘solemnly cursed’ the ‘rascally thief’, showing little forgiveness or charity.
Whilst enjoying the rhythmic possibilities of this literary nonsense during the composition, the opportunity to parody the excesses of established religion was not to be missed.
Besides reducing the length of the poem, it was decided to excise the final three lines in silent respect for hard won racial harmony. Barham’s conclusion refers to the eponymous Jackdaw being “canonized by the name of Jim Crow”. He would have been familiar with Victorian ‘black face laws’ in music halls of the time, and a song ‘Jump Jim Crow’ was a huge international hit with sheet music sold all over the world. ‘Jim Crow’ became a pejorative term for ‘negro’, and the Jim Crow Laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segration in the Southern United States.