Perception and reality are often very different things. The poem “A London Fete” underscores this contrast; it is a harsh criticism of a society that perceives itself as having the very highest of moral standards and juxtaposes this with the base and desperate way in which the group depicted conduct themselves at a public hanging. Social consciousness is an important part of any society and should guide the behavior of the group.
In the case of “A London Fete”, the moral intelligence that is the cornerstone of any functioning society is overthrown in order to provide a brief, yet intense, period of relief from the long-term oppression of the class based order of the society and its moral standards. For a long time, Britain was the most powerful country in the world and London, as its center, was considered an example of what progress and civilization should be.
However, the people that lived there were subject to a very specific and narrow minded class system in which the wealthy were given all the authority and privilege while the less fortunate were afforded little opportunity to better themselves or their social standings. They were subject to the whims and opinions of a relatively small group of mostly white, protestant males. Any opinions or movement differing from what this elite group considered worthy and acceptable was quickly quashed. Oppression reigned within the lower classes and with it dissatisfaction and unease grew and flourished.
Public hangings, such as the one depicted in “A London Fete” allowed these people some release. The ‘celebrations’ often mirrored the feelings of the lower classes. The helplessness of the doomed man reflected the helplessness that the lower class people felt, locked within their social standing. The desperate way in which they celebrated was representative of the desperation they felt to improve their quality of life. Since it was generally socially unacceptable to express these feelings, the anonymity of the hanging provided an outlet for their social oppression.
Gathering en masse at an occasion like a hanging allows the crowd a certain freedom in anonymity; behavior that would not be tolerated from an individual becomes acceptable from the group at large. “Group-think” is a common psychological phenomenon that occurs when individual accountability and responsibility are suspended and a more primitive social order takes over. Anonymity is in fact a common theme through out the poem. The reader, as well as the crowd, never learns the executed man’s name. He remains anonymous and in doing so, makes it easier for the crowd to celebrate his death.
A name would make him more human, more ‘one of them. ‘ Acknowledging this man as a person would deny the crowd the release the hanging provides. “A London Fete” depicts the descent of a group of people dwelling at what would be the heart of civilized society into an encounter of bewildering depravity, indulging in the most uncivilized behavior. The poet, who is unknown in this instance, introduces the work with a simple, yet vivid opening image. The title “A London Fete” is an ironic metaphor and sets the reader up for a particular kind of experience – joyous, jubilant, formal and celebratory – that never materializes.
The use of formal language in the title and the words chosen bring to mind a picture of the most elite members of society gathered together at a formal party. There would be ball gowns and music, sumptuous food and wine served by a deferential and reserved domestic staff. The use of London in the title implies sophistication, superiority and the most modern version of civility that the time period allows. One imagines the people that live there to be well mannered and elegant, the very best of the best.
During the nineteenth century, London was the pinnacle of culture and refinement, and viewed itself as an example for the rest of the world. Upon reading the poem, the audience finds that the people described are not displaying the cool sophistication that London was known for, but are instead behaving almost savagely, reveling in the misfortune of one of their own. The reader swiftly realizes that in the scenario described, it is the commoners who have attended this event, and have taken a desperate delight in the terrible fate of the “honored guest” – a man who will be hanged.